27. Teaching big

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

Show Notes

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


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

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

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

John: …and Rebecca Mushtare, a graphic designer.

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

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

Kristina: Thank you.

Rebecca: Today our teas are…

John: Black raspberry green tea.

Rebecca: Kristina, what are you drinking?

Kristina: I’ve got my usual Diet Coke.

Rebecca: And I am drinking English Afternoon tea.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kristina: [LAUGHTER] It is.

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

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

John: [LAUGHTER] Yes.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

Kristina: Absolutely.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

25. Service learning

Applied learning at the graduate level generally takes the form of traditional research projects, but other models can be successful. Linley Melhem, the Director of the International Teaching Assistant Program at Texas Tech University, joins us to discuss how service learning can challenge graduate students academically while building the capacity of an organization or department to take on a project or tackle a problem. The particular project discussed in this episode involves small teams of graduate students working with faculty and instructional designers to assist language faculty in transitioning existing face-to-face courses to a hybrid format.

Show Notes


John: Applied learning at the graduate level generally takes the form of traditional research projects, but other models can be successful. In this episode, we’ll explore how service learning can challenge graduate students academically while building the capacity of an organization or department to take on a project or tackle a problem.

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

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

John: …and Rebecca Mushtare, a graphic designer.

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

Today our guest is Linley Melhem, the Director of the International Teaching Assistant Program at Texas Tech University. Her background is in applied linguistics and teaching English as a second language. Welcome, Linley.

Linley: Thank you so much for having me.

John: Today, our teas are…

Linley: I am drinking a beverage that starts with “T,” but it’s Turkish coffee.

Rebecca: Alright.

John: Okay.

Rebecca: I like how you answered that. I’m with you.

John: That works.

Linley: I know, I know it’s important. I know it’s been an issue on your podcast in the past so I tried to meet you halfway.

Rebecca: We appreciate it.

John: So… your tea, Rebecca.

Rebecca: My tea today is Paris tea.

John: My tea is pomegranate green tea.

Rebecca: Although the Turkish coffee does sound good.

Linley: Well, it’s delicious.

John: Could you tell us a little bit about the Masters level applied linguistics course that you co-teach?

Linley: Yes, this semester at Texas Tech, we are offering a course called “Technology in Teaching Second Languages.” We have a group of about 15 masters-level applied linguistics students that are taking this course, and the applied linguistics program focuses on developing pedagogical skills for teaching a second or a foreign language. And this course specifically is looking at how we can integrate technology into that process. The course has been offered for some time, but this is the first semester that we’ve offered it as a service-learning course, and the course has always had some type of applied component and probably would have satisfied the service-learning requirements even beforehand, but we’ve just officially transitioned it into that space. And basically what we have going on in the course is these graduate students working in teams, and each of them have been assigned to a faculty member in our department who teaches a lower-level foreign language course… and they are helping develop some online tools and materials with those faculty members to help them transition those lower-level foreign language courses into a hybrid model. As our graduate students are learning about how to use computer assisted language learning, they’re directly applying that to projects with faculty in our department.

John: Were the faculty originally teaching face-to-face classes or online classes? …the classes that are being converted to the hybrid format.

Linley: Yes, those classes have traditionally been fully face-to-face and in the next year or so, we’re looking at moving them to a hybrid model. Most of those classes are five-hour courses, meeting daily five days a week and we’re looking at transitioning to three hours face-to-face a week, and then two hours online.

John: What prompted the change to a hybrid format?

Linley: Well, I think, like many institutions, the administration is the first to see: “Hey, we think there may be some benefit here not only to making these courses more flexible for students but also there are some other administrative advantages just logistically to that model.” These courses can be really effective and students often have a very positive experience with them. So, in this case, the administration is encouraging all of these basic level language courses to be moved to that format.

John: There was a major study not too long ago that indicated that hybrid classes outperformed both face-to-face and online classes. We can include a link to that in the show notes.

Linley: I’m honestly new to this as well. I’m just learning more and more about the benefits of these types of courses and some of the amazing advantages that they offer especially in the language learning environment and I think that lots of language teachers specifically are resistant to this type of of learning because they feel that while all learning… I think for many teachers… feel deeply relational… language learning especially feels very relational… that you’re creating a culture in your classroom that you’re oftentimes your students’ only connection to the sociolinguistic world that you’re introducing them to… and so there’s a lot of hesitation to remove any of that face-to-face time… and there’s an amazing body of literature that shows that there’s a lot we can do that’s highly effective in an online platform.

John: What are some of the changes that are being implemented in the hybrid format?

Linley: It will look a little bit different for every language in our case, because it depends a little bit on the text that different languages are using. So for instance, in the Spanish classroom, where they have already been using hybrid courses for some time at our institution, there is a wealth of options in terms of materials that publishers make available to instructors, whereas in some other languages like in Arabic, there are not quite so many materials available. So exactly what those changes look like will be slightly different for each language and of course, there’s some choice there for each instructor about exactly what they want to do. But we’re looking at making sure that our instructors are comfortable implementing a flipped model for these hybrid courses so that students are coming into class having already reviewed material that they can use in communicative activities in that face-to-face environment. And I think that’s what’s really exciting about a second language classroom or a foreign language classroom…. that we are always looking to increase the interactivity between students, so when we have the majority of rote-learning that is necessary for vocabulary building and things like that… when that’s taking place outside of the classroom, we can preserve a culture or a feel in the classroom that’s highly interactive from the first minute to the last, every time students show up in that face-to-face environment.

John: What type of assistance are your students providing to those instructors?

Linley: Some of the content in the course that they’re taking is introducing them to specific technology mediums that may be useful for language teaching and language learning. And then they are also working directly with the instructional designers that are available to all faculty in our e-learning program. That’s sort of a unique component… that some of what they’re doing is just introducing faculty to resources that already existed for them but that faculty weren’t sure how to access or maybe they felt they didn’t have time to work with those instructional designers. So, some of what our students are doing in this class… they’re sitting down with faculty, and the lingo that we’re using in this environment is that these teams of students are working with a client. So they’re referring to their community partner who is a faculty member, as a client. So they sit down with their client, and they say, “what are your concerns about moving to a hybrid model? What do you feel like you can do? What do you feel like you can’t do? What would you like to see accomplished by the end of this semester?” And each of those projects look slightly different, which is really exciting and lots of fun, but also certainly challenging because there are lots of different things in the works, but these students are meeting with those instructional designers… and then, in many of the courses, what they’re doing for the faculty is saying, “okay, let me take your existing syllabus and let’s transition this into modules that could be used in a hybrid course and let’s figure out what aspects of your content could be moved to an online format and what needs to stay face-to-face.”

Rebecca: Can you give a couple of examples of some specific things that the students are doing or the specific deliverables for reference?

Linley: Yes, for instance, our students right now, they actually have a case study that’s due on Saturday. So, I’m looking forward to reading those in full, but I’ve just started to look over some of them. So, the chapter that they read and their textbook was about listening comprehension, and some of what they worked on were designing listening comprehension activities using some sort of computer assisted language learning technology. So, for instance I believe students that were working on an Arabic course, they were taking some content that was based around learning terminology related to the weather, and so they took a video that was available online that was a weather forecast in Arabic… and so they developed audio recordings of the instructor who is describing this terminology in Arabic so that the students can get an ear for it in that simplified format before they then went and listened to an authentic weather forecast. So, material created for native Arabic speakers… not necessarily for Arabic learners… and then the students designed a quiz where the language learning students would be asked to identify which of the vocabulary that they had already learned were present in that weather forecast. So this would be a listening activity where they were listening for vocabulary that they had already learned the meaning of in an authentic setting. So that would be an example of an activity that an instructor could have students complete before they come to class where they did something interactive talking about the weather… they would first maybe do a listening activity like that online.

Rebecca: You can see how valuable it is to have these masters level students helping fill some of those gaps for your faculty just because it takes a long time to sift through the materials, find good examples, so that they have those good authentic experiences.

John: Has that eased the transition for some of the faculty who might have been apprehensive about moving to a hybrid format? Does the support that your grad students are providing make it a bit easier for them?

Linley: I think it has. I think also because faculty many times feel “oh, just by the nature of being a little bit older than the graduate students or even the students that I’m teaching. I’m inherently at a disadvantage. I’m not familiar with this type of technology.” But, we we know that actually graduates, and many undergraduate students, even if they’re interacting with technology on a regular basis… they may not be so savvy for using it for educational purposes. So, I think even that… lowering that barrier a little bit to show that actually these graduate students are having to learn how to use this technology as well so it can be done. So just watching someone else learn in front of them makes the whole thing a little bit more approachable and then certainly having some support, even just in someone else saying, “hey, I’m already dedicating some time, so I’ve developed a few activities.” And I think oftentimes instructors see that kind of gets the wheels turning to them and they say well I can do that, that’s not that complicated and I could replicate the same style of activity for number of content areas and so it makes the whole process much more approachable.

Rebecca: Sounds like a really sneaky way to do professional development to me.

Linley: Yes, that’s a really exciting thing… and that is one of the great benefits of service learning in general is that our graduate students are developing some wonderful skills in working with a client. So they are essentially material designers for a client and they are required to communicate with the client, to organize their schedules, and coordinate time. And one of the first things that we did in class was even talk about how to have a meeting with someone and how to deal with faculty that may have a lot of resistance to developing these types of materials or have great concern. And even some professional communication techniques about how to approach those meetings. So there are so many wonderful things happening at the same time.

Rebecca: Sounds really great… it also sounds like there’s a lot of moving parts. Having taught classes where there’s a lot of clients in the past, I know that that can be really complicated to manage and oversee. Do you have some strategies that you’re using to help everyone stay organized and to keep yourself organized. What’s your role in this project?

Linley: Yes, so as I mentioned this is the first time that we’re offering the course in exactly this format. So you’re hearing a very live perspective on how we’re figuring out how to manage this. But one advantage of the course is that I am co-teaching this course with Dr. Stephanie Borst and she has taught this course for years and has had great success with a number of different practical projects that they’ve taken on. I have been working on developing service-learning courses in our department, so that’s how I became involved when we decided to move it to a full service-learning model. And the advantage is that because there are two of us, that we can manage some of these projects. There are a lot of moving parts. We also probably would not have had so many students… we have 15 students in this course… we probably would not have taken on so many if there weren’t two of us. But, in this way we can serve a greater number of faculty members. But I think one thing that has been crucial is helping students develop an action plan at the beginning of this semester that they continually update. And because they’re all using a relatively standard format for an action plan… we provided a template but actually all the groups ended up developing a slightly different format, but because the format is mostly similar, we can sit down in class– and our class is actually a hybrid model as well, so we’re only meeting half-time face-to-face and then the rest of the time online. So when we do sit down face-to-face with our with our students, we can look at their action plans and get a sense of where they’re at and how they’re moving forward. And so having the ability to get a really quick snapshot of how they’re progressing I think has been key to providing feedback to them and helping them manage their relationships with their clients.

Rebecca: Is your action plan format something you’d be willing to share with our listeners?

Linley: Oh yeah, certainly.

John: Okay, we can put that in the show notes.

Rebecca: I think sometimes starting projects like this can be really challenging because you don’t quite have an idea of how to get organized and seeing models of how to stay organized is always really helpful.

John: And that relate back to the teachers making a transition to teaching hybrid, that there’s this big psychological barrier to trying something new but once they get started it’s not so bad… but you have to get through that initial thing. And it sounds like what you’re doing there is making it a little bit easier in the same way that this document perhaps might help other people thinking of doing the same thing.

Linley: Well we certainly hope so.

John: How have the faculty been reacting in terms of the tools they’re seeing. Do they see the usefulness of some of these online tools? And what are some examples of the online tools that might be used? You mentioned the project in terms of the weather reports and so forth, but are there any particular online learning approaches that you’re using that the faculty might not have considered before?

Linley: Yes, we started from a very theoretical standpoint in this course so we’re just now getting into some of the nitty-gritty of the actual tools that can be used in this environment. The faculty are reacting well. I think they are encouraged that they are receiving some support and getting some help and just because these students are kind of helping them get started, and even introducing them to (like I mentioned) some of the tools that already existed for faculty through instructional designers at our university, they’re saying “oh, okay there actually are templates to help me throughout this process, I can even online find something like a course design plan that helps me develop my material into a set of modules.” And it’s not that different from developing a syllabus, which most of them have done in the past. And so then they’re seeing some things like students may be introducing something. Most faculty are familiar with a discussion board for instance in an online course. However, they’re not sure how students will be able to practice maybe speaking in the target language, and then may see something like Flip Grid where students could essentially post a video of themselves and they say “oh, okay… so students can do speaking practice outside of the classroom…” that’s not something that we would lose in using a hybrid model.

Rebecca: VoiceThread would be another really great tool if you haven’t explored that one yet.

Linley: So I recently heard about that on other podcasts but I have yet to check it out myself.

John: FlipGrid is very similar, I believe, to Voicethread.

John: Yeah, I was thinking something like VoiceThread or FlipGrid would be a really good online approach. Have they done any other direct interactions online — with other native speakers, for example?

Linley: Well that’s an interesting idea because that is actually something that many faculty members are already facilitating in their face-to-face courses. They are connecting learners to native speakers in various countries across the world, but that’s typically on a at-choice basis, so maybe for extra credit or just for students that are highly motivated. So I think instructors are seeing that they’re actually already using some techniques that could be more fully integrated into a hybrid course in a way that would be really beneficial for all students. So, there are some really interesting literature about the benefits of that type of approach. Obviously you run into issues especially because we’re talking about at this level, lower-level language courses, so these are students that would really be struggling to communicate at a very basic level. But there are some opportunities for them to connect to native speakers in the countries that speak those languages that are really exciting and that tend to really motivate students to learn and engage in more extensive language learning like study abroad.

John: One of the things we do in SUNY is… we have something called COIL which is Cooperative Online International Learning program. Where courses in the U.S. pair up with courses in other countries. In the U.S. most of the course end up being taught in English because most SUNY students don’t have as much of a background in foreign languages, but many of the partner schools are doing it primarily to help the students acquire English skills. And I was thinking if you were doing some upper-level courses something similar could work in the other direction; where if you had more advanced language students working with students on projects dealing with culture or cross-cultural comparisons… might be an interesting sort of pairing.

Linley: That would be phenomenal.

Rebecca: So it’s really unusual to hear about service learning at the Masters level and you mentioned that this was the first semester that you were doing the service-learning component with this course. Can you talk a little bit about that decision and what motivated you to use this particular methodology?

Linley: Yes, as I mentioned I had the opportunity to participate in a service-learning fellowship about a year ago. And I was initially looking at developing some service-learning courses in our department for undergraduate students. And honestly the idea came about as I was listening to my colleagues discuss some of their concerns about implementing a hybrid model in their courses, and so I knew that this technology in teaching second language course existed and I knew that many actually of the teaching assistants in those foreign language classes were enrolled in the applied linguistics program. And so many of them took that course and I thought well, we have this group of students that’s developing this knowledge… we have these faculty members who are needing some support and this type of knowledge… why couldn’t we just put these together. And so there were obvious gains, like you mentioned Rebecca, in terms of the professional development… for the Master’s level students to get some practical experience, so it seemed like a no-brainer to try and put those together.

Rebecca: Related to that in terms of a professional skill for graduate students… I can imagine that it would be really easy for their clients to want this project to just get bigger and bigger and bigger and have crazy scope creep.How are you making sure that these projects don’t get too big?

Linley: That’s exactly right, and we are facing that issue… and part of the problem is that because the faculty are not familiar with exactly what’s involved in transitioning to a hybrid model, they don’t sometimes know what they’re asking for or how time-consuming certain tasks would be for the graduate students. I think that is one of the great outcomes of the course… that the students are having to learn how to negotiate that with a client. These are our faculty members in our department they are clients but the students are having to say, “Wow, that sounds like a great idea. I think what we could definitely do for you this semester might look a little bit more like this which is a bit more narrow in scope, our goal would be to provide something that’s really helpful to you but we may not be able to accomplish all of that this semester…” which is challenging in terms of professional communication. But I think one of the really important aspects of that is making sure that our students know how much we expect of them in terms of that they are well-informed about how much time they should be spending on this type of task, and that is something that we’re having to continually negotiate. And we have had some students take on too much and they have had to go back and say “okay, we may not be able to do quite that much….” or they’ve met with an e-learning course designer who’s accustomed to working with faculty on a really tight deadline and so they said “okay, why don’t you go work on this piece let’s meet again next week,” and you have this big chunk of work done and the students aren’t only doing the service-learning project, they also have coursework related to this course and so they’ve had to say to the instructional designer: “Actually, could we meet in two weeks instead?” So they’re figuring out some of those professional communication and time management issues in managing the scope of their own projects, which has been highly beneficial. But there has there has been a lot of back-and-forth negotiation and that is something that my co-instructor and I are observing and as we look at those action plans that’s something we’re talking about… are you biting off more than you can chew? And how can we figure out how to integrate what you’re already doing in the course into the deliverables for your client to make sure that we’re not overwhelming our students with too much.

Rebecca: I can imagine that in this situation having a co-teacher could be really helpful to bounce ideas off of each other, but that also is another layer of complexity. I’m wondering how you’re also managing that… to make sure that your collaboration with Stephanie is also running smoothly?

Linley: Yes. So she’s at a disadvantage because she’s not here to see the results so I’ll speak for both of us. But I think it’s going quite smoothly, I wasn’t sure what that would look like initially. We’ve never worked together in this capacity before and I’ve never co-taught a course before, so I had no idea what that would look like. However, because this is a hybrid course and a lot of what we do face-to-face is more in a workshop type setting, I think the co-instructor model works quite well because we’re not really lecturing to the students or there’s not a concern about making sure that we’re on the same page because she and I can have lots of those discussions between the two of us as we prepare content that will be put online… things like that… developing rubrics… those kinds of issues. So I would say, one issue for instance that came up is even ensuring that we’re both interpreting a rubrics that we’re using the same way because we take turns may be grading certain types of assignments, so wanting to be consistent in the implementation of those rubrics. But because a lot of that communication is happening via email or over Blackboard, then we can see how the other person is responding to those types of issues and so anything where it seems like we’re not on the same page, it’s been pretty simple to iron out, outside of that face-to-face environment. But it’s honestly been much smoother than I thought it might be. Stephanie is fantastic to work with but I really thought “I’m not sure what this will look like,” but it’s been easier than I thought it might be it.

Rebecca: Sounds to me like it in some ways you end up learning a lot more about your colleagues and how they grade and what they value by co-teaching with them and then at the same time in this particular situation you’ve got two people to put out fires.

Linley: Exactly, and I think that at first maybe the students weren’t sure what to make of having two instructors… that they weren’t sure whom to go with with concerns and things like that. But as I mentioned, if we’re having these conversations over email then they just copy both of us and whoever responds first then the students I think seem to like that model because they probably tend to get a response a bit quicker than if it were just one of us. And then also I do think we develop our own areas of focus, so I am more leaning towards management of the service-learning project and Stephanie is most familiar with the content of the course. So while we both speak into both of those things we kind of have our areas of expertise.

JONE: How many students are working with each instructor? How big are the groups?

Linley: So the groups are different sizes, our smallest is two people… so, actually we have two groups of two that are working in different environments. I will say one other unique thing about this course of that our group of students is highly diverse. So we have lots of international students in the applied linguistics program, so they speak lots of different languages. That’s a great advantage because as they work on the materials for these different foreign language classes, they may have a great deal of knowledge about that language. That’s also kind of spoken to how we divided those groups up. We do have a couple of groups… for instance, we have two students who are helping develop materials for a German class and neither one of those students speak German, but they’ve had great success in the instructional design component. So, that’s another challenge that has arisen in this particular context. But then we have another group of four students who’s working on a project. And so you asked earlier about scope, the size of the group, and how many people are contributing also influences how great the scope of what they can take on is.

John: What benefits do your students get from this type of class format… the service-learning and the hybrid nature… that they might not have received in a more traditional class setting?

Linley: I think one of the greatest benefits that they are getting out of this setting is in working directly with a faculty member who intends to actually implement these materials with students, is that they are giving a sense of material design that’s not only evidence-based but constrained by the real-world environment. The students are applied linguistics programs tend to get lots of wonderful information and lots of great ideas about best practices for teaching a language, but they may struggle with gaining a sense of how to implement that in only a 50 minute face-to-face class. So, those are some of the real-world constraints that that are ironed out as they work with a faculty member who has tons of experience working with real students in the real classroom. So, if the student designs this activity that’s elaborate and meaningful and evidence-based and wonderful, but it would be way too time-consuming for students to actually accomplish, or maybe it would be too advanced for students at this level, which graduate students may not have a clear sense of exactly what that would look like. Then the faculty member is saying, “ I don’t think my students could do that or this would take way too much time.” So it’s building in an awareness of some real-world constraints that may not be so evident to our graduate students otherwise. And then additionally, as we mentioned earlier, they’re developing some of those professional skills that they would never otherwise be able to develop. They’re working on communicating with a client, they’re working together in a group, they are negotiating roles… all different kinds of things that we tend to face when we enter the workforce in general.

Rebecca: Great.

Linley: One thing that I really love about service-learning is the emphasis on civic engagement and the awareness of diversity and different types of issues that come up in the real world. And I think that it’s interesting to see how our students are becoming more sensitive to the different types of students that we have at Texas Tech University and their different experiences of the college classroom. There are different experiences of technology, there are different aspect of resources, so I am excited to see how in this service learning environment students are becoming more aware of who student populations really are and to some of the diverse challenges that face those two populations. I think that sort of awareness raising is really exciting. And then additionally, I like the idea that students will be graduating and entering the workforce with this idea of cooperation, because they’re working together as a group and they’re working with all of these faculty members as opposed to moving into an educational environment, where we often have a tendency to work in a silo. They’re having some experience bridging those gaps and reaching across the aisle and saying “O kay, what are you doing here? How can we use those strategy” in the areas that we’re trying to operate. So I think they are walking away with a greater sense of cooperation, but I hope they will carry into the institutions where they either continue their graduate work or are working as professionals.

John: One thing we have to ask is about your podcast. What started you on the podcast? I see you’ve got a pretty big audience there in terms of the number of downloads for the podcast. Could you tell us a little about it?

Linley: Yes. I wanted to start a podcast because I love podcasts, I really enjoy listening to them, they are a big part of my personal learning and they’re one of those things that I find the more I listen the more creative I feel…. that I’m just exposed to lots of different ideas. And I started looking around for English content that would be useful to some of my other students. I also teach English as a second language mostly for graduate international students who will be teaching in their various content areas but using English as the mode of instruction. And so, what I realized is that there are obviously tons of podcasts in English but some them are pretty… well they’re definitely designed for native speakers, so there’s no support for language learning or they’re designed for people who are very early language learners… so, just focusing on lots of vocabulary building. So I noticed that there was a bit of a gap there in terms of something that was designed for intermediate or advanced speakers of English, but with just a little support for language learning. So I thought let’s just create it… let’s try it out. So that’s what we did and I think like these projects that we’re describing the exciting thing about something like a podcast is that you really can dive in with not a lot of experience or complicated resources. So most of the episodes that we have on the podcast are recorded on my iPhone, and I’ve had family members on the podcast, we’ve had different individuals from around the university, and the students in my classroom have responded well. I’ve been able to take some of the content that we were developing for that podcast and use it in my classroom, which is always exciting when you can get double use out of any project that you’re working on. And we did have we have seen a positive response internationally where it seems like people all over the globe are excited to have this type of content. So at its height, we had a good number of people listening in Benin, in Africa, and I have no idea how they found out about it, but we had quite a following there for a while. And I’ve taken a bit of a break in producing content as I’ve focused on some other projects, but I have been looking into how I can make use of some other resources on campus in terms of maybe having an intern or developing some type of service-learning course where students could help me, especially on the technical side, because I don’t mind talking, I don’t mind conducting an interview, but the editing is more time-consuming than I would like.

John: We have noticed that too.

Linley: It’s remarkable.

John: Your podcast seems like a great resource for graduate students because you deal with a lot of topics like how to understand slang or Texas accents, for example, or in similar topics. For grad students who’ve learned English formally in their countries… coming to a new institution… coming to a new country… it might be helpful for them to fill in some of the gaps that might not otherwise have been done in their instruction. I was I was really impressed by it.

Linley: Well thank you.

Rebecca: What also seems nice about a podcast is that if it’s a gap in their knowledge, but they don’t want people to know that it’s a gap in their knowledge, you can listen to a podcast without anyone really knowing. So, you can fill those gaps easily.

Linley: Yeah exactly.

John: You could be listening to it at the gym… while driving… while walking…. or when you’re sitting at home.

Linley: That’s exactly right.

John: We normally ask as the last question: what are you going to do next?

Linley: Oh, well, that’s a great question. So I’ve mentioned that on a personal level I’m expecting a baby soon, so that has taken up lots of head space in terms of what I’ll be doing next. I’m not sure how my personal life will be changing but professionally, I am definitely interested in continuing to examine ways that service learning can be used in the classroom. So I would love to see me in my ESL courses (English as a second language courses) see ways that international graduate students can be contributing meaningful service to our community while learning English. And I could see lots of amazing ways that could take place. Our international students on campus are usually here because they are so bright. They have a lot to contribute to scholarship and research… In general. But, oftentimes, as they struggle to communicate in English at the same level as a native speaker they’re often underestimated. So I think if we could look at ways of incorporating service-learning courses where students were learning English and then contributing some of the things they’re really great at doing, it would have a wonderful impact on our university, our community, and international students. So that’s one thing I would like to look at developing and certainly getting back into the podcast game. So as I mentioned, I haven’t produced new content in a while so I would really like to to get back into that, to come up with some new ideas for how we can contribute to English learners all across the globe.

Rebecca: Well sounds like we have two different we have you back to talk about later.

Linley: I would love it.

John: Well thank you very much, it’s been a pleasure talking to you

Rebecca: Yeah it’s really great hearing about what you’re up to and and how it’s coming along.

Linley: Well thank you so much for having me and I have really enjoyed listening to your podcast. I found the episode on online teaching especially relevant to things that I’m working on and thinking about these days. So, thank you so much for for all that you’re doing.

John: It’s been a lot of fun.

Rebecca: Yeah, thank you.

John: Thank you.

Linley: All right, thank you.

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

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

17. Online learning

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

Show Notes

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

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


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

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

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

John: …and Rebecca Mushtare, a graphic designer.

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

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

John: Welcome.

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

John: So today, our teas are…

Rebecca: English Afternoon.

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

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

Rebecca: It sounds like a mouthful.

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

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

Greg: Absolutely.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Greg: RIght.

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

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

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

Greg: Right.

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

Greg: Exactly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Greg: Can I retract that statement?

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

Greg: Right.

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

Greg: Oh, yes…

John: ….that people just keep recreating.

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

John: …including citations that don’t exist…

Greg: Mm-hmm. Exactly.

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

Greg: Exactly.

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

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

John: …and I have too.

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

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

REG: Right.

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

Greg: …may not be.

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

Greg: Right.

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

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

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

Rebecca: Stop!


Rebecca: Just stop!

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

Greg: That’s fascinating.

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

Greg: OK. So….

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

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


Rebecca: Well, actually…

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

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

Greg: Yeah.

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

Greg: Certainly.

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

John: …including dyslexia.

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

Greg: Yeah. Well, it’s interesting…


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

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

John: …to create those connections.

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

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

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

Rebecca: …or a learning community.

Greg: …or a learning community, Yeah.

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

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

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

Rebecca: It is.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Greg: Right.

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

Greg: Yes.

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

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

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

Greg: Right.

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

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

John: ….the scholarship of learning and teaching.

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Greg: Yeah.

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

Greg: Right.

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

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

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

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

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

Greg: Right… right?

John: Yeah.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

John: Five?

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

John:… what they’re doing.

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

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

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

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

Greg: It is. Definitely.

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

Greg: Thanks for having me. Thanks for the coffee

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

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

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

Rebecca: Yeah.

John: Well, thank you.

Greg: Thanks again.

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

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

10. VoiceThread

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

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


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

Jeffrey: Good morning.

Rebecca: Today our teas are…

Jeffrey: Fresh ground Guatemalan, through a coffee press

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

Rebecca: I have an Enchanting Forest Fruit Tea.

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

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

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

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

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

Rebecca: Yeah, it feels anonymous.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

John: Excellent.

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

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

Jeffrey: Great… Great.

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

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

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

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

Jeffrey: Yes.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

John: Okay.

Jeffrey: It just requires attention.

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

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

John: That’s always an issue.

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

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

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

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

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

John:…in the first few minutes…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

John: Okay.

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

John: OK.

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

John: Yeah, I think so.

Rebecca: Yeah. This is really interesting.

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

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

John: Thank you, Jeffrey, this was fascinating.

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

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