57. Scalar

Imagine an online environment that makes the thought processes of a writer visible, including the loops they get stuck in, the relevant tangents they pursue, and the non-linear way in which their ideas evolve.  Now imagine that all of these features are easy to use and implement in the classroom. In this episode, Fiona Coll, an Assistant Professor of Technology and Literature at SUNY-Oswego, joins us to discuss how Scalar, a free open-source publishing platform, can help achieve these goals.

Show Notes

Transcript

John: Imagine an online environment that makes the thought processes of a writer visible, including the loops they get stuck in, the relevant tangents they pursue, and the non-linear way in which their ideas evolve. Now imagine that all of these features are easy to use and implement in the classroom. In this episode, we examine how Scalar, a free open-source publishing platform, can help achieve these goals.

[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.

Rebecca: Today our guest is Fiona Coll, an assistant professor of Literature and Technology at SUNY Oswego. Welcome, Fiona.

Fiona: I am very happy to be here, Rebecca.

John: We’re very happy to have you here. Our teas today are…

Fiona: Today I am drinking Cranberry Blood Orange Endless Sunshine tea, which is a very, very ambitious kind of tea by the Republic of Tea, and I just have to note that on the side, it proclaims that drinking this tea will “create social balance one sip at a time.”

Rebecca: So maybe that’s what we should all be drinking right now. [LAUGHTER] I’m drinking English Breakfast.

John: I’m drinking Bing Cherry Green tea.
We invited you here to talk about your work with Scalar. What is Scalar?

Fiona: Scalar is an online publishing platform designed for long-form, media-rich writing. In the words of Scalar’s creators, this means media-rich digital scholarship. It’s an open source platform created by a group called the Alliance for Networking Visual Culture, and the whole idea behind this platform is that it was built to serve scholars who were working on non-traditional, long-form academic writing, specifically projects that might involve visual culture or media culture. There are particular features of Scalar that have been geared towards this use case, but I would like to argue that Scalar is actually a fantastic tool for teaching because of some of its unusual features. Can I tell you about them?

John: Sure.

Rebecca: Yeah, please. [LAUGHTER]

John: We’d be asking anyway. [LAUGHTER]

Fiona: The best way to approach these unusual features is, I think, to describe how you use Scalar, and so I will. The basic unit of content in Scalar is called a page, and it seems fairly unremarkable when I begin talking about it in this way. When you’re creating a Scalar page there’s a text box where you enter a title, there’s a text box where you enter a description, and then a large text entry field where you can put in text and format it. You can choose from a few layout options. You can integrate media into that page. You can enter metadata. You can annotate. You can add comments. So far, so WordPress… fairly straightforward. However, things now get interesting once you create a Scalar page. Once you’ve created a series of Scalar pages, you can start building routes through that content. There are two ways to organize the pages that you create in Scalar: the first is to use tags, which create nonlinear clusters of organized content, or you can use the path feature in Scalar, which is, as it sounds like, a path—a linear, step-by-step progression through a sequence of Scalar pages that you determine. You can get very creative with this path structure; you can create branching paths or very complex forking paths; you can create recursive or looping paths that come back to steps you’ve already been through; you can create rabbit-hole paths that lead people away from the main branch of your content into an unretrievable nether place, but the point is Scalar does not impose any sort of order on the content that you created and indeed that’s why the platform is called Scalar—it comes from this reference to two ways we think of quantifying movement in the world, I suppose: Scalar versus vectors. Vectors are quantities that have both magnitude and direction to them and a scalar quantity is one that has only magnitude and so Scalar, the publishing platform Scalar, does not force you to do any sort of particular relationship between the things that you create. Again… doesn’t sound especially revolutionary, but remember how I mentioned you could add tags and comments and annotations to a piece of Scalar content? When you do that, when you create things like tags and annotations and comments, those all become Scalar pages themselves, and they can participate in this larger set of relationships. So a tag, which is also a page, can be tagged with something else, it can be a path of its own, a comment can be a tag, an annotation can also be a comment, can also be a tag, a path can be a tag on something. So, any piece of content in Scalar can be given any sort of relationship to any other piece of content, and what this means is that there’s a sort of radical, non-hierarchical organization to the way Scalar allows you to approach the products of your own creative work. So this becomes really, really interesting if you imagine what this means for creating something like an essay. We have a long tradition of thinking of an essay as an extraordinarily linear thing that begins at the beginning, that moves through a sequence, and that ends. But Scalar allows us to reimagine what an essay might be, not just what it might contain, so not just moving beyond text but moving beyond that linear structure, and when I first understood just how radically Scalar allowed the breaking down of this old-school essay model, I became very excited to imagine its possibilities in the classroom. So, I learned about Scalar and immediately thought that this would be a fantastic way to defamiliarize the writing process for students, and by “defamiliarize the writing process for students,” what I mean is I thought that this would be a fantastic tool to get students to reimagine the way that their thoughts unfold in writing. I wanted them to reimagine writing as actual making, as actual construction, and not just as a sort of tragic endpoint for a thinking process.

Rebecca: It’s active, basically.

Fiona: It’s active. It is a process; writing is a process and I always say writing is thinking, and students I don’t think quite understand what I mean by that, but what Scalar might allow me to do, I imagined upon first encountering the platform, would be to get students to think about how sections of their thoughts work; how ideas might connect to other ideas… not in linear ways… but in roundabout ways that might meander through other references or images or clips they came across on the internet or things from other classes… that thought is not linear no matter how much we try to get them to package it into straightforward, well-behaved writing.

Rebecca: So this is really exciting, I can imagine writing something like “I have this thought and now I’m in a loop and I can’t get out; I’m cycling through ideas and trying to get myself out and I just can’t, but sometimes that happens when you’re writing and it’s like, oh, this isn’t gonna work; I don’t have a conclusion.

Fiona: This is how the process of writing works; you do get in loops. It is a reiterative experience where you try something out and you might end up back where you started; you try it again, you come back where you started, but perhaps the loop needs to be there for a particular reason but there’s a little exit ramp you might find to some other form of thought and Scalar doesn’t force you to try and pretend that that is not happening, that that complexity is not happening. It allows you to in fact mark the way that your thought is moving and branching in non-linear ways and allows you to capitalize on those threads and those directions. One of the things that Scalar does that very useful in getting students to think about their writing process is that it timestamps every iteration of a particular page and it saves every iteration of a page. So there’s a sense in which students are free to revise or rethink. There’s a sense in which Scalar holds safe and secure all of the versions of their thought, so it works well in terms of allowing them the space to experiment and the space to make mistakes while also giving them a time-stamped chronology of the work that they’ve done. So, there are multiple ways in which Scalar allows for the thinking process to be represented.

Rebecca: It also seems like it’s a good model for students to know how long they’ve spent writing because their idea or conception of how much time they may have spent doing something might be really inaccurate.

Fiona: That’s a fantastic point because I think students do have a strange dislocation from the actual effort it takes, the actual labor that goes into producing something like a polished text. So, on the one hand there’s just an awareness of the sheer time that goes into that, but there’s also a sense in which Scalar allows students to really, really dig into the revision and the editing process, which often is hard. So, students sort of do the standard essay writing and I often find it difficult to convince them to let go of certain aspects of what they’ve written or to radically or drastically revise…

Rebecca: But it’s still there.

Fiona: But it’s still there; they don’t have to worry about losing it—they can try something completely different and perhaps see what happens when they release their hold on that idea that writing is just something you open up a word processor and do… start at the beginning and go until you’ve hit the word limit.

Rebecca: You’ve got pathway one like normal way, then it’s like here’s my cycle weird way, here’s my figure eight way.

Fiona: Yes!

John: When you have students work with this are they working individually or in groups?

Fiona: This is the next thing I wanted to mention, which is that Scalar allows for both. It is extraordinarily flexible in terms of this exact question. I usually begin by having students create content, create Scalar pages on an individual basis, but all of the students are creating within what I call one great big bag of Scalar content. Scalar uses the term “book” to describe one project in this way. So, the students can create their own content, tag it as their own content, organize it according to their own methods, but then I get students to interact with each other’s content, so they read each other’s content, they start to make tendrils of connections between their content and other students’ content, and then eventually I build up to students generating content collaboratively. So it works really well in allowing a wide range of writing collaboration, and the point I make as these networks of connection get more and more elaborate is that this is how knowledge works, this is how knowledge is created; it’s a collective, collaborative enterprise and nobody does best working in isolation.

John: When they do this is it something that’s shared just within a class or is it shared publicly?

Fiona: Again, Scalar has both options available. I discuss this issue of public versus private writing with the students and we usually make a decision together as to whether or not the students want to make their material, their writing, public or private. I’ve also had a class in which one student was very happy to make her Scalar project public, but all the rest of the students wanted to keep theirs private, so she was able to easily take her content, make a whole new Scalar book and proudly display it for everyone to see, so it is remarkably flexible in terms of what it allows you to do with what you create.

Rebecca: What about the converse, though, when it’s a one or two students that have a reason that it needs to be private?

Fiona: And there’s absolutely no problem in keeping a Scalar book entirely private. I also give students the opportunity to erase what they’ve done… so to remove it entirely. We do talk a lot about privacy, public writing, and issues of copyright is another angle that seems important to talk about in terms of the Scalar ecosystem. The group who has built Scalar is deeply invested in promoting open access and fair use of cultural resources as part of their commitment to generating very dynamic and free intellectual exchange, so they created something called the Critical Commons—it has a relation conceptually or figuratively to Creative Commons—but their Critical Commons is a place where copyrighted media is taken and transformed critically and then posted for fair use purposes. So you’ll see people who have taken clips of movies, for example, or a television shows but transform those clips through a critical apparatus that Critical Commons enables, and this allows students to really think about what they’re doing when they reference a piece of culture, whether that’s a photograph or a song or a video, that by adding their critical commentary to it, they are transforming it, they are generating ideas that are making that piece of content new, and Scalar’s link to Critical Commons allows them to really think about issues of copyright, issues of intellectual openness, what happens when something is locked down and is unavailable for access to them to write about, so it becomes a much, much broader discussion about the nature of knowledge, the nature of information in our 21st century.

Rebecca: It sounds like the emphasis then with this Critical Commons is the idea of fair use and understanding fair use and describing fair use and putting in a structure in place that embodies and enforces fair use.

Fiona: And that embodying and enforcing of fair use that you describe then becomes part of how the students think of themselves as creators, so what does it mean to take something that another student has written and to use it in some way in your own thinking? Where do the bounds of fair use lie? It’s often something students haven’t thought about and this actually relates to the labor-related facet of Scalar that I find really useful in terms of student learning. I often feel that students see the Internet as this place where disembodied text has just appeared and exists, but by generating it themselves they have to confront the fact that a lot of work or a lot of effort went into generating the things that they don’t think very much about, and so Scalar allows students to think about the writing process in new and interesting and productive ways, but it also allows students to think about the nature of information that they engage with on a daily basis.

Rebecca: It’s really funny that we’re talking about fair use today because I was talking to my students about fair use this morning. We had a visiting artist who uses fair use in her work and then there was like a thousand questions when she was here. I said, you know, “We’ll talk about fair use, I promise, on Monday, when we all get back and she’s not here and we’re not taking up her time to dig into it.” But, it’s funny because they have this commercial point of view and then also the cultural maker point of view and they conflate it as if it’s all the same and that is really different. Context matters… and that you need to be thinking about these things, so we tried to untangle that today, but you’re right, students don’t think about that at all; in fact, scholars don’t think about it very often either.

Fiona: It’s true, and I first used Scalar in a class that was comparing and contrasting 19th-century book technologies with 21st-century digital writing and publishing technologies and part of the reason that worked the way it did is that 19th century literature is, of course, out of copyright—it’s public domain—and so we were able to play very freely with the literature from that period, and then students had to stop and think and realize that the 21st century, again, literature in various interesting forms, was different, was fundamentally different because of this legal category that we use to distinguish between what is public domain and what isn’t, and students are fascinated by it, while also not understanding it or understanding its logic, necessarily. So, Scalar’s making visible of something that students just hadn’t thought about before is one of its many, many strengths or one of the many valuable ways in which it operates in a classroom.

Rebecca: Can you take us on an adventure through one of your classes to get us a better sense of how you’re actually putting it into play in a specific class with a specific group of students?

John: In terms of maybe the type of assignment that they might be working on?

Fiona: For sure. I first used Scalar in a class that contrasted 19th-century material book production with 21st-century digital publication technologies and I asked the class to really consider the ways in which genre, in particular, is affected by the shape of publishing possibilities. So students are used to thinking about genre as something that is an intellectual idea or an abstract idea informed by author influence or cultural anxieties, but they rarely think about genre as something that is shaped by the actual material affordances of publication, so we read 19th-century texts, we read 21st-century texts and then I asked the students to produce their own creative or critical response to the material in our classes, and what that meant was that some students wrote relatively traditional research essays that incorporated media, sound, video. It meant that some students created choose-your-own-adventure type creative stories that played with the notion of genre as Scalar allowed them to unpack conventions that were and were not possible in that electronic form. Students also used other sorts of technologies to play with the way that technology shaped the kinds of stories they could generate, but that’s a broad overview of how Scalar worked in one particular class. I am using Scalar currently in a class about digital literary studies and the students are making digital editions of 19th-century texts. So, students are in groups, they’ve each been assigned a story by an obscure local Oswego author and they are in groups deciding how they want to present these stories to the world… new and refreshed by their 21st century perspectives on the stories, so some of them are emphasizing maps and timelines. Some of them are emphasizing illustrating the stories. Some of them want to actually remix some of the stories and generate alternate routes through the stories. So, they’re able through Scalar to invent and create these approaches to literary interpretation—they’re making arguments about the text through their use of Scalar, and I should mention that one of Scalar’s appeals is that it’s possible to do a lot with minimal technical knowledge. It’s also possible to do a lot if you have maximal technical knowledge. There’s a lot of room for customization if you are fluent with CSS and that sort of business. It accommodates a really wide range of technical skill.

John: Could you tell us a little bit more about how the choose-your-own-adventure type things work? Is that difficult for the students to program the branches?

Fiona: The great news is the students don’t really have to program the branches. The student I’m thinking of in particular wanted to write a choose your own adventure story that turned into a different genre of story depending on which path you took through her story…

Rebecca: I love that idea.

Fiona: It was a fantastic idea and it really showed just how well she grasped the possibilities that Scalar offered. So she began—there was an introductory page that set up a scenario—it was a mystery, perhaps a murder mystery story at the beginning, and then she had a couple of options: you could choose to follow one character or one event; and as each choice branched a little bit further and a little bit further, so there were many, many iterations of the story, and again each arm of the story took on a slightly different generic set of conventions. It was relatively straightforward; literally in Scalar you simply mark, using a little sort of dialog box that you check or uncheck. you mark what pieces of content you want to attach to a page. So, there’s no encoding, there’s no high-level function that students need to worry about; they can simply imagine what they want to connect and they can make those connections relatively easily. I will say that one of the other things I love about Scalar is that it generates productive difficulty for the students, it generates a lot of intellectual uncertainty which is something that I find… [LAUGHTER] I enjoy producing in students in a constructive way, obviously. Because Scalar is this enormous bag into which students just throw pieces of content, it can get overwhelming really quickly—there can just be this amorphous, chaotic mass that they struggle to make sense of—but that’s part of the advantage, I would argue: it really, really makes them think about high order levels of structure and organization. So even though they can do multiple kinds of organization… even though they can be very creative about how they organize, they do have to really think about how they want their content to relate to one another. So Scalar has this ability to get students thinking at that high level of structure while also allowing students to pay very, very close attention on the level of annotation and close reading—it combines those two levels and sort of everything in between in a way that I find very, very useful for students to be doing. I haven’t even talked about the kind of media annotation that’s possible. But, you can annotate, on a pixel level, images. You can annotate in various time stamps on a video or a piece of audio. There’s an extraordinary level of very, very specific detail that you can attend to as well as dealing with these large high order or large-structure levels of organization.

Rebecca: How did you learn how to use Scalar and then also how do you help students learn how to use the platform?

Fiona: This is a fantastic question. I learned to use Scalar in a very short, informal lunchtime demonstration given by Cathy Kroll—who I believe is at Sonoma State University—at the 2015 Digital Humanities Summer Institute in beautiful Victoria, B.C. and Cathy Kroll simply went through the process of making a Scalar page and she simply explained—and there are all sorts of interesting, cool things you can do with this organizational system—and that was enough; that was enough to allow me to at least discover its possibilities. So, the barrier to entry is low, but then you can ramp up things an awful lot, and I do find that I’m learning more and more as I go. I first imagined using Scalar in my own scholarly work—I am working on this, again, obscure local Oswego author—and I was trying to imagine ways to experiment with bringing these stories back to digital life, but I found that I was almost more excited by the possibilities I was seeing in students and so I thought I would take the exact same approach. I tend to give students a very, very basic introduction to what Scalar can do and then just let them loose, so allow them [LAUGHTER]—again, productive frustration—they make mistakes, they lose pages, they can’t figure out if they’re tagging a page or if they’re making a page a tag. I allow this brief sort of beginning phase of crazy-making exploration and then I ramp up the features, so I introduce more and more features. I begin by, I suppose it’s the carrot versus the stick analogy, so I begin by showing some of the very cool things Scalar can do, so with a basic knowledge of how metadata works students can produce these very gorgeous timelines or maps; I show them how they can use iframes to pull in content from various places on the web and enliven their writing. But, I also then ask them to think very hard about how they’re engaging with other students’ work, and so it feels as though I start with one page and then just allow them to explore on their own while giving them pushes in certain directions to make sure that they are exploring as fully as possible.

John: Maintaining those desirable difficulties as they develop more skills.

Fiona: Maintaining the desirable difficulties, exactly. I’m still trying to figure out how much I should push them, so how much I should demand of the students. I know that other people have used Scalar simply as a writing tool, so just dealing with text and organization. I know that others have encouraged students to make use of the multimedia affordances of Scalar and I’m still figuring out what the balance is for my students who are mostly students of literature.

Rebecca: The first thing that comes to mind to me is how the heck do you grade that? [LAUGHTER] There’s a lot to keep track of and map and pay attention to, so how are you evaluating students in like what criteria and and how do you actually just sort through all of that content?

Fiona: This is a fantastic question and one I am still figuring out… [LAUGHTER] the answer to. As I’m introducing students to Scalar and as I’m letting them make a mess and generate multiple versions of a single page and get confused themselves, I do encourage them to keep in mind that ultimately they want to be imagining not just their own thought process and writing process but what it might feel like for a reader to come across their material, specifically a reader that is me; [LAUGHTER] specifically a reader that will be assigning them a grade. [LAUGHTER] At the very same time, I do try and emphasize process over product, and because students come with such a range of technical capabilities, I build into my rubrics how hard a student has worked to correct a deficiency or to overcome a limitation in their ability to understand Scalar. Ultimately I am interested in the argument that they’re making, but I do reward and encourage what I call bravery—willingness to try new things; willingness to fail; willingness to get things wrong but then to turn that failure into something useful or to meditate or reflect on it in a conscious way. So, there’s a metacognitive aspect to all of this, and essentially in every assignment I’m still trying to figure out what the balance between rigorous analysis and explorative risk-taking might be. I tend to err on the side of appreciating the risk-taking, I will say that.

Rebecca: So do they submit like a URL to you?

Fiona: No, what happens is they tell me where they want me to enter their work. I usually create an index page and I ask them to put their starting point on that index page, so they’re all contributing to one page that serves as my starting point and that’s the easiest way to wander through things. I can go hunting if I need to. I encourage the students to tag what they’re doing with their own names. If there’s a good search function, for example, if I’m looking for something that’s been lost. It definitely feels like hunting in a barn full of hay sometimes. That’s not quite the same as hunting in a haystack but it’s not quite not the same either. [LAUGHTER]

John: Have any other faculty in your department or on campus adopted Scalar yet?

Fiona: I don’t think anyone else in my department has adopted Scalar. I do think as my classes perhaps turn more towards public facing projects that might change, because I do think there are a number of faculty and approaches that could do very cool things with Scalar, but so far I have had to pull my examples from elsewhere… from other campuses. But hopefully soon there will be some robust Oswego examples.

John: Have you ever had students build upon the work of earlier classes?

Fiona: I have not, and that is something that I’m trying to figure out how to do successfully, for a couple of reasons. So it would be easy to do if I just kept one giant Scalar project and had students continually reiterate upon the work that had come before; I haven’t actually repeated a course yet that I’ve used Scalar in, so that in fact might be a next step for my work with Scalar—it would involve, of course, getting permission from the students to do this or to allow them to anonymize their work, but those are things we could work out—but I have not yet done so. I could imagine the Digital Archiving Project as being one that would lend itself towards that sort of semester after semester continuation.

John: How have students responded to this compared to more traditional writing classes?

Fiona: The great news is that students seem very, very excited by what feels like them to be freedom. They respond really well to the autonomy that Scalar offers them. They tend to respond in a slightly opposite direction when they realize that freedom comes at a price and that price is an awful lot of work and figuring out technical details, and some students truly do flounder—some students just find it absolutely maddening to try and understand what’s happening. But some students absolutely thrive and really run with the creative remixing possibilities and really embrace the radically democratic approach that Scalar allows them to take to their own writing and writing in groups. So, I would say that there’s a now predictable sort of curve: initial excitement as students think about the possibilities, then there’s an inevitable drop in enthusiasm as the students realize just how much work this involves and how much new thinking they have to do to wrap their minds around the defamiliarization that Scalar offers, and then perhaps two tails after that: one very enthusiastic skyrocketing of competence and then one more medium flavored… just sort of making peace with what I’ve asked them to do, and I do always offer students options, and if someone just feels absolutely unable to grapple with Scalar there’s always the possibility of doing a different sort of project, but I haven’t yet had a student who has completely resisted.

John: This is a nice follow-up to our earlier podcast with Robin DeRosa where she talked about open pedagogy and it seems like this would be a nice tool for students to create materials that can be widely shared, if they choose to.

Fiona: If they choose to, and I do think I’m gonna bring the concept of open pedagogy or open ed more and more explicitly into classes in which I use Scalar to make that a part of my justification, or something else to get students thinking about. It’s a growing and very exciting movement—the open pedagogy and open education movement—and I’m excited to see how Scalar can continue to be a part of that.

Rebecca: Does Scalar offer, by default, a way to license individual pieces of content using Creative Commons or is it more how you would traditionally license a website by copying and pasting the code from Creative Commons, for example, on an individual page?

John: Or is it just a Critical Commons option?

Fiona: That is a fantastic question. I think you would need to attach your own Creative Commons licensing; I don’t know that there’s a built-in feature. However, I should say that that doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist; it just means I don’t know about it at the moment, but I do think you, again, get to choose your own approach to that very issue. but I’m gonna look into it and see if I can figure out if there’s a built-in tool or aspect of Scalar.

Rebecca: We can make a note of that in our show notes, too, afterwards.

Fiona: I will follow up. [LAUGHTER]

John: And if we find any links we’ll include them.

Rebecca: ..[If] people wanted to get started, do you have a couple of examples that you might recommend for people to look at?

Fiona: I definitely have a few examples that I can recommend. I can add those to the show links, perhaps, and there are examples that range from student projects through elaborate library-based projects to very beautiful, customized versions of Scalar projects. I’d be very, very happy to share them and encourage people to try out the platform.

John: We always end our podcast with a question, what are you going to do next?

Fiona: To this point I have used Scalar in upper division literature courses where students come to the course already equipped with a certain set of writing and thinking skills that I can leverage and encouraging the curiosity and bravery I mentioned. So, next semester I’m gonna try using Scalar with a first-year composition course, and so I’m in the planning stages right now to see how that particular experiment might unfold.

Rebecca: That sounds really exciting.

Fiona: I’m super excited about it. As you might be able to tell, I really, really, am fascinated by the ways in which Scalar seems to activate student curiosity and student agency in their own intellectual work.

John: And if you reach freshmen with this they might perhaps suggest it to some other faculty as something they may wish to try.

Fiona: I like it, I like it as a plan.

Rebecca: Sounds like we’ll have to do a follow-up.

Fiona: I am here for it. [LAUGHTER]

John: Well thank you. This has been fascinating.

Rebecca: You’ve piqued my curiosity; I’m gonna go explore, so I can’t wait for those extra links so I can find a way in.

Fiona: If I’ve piqued your curiosity, I believe I have done my job.

John: And I did create an account a couple years ago when you gave a workshop and I kept meaning to go back, but now I’m more likely to. [LAUGHTER]

Fiona: Well let me know how you find it; let me know what you discover.

John: Thank you.

Rebecca: Yeah, thank you very much.

Fiona: Thank you so much; it was wonderful to talk with you.
[Music]

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

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

John: Editing assistance provided by Kim Fischer, Brittany Jones, Gabriella Perez, Joseph Santarelli-Hansen and Dante Perez.

56. Love’s labor not lost

Who knows and understands the needs of your students better than your own students? In this episode, Mya Brown, an Assistant Professor of Theatre at SUNY-Oswego, joins us to discuss how our students can build open educational resources that take advantage of the unique insights our students have about what novices need to learn to be successful in our courses and disciplines.

Show Notes

Transcript

John: Who knows and understands the needs of your students better than your own students? In this episode, we’ll discuss how our students can build open educational resources that take advantage of the unique insights our students have about what novices need to learn to be successful in our courses and disciplines.

[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.

Rebecca: Our guest today is Maya Brown, an assistant professor of theater at SUNY Oswego. Welcome, Maya!

Mya: Thanks for having me.

John: We’re glad to have you here. Our teas today are…

Mya: I have a peppermint tea with honey.

Rebecca: That sounds yummy. I have Prince Edward’s tea.

John: What kind?

Rebecca: I think it’s Prince? Prince… The one that’s Prince.The gray one.

John: Prince of Wales?

Rebecca: Yeah, that one, the Prince of Wales tea.

John: And I have black raspberry green tea.

Mya: Sounds good.

John: We invited you here to talk about your use of open educational resources and open pedagogy. For those who may not be familiar with open educational resources, what is an open educational resource?

Mya: The way I understand it is that it is freely accessible materials. They don’t have like a publisher behind them, so they’re typically copyrighted through like Creative Commons and they’re free for the user.

Rebecca: Can you tell us a little bit about the courses in which you use OER?

Mya: Yes, I taught Theater 110 which is Introduction to Theatre; it’s a lecture style course with 49 students. The section was full. In that course, typically when I taught it at West Virginia University prior to coming here to SUNY Oswego, the textbook that we used was an electronic textbook, but it was copyrighted by a publisher and the cost was a little over a hundred dollars. There also was an accessibility fee, the total cost came up to around 125 dollars per student. That just seems a lot to me for a textbook. I really thought it was important to make this information more accessible to the students and also free. As soon as I heard about OER opportunities, I like jumped on it.

Rebecca: How did your students respond the first time you used an OER in your class?

Mya: They loved it. [LAUGHTER] First day of class I introduced the textbook to them that we use. We used a textbook called Theatrical Worlds—it’s a very thorough textbook, I really like it. As soon as I said, we have a free textbook and this is how you access it and I brought it up for them on the overhead, they were super excited about it—they’re like, “Yeah, we don’t have to pay for a textbook…” Because, you know, they spend hundreds and hundreds of dollars per semester on these books just so that they can get access to the information, but lots of them can’t really afford it. They honestly can barely afford their tuition typically and some of them are having to decide whether they’re going to buy textbooks or they’re going to buy food. To take that pressure off of them, relieve them of that responsibility, it seems to really be a good thing.

John: …and many students either postpone buying a text or don’t buy it at all and OER they have it from the very first day of the course so we don’t have to worry about students who are struggling already perhaps with financial issues to also have to struggle by falling behind at the start of the semester. It offers a lot of benefits besides just the cost: it gives everyone equal access.

Mya: Yes, that’s so important. The thing that I found really nice is that instead of having to wait to address readings till like the second week of classes, we could start immediately because they had access immediately to the textbook. I like to send emails out to my students prior to the first day of class and I included a link to the book. I encourage them to look at it prior to coming to that first day of class; not many of them did, but some did and it was really nice that we could just jump right into the content.

Rebecca: Can you talk about some of the other benefits that you found for both you as a faculty member and for students by using the OERs?

Mya: I think that there’s more flexibility with how we are presenting the material; also, because we can remix them depending on the licensing agreement, we can update the materials. A lot of—and theater especially—they’re referring to specific performances, productions, different plays or musicals, and I can insert newer productions that have happened, so we’re using more current information and referring to more current information; that we can’t do with a hardbound textbook that does have copyright associated with it that will not allow you to change anything about it, so I really like this idea of being able to remix the resource and make it more personal for your class.

Rebecca: I know that the same textbook is used in other sections as well with other faculty; have you worked with them and the updates that you’ve done or have you shared that task so that you’re all presenting the same thing, or are you all remixing it so that it’s unique to you?

Mya: I think we all are remixing it so that it’s unique unto us. We all have different areas that are our areas of specialty or passion and where Toby is really heavy on the Shakespeare, I am as well ‘cause I love Shakespeare. Maybe Henry is…

John: That’s so uncommon in theater.

Mya: Right. [LAUGHTER] Henry Shikongo might more focus on things like physical theater, Comedia—I know he studied directly with Dell’A rte, so that’s more his emphasis. I think that is another strength of using an OER, that we can make it more personal and we can highlight our passions, because when we’re talking about our passions in the classroom, that energy that we have for that subject it… just transfers to the students—I think that they absorb more of it and they engage more when we are so passionate about it.

John: Is the class mostly for majors or is it non-majors or a mix?

Mya: It’s a mix because it does satisfy the general education so it’s considered a GEC. We will get actually lots of non-majors in there, but it is required in the core for the major program as well, which is really helpful because the majors and their passion for it also bleeds out to the rest of the classroom; all of those people who are maybe zoologists or engineers and they’re like, “Eh, I just took it for an easy ‘A,’ I don’t really care about theater.” [LAUGHTER] But when they have their colleagues care about it as much as they do it really, I think, helps to inspire them

Rebecca: Were you the first faculty member in your area to adopt in an OER as part of your classes?

Mya: Toby Malone and I did it together. It was interesting because I was communicating with him via email over the summer prior to his coming to the university because we both were teaching a section of 110 and I told him about the opportunity for this grant that I was applying for to incorporate OER in the classroom and I thought for theater 110 I thought that would be a perfect classroom to experiment with OER. Toby Malone was also teaching a section of that course—I told him that I was interested in the grant that they were offering here at SUNY—I think it was a SUNY wide grant, actually. I was looking into that grant and I really wanted to adopt a textbook for that purpose. We went back and forth on a couple different options; Theatrical Worlds is actually an option that he brought to me. I really just loved it and he said, “I like it too, so let’s use it.” So we both ended up using it at the same time and now Henry has gotten on board now that he’s teaching 110 and hopefully every instructor that teaches that section will use that book because it’s a really great book.

Rebecca: Sometimes it’s better together, right? [LAUGHTER]

Mya: Yeah, definitely. We really try to maintain the integrity of the course and make sure that we are all teaching the same subject matter and it’s just easy if we’re all teaching from the same book. There will be variations, obviously, but majority of the content it’s all the same information that we’re delivering. I think that’s important because we’re setting a foundation for the next level for these students. For some of them, like non-majors, we’re introducing them to this whole new world. A lot of times that 110 course is kind of gateway course and we get to pull in minors or maybe some even change to the major. It’s important, I think, that we’re all on the same page.

John: …and a nice thing is with those who do go on they still have access to the book…

Mya: Yes.

John: …because with traditional textbooks, even if they buy the book, students will often sell them back at the end and then when they go to upper-level classes they no longer have access… …

Mya: Right.

John: …since the books are out there and publicly available they get to keep them and that’s a really nice feature for classes that build on earlier ones.

Mya: Yes.

Rebecca: Yeah, when you buy a book and it’s the difference between cashing it in to get more cash for another book that you might need at a higher level versus hanging on to it that’s always a decision that students have to make that I know that we experience in my department sometimes as well.

John: When I teach upper-level classes students will often say, “What can I do? I’m having trouble with this material; where can I find more information on this?” And I say, “Well, this builds on our earlier intro class; you can go back and review your textbook,” and the response is almost always, “I don’t have that anymore.”

Mya: Right.

Rebecca: Powell says OER is spreading in your department.

Mya: It’s not spread too much; it’s mostly just being used in the 110 course, but maybe that’s a good segue into the other course that I’m using it in, which is Acting Shakespeare. We’re actually creating an OER in that class; it’s called The Shakespearean Monologue Database. It’s still in construction right now. It’s a resource for acting students and we really want to open it up nationwide; anybody can have access to it, where they can find monologues and all of the information necessary in order to understand the text fully so that they can then perform it to the best of their ability.

Rebecca: So context.

Mya: Yes. [LAUGHTER]

John: And the students are actually creating some of that, right?

Mya: Yes, they create actually all of the content; all I do is tailor it a little bit, you know, sculpt it a little bit, mold it a little bit. All of the monologue choices on there were our choices that the students made. Any of the words that they thought they needed to look up so that they could get full meaning, so we have like a glossary associated with each monologue; those are all terms that they wanted to investigate. I like it to come from them because I feel like it might be more relatable to other students when they look at it if it’s coming more from a student perspective versus the professor’s perspective, but I do give a little note about what I think about this monologue choice as well, whether it would be a good one for auditions or a good one for just exploring a new character type or for a classroom assignment.

Rebecca: Is it clear to the reader who made what comments that accompany the monologue?

Mya: That’s actually something I think we’re continuing to work on because it’s not clear right now. There is information on the home page stating that all content was created by the students, but if you’re just going right to the monologue and you’re skipping that or—you know how it is when people search; they don’t necessarily read everything, right? So, we’re trying to figure out is there a way that we can make it obvious that this stuff came from the students versus what came from me, and we would really love in the future for it to be a resource that can be remixed as well by other universities and other professors and other students. We want to keep that licensing open so that they can contribute monologues on their own, they can create their own glossaries, synopsis, and character breakdowns and add those to the website as well, so how then do we identify those and give credit to those authors of that content versus ours, something we’re still working on.

Rebecca: Sounds like your role has largely been editing and curating…

Mya: Yes.

Rebecca: …the process.

Mya: Yes, definitely. Laura Harris, she’s been helping me a lot with that.

Rebecca: She’s one of our librarians.

Mya: Yes, we’re actually using LibGuides.

John: What led to that choice?

Mya: Laura Harris, who’s our online learning librarian, she has a connection at SpringShare from her having experience with LibGuides she thought that it would be a great platform for this kind of site, this database. She reached out to some people that she knows and they were like, “Yes, let’s do it.” They created a page for us and then she walked me through how to add all of the content and she’s helping me to edit it some more and make it look all fancy and nice. Laura is the one who brought up the idea of using LibGuides as a resource.

John: And are the students inputting it directly into that or is she…

Mya: No.

John: …doing that or are you doing that?

Mya: I’m doing that. Yeah, the students, they turn in all of their work to me and then I’m curating it and adding it to the pages.

Rebecca: How do those students responded as being authors and putting their work out into the public?

Mya: It actually is really great. They are doing exactly what I thought they would do, which is taking ownership of the resource because they’re contributing to it because their names are attached to it; they have this greater sense of responsibility to complete the work, complete it accurately and to make fun and exciting choices in their monologue choices, like the characters that they’re selecting. It actually has really been helpful in the classroom because it has increased their level of engagement on these assignments because they know that it’s going out there on this resource.

Rebecca: Are you finding that they’re reading more Shakespeare on their own as a result so that they can find the perfect thing?

Mya: I don’t know about that… [LAUGHTER]

John: But they’re more enthused about what they do.

Rebecca: Wishful thinking.

Mya: Yeah, I think that is wishful thinking, but they definitely are more enthusiastic and they are more engaged in the classroom. Whenever I’ve taught Shakespeare before it feels like I’m pulling teeth the majority of the time. And a lot of students said, this is not what I expected it to be; I thought we would just read a bunch of Shakespeare and was going to be boring and I wasn’t going to understand that I wouldn’t relate to any of these characters, but because of the amount of in-depth textual work that we’re doing they actually are relating on a very deep level and they’re finding similarities to these characters and they’re relating to these characters in a way that I have not seen before, which is really exciting

Rebecca: Were you doing similar assignments before, but it was the audience of Mya?

Mya: Yes, yes, exactly. I kind of amped up the amount of work that they’re doing so that we could have enough content to create the website but it is a similar assignment. However, as you so eloquently point out, there’s a much larger audience now.

John: If you continue this will they be editing the existing work or will they be adding new monologues to it?

Mya: Yes, they will be adding new content. I actually am teaching Acting Shakespeare in the spring of 2019—I definitely will keep this assignment and we will continue to add to the database. I think it’s important that we are constantly adding new material to it; there’s so many unique perspectives and points of view that it’s essential to continue creating and contributing to the database.

Rebecca: Will the students in this spring be using the content the students this fall have created as part of reading and being a user of the resource before being a creator of the resource?

M

Mya: Yes, it will definitely be a part of their prep work for their contributions. My last class they were a bit of guinea pigs and now I think we have the right formula for the assignment in order to get the content that we want. Yeah, I will definitely use it as an example so that they’re aware of what exactly they should be looking for and how to complete the assignment.

Rebecca: Sounds really exciting.

John: It does.

Rebecca: Are students working together on the things that they’re creating or are they individually creating sections or the information around individual monologues?

Mya: It is more of an individual assignment; however, they do share their work when they present the monologue, so they have to act it out in class and we do feedback from the entire class—they are getting feedback from their classmates on the performances of the monologues, but they’re not on the actual content that they’re contributing to the database. That might be a good idea, though. You might have made me think about changing the way I approach that and maybe we could add that element, especially when it comes to the glossary and the character descriptions, that could be helpful because there are some things that might stand out to one student that didn’t even occur to another. If they’re assisting each other that might be a useful component to add to this assignment. Thank you for that, Rebecca. [LAUGHTER]

Rebecca: One of the things that I was thinking when you were describing it is if students who are going to add to the database had to use one of the resources and do a performance with it then they would know what content was missing?

Mya: Yeah.

Rebecca: So that they would know what to do in their own next time, so it’s like they could add to someone else’s or augment it and then try their own?

Mya: I love that idea. Thank you.

John: In creating these are they embedding other open content, recordings, or performances, or some other things?

Mya: Yeah, no recordings yet—I have been considering that, especially because with us using Shakespeare and it’s already open source…

John: RIght.

Mya: We wouldn’t have to worry about copyright infringement or anything. I have been considering that but we don’t have the capabilities right now to do that; I’m just one person and I can only do so much, but I have been considering that, definitely. We do, though, refer to the glossaries; there’s a link for each of the words that takes them to Perseus—that’s an OER as well—that has text as well as dictionaries. It’s a good way for them to be able to get that information out there in a free way and link up to another OER. I’ve always used the OED—the Oxford—in my classes prior to because it has the truest definition when we’re referring back to Elizabethan text or, however…

John: …or practically anything. [LAUGHTER]

Mya: Right, but especially Elizabethan; I mean, you know, they’ll look up some of these words on places like dictionary.com and the definition that they’re getting in no way relates to how the text was being used at the time, so it’s not helpful at all. So, I always would insist that they use the OED, but it is not a free resource, so we can’t actually link to it on the website. So, we had to find something that was free but also maintained that integrity of those glossary terms so that people are getting the correct information and the most useful information there. Right, that’s the thing—I’m continuing to look because there are so many definitions that we found that are not there and so there’s a couple holes, but it’s been the best resource that we’ve found that’s free.

John: Where can people find this?

Mya: So, it actually is not published yet because it’s still under construction, but it will have a title something like, Shakespearean Monologue Database and again it’s a LibGuide—the platform is SpringShare —so once it is published we’ll get it out there as much as we can.

Rebecca: Great.

John: …and we’ll put a link in the show notes which will update once the link is publicly available.

Rebecca: So we always wrap up Mya by asking, “what’s next?”

Mya: Yes, what is next? Well I think what’s next is figuring out how to get these videos incorporated because I think that that would be a really great thing. I did some interviews with the students from our previous semester and just asked them a couple questions: How did you feel about Shakespeare prior to coming to this class? And the unanimous comment that came up was, “I didn’t understand it,” and then I asked, how do you feel about Shakespeare now and unanimously everyone’s like, “I love it. I can understand it now,” and I think this database is going to be a useful tool for other people to be able to understand it as well, so I think the more people can actually see these students and see their reactions and hear their reactions versus just seeing the content that they’ve created, the better they might feel about the actual resource and how it’s reaching students.

Rebecca: Sounds like you have the basis of a nice scholarship of teaching and learning research paper.

Mya: Oh, yeah. [LAUGHTER]

John: …and one other thing that you are doing this semester, which ties into an earlier podcast, is you’re one of the people teaching those first-year courses…

Mya: Yes.

John: …and what is that like? We’ll probably have you back on to talk about that.

Mya: Oh, okay.

John: …in the future.

Mya: Yeah, so the course is called Blackish Mirror; it’s a study of black characters on television and we started with Ethel Waters and her performance as one of the first African Americans with a lead role on television in 1939. Her show’s called the Ethel Waters Show and we started there and we’re moving all forward to the current time. It’s really great; I love the class, the students are really engaged, they’re loving the subject matter and they’re articulating and finding their own personal perspectives on these social issues of oppression and representation and stereotypes and the dangers of the images that we see and how they can perpetuate negative stereotypes and they can kind of feed into social thinking about a specific type of person and the importance then and the responsibility of people who create this content in the media to be careful about how they are representing people and make sure that they try their best to not perpetuate the stereotype or feed into mass hysteria. It’s really exciting that these students are standing up in the classroom and saying, this is not right and what do we do about it. So, their final project—I’m actually really excited for—they’re going to create a PSA based off of one of the social issues that we’ve identified in class and I’m just really excited to see what they latch on to and how they try to address that thing and, you know, they really are inspired to make society better and that gives me hope for the future.

Rebecca: It sounds like a really nice note to end on. [LAUGHTER]

John: And a nice note in these times in general; other people are not always as positive about the future.

Rebecca: It also makes me want to go to all your classes.

John: Yes.

Mya: Yeah, it’s fun; come drop in. [LAUGHTER]

Rebecca: Sign up quick and make sure I get a seat.

John: Thank you, this has been wonderful.

Mya: Thank you.

Rebecca: Yeah, thank you so much.

[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.

John: Editing assistance provided by Kim Fischer, Brittany Jones, Gabriella Perez, Joseph Santarelli-Hansen and Dante Perez.

55. Open pedagogy

Imagine an academy that values a public knowledge commons and supports and recognizes the academic labor required to develop, maintain, build and evolve that commons. Imagine your students actively contributing to that commons. In this episode, Robin DeRosa joins us to discuss open pedagogy, free textbooks, and the building of such  a commons.

Show Notes

Transcript

John: Imagine an academy that values a public knowledge commons and supports and recognizes the academic labor required to develop, maintain, build, and evolve that commons. Imagine your students actively contributing to that commons. In this episode, we discuss open pedagogy, free textbooks, and the building of such a commons.

[MUSIC]

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 guest today is Robin DeRosa…

Robin: That’s me.

John: …Professor of Interdisciplinary Studies and Director of the Interdisciplinary Studies Program at Plymouth State University. Robin is an editor of Hybrid Pedagogy and is a co-founder of the Open Pedagogy Notebook. She has also published on a wide variety of topics, including the Salem witch trials. Welcome, Robin.

Robin: Thank you.

Rebecca: Today our teas are…

Robin: Oh, I thought we were talking about teasing people for a second and I was like, I don’t have a tease. [LAUGHING] What am I teasing?

Robin: No, I actually have two cups of tea in front of me, which is how I like it. One is a ginger tea and one is a sunny orange because I have to stay away from the caffeine at a certain hour of the day, so I’m all herbal.

Rebecca: Sounds like a nice combination.

Robin: I know, I’m just taking one and then the other; it’s perfect.

John: And I have a Tea Forte Black Currant Tea.

Rebecca: I have a Jasmine Earl Grey, that wasn’t there before, so I gave it a try.

John: It’s been there for a year.

Rebecca: Wow, it’s been hiding under the big pile of tea that we have.

John: In exactly the same tray…

Rebecca: No…

John: I just refilled it today.

Rebecca: Oh, you know what, it was the box sitting on top that you didn’t take back after we refilled the tray.

John: Okay. [LAUGHTER]

Rebecca: That’s where I got it from.

Robin: But your listeners are probably like, how could you not see a box, but if they saw this table, my jaw was on the ground; it is a really quite an impressive tea table that you’ve assembled here. You should be very proud.

Rebecca: We don’t mess around.

Robin: You do not mess around. I would use even other words but I know… public… this is some serious hardcore tea happening here. [LAUGHTER]

John: We invited you here to talk about your work with Open Pedagogy. For those that are unfamiliar, can you explain what is meant by Open Pedagogy?

Robin: Sure, which is such a funny question really because if there is a thing—and I could just say it—because there’s a lot of productive disagreement in the community about what Open Ped is; it’s one of the reasons that my colleague Rajiv Jhangiani and I started the Open Pedagogy Notebook because it’s more of a collage approach to defining Open Ped by people doing and practicing in different ways and then sharing that, but if I had to boil it down I would say it’s really about access, both to knowledge and to knowledge creation… so, the idea that we remove barriers to sharing resources and helping people access conversations and find pathways into education, but then we also try to find ways to amplify student voices to make them contributors to the Knowledge Commons and not just consumers, and I think it’s pretty salient right now as students are really in some ways maybe being pushed into these kind of training and competency models that are really about kind of downloading information and instead Open Ped suggests that we really want students to interact with knowledge and shape the world that they’re going to graduate into, not just train for it.

John: So they’re more actively engaged in the academic conversation?

Robin: That’s the idea. Right. In some ways there’s a lot of kinship, I think, with connected learning and with the idea of involving students in their academic and professional networks. Right from the beginning, because even as people who are new to our particular field, they have so much to offer and as an interdisciplinarian, we talk about that all the time that the outsider’s perspective is beneficial—it’s part of the reason you assemble an interdisciplinary team to tackle a problem and newcomers to a field ask sometimes questions that really can illuminate the challenges that a field is facing in new ways, so I have found that even the most beginning introductory students in a particular area have something to contribute both to the field itself and also in terms of helping their peers in terms of, for example, making educational materials. Students are really well positioned to make great educational materials ‘cause they understand better than anybody what’s hard to understand about a certain area.

John: They’re not subject to the curse of knowledge…

Robin: The curse of knowledge. [LAUGHTER] I have that curse, John.

John: We all do to some extent.

Robin: But it is true like when especially when I was teaching Early American Lit and you just finished your PhD and you start teaching and then you teach something for 15 years and no matter how gifted of a teacher you are, sometimes you’re like, “I don’t understand how they don’t understand this,” like “what’s hard about this?” and of course they really understand what’s hard about it, so when we did student projects where students were working on a textbook that we were crafting together, they really made some great materials for each other that I think were far better than some of the lectures I would have prepared or had prepared over the years.

John: So tell us a little bit about how you got involved in that first project you had?

Robin: I was at, ya know, one of those faculty development events that you guys might be aware of and they had brought in, ya know, a keynote speaker, and I don’t want to say I wasn’t prepared to be impressed, but it was a technology oriented conference and I was definitely one of those curmudgeons that was highly skeptical about how useful… or actually more skeptical about the ways technology was being deployed, so I was prepared to be mad, that was how I came in the room, and I actually still think that’s generally my positionality with technology is like, I’m pretty prepared to be skeptical at all times. But the keynote speaker happened to be Cable Green from Creative Commons and I had this really just pivotal “aha” moment when he was talking about the Creative Commons licenses where I realized that my students were paying 90 bucks every semester, each student, for access to public domain Early American Literature and my heart just sort of fell on the floor. It’s like why are we paying commercial publishers when all of this stuff is out of copyright. So, some students and I spent that summer before the next fall’s class rebuilding the Heath Anthology of American Literature out of public domain texts that we found online and we did not build a hearty replacement for the Heath, but we built a sufficient replacement and when we got into the class the students were super psyched that I had saved them 90 dollars, which is totally real money to my students and makes a big difference. They were grateful but they did not like the book, because it had nothing except public domain literature, so there were no introductions, no maps, no footnotes, no glossaries, no “Don’t worry, I know this doesn’t make sense to you, but let me walk you through it” kind of ancillary scaffolds. So, of course, it seems obvious now but at the time we thought we were rock star smart when we figured out like, hey, the students can make this stuff for the book, and so the students worked ahead, different pods of students would work ahead a week or two and build wrap around materials for that chapter and we got there the rest of the students would use it and, of course, it just ended up being 500 times better than the Heath Anthology of American Literature, partially because they were excited that their classmates were reading their work instead of putting it in Moodle or Canvas or Blackboard, where things go to die. So, they got excited about doing what David Wiley and others have called these non-disposable assignments and then they start getting creative, they start making little videos. Ee’d drop those in… two-minute intro to the Haitian Revolution or whatever. I put a little app in the sidebar called Hypothesis where students can annotate and so they liked that and then at the end of the semester people are like, “The best part of this class was the textbook,” which…

Rebecca: Which they made.

Robin: … they made… and they never said about the Heath anthology. So, that transformed my pedagogy partially because I was excited about making all sorts of access oriented changes in our program; we opened a food pantry at the same time as we did this, so we were thinking about lots of things in terms of accessibility of resources for students. But, in terms of thinking about not dumping my student’s work down the digital toilet every semester, it gave me stomach cramps when I first thought about what I had been doing. Every time I taught the course it was the same course, the student’s contributions weren’t transforming anything—it was no wonder that some of it felt dry to them. There was a lot of hoop jumping, and I still think I was a good teacher, that wasn’t like I was bad, but this idea of really empowering students to really, truly engage with the fields and the materials and shaping how the course runs has really changed everything for me.

Rebecca: There’s something that you’re talking about… the idea of building the textbook together, but then the course material is sort of the same from semester to semester and the materials are created by the students, so how does that continue to transform semester to semester so it doesn’t feel like it’s a one-off project… that it continues to evolve and it continues to be a value and that students continue to learn new things?

Robin: Such a great question and I get it a lot because people—I think in some ways mistakenly assume—that that first build was the exciting build, but totally that first build was the annoying build, right, because we got to do a lot of legwork tracking down these texts. We had to do a lot of copyright discovery, like “Can we use this version of Thomas Jefferson or not” and it wasn’t all that exciting, and that’s still ongoing. So Rebus community, who’s working on that textbook now, they took our version and they’re building it out; they’re still doing that kind of discovery in that initial work, and to be frank, that will never end. Even with Early American Literature you’re constantly discovering, changing excerpts, building things out, but to me what’s even more exciting is, for example, there’s a whole unit at the beginning of Native American Oral Tradition and asking critical questions about what’s the genesis of American literature. So, at the same time as I was teaching that that semester we had the Dakota Pipeline stuff happening and lots of stuff about water protectors and about native history so you can relate things to current events that way, but also think about when I finished the course, my colleague Abby Goode, who teaches Early American Literature, but very much from an environmental and sustainability perspective, she kind of remixed the whole book so that now it was about the environment in Early American Lit; they chose some different texts, they reframed the introductions. Her book, in my opinion, is quite a bit more coherent than ours was, which was more of just a collage of things. So, there’s all sorts of opportunities for how you shape and reshape, and, of course, what students are learning there, which is really the point of those survey classes in English is that there is no American literature; there is only the canon that you intentionally assemble. There’s a lot of politics and a lot of editorial choices and each semester it could look different and that’s an important lesson because the Heath anthology was not a neutral objective collection either and I think that’s been a helpful way for them to encounter the building of canon.

Rebecca: I think it’s really easy for people to imagine how this works in the humanities. Can you provide some examples or ways of thinking about being open in the same way in STEM or in business or other disciplines that might not latch on quite as quickly?

Robin: Yeah, and my colleague at Keene State, which is one of our sister institutions, Karen Cangialosi, published a wonderful article recently called “You Can’t Do That in a STEM Class,” which is basically the answer to your questions. We should just stop answering questions and you should go read that article now. But really, the open dcience movement is a huge movement, in some ways dwarfs open education and I think climate change is a really good example of this, but also just open access publishing, the idea that in order to have scientific breakthroughs we need to have the public sharing of scientific knowledge and collaboration in science and so bringing our students into that early as opposed to saying, “Here when you’re a student you’ll be confined to this one class and stuck in this one book, but then when you become a scientist we assume you’ll just understand how to become part of this larger, more public scientific community.” That makes really little sense. So, what you’ll see in classes by people who work this way in STEM, and Karen’s a good example, is that their students are working on issues that are of critical importance and they’re putting their research and ideas into the commons and asking mentor scientists to engage with them. So, we understand that our students are not always going to be doing top-level research; the next breakthrough in diabetes research is not necessarily gonna come from a sophomore. Although occasionally you hear those stories, right, but really what they’re gonna do is they’re gonna ask for guidance, they’re gonna ask for help, they’re going to amplify other scientists’ work and translate them for their communities so that a new generation of scientists can get access to the issues and that’s how we’re going to assure that our scientists are working for what I might call the public goods. So, we’re seeing lots of people using blogs for this purpose instead of just doing their labs in a vacuum or whatever, sharing some of that work and creating sites together, or working in experiential ways through internships. This is why I sometimes bristle about OER being kind of like a cheap or free textbook movement. It’s really very much about a public knowledge commons and how we bring students authentically into that, so when my students are out in the field… and I teach interdisciplinary studies now, so my students are pretty much not in the humanities, to be honest. I have lots of business students, lots of students working in marketing, lots of students in allied health, physical therapy; they’re all in my program, and the work that they do in our open textbook and with OERs is one thing and we do create all of our own materials for the program, but beyond that they’re also creating capstone projects that are generally online, often openly licensed; of course they hold the autonomy to make those decisions for themselves. At that point they’re pretty educated about how open they want to be and then they’re also working on applied projects out in their fields and I see all that stuff as part of the same way that we engage our students in the public world of knowledge.

John: And science is often taught, or at least it’s perceived by students, as this body of knowledge they have to memorize rather than this ongoing dialogue and a series of active research projects, and when they are more engaged in the process of making those connections it’s likely they’ll learn it better and they’re likely to become much more interested in the subject, because one of the main problems in the STEM fields is that students give up early on. But if they can see the relevance, I would think they’d be much more likely to continue onward.

Robin: Yeah, I think it’s a great point. I’m also the mom of a teenager right now who—is this gonna make my whole family sound bizarre? I’m not sure… but she’s got an obsession with taxidermy, so if you go into her room it’s all—I’m not joking; we’ve got boars, we’ve got bison, we’ve got deer, we’ve got every pelt you could imagine, and then her bookshelves are filled with skulls and bones…loves it. She’s out there digging for bones from the time she was little, researching which skull is this, what skull is that; she doesn’t like science, though; that’s what she tells me: she doesn’t like science. I’m like, you do like science, you nutty kid.

John: You’re kind of doing it; this is where a lot of science started.

Robin: That’s right, and so I’ve been waiting for her and she’s had great teachers here and there, but she really did finally have a biology teacher last year who helped her understand that she does love science, but before that she thought, I don’t really like these worksheets and I don’t really like memorizing these tables, and she’s an interactive person. So, I think there’s a lot of compatibility between open and active learning and experiential learning and high-impact practice and all these buzzwords. People call me an advocate for open, which I am, but really I’m an advocate for learners, like paying attention to the kinds of things they are constantly telling us that they need in order to be successful. While we’re over here shopping for some kind of software program, they’re sitting right here telling us, I’m hungry or I can’t afford my materials or I don’t feel like my voice matters or I don’t know enough to be useful here, so you just tell me what I need to know.

Rebecca: Or I’m not represented.

Robin: I’m not represented. That’s a huge one because when you transfer to this mode of learning, it’s a little bit the sort of Wikipedia model, although Wikipedia is a horrible example because of representation in Wikipedia and the stats we have on that, but the idea that you can pay attention to all the voices in your community but the open movement is really wrestling with this right now to figure out how much is about open and licenses and sharing and how much is about creating an ecosystem of inclusivity, access… the kinds of things that truly do shape a commons, which we mostly don’t have in education, so the commitment, I think, is for me is less to the technicalities of open and more towards the long-game vision, which is really about how do we bring more voices to the table to engage in the community for whatever the community’s needs are.

John: I wanted to go back to a point you made earlier; it reminded me a little bit about some behavioral economic studies and I haven’t thought about this before, but I think it’s relevant. There was some interesting experiments done by Dan Ariely a while back. Dan Ariely calls this the IKEA Effect and he notes that when Duncan Hines first started selling cake mix they sold horribly and the reason was you just added water, you stirred and you baked and people didn’t feel that they had created something, so they changed the mix so you had to add an egg to it and stirred and mixed in and baked it, but by the simple act of breaking an egg and mixing it in, it felt like they had created something in a way it wasn’t where they just added water. One of the experiments he did was he had people create these origami by following directions… of paper cranes and he asked them to evaluate how much they thought their creations were worth and then he swapped them and he asked them to evaluate someone else’s creation and people valued their own at roughly twice as high as the others across the board, and then he changed it in another iteration of this and he took some of the directions out… so it was really hard to replicate and objectively, when people evaluated the other people’s that time they rated the value of them much lower in terms of how much they were willing to pay, but because they put more work into building these things themselves, they rated their own creations much higher, and the simple act of creating something gives you this feeling of ownership and value that I think would be a useful part of this in terms of getting students much more engaged with the process and more engaged with their own learning.

Robin: Yeah, so I would say two things about that super fascinating set of stories that I’m totally going to use all the time, maybe tomorrow, when I speak with your faculty. So the first is that we run a customized major program where students create their own majors and the cake mix effect is enormous in our program; we have almost a hundred percent retention in our program, which I think is so very much attached to this idea that if you create it yourself that sense of ownership is huge. So, the one way I would revise your stories is the Duncan Hines model is kind of a slight of hand, right, you know, we could of just put the egg in there, and so that’s the part that I’m always wrestling with is this no hoops and mean it, so it’s actually kind of a big leap because in education we’ve known for a long time that we want to build student ownership, but we do a lot of tricks to kind of say, doesn’t this look like ownership, so how do we authentically do that instead of just sort of fake removing the egg and that’s where I think you see a lot of institutions push back—they are happy to make their students feel empowered, but they are not happy to empower their students.

John: That’s scary.

Robin: Yeah, it’s very scary and we talked about student-centered learning; when I started doing student-centered learning I was like, “Chumps, you are not doing no student-centered learning because once you center your students the whole course changes, falls apart a little bit.” It’s also the magic of tenure; it’s very risky to do a lot of the things that I’ve been blessed enough to be able to experiment with it, which have paid off, I think, hugely for our students, but there’s a lot of pushback sometimes from students and oftentimes just from institutional structures that can’t really accommodate learning that looks like this very easily, so that egg is kind of the whole thing there, right, and I love your metaphors; I’m gonna borrow them.

Rebecca: When you want to be authentic that also means that you have to be ready to completely change any plans; it’s like, oh, now we’re going down this rabbit hole that I didn’t know we were gonna go down, but I guess we’re going there and we’re all gonna go together and be open to that.

Robin: Some people are like wired for that, like my husband is a sculptor and that’s kind of the studio ethos, but so not how I came to teaching. I mean, I didn’t have my lectures written out but just super organized and when I would come to an epiphany it was always an epiphany that I had planned for many weeks… I think, “Oh my gosh, this reminds me of this thing, can you believe it?” And of course I knew all along that we were gonna be arriving at that epiphany, so when students would move in a different direction, even if I could tell at the time it was brilliant, you would have to pull them back to the place that you were going, but I have definitely changed my mode of operation because the content, really whatever you teach, it doesn’t exist in the world in 14-week packages, so the idea that you can’t do such-and-such because you’re going to miss this key fundamental thing is just bizarre when you think of the scope of knowledge, so I understand people wrestle with accreditation and we wrestle with standards and all these things are realities. But, for the most part, I think really radically meaning a lot of those buzzwords that we use is revolutionary. If you read your mission statement for your university and then you actually do some of that stuff, it’s gonna be crazy; nobody’s actually doing the things they say that they do, in my opinion.

Rebecca: A couple of weeks ago we had an episode about metaliteracy, which expands the idea of information literacy to include the idea of creation, so the idea of becoming more literate in the making of things as part of that information literacy process, which is clearly very connected to the idea of being open, especially when your students are creating this content and creating knowledge. The question that I have is one that I’m wrestling with currently as an educator who’s really about access as well, but I’ve been focusing a lot on access for people with disabilities in thinking about accessibility in that way, digital accessibility and learning those skill sets and where those come in and how do we make sure that things are visually organized and consistent so that an experience through these things that students are making is a good one for everyone who comes afterwards as well?

Robin: I am so happy that you asked that question because this has been my last three weeks; I have barely slept because I’ve started getting so excited. So, for probably the last year or so my own personal challenge has been to think about accessibility in terms of making our materials more accessible, so I’ve been learning about how screen readers actually work in order to fix my own syllabus to redo a lot of annoying things because I didn’t realize you had to use the headings to make things easier. So, I’ve just been learning that basic stuff and that’s been just a long, slow and interesting process. One of the last things that I really hadn’t learned about at all or hadn’t even really thought about was in giving presentations, which I give a lot, I had to think about slides… and so at Open Ed ‘18 in Niagara Falls… I wasn’t there, which is actually an important part of the story because one of the keynoters was Jess Mitchell, who is kind of a mentor of mine in terms of accessibility stuff—she’d be a great guest—and Jess gave a really moving and powerful keynote focusing mostly on inclusion in open and she is very much an accessibility advocate and what was amazing to me as someone who was not there and didn’t see a recording was when I looked at her slides afterwards I was able to experience really the whole keynote because they were designed to be accessible to folks who were in the room, text was organized in a certain ways and things were very clear and I came away really grateful for how she had set up these slides, which was interesting because they were really different than the kinds of slides I make. I had always prided myself on like “Robin made some fancy slides,” you know, they’re like just pretty and like visual impact and bold images, but because they were, I think, graphically designed in a lovely way, I mistakenly thought that that meant that they were actually accessible because they were clear in certain kinds of ways, but they weren’t, they weren’t set up well, so what happened was when I learned and saw in action some of the techniques that she was using, I started to look at this keynote that I was giving the other day—I had like two days left—and now the keynote was ready to go, all the slides were made; I looked at the slides and I was like, oh, crap, you know, no… So, I thought I’ll just redo these slides real quick, but what I ended up doing was really learning about the accessibility changed everything about how I approached the making, which actually ended up changing all of the ideas in the keynote in this dramatically productive way. So accessibility for me, of course, is not really just about like, oh, you have low vision or whatever; it’s very much part of this access broadly-writ idea… that openness… But beyond that because it’s built into how we build; it’s really about how we’re gonna design infrastructure and that is actually my passion right now; it’s less about making these materials—okay, so great, here’s an accessible material, great, they should be—but beyond that it’s about let’s just design an ecosystem now with access at the heart. So, in terms of accessibility, none of that sort of retrofitting one-by-one whatever, but also just what would happen with everything if access for the broadest array of learners was key. I was recently in Providence, Rhode Island at College Unbound, which is just a very cool program for adult learners completing college—they have to have least nine credits to start—but many of them have many more… and there are mostly students of color, mostly poorer students and mostly, I’d say, they seem like over 30 in age and they start their seminars with a hot meal and then after the hot meal they go into their different cohorted seminar rooms and tons of those students have their kids with them and the kids are just a normal part of the learning environment there and the whole place is designed around what kinds of access people needed, what times of day and what services in order to come here to learn and I just feel like everything about the content that we’ll produce and the ways we’ll set up schools and just everything will change if that’s how we build—we build around what I might call human beings, right, which is like the most innovative idea of all, right, it was not technology, it was humans.

John: Audience matters, as Rebecca is fond of mentioning on this podcast.

Rebecca: I almost did it earlier but I…

John: Well, I did it for you this time.

Rebecca: …I contained myself. [LAUGHTER]

John: But, It is important.

Robin: And it’s exciting, I mean, honestly, it’s just exciting because you do realize when you start thinking this way that it is again gonna change everything, right, you’re not just gonna put a caption on your video, it’s gonna be like every single thing is gonna change and that’s why it’s also important to say like, “Here’s how I still suck,” because you can’t just decide to do this and then be done. I’m just learning every single day, I’m messing up every single day and I think it’s better to kind of own that and think of it as a process, which is really invigorating.

Rebecca: To speaking about the process, how would someone get started? What advice would you give someone who is inspired to be more open in their process and the way that they teach and what they put out in the world? What’s the first step?

Robin: Well, the first thing I might encourage people to think about is what excites or interests you here? I think starting with a thing is not really the way to start. So, for example, a lot of times people will come down into our teaching and learning center (where my office is co-located—in the teaching and learning center). So, people will come down—“I need to start a blog with my students”—“Oh, okay, we can help you with that, why do you want to do a blog? “I don’t know; everybody’s blogging.” “Okay, we got to blog.” You really don’t have to blog; you could blog, we could help you, but I think having a sense of the goal: do you want to connect your students out to their communities? Do you feel like that would be valuable for your students? Would you like to lower some access barriers for your students? For me, there’s a lot of excitement that happens when I think about the hardships that we face in public education and trying to make a case for working in more public ways and what public work looks like, so I tried to start with what might excite faculty. So, you can do that on a one-on-one level or when I talk to large groups of faculty I usually start by helping them understand some of the implications of the high cost of textbooks, so if you just say to a faculty member, “That textbook costs a lot,” it’s too abstract. Usually they’ll just say, okay, this was 200 dollars and this one is $180; I’ve picked the 180 dollar textbook, I’m a good person… and they are… but showing them some of the data on what happens to students who can’t afford textbooks, and we have that data collected now and you can reach out to your librarians to access that data really quickly, talking about that with faculty and helping them see this as a social justice issue that impacts whether their students will pass classes, take credits, graduate from college, that I have found is persuasive, but then also talking about engaging their students in the world, really helping them to contribute rather than just consume, become better critical thinkers, all of those things are persuasive. Saying faculty don’t care about cost… I think first of all is not super true, but it’s also like we’re told all the time as faculty, cut costs. Cutting costs does not do wonderful things for learning most of the time. The things we’re asked to cut, especially in our public institutions right now. The age of austerity is decimating to innovation, in my opinion.

John: And the cost of textbooks has been rising at three to four times the rate of inflation for the last several decades?

Robin: Yeah, If you graph it out, I think the thing that I found most shocking was there’s the Consumer Price Index, you know, down below and then there’s the spiky line of the textbook cost and then if you map healthcare—it’s actually in between—it hasn’t been rising as fast as textbook costs, so I think people sometimes find that alarming.

John: Shocking, because that was also rising much faster than the inflation rate.

Robin: Exactly.

John: Going back to the issue of access, the students who have the most trouble affording textbooks often come from households where the parents have less education. Because there’s less early human capital development in those households, those students are already often starting at a bit of a disadvantage and many of them will choose either not to buy the book or wait as long as they can before buying the book. So, they’re far behind when they’re starting their classes and that would be a major factor in their retention on campus.

Robin: Yeah, actually some of this data that you’re talking about comes from the Florida Textbook Study in 2016, which is very persuasive for faculty, I think, but there’s some really new data—Eddie Watson out of Georgia, I believe, that just came out that shows that the benefits of switching to OER in terms of things like course throughput rates, grades and passing and…

John: the drop, fail, withdrawal rate, yeah.

Robin: …that the benefits are especially pronounced for students of color and for Pell eligible students. Some of our most vulnerable learners stand to make the biggest gains when they have access right from day one, and faculty recognize this when you talk to them about it because they are very used to having the small number of students in this side of the room saying, “My check isn’t in yet; I need to wait two weeks until I get paid,” or “I ordered a cheaper version that’s gonna be here in six to eight weeks” or whatever, so nobody’s surprised by it, but to realize that you are actually empowered to solve a problem in higher education is surprising to people and OER actually solves a pretty concrete problem and pretty quickly and the data shows us it solves it pretty well.

Rebecca: So what you’re saying is that OER is the gateway to open pedagogy?

Robin: Well, it’s so funny… [LAUGHTER] I have actually become maybe more famous in the community for saying the opposite because that is actually the party line: catch them with the OER and then show them the pedagogy, but as you’ll see in the faculty development talk that I’ll do here at SUNY Oswego tomorrow, I do that a little bit but definitely I think people are kinda like, “Okay, I’m in, yeah, sure,” and then you start talking about the teaching and learning and that’s when people really kind of come alive and then they shrink back again because they say, “Well, that’s you, because you’re techie and you’ve been doing this forever” because it looks overwhelming and I just want to tell them, first of all, I’m an early Americanist; there is nobody less oriented to this work than I was when I started, but I only heard about Creative Commons maybe like four years ago, like that was the first time I heard of it and now every single thing I do is related to this stuff. The learning curve is overwhelming at the very, very beginning, but the tools that you use and the ability to make these kinds of changes, especially if you do them incrementally. It is really within anybody’s ability and people should trust me when I say that because my husband is a sculptor—he’s a studio sculptor, teaches welding and that kind of stuff and he’s doing all of this now. So, he does OER, but he’s also doing lots of connected learning and his students have their own domains and he is somebody who for the most part does not really even enjoy email, so anybody can engage and I think we need good librarians and good instructional designers and we need to keep funding teaching and learning centers because paying big money to fancy software programs and outside contractors, these are sort of Hail Mary passes to save education. But, in my opinion, teaching and learning and instruction shows real benefits, but we don’t invest in it and we therefore can’t expect to get the full rewards that we could get if we were really focused on working with our faculty.

John: And a lot of the really powerful tools used in these courses are free, like Hypothesis, as you mentioned before. Do you recommend, for example, the use of Pressbooks for OER materials?

Robin: Yes, I’ve been very inspired by the Critical Digital Pedagogy folks out of Hybrid Ped and one of the things they talk about is analyzing your tools and I’ve been really trying, along with my work in accessibility—the other kind of learning curve for me right now has been trying to go through my own tools and gravitate towards not just free but open tools and that’s challenging in some ways; in other ways we’re all ready to go. I favor nonprofit companies like Hypothesis and Pressbooks is Open-source software; I use it through Rebus Community, which is a non-profit OER publishing community that’s developing now under the direction of Hugh McGuire, who was previously with Pressbooks and developed Pressbooks. So, I think the tools should not stress anybody out because the tools will be different next week, right? So, it’s not worth getting too worried if you’re like, this tool it makes no sense, okay, well wait till next week; they’ll be another tool, but it’s good to ask critical questions about if we’re really trying to not just save some cash but to maybe transform into more of a learning ecosystem that focuses on the public good, then we need to build infrastructure that has similar commitments to the kinds of content we might look at or the kinds of processes we might use in our pedagogy. That’s my goal now, is to transfer whatever I’m using into tools that have the same sort of investments that I do.

Rebecca: Speaking of infrastructure… We have infrastructure for students in teaching and learning the classroom kind of side of things, but we also need infrastructure to support faculty who want to be open and do open publishing and do this public good or public discourse methods in general. So what recommendations do you have for helping us move in that direction for public scholarship?

Robin: Yeah, but there’s a lot of myth-busting that needs to happen around open access publishing. Mostly faculty do have some pretty good autonomy, so the promotion and tenure processes that faculty will tell you, “I can’t publish in this journal because it doesn’t meet the impact factor regulations for my field.” Well, those are mostly coming from, like that old joke, “It’s coming from inside the house,” right? Really what this is is about faculty education to help faculty understand that it’s not in the best interest of faculty or knowledge to have the commercial publishing industry stranglehold on academic publishing, but of course faculty are concerned that there are quality issues, they think open access publishing sometimes is like, “I self-published this on Amazon” or whatever, so helping them understand that there are definitely low quality, predatory open access presses just like there are low quality, predatory commercial presses and helping people understand that what you’re really talking about is not whether it’s open or closed but what’s the peer review and what are you looking for in peer review. I think we’re seeing lots of institutions move towards open access policies that give faculty lots of autonomy in how they control their materials, but we need to do a better job educating ourselves about what’s wrong and broken in academic publishing right now.

John: SUNY has just introduced an open-access policy for the whole SUNY system very recently, and (at least at our institution) the upper administration, including the President, the Provost, and the Deans, have generally been very supportive, but it doesn’t always make it down to the departmental chairs and personnel committees and that’s a barrier that, as you said, we’re imposing on ourselves and it’s tough to get through, especially if you’re a junior faculty member coming up for tenure.

Robin: That’s right, and usually I tell administrators that I work with, it’s great that you’re supportive; please don’t tell anyone, you know, because we don’t want these to be top-down initiatives, they have to grow from the faculty and I don’t mean that again in the kind of Duncan Hines egg sense—like a fake way; it’s important that faculty steward the new era of academic publishing—that matters; that should not come from administration, should not come from state legislators. The state legislators are only too excited really to say, everyone must use OER. I went to our board of trustees and they were really happy to give us money for open and they said, we’re gonna pass a resolution that everybody needs to consider an open textbook—I said, thank you, I don’t want your resolution; I’m very grateful… Because it really is important that we do the education at the source which really is for the most part with faculty and actually with students, I think, is where it matters and we’ll grow it that way and the reason I have hope is that I’ve never talked with anyone for any length of time and had them say at the end, well that’s horrible and stupid. There’s lots of nitty-gritty problems to iron out and the open access community does not yet know exactly what the best path is for funding open access presses or all sorts of issues, but it’s very hard to find someone to say to you what you’re saying is horrible, so I think that we will see huge transformation in both OER and open access publishing in the next five to ten years, but we need to grow it with our people.

John: And some of the STEM fields have led the way there; the National Institute of Health and all their grants require

Robin: NASA, the White House….

John: …that things be publicly available and in public access.

Robin: Yeah, and of course those publishing models are a little bit different because there’s so much grant funding in science and the public has a right and that might be a little bit different than, say, a monograph by a historian. When we talk about open we always want to talk contextually, I think, and specifically about what makes sense for, I think, two groups: the public and the knowledge—thinking about both knowledge and users for every different example.

John: Where do you see open pedagogy as going in the future? It’s a relatively recent area and you’ve been very actively involved in this, but where do you see things going in terms of new and interesting directions?

Robin: I cannot answer that question because it boggles my mind… the question you’ve asked and I don’t think I can answer it and it wouldn’t help me to go away and think about it. I think what I could answer is where I hope things are going, and I feel very strongly that there needs to be a robust connection between open education and public education, and I feel like we are in a very dark time where our public education channels are being insidiously co-opted for private profits, and even in some of our public institutions you’re seeing the language of public just dissolve, so we’re seeing college presidents saying, “Yeah, that’s over, that era is over; we’re not going to get any more public dollars; it’s dried up; we need to get corporate money, we need to do partnerships, we’re gonna fund ourselves in these new private ways.” I think this is our chance to intercede in what I see is a very downward trend and I think open education has some really incredible possibilities for helping us articulate what public practice looks like and if we can articulate what public practice looks like, the fact of the matter is, and I do not think this is an argument, I think it’s a fact;—it’s true—I really think it’s true that it is in the public’s benefit for the public to fund the kinds of public work that we’re talking about here for both students and researchers and if we could help explain why by being a little more coherent for ourselves with what it means to work in and at public education and research, I think we’d have a better chance at making that case for the public. So that’s where I’m hoping to take all of this is to say really what we’re talking about here is a resurgence for public education at the K-12 level, resistance to the charter takeover and higher ed to say it’s time to reclaim a public mission for our public universities and fund them appropriately and realize that innovation comes from people and not from private, gated… Right now, the idea is that all things innovative thrive in the market and I think that’s because we’ve been intentionally starving and strangling our publics. Wow, that was like really radical.

Rebecca: That was good, yeah.

John: And it’s an important message.

Robin: I think it’s coherent and I think it’s persuasive; I feel people come alive when I talk about it, but we need also some national leadership on this both from inside education and inside government and I don’t just mean nationally,—the United States is in a squalid mess right now, which it is—but just even in the Obama years and whatever like who are our champions for public, where is that coming from? I’d like to see more mentors and like to see our college presidents use this kind of language—if you’d like to hire me to be your college president… [LAUGHTER] Call me. [LAUGHTER]

Rebecca: Maybe that’s a “what’s next.” [LAUGHTER]

John: So, we usually end these podcasts by asking, what are you doing next?

Robin: Tomorrow, I will be here at SUNY Oswego. You know, the question of next is a really hard one; My own personal life has been changed so radically by this. I never saw myself leaving the English department, I never saw myself having a whole in some ways second career. I used to be asked to be department chair because it was your turn, not because I was anything special, and I would go under the table, you can’t make me do it. I declined everything. I really think, though, people with a grassroots passion for doing this work need support at higher levels in higher education. In terms of me personally, I started thinking about trying to step into some of those roles and I can’t say I feel sort of super personally excited about some of the aspects of that work, but I know that even though I see this as a grassroots movement,—and I do use that word—it’s really hard to change institutions, and in order to do it we’re gonna need to get people at every level to care about these kinds of things and so I’m inspired by people like Tressie McMillan Cottom and Sara Goldrick-Rab and they’re faculty, but they step out to set a national example, and I’d like to maybe think about trying to move this stuff a little bit more institutionally, as opposed to just inside of programs or with particular faculty development events. I’d like to see some institutions really step out and lead. SUNY is doing a great job. You guys have about 48 of your 64 institutions, I think, actively engaged and you are careening towards some system-wide impacts, partnerships with CUNY, statewide conversations; this is where I think things really get exciting to me.

John: The community college and SUNY have really been leading and they’ve been very active in doing this. The four-year colleges have been moving, but not quite as quickly and the university centers have a bit more inertia. So, SUNY has been making some really great efforts in providing incentives and doing a lot of encouragement and the workshops they’ve been funding have helped to try to get more grassroots movement, but it’s not as quick as many of us would like, but it’s much faster than it was a few years ago.

Rebecca: Incremental change is still change?

John: It is.

Robin: It absolutely is. Someone was telling me… Is this an economics thing about the parable of the ant, that ants are going up a hill? Okay, somebody on Twitter, you just sent me this,—I’m losing my brain now—but anyway, an ant is going up a hill and when because of the position of the ants eyes they can’t assess the whole hill, so all they do is at every point they could assess, I want to get to the top of the hill, and all they can assess is, okay, this is the next step that I take, so then the ant gets to the next step and it assesses again and that’s the kind of way incrementally the ant will get up. In that sense the ant doesn’t really even have to know where it’s going; it is just able to constantly resurvey and take one more step and I found that really reassuring when someone sent that over to me today. That’s kind of a metaphor for how you can keep going when you don’t always know exactly where you’re going, and also to your other point, community colleges are clearly the national leaders in this work and I find that really good for education because community colleges are actually really good at teaching and learning and it’s important to look at what they’re doing with open to learn our lessons, but also we can just learn a lot from partnering with our community colleges more effectively.

John: And they’re often the first point of access for first-generation students who may find it difficult to go directly into a four-year college, and they have many of the students who most need that sort of access.

Rebecca: Well, thank you so much for spending time with us and engaging us in this really great conversation; I hope that incremental change becomes much bigger increments as we hear more people and more people get on board.

John: And if you get one person in department doing it, it’s a whole lot easier to convince others to try.

Robin: There’s no secret trick or no secret sauce, it’s just people, so every time somebody as a human gets invested you actually get a lot closer to where you’re going, I think. It’s exciting, it’s exciting, and thank you guys for having me because this like fancy stuff and I feel very listened to and I’m gonna put all sorts of pictures on Twitter of myself in front of these microphones. [LAUGHTER]

John: Okay, well thank you.

Rebecca: Yeah, thank you.

[MUSIC]

John: If you’ve enjoyed this podcast please subscribe and leave 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 Fischer, Brittany Jones, Gabriella Perez, Joseph Santarelli-Hansen, and Dante Perez.

[MUSIC]

48. The Culture of EdTech

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

Show Notes

Transcript

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

[Music]

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

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

John: …and Rebecca Mushtare, a graphic designer.

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

[Music]

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

Rolin: Thanks for having me.

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

Rolin: I am John.

Rebecca: Yes!

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

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

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

Rolin: Excellent.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rolin: Not at all.

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

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

Rebecca: Thank you.

[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. Theme music by Michael Gary Brewer.

30. Adaptive Learning

Do your students arrive in your classes with diverse educational backgrounds? Does a one-size-fits-all instructional strategy leave some students struggling and others bored? Charles Dziuban joins us in this episode to discuss how adaptive learning systems can help provide all of our students with a personalized educational path that is based on their own individual needs.

Show Notes

In order of appearance:

Transcript

Coming soon!

23. Teaching with comics

Looking for ways to increase student confidence in their ability to learn? Or their ability to see themselves as professionals in the field? In this episode, Carly Tribulli, a Biology Professor at SUNY-Farmingdale, joins us to discuss how comics may be created and used to meet students where they’re at, draw them in, and help them develop mental models of complicated processes and concepts.

We discuss Carly’s plans to create an OER biology textbook in which biological processes are represented using comic strips, her planned research on the effectiveness of instructional use of comics, as well the positive role model that she provides in Carly’s Adventures in Waspland, an instructional comic that Carly created for the American Museum of Natural History during her graduate study there.

Show Notes

Carly’s Work

Topics mentioned in the podcast (in order of their appearance):

Economics comic books:

STEM web comics recommended by Carly:

Transcript

Rebecca: Looking for ways to increase student confidence in their ability to learn? Or their ability to see themselves as professionals in the field? In this episode, we’ll explore how one faculty member uses comics to meet students where they’re at, draw them in, and help them develop mental models of complicated processes and concepts.

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

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

John: …and Rebecca Mushtare, a graphic designer.

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

Rebecca: Today our guest is Carly Tribull, an assistant professor at Farmingdale State College, where she mostly teaches general biology for non major students in entomology. Her interests include bugs, biology, and of course, comics. Welcome, Carly.

Carly: Hi, nice to meet you guys.

John: Welcome. Today our teas are…

Carly: I’m actually drinking… a kind of cold coffee. But, but it’s good. I like it.

John: Yeah.

Rebecca: …and it used to be warm.

Carly: It used to be warm. I got it about an hour ago, so I knew this was going to happen, but I was like “You know, this is my only opportunity to get coffee, and I know you guys like to talk about what we’re drinking…”, and I was like “ooh, yeah a coffee, cool… I could have lied…”

Rebecca: That’s true. I have a Paris tea.

John: and I have blueberry green tea.

Rebecca: So, Carly, can you tell us a little bit about how you’ve been able to combine your interests in art and biology in your educational and career paths?

Carly: So, I’ve always been interested in both art and biology ever since I was a little kid. I grew up in a very science-forward family. There was a lot of interest in me becoming a biologist and my parents were both very encouraging, and my dad always sat and watched those sort of Wild Animal channel, Discovery Channel shows when I was a kid, with all like this farming animals and stuff like that. So, I was always interested in the animals and eventually that led to drawing animals. By the time that I was in high school, I was taking formal training in art and doing AP art and things like that, but also very much maintaining my biology education. By the time I was later in high school, I was drawing comics. I had discovered comics around early high school. I read a lot of manga, and then I started reading more graphic novels, never a lot of the superhero comics, but more of the weird offbeat stuff like the Sandman, and a bunch of manga series. So I started drawing comics, and I drew a bunch of weird comics and then I entered college at UC Berkeley, and I was a double major in art and biology, and I just continued that path all the way through. And I was really stubborn about not giving up art, despite the fact that I had chosen not to go to a traditional art school. I knew at that point I was going to go into biology, but I was very much stubbornly holding on to art, and so what happened when I was at Berkeley, is that I was actually able to do biological illustration as an undergraduate researcher. And that was the very first research experience I ever had, doing biological illustration for a paleontology lab. This has always made sense to me as a biologist, because there’s a really, really huge history of biology and art meeting together. Especially in entomology, when you consider the work of Maria Sybilla Marian, who is one the famous female entomologists of her time (probably the only major female entomologist of her time) and she was really the first person to study metamorphosis. And much of the way she shared that information, since this was obviously way before photography, was by these really elaborate illustrations that were shared with other entomologists at the time. So to me, it’s always made sense that there is some sort of crossover between biology and art, and I think while I was in college I was very stubbornly imagining myself as becoming that type of natural historian. And then when I was in graduate school there was a lot of encouragement for me to continue doing comics, weirdly enough.

John: Could you tell us a little bit about your graduate program?

Carly: I went to the Richard Gilder graduate school at the American Museum of Natural History, and that’s a pretty long name, but historically the museum has always funded graduate students from the City University of New York, and from the Bronx Botanical Gardens, and from NYU and Columbia, but only within the past seven or eight years or so, did they decide to start their own in-house PhD program. So, we still have all of those students that are coming from other institutions, but only recently where we like, we’re going to create our own graduate program. It was very, very, very different from your standard evolutionary biology PhD program. Usually the big state public schools, and a few of the private schools that are strong in the sciences, have an evolution in ecology, biology grad program that you spend five to six years and that you TA undergraduates to support your stipend. But at the AMNH, because it’s a museum, there are no undergraduates for you to TA. and you also have to finish in four years. So, because you had no formal TAships, and the funding was very good so you didn’t really need them, you were very much encouraged to do these informal teaching assistantships, and to find your way into the outreach education side of the museum, or working on exhibits and making yourself part of the contributing community to the museum. That is basically how the grad school ran, and I did my PhD in the evolutionary systematics of these parasitoid wasps that I study.

John: It sounded like a really natural blend of your interest and a superb educational path for you, in terms of giving you a way of continuing your earlier interest.

Rebecca: Before we jump forward I’m really curious, Carly, as an art faculty member, if you could talk a little bit about that first project, that first opportunity you had as a student and how you got that opportunity to combine your interests. Was it something that you pursued or was it something that your faculty helped to nurture?

Carly: Kind of a combination of both. My freshman year at Berkeley, I took an undergraduate symposium with Kevin Padian, who is a vertebrate paleontologist, and it was very much your standard freshman seminar. It was actually very small, it was only about 10 students. We did some readings, we did some talking, and around that time I think I was looking for research opportunities, and so I started talking with him and I started trying to get myself into the lab as an undergraduate researcher for future semesters, and it came up that I’m a biological illustrator, or that I was interested in biological illustration, and I think at some point he was like “okay, show me what you got, go draw the T-Rex,” because there’s a big T-Rex in the center floor of the Valley Life Sciences Building at Berkeley. And I went down and I drew it as best as I could and apparently he was pretty satisfied with my work. So, I joined the lab, and I was assigned to a current PhD student at the time named Katie Brakora, and I actually drew some of the images that were used in her dissertation. And that was excellent. I didn’t become Kevin Padian’s biological illustrator, but I was working with grad students that were going through grad student life, finishing their work… and at the same time I was taking the core art classes, because I was a double major and I knew I was going to be a double major for my freshman year. So, I was doing all of your standard intro to drawing, intro to painting, techniques classes, and things like that and it actually worked out really well for me to be a biological illustrator, as sort of a side biology undergraduate researcher, because Berkeley’s art program isn’t really focused on illustration or comics. It’s actually much more of a fine arts program. So, sometimes I was actually butting heads with the other art faculty, because I was very illustration focused and they’re very studio fine arts, and I was like not all of us are going to become studio painters. So, illustration seems like a skill that I should be investing in.

Rebecca: What a great story. Thanks, Carly.

John: While you’re in grad school, one of your projects was developing Carly’s Adventures in Wasp Land, and we’ve looked through that and it’s superbly drawn and fascinating. Could you tell us a little bit more about some of your work with illustrations and developing comics while you were at the American Museum?

Carly: I guess this goes back to how Carly’s Adventures in Wasp Land started, which by the way is not the title I came up with it, that was the title that the museum folks came up with it, I was just like, “okay.”

John: Did you have a title?

Carly: No, I did not have a title, that was probably an error on my part. I was opening myself up there, I think it’s a fine title. It’s a little bit goofy that it has my own name in it, but, whatever. In my interview to get into grad school, I had actually brought my portfolio in biological illustration, which was very unusual. Of course, evolutionary biology does attract people who can draw, but I think I was the first person who had come to that relatively new program with a portfolio. [LAUGHTER] I was kind of a scrappy undergraduate. I didn’t do that great in my courses. I’m a terrible memorizer, which allows me to sympathize with other students that aren’t doing that great in intro biology, especially my own students, because I actually didn’t do all that well for the first two years. And part of making myself an attractive student to graduate schools, was actually building up my research curriculum. I did a lot of research with Marvelee Wake at Berkeley after the Padian lab, and then also building up this biological illustration thing early on. I interviewed with Jim Carpenter, he accepted me to his lab, and I think he was very impressed with the fact that I did illustration and apparently it stuck with him enough that when he got a grant from the NSF, he came to me about helping him out with the broader impact section of that grant, and broader impacts is where you actually have to make your grant meaningful outside of academia. So, it’s where you would have outreach education. He remembered from my interview that I like to draw, he came to me and he was like “do you want to work with the digital outreach education side of the museum, and create a project with them? “And I was like “yeah, sure,” and as long as it was about teaching kids about wasps, and the different types of wasps, I pretty much had free rein. I started working with Ology, which is the digital outreach section of the museum, and a lot of what would happen is collaboration between me, Jim, and the Ology folks, especially when it came to writing the script for that comic, because the Ology folks have way more experience in writing for middle school readers than I did. So there was a lot of modification of my script but mostly I had free reign when it came to the illustration side of things, and I also mostly had free reign when it came to the creative decisions, like the decisions to make the wasps anthropomorphic and have them talking with you, that was something I decided on, even though it isn’t truly a hundred percent scientifically accurate. It was something that both the Ology folks and Jim signed off on.

John: I liked it.

Rebecca: I thought it worked well for adults too, I don’t think it’s just for middle schoolers. I’m just saying… I know way more about wasps now than I did before I read it.

John: Me too, and it was much more engaging than reading a textbook description of those things.

Carly: Thank you so much!

Rebecca: I also just really love that you’re like a superhero in the story. What a great way for little girls and boys to see a strong female scientist… taking on the wasp. I just thought it was a really great way to frame the story.

Carly: Yeah, and I think the first chapter in Carly’s Adventures in Wasp Land doesn’t actually talk about wasps but it sort of talks about me and how I became an entomologist. That wasn’t part of the original plan, but me and the folks at Ology, and eventually Jim was totally on board with this, felt that it was important that part of the broader impacts, should be showing young girls that they too could be an entomologist, this field that is commonly associated (at least by other people who are outside of entomology) as being male-dominated and being a career for boys… showing them that, that’s not necessarily the case. So, that’s when the strengths of comics especially when it comes to showing girls and underrepresented minority students that they can envision themselves also as scientists. That’s one of the things you can do with comics that I find really engaging… is that, in your choice of narrator, you can make those decisions.

John: I believe you’re releasing some of your materials under an OER license. Is that correct?

Carly: Yes, not Carly’s Adventures in Wasp Land. That is an OER in that it’s freely available, but it’s going to stick with the museum’s website for the time being (as far as I know). What I’m putting on an OER license is actually the comic textbook that I’m going to be eventually making for the Farmingdale State general biology students, but it’s certainly going to be available to any SUNY professor or any professor anywhere.

John: Have you requested an grant for that or are you doing this on your own?

Carly: So, I’ve requested a summer stipend and I should be finding out about that soon. As you might guess drawing and writing comics takes a lot of time, much longer than say a written textbook would take, and there are certainly many professors that are working on written OERs for their class. So, I’ve requested a summer stipend and SUNY Farmingdale has recently announced that there’s going to be an OER incentive grant, so I’ll be applying for that too.

John: Excellent.

Rebecca: You’ve also done some writing about using comics for science specifically, can you talk a little bit about the research that you’ve done in this area?

Carly: Yeah, so I think when I accepted the job at Farmingdale, I knew that I was going to be very, very, interested in making comics and researching the impact of comics… part of the research that I do for my tenure decision… and luckily the faculty here have been very supportive of that. Farmingdale is a primarily undergraduate institution, so there’s actually lots of professors that are also not only researching their scientific field or their artistic field, but are also researching educational techniques in their field. Part of preparing for that was actually some work that I did last year. I was actually invited to an open access issue from the Entomological Society of America, on educational communication in the sciences …and they had known over the years, because I kept presenting on comics, that my interest really lied in the use of comics as outreach education. So, I began actually searching through the literature because this was something I wanted to continue doing as a professor once I moved to Farmingdale, and it was also something that I just wanted to continue just as someone who was going to keep making educational comics regardless. And so what I found in doing this big review paper called “Sequential Science” is that there is much research in how comics impact the interest and attitudes towards the material, at students at a variety of levels, but there isn’t so much research in actually measuring their gains in content knowledge. So there’s lots of research to show that comics makes students at all levels more interested in the material, but not a lot showing and quantifying how much more they’re learning and retaining. So, I think that’s an area that I actually want to put more research into myself… but yeah I spent a lot of time for that paper reading a bunch of other papers about studies that had been conducted.

John: Have you started this research or is this a plan for future research?

Carly:This is definitely a plan for future. So the development of the OER textbook for gen bio is just happening right now, and anecdotally I’ve certainly seen students are more interested, so I do incorporate comics into my slides right now. They’re not my comics necessarily, they’re comics from a lot of different sources like Beatrice the Biologist or Your Wildlife, those are popular webcomics that are biology focused. I also make some drawings for them for the slides as well. In reality, any comic is just a set of sequential images. So, I can draw a set of sequential images that are explaining mitosis and meiosis. My students might not necessarily read those as comics or recognize them as comics, but they’re still comics because they’re telling an ordered set of events. So when I do that, anecdotally, I can tell you that the students are more interested… especially if there’s just been a slide with the textbook image and some complicated information, if I can show them that slide and then be like “oh let me break it down into these steps that I’ve drawn out” it seems to help them. But have I actually started measuring the impacts? No, not yet.

John: So do you have a research plan on that?

Carly: Yeah, so as the OER textbook is going to take some time to make. It’s probably going to take a couple of years to finish in its entirety, but there’s no reason that I can’t start exposing the students to the chapters as I complete them. So, until the OER is finished in its entirety, and given that I usually teach multiple sections of gen bio, I’m going to start setting up testing control groups just looking at small chapters, as I complete them. So, one class will receive the comics, the other class won’t receive the comics, and since both classes have the same test, I can actually see if there’s any improvement. Now, once the comic is finished in its entirety, that’s when I’ll actually begin the full-scale research… and what’s going to happen there is… again I teach multiple sections of gen bio… I can set up a test group and a control group. The test group will get the comic textbook and then the control group would get a traditional OER (probably the OpenStax gen bio textbook) and I can give them the whole textbook at that point and measure what their differences are in terms of performance using their midterms and their quizzes and their homework assignments. But I also plan on surveying them on interest, because although the interest and the attitudes might not seem as strong a topic as actual performance, I think when you’re teaching non major biology students (many of them who feel like they’re just there to check off a box), many of them who have prevailing biases against science… many of them who don’t feel like they can connect to science… I think it’s so important to measure those attitude changes.

Rebecca: Why does a sequential format work so well for a topic like biology? What do you see the benefit of being sequential in that way? This sequential art form.

Carly: So even in general biology, intro biology for non-majors, there’s still lots of processes that are multiple steps. So, I don’t know if either of you remember learning the Krebs cycle or photosynthesis. These are very complicated multi-step processes where something has to happen and then there’s a result… and then another thing happens and then there’s some sort of result. So, there’s plenty of stuff, even in the entry level biology classes, that lend themselves really well to a narrative. Comics really are any progression of images that build a narrative… now, that narrative doesn’t have to be fiction. The point is that there’s an order of events and together that order of events makes sense. You actually don’t have to add words for it to be considered a comic, but obviously the words help in the context of a biology class. I think given that there are so many multi-step processes whether you’re studying the Krebs cycle… or photosynthesis… or mitosis… or meiosis… or even natural selection or ecology… sequential comics… so these images, where you have processes that are laid out in order and broken down into steps, really help intro students.

John: Do you have an anticipated timespan on your textbook project?

Carly: I suspect that it’s going to be this summer. I probably have two and a half months that I’m not actually teaching, but I’ll also be doing research on my scientific stuff (on my wasp studies) at the same time. I suspect that I’ll be able to draft out the first half of the textbook and probably be able to complete about three to four chapters of it. So, I’ll have those chapters ready for the fall semester and then I’ll try to get some work done during the fall semester and keep building that project. I suspect in total it’s going to take me at least two summers and also the semesters between, where I’m actually doing much more work on sort of my regular school requirements to actually finish it.

John: Do you have any people who’ll be working with you on reviewing this and giving feedback?

Carly: Not yet, but I recognize the need for that. I want to have this textbook be one of the contributions that I have for getting tenure. Making a textbook is a common contribution for the tenure package, but to make a textbook you actually have to have some form of peer review if you’re going to go through a publisher. So, when you’re making your own OER and you’re publishing it on your own website, you might lose some of that aspect of peer review. The plan right now is to actually enlist a set of beta readers who are also science educators in their own field and have criticism from them. This isn’t quite the same as having peer review, but I think for now it’s the very best that I can do, but I’m certainly open to suggestion and open to constructive criticism and changing things up. One of the challenges of creating your own OER is that at some point you might lose the more rigorous aspects of submitting a textbook to a standard publishing company.

Rebecca: Will you have an editor working with you for this project?

Carly: Currently no one is lined up, but that’s a valid suggestion, to actually pay an editor… probably someone who works in science textbooks. But, I think before I can even get to that point, I actually have to have a fairly large body of material to show them in the first place.

John: I would think that one thing that would be useful is, once you have this material, adoptions and response from adopters could be used in place of the peer review.

Carly: Oh yes, certainly. And when I put it up on the website there’s definitely going to be a forum for educators to be like “You know what, this didn’t make a lot of sense. Can you change the wording on this?” So, treating this as a living body of work instead of: “oh, I published that, it’s done…” because there’s no cost associated with changing and the material outside of my own time cost because there’s no physical version. So, it actually wouldn’t be all that difficult for me to have those changes be something that’s constantly happening, especially as we find out better ways to teach say homologous chromosomes, or mitosis, or things like that. But even before I launch it, I still want to have beta readers that can give it a read-through even before that, but having the ability for educators to constantly give me comments would be something that’s on the main website.

Rebecca: What software are you using to manage the process?

Carly: The website build itself is through SquareSpace and that is because I have absolutely no training in making a website, whatsoever. So that’s the actual platform that I’m building the website through. In terms of drawing, I start a lot of stuff out by hand and then I usually draw it in Photoshop on a tablet. Certainly, there are times when my tablet is down and I have to draw it by hand, and then scan it… that’s also a possibility. There is something else I’m interested in and this is more of a conversation about OER versus publishers. On the major publishers textbooks right now… so, McGraw-Hill, Pearson, Cengage, stuff like that… I think they’ve recognized that students can get OERs for free, professors can get OERs for free. So, what these publishers are doing now is that they’re offering adaptive learning systems, where you have assignments that get harder or easier as the student does better or worse, where the grades go automatically into the professor’s LMS which (if you’re at a school that doesn’t have grad students) is great because you don’t have a TA to do your grading. The publishers are offering these adaptive learning systems that go seamlessly into your Blackboard or your Angel (or whatever you’re using), but if you’re developing an OER you don’t have that capability. You can make standard multiple choice quizzes on Blackboard and give them to your students, but that’s not the same thing as an adaptive learning system that tracks your students progress. So, I would also be interested in working with someone (or maybe even SUNY at large) to develop platforms that actually make these adaptive learning systems… because then I think they’ll actually be able to convince more professors to adopt OERs.

John: Some of the publishers do have that. I know that Cengage, Pearson, and McGraw-Hill have been putting together packages of OER materials, where they add other resources to them (including some adaptive learning tools) that they release under a fairly inexpensive license. Another option might be to investigate Lumen Learning. Lumen Learning works with OpenStax and they package OER materials with some other materials they’ve created through a variety of grant-funded activities. But that might be worth doing and SUNY does have a contract with Lumen Learning on these things.

Carly: Yeah, I would like to work with someone that is not just SUNY…

John: Right..

Carly: I’m a SUNY professor but I would like people at the University of California system to be able to use my comics.

John: Lumen Learning is not restricted to SUNY.

Carly: OK.

John: SUNY happens to have a contract where they get a discounted price on the bundles when colleges adopt the Lumen Learning platform, but it’s basically a bundling platform that works with OpenStax and other OER materials.

Carly: Yeah, so that’s worth considering, because not only do I want to make the comic, I also want to make assessment tools… so that whenever professors are using my comic they also have a test bank… a way to create these adaptive learning assignments and things like that. So, this is something I’ve talked about before in my presentations at the Entomological Society of America… that you can’t just make a comic and put it out there for educators, you actually have to provide study tools, study guides, teaching plans, teaching lessons, to actually make it useful for educators.
I really like the idea of there being a platform where a professor could create their own test bank and then assign levels and topics to those questions and then just be able to import those into something that is automatically going to make adaptive learning assignments.

John: I don’t think we’ve got that yet, but there are a couple platforms out there: CogBooks and Acrobatiq. Both are do-it-yourself platforms for creating adaptive learning solutions and based on the Carnegie Mellon system,… which they’ve been doing for quite a while there. But it’s a lot of work, and it automates some of the process so you don’t actually have to do the programming, but you still have to work through most of the structure yourself. I noticed that you give students the option of making their own comics for extra credit. Could you tell us about that? how have students responded? and how has that worked?

Carly: Sure, so this has really come out of a desire to actually start generating and using comics in my class while getting the OER ready… because I have people who are asking me “What results do you have already? How have students responded?” And I’m like, “I haven’t finished the comic yet.” So, I’m aware of that and so that’s where incorporating comics into the classroom right now, while I’m preparing, comes from. General biology is a very difficult course for most incoming freshmen (which is the vast majority of the students I have). What it feels like to me is that I give all of my students the benefit of the doubt… I assume that they’re all studying… and when they do poorly on their first test I don’t say to them “Oh, it’s cause you guys didn’t study enough.” I say to them “No one has taught you how to study.” So a lot of my students, when they do poorly on their exams and they come to me during office hours, I ask them how did you study? And inevitably the answer I get is “I reread the PowerPoint notes, I reread the slides,” and so I’m like “No, no that’s not how you study, that’s just reading”. I try to emphasize that studying is the active reorganization and recontextualization of all of the information sources I’m giving you, not just my PowerPoint slides, but the lecture notes your hopefully taking in class, the textbook itself, the homework assignments. There are all these different forms of information that I’m giving you, and what I’m hoping you’re doing is actively reorganizing it. So, we talk about rewriting your notes. We talk about how to actually make flashcards that are effective. We talk about making flowcharts… and really from that last one… making flowcharts… that’s kind of like making a comic already. With the making comics as an extra credit, I’m really just encouraging to do another form of studying, where they have to take all this material for a midterm and they have to draw their own comic. So, usually what I do is I start the first couple of pages for them. So, on my Twitter right now I can actually send you an image of this first page I’ve made to kickstart their own process. So, spring break is coming up and they have a midterm, not the day after spring break that would be cruel, but the Thursday after spring break. That midterm is going to cover mitosis, meiosis, inheritance, and DNA transcription and translation. And these all seem like different topics but in reality they’re all very interconnected topics. You really can’t talk about mitosis until you can talk about alleles, and genes, and Mendelian inheritance and things like that. So I’m trying to encourage the students to conceptualize that these are all interrelated things because I think that I’ll actually help them memorize things better than just treating them as separate slides that they’re just reading through. At the end of next week’s Thursday lecture, the one right before spring break I’m going to introduce this project and hopefully I get some results from it. Previously I had done this at my last teaching position, which was at Sam Houston State University. I was a visiting assistant professor there, and for extra credit, I offered students the opportunity to make a comic on the same set of materials and I get responses… but the problem is that I get responses usually from the students who don’t need the extra credit. I think this is something that’s a common problem with offering extra credit… that inevitably many, many, many times it’s the students that don’t actually need the extra credit that turn in the extra credit assignments. Now. I still enjoy reading them and they still say that it was helpful and it’s a new study technique that they’re going to do, but reaching out to the other students is one of the challenges I’m facing as a young professor.

John: We all do that, it’s not just related to age. I know in my class I give them lots of chances to retake tests… the people who do it the most are the students who are already doing best in class. So, it increases the variance in the outcomes quite a bit when that’s not entirely the goal, you’d like to have everyone rise up but not necessarily spread out further on that continuum.

Rebecca: So, I’m curious with a project like this, do you use the opportunity as being a scientist who also as an artist to sneak in some art teaching as well? Do you use things like Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics or anything as a tool to help students understand how to put together a comic and the medium of a comic?

Carly: I love Understanding Comics, it was like one of my foundational books when I was an undergraduate taking my first comic drawing class. I actually tried to avoid situations like that because I don’t want to discourage the students that feel like they don’t know how to draw. Which is a silly thing because everyone can draw… drawing well is a different thing. I don’t want them to get hung up on how good their drawings are. I want them to get hung up on how much conceptual sense that it makes. So certainly Scott McCloud talks about this, about how you can still have a comic that’s just stick figures. And so for me, I don’t want them to freak out about the fact that I’m an artist, and that I’m pretty decent at drawing, and that I expect them also to be pretty decent at drawing. But the funny thing about teaching non-majors is that inevitably some of them are art majors. So, that’s that’s always fun, they’re always surprised to find out when they come to my office and they see that I have paintings that I made as an undergraduate up on my walls and things like that. I would love to refer classic comic making literature, but it’s just something that I don’t have enough time when I’m just spending five minutes to introduce something. But, certainly… the students that come to office hours… we do talk about you know what makes a comic because I also have students that read a lot of comics. I have lots of students that are going on the Manga reading websites and a lot of students that talk about superhero comics with me when they find out that I like comics. So it does come up, but it’s usually not something I have time to make part of my already jam-packed lecture.

John: Students often have this perspective that they’re either creative or they’re good at quantitative skills in STEM fields, and it’s really nice that you’re modeling the possibility that you can be both.. That they’re not mutually exclusive.

Rebecca: That’s also why I like McCloud as a reference book too, because it’s not really about fine art in the traditional sense but rather about how to tell a story. Which is interesting and helpful and doesn’t really necessarily emphasize being able to draw.

Carly: Yeah, I think he has that… what does an expression look like, and it’s just like two dots for eyes, and then eyebrows, and then a line for a mouth, and you can get the full range of human emotion. And then I show students comics like XKCD, that is just stick figures and it’s really effective so, yeah. I try to avoid things where they feel like they have to be a professional artist, not to say that’s what McCloud does, you just pointed out that it doesn’t do that. But I try to focus more on the conceptual – like how does this help you study, you’re not just making this to impress me. And you get that a lot with extra credits, sometimes you feel like students are just doing those projects to get extra credit. Instead I’m trying to be like “Mo, no this is a study tool. This benefits you.”

Rebecca: Have you had any students follow in your footsteps and develop a love of both art and science and pursued you as a mentor?

Carly: At Sam Houston State, I certainly had students that like to come and chat with me and sort of explore those topics. But unfortunately, I had to leave there to start the position I have at Farmingdale, and unfortunately I just haven’t been here long enough to build those connections. One of the things I want to do, as I’m at Farmingdale a bit longer, and I get settled in, is actually propose a biological illustration class. So we have the ability as biology faculty to offer these topics in biology courses, and one of the ones I really want to do is biological illustration… especially since we share our building with art, or rather… I think it’s design communications… whatever the technical college…

Rebecca: Communications design… probably.

Carly: Yeah… but they’re still students taking drawing and watercolor and painting so..

Rebecca: How cool. That would be so fun.

Carly: Yeah, and you know what I actually kind of taught that course at Berkeley. When I was an undergrad at Berkeley, there was this thing where students could actually teach one-credit non-graded courses. So, I actually offered a biological illustration course. Sort of one of those things to build my resume and make up for my not-so-great GPA, but I actually really loved doing it and it seemed like as long as you can get some specimens, and you can sit down, and you have a studio space, you can come up with some amazing work, and luckily I’m still a research associate at the Museum of Natural History, so hopefully they’ll let me borrow some animal mounts. But there’s also insects. Insects are great… they’re cheap and I’m also the entomology professor so it could just become entomological illustration and then of course Farmingdale also has a huge Horticulture Department and botanical illustration has always historically… much like art has been a big part of biology… art has been a big part of botany for a long time. So I think we have the ability to do this, and that there would be interest, and it’d be a cool collaboration with these two departments that are both in Hale Hall.

John: How have your colleagues responded?

Carly: I would say positively… extremely positively. I’ve been thinking more about transitioning into… not fully being a pedagogy researcher… but having it be a large part of what I do on the research side. So, I still plan on doing my usual wasp entomology taxonomy research, but I also want to do a lot of research that’s in comics and the use of comics. That was something that came up in my interview and I think it overall was a helpful thing, and even while I’ve been here I’ve talked about it a lot with my chair and she’s been extremely supportive, and my other colleagues have also been supportive. I haven’t received any negative pushback… which I think was something that I was expecting… because when you look at the literature about educators… whether they or not they want to use comics, there’s this fear… that comics have this bias against them. And so a lot of educators at the primary and secondary levels are kind of afraid of assigning them, and they’re afraid they’re going to be looked down upon by parents and by other educators. But I’ve been extremely fortunate, and I have faced none of that and largely the faculty have been very supportive.

Rebecca: I wonder if some people maybe perceive comics as just being not very rigorous. Which is crazy,because you can provide so much more information… because there’s a visual element as well as a text element. So they might actually be more rigorous.

Carly: Yeah. We talk about lack of rigor and lack of detail in textbooks anyways. If you look at a non major biology textbook it’s obviously not going to be as detailed as a major’s introductory biology textbook, and there’s a reason for that. You’re not teaching people who are going to continue in biology for the most part, so there’s less detail. But, still people harp on the lack of information and the lack of rigor. So, I feel like that’s going to be an argument that comes up no matter what assigned reading you’re going to use. Certainly with comics there’s another bias and that there’s a bunch of superhero comics… but comics are actually a lot more diverse these days.

Rebecca: Comics are probably a really great way to help students understand those basic concepts so that they can build their mental model because they probably come with all sorts of assumptions and things that are not correct, and I could see how demonstrating visually could help overcome some of that.

Carly: Yeah, certainly, and for me it really comes down to what is the point of general biology? What am I aiming to do? I still want my students to learn about photosynthesis, and the Krebs cycle, and mitosis, and meiosis. But I also want them to come away with an appreciation and a sense that they are able to understand it. I want them to walk away from the class with positive feelings towards science and not just- it’s a collection of facts I had to memorize.

John: I wish I had had a class like this when I was in college. it seems like a fascinating way of addressing this

Rebecca: It goes back to what we were talking about earlier. I didn’t know I wanted to know about wasps, but maybe I want to know more now after reading your comic.

Carly: Yeah. So these are all like my lofty aspirations as an educator, but I’m pretty sure I’m still making common mistakes and it’s still a bunch of facts that they have to memorize, sometimes. But I feel an awareness of these of these issues is helping and hopefully I only get better at that process.

John: …and there’s nothing wrong with it being fun for them to learn those facts. ..

Carly: Yeah.

John: … they do need to learn facts but there’s nothing saying it can’t be engaging.

Rebecca: Well, providing those sequences might make it easier to remember, because you have a clearer understanding of how the things connect. The visual representation can help provide those connections that words don’t always help because it’s too abstract.

Carly: I think with biology, especially at the introductory level, especially when you’re a professor that doesn’t have graduate student instructors or TAs, you don’t have a lot of time. So we always talk about wanting to have critical thinking questions and essays, but inevitably just because of time constrictions it does largely become scantron multiple-choice questions, and in that way it does become a lot of memorization. Now I still think that memorization is valid. I still think it’s important to know the steps and the processes and be able to call up that knowledge. But for me, the struggle is making that memorization easier. And if comics make that easier then I’m accomplishing my goal…

John: One of the things that really impressed me, though just following you on Twitter recently since I saw your work, is how engaged you are in the scholarship of learning and teaching in your discipline. It’s nice to see people starting their careers doing that. What got you interested in doing research on teaching and learning?

Carly: I think it actually comes down to who professors are. Professors tend to have PhDs, and in my case, I didn’t take any classes about how to teach. So I think most of us are just kind of thrown into this process and we learned slowly along the way. I was like “Well, there’s a whole body of research out there…” and I started reading some papers about how to be a more effective teacher. We have our own center here for teaching that has workshops and stuff like that, and I think recognizing my lack of formal training, I have no teachers certification or anything like that, made me more interested

Carly: I’ve got the list of questions.

Rebecca: One of the things that I think is kind of interesting is the way that we started this whole conversation… and it ties nicely back to the scholarship of teaching and learning… is that your first research position was doing illustrations. And I think that in academia, we don’t often see those sorts of actions as being research. So I really love that that role was called researcher and brings all this sort of together. It doesn’t have to be traditional to be effective or useful.

Carly: Now certainly that first position as an illustrator in the Padian lab… I still wanted to do traditional types of research, but that experience (as someone who is already sort of hanging around on the graduate student level and hanging around the research labs) made me a person that was visible in a crowd of something like 2,000 undergraduate biology students. So from the Padian lab, I was actually able to transition into a more traditional research role that actually led me to parasitism, to studying parasitism, and that was in the Wake lab with Marvalee Wake, who is one of my most important mentors as an undergrad. But yes, my first research position I was called an undergraduate researcher was actually just doing illustration. And I learned a lot about vertebrate anatomy because that was what Katie Brakora studied.

Rebecca: People don’t realize that when you’re doing that kind of illustration work, what kind of attention to detail you need to pay, and how much you can actually learn by just looking at something very carefully.

Carly: Oh yeah, being able to measure something… getting proportions down correctly. There’s a lot of math that goes into biological illustration and serve a lot of rigor. And then you just spend hours stippling, and that was my life.

Carly: Yeah, I would just say if this sounds like something that a faculty member is listening to this podcast and they’re like, “Ah I want to either start making comics or I want to incorporate comics even into a STEM class, I have lots of resources and I can sort of talk ad nauseam about that. You know like, “What are some good comics if you’re teaching biochemistry? What are some good comics if you’re teaching literature?” So certainly if there’s anyone who’s interested in either making comics or choosing comics for their classroom, I’d be happy to talk to folks.
I think unless you’re a comic book reader you probably don’t realize just how much comics have grown outside of what you might have imagined they were twenty years ago, and you’d be surprised by the amount of some relatable materials… especially in the social studies classes… especially in history, there’s a lot of memoirs… a lot of historical memoirs right now in comics.

John: Actually right now, I can think of at least a couple of examples in economics of comic book series that were created for instructional purposes. The Federal Reserve Bank of New York created a series of comic books to help provide middle- and high-school students with information about the monetary system and the role of the Federal Reserve Board; the other, a series of comic books created featuring Captain Euro… this was originally created to provide support for the introduction of the Euro and for the European Union in general.

Carly: Medicine has really moved with this, especially when they’re thinking about “How do we make information that transcends language barriers?” I follow a Twitter that is just medical graphics and there are conferences on medical comics as well. So I think that’s a field that’s really sort of latched on to making comics as a way to share information with patients, and there’s actually been some research showing that it’s more effective.

Rebecca: It’s used a lot in areas where there might be outreach for really low income or people in poverty who need important information about health or resources and things, and that’s where literacy might be an issue, and so sequential images are often used in those contexts as well. When I was doing a project in India, I discovered all of these really interesting graphics that were used… sequential graphics… to get people to do all sorts of things because there’s so many different languages… to kind of overcome that barrier. It was really interesting.
So we usually wrap up our interviews with the question of what are you gonna do next, you’ve already talked about a number of things that are on the horizon, but is there anything specific you want to share as your your next step, whatever it is that you want to research or do?

Carly: Yeah, so we’ve talked a lot about comics, but I can tell you a couple of other things that are on the horizon for me. My field season… the actual going out and studying wasps that I do that’s going to start up in the summer… and I’m hopefully going to bring an undergraduate or two with me, and then hopefully bring that undergraduate to present at the Entomological Society of America. So, that’s sort of the science side of my life, but sort of the swing back I’ve been talking a lot at the Entomological Society of America about using comics in entomology research… and sort of more in line with what you guys do generally, my next thing is actually proposing a symposium on education for undergraduates. Since most entomologists that are at a university don’t just teach entomology, we also generally teach any biology courses. So, kind of swinging more strictly into undergraduate education instead of the broader community outreach education that I’ve been doing with comics outside of academia. So, that’s exactly next on the horizon for me outside of just keeping working on comics.

Rebecca: So, where do your wasps take you this summer?

Carly: They’re going to take me hopefully to Puerto Rico for about a week, down to Florida for probably a week or two, and also local collecting. There hasn’t been a lot done around the Northeast, so going out to the Pine Barrens on Long Island and then probably making it up as far up as you guys and things like that and further up and down the East Coast.

John: Well if you do get up here let us know

Rebecca: Yeah.

John: … and we’ll take you out to lunch or dinner.

Carly: Oh, thank you. Yeah. This has been great guys, thanks for having me and inviting me to this.

Rebecca: Yeah, thanks for sharing all that you’re doing it sounds really exciting, I can’t wait to see it all happen.

John: It’s great to have you here, and you’re doing some wonderful work.

Rebecca: And you have two fans here and two advocates here.

Carly: Oh thank you, that’s important. I want to like tour all of the centers for teaching and learning excellence, however it’s called at every university, and you know be like “Comics, comics, comics, comics!”

[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.