67. Iterative OER Development

Imagine course materials that are always up to date and evolve continually to become better at supporting student learning. In this, Dr. Steven Greenlaw joins us to discuss how some publishers of open educational resources are trying to set up sustainable practices to achieve these goals. Steve is a Professor of Economics at the University of Mary Washington and the author of the OpenStax Economics textbooks. He has also developed the materials for Lumen Learning’s Waymaker Introductory Economics texts.

Show Notes

Additional Resources

Transcript

John: Imagine course materials that are always up to date and evolve continually to become better at supporting student learning. In this episode, we discuss how some publishers of open educational resources are trying to set up sustainable practices to achieve these goals.

[MUSIC]

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

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

John: …and Rebecca Mushtare, a graphic designer.

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

[MUSIC]

John: Today our guest is Steven Greenlaw, a Professor of Economics at the University of Mary Washington and the author of the OpenStax OER Economics textbooks. He has also developed the materials for Lumen Learning’s Waymaker Introductory Economics texts. Welcome, Steve.

Steve: Thank you.

Rebecca: Today teas are:

Steve: I’m drinking coffee. Thank you.

John: …and I have Enchanted Forest Fruits black tea from Epcot which I picked up while I was out there for the OLC conference where I last saw you, Steve.

Rebecca: You’ll never guess what I’m drinking.

John: English afternoon?

Rebecca: Yeah, it’s my favorite.

Steve: Well, honestly, I switched to tea in the afternoon.

Rebecca: See…

Steve: But in the mornings, I tend to drink coffee.

Rebecca: Yeah, you and many other people.

John: What prompted your interest in using and developing OER materials?

Steve: I have to say the developing came first. For a long time, I’ve experimented with textbooks going back into the 1980s, which at least John can remember. And I came to the conclusion that that it didn’t really seem to matter what principles book you used. Students needed a book, particularly for the analytical parts of the course: the models and things like that. But whichever book I used, they seem to learn just as well. And more recently, I’ve come to the conclusion that intro textbooks are commodities, that where companies are going to make their money is in the aftermarket products. But we’re not there yet. At least, the majority of the textbook industry is not there yet. So I had that and I didn’t really pay much attention in the 2000s about what textbook I was using, because I didn’t really think it mattered. But I did notice how high textbook prices were going and it was around that point that I became aware of and interested in OER. Again, this is dating myself, but when I was in college during the mid-1970s, I remember a teacher in my intermediate macro class—John, that’s for you—saying he would never assign texts for a course that collectively cost more than $10. [LAUGHTER] And so that’s sort of my base year. So, I sort of had this in the back of my head, I basically tried to choose around the least expensive textbook that I thought would work. And then out of the blue, OpenStax contacted me and said they had funding to create a principles of micro-macro text, and would I be interested in helping them out. I actually jumped at the opportunity, it sounded like a lot of fun. At that point I had already published one textbook commercially for an upper level course and I knew something about the commercial publishing process. I knew that I didn’t really want to go through that again, but I did want to get my ideas out there. One of the things about commercial publishing is they ask you, “What are all the innovative things you want to do?” and then once they have you on contract, they say, “Oh, but you have to do it like everybody else’s.” So that was the start. A year after the OpenStax book got published, I got contacted by Lumen Learning who said essentially the same thing. They said, “We’re building this digital platform, and we wondered if you would like to be the principals subject matter expert.” That’s the term of art that I become a SME.

John: So could you tell us a little bit about Lumen Learning’s project and the Waymaker version of this?

Steve: Sure.

John: What does it add?

Steve: It adds a lot. So, just to be clear, I wrote the OpenStax principles book. And we can talk about that process later if you want to, especially about peer review and things like that. And then I wrote the Lumen Learning Waymaker version, which was essentially an improved version. When we did the OpenStax principles book, we did it in an incredibly short period of time, I think it was nine months. So, when I did Waymaker for the first time, it allowed me to flesh out some of the things that weren’t ideal in the OpenStax book. And then OpenStax came back to me maybe three years ago and said, “We have funding for a new edition. Would you like to do that?” so I wrote a second formal edition for the OpenStax principles book. And then right after that, I did the same thing for Lumen. So, in my mind, I’ve gone through four versions of this now. And it’s not done and that’s part of the beauty of OER… at least the OER business. So to get back to your question, the OpenStax principles book is a textbook, it’s available in print and a variety of online options. My particular favorite is the phone app. So if I’m in class and a student asked me a question about something, I could literally look it up on my phone. Waymaker is a very different animal. It’s digital courseware so it’s a more immersive, interactive experience for students. And it’s not available in print. For example, how would you show a video or do a simulation in a print textbook? You can’t. The most you could do was provide a URL or something and have the student go out to that. In Waymaker, it’s all in one. So Waymaker, aside from text, it includes video, it includes animations, it includes simulations. Just to give you a specific example, instead of students looking at a graph of supply and demand, they actually get to climb in and take it for a test drive. Students really liked that. Many students seem to get it in a way that’s just looking at a two-dimensional graph, or reading text it is much harder for them.

John: I saw you present on this at the OLC conference…

Steve: Yep.

John: …And you demonstrate this. What software did you use to create those interactive graphs?

Steve: Those little interactives are H5C… maybe… it’s called? [It is H5P]

John: Okay.

Steve: It’s a European company, and it’s open source, and it’s really easy to do. I can say that even though I didn’t create the interactives. That’s the joy of working with a company… they actually have people to do the stuff that you don’t know how to do… unlike my earlier career, when I was the programmer, I was the graphic designer and all of those other things. Talking a little more about Waymaker, it’s more than a source of course content. It’s designed to teach students to study more deeply and more effectively. I don’t know about your students, but my students don’t seem to have learned how to study well. They’re very good at the game of school, but they’re not so good at learning. And I don’t mean that as a criticism. It’s just sort of a fact. They think study means read, highlight, read again, highlight again. When we know a lot from cognitive science now, that learning comes from working with the material. As I like to say, “the best way for students to learn economics is to do economics.” So Waymaker emphasizes mastery learning and personalized tutoring. The tutoring comes both from the software and also from the instructor. It’s designed to give students actionable feedback so that they can make their own decisions about how to allocate their study time. This is a really different way of learning, so I’m going to say it again a little bit differently. Assessment is integral to the learning process, it’s not just or even primarily about the grades. Rather, the assessment is designed to make students interact more deeply with the content and interact in a more intelligent meta-cognitive way. I can go into more detail about what it looks like from the students perspective, if you want.

John: Sure. Could you talk a little bit more about that? It’s a great approach. I tried to do that myself, but it’s always an add-on. Having it integrated is a nice feature, and one of the reasons why I’m planning to adopt your package in the fall.

Steve: This is really different for students, but also for the instructor. I’ve been working on this product for three years. When it finally came out in beta, I thought I knew what was going on, and I was really surprised at how little I knew about how it actually worked. Waymaker is organized into modules, which are analogous to chapters in the text. Students begin each module with the “show what you know,” which is basically a formative assessment. The purpose of that is to identify what content they already know. So, it gives them feedback on how they can efficiently use their study time. So, if there’s stuff that they absolutely already know, they don’t need to read about it again, they can just go into the stuff that they don’t know.

John: And even if they don’t, it activates prior knowledge. And it helps them make connections so that they can learn more effectively…

Steve: …Yes.

John: So there’s a lot of benefits, even for the areas they don’t know.

Steve: Yes. And I’m actually adding a little exercise for my first day of class next week, where I put my students in small groups. Some of whom who’ve had the first semester, and some of them who have not. And I’m going to give them a basically a problem to work with, knowing that some of them won’t really know what to do with it. But I want the groups to start working together. But anyway, I digress. So, as students progress through the content, there are a series of learning activities. The original one is called a “self-check.” It’s basically a short formative quiz. The purpose of the quizzes is not summative assessment. But as I said before, it’s to help students think more about their learning. Think about the idea of a Socratic tutor. The tutor doesn’t ask questions to assess the students’ knowledge, but rather to help them work through the content, help them really understand it. So what happens in Waymaker is: the student reads a page a text, or watches a video, or plays a simulation. And then they’re posed a very short quiz, like one or two questions. If they pass the quiz, the “gate” opens and they move to the next section. If they don’t pass the quiz—and on a one-question quiz, either you get it or you don’t—Waymaker suggests that they review the content before attempting the quiz again. They can take those quizzes as many times as they want to. So they can really build some expertise. There are other sorts of learning activities, but I want to focus on the quizzes today. At the end of the modules, students take a module quiz—essentially a chapter test—which is summative. Again, if they fail to achieve mastery—and the default mastery level is 80%, so it’s pretty high level. As an instructor, you can change that to whatever you want. But I like 80%. So if they don’t achieve 80%, they’re encouraged to study again and they’re given information about what areas to study. And then they can take the module quiz one more time. They’re only allowed to take the module quizzes twice. Now, here’s where it starts to get really interesting from the teacher’s point-of-view. The instructor receives reports from the module quizzes whenever a student fails. So for me, the first really good thing about Waymaker was that I don’t have to go to some website and look at some spreadsheet and see which students are struggling. Rather, anytime a student fails, I get pinged from the software. So it says, “so and so…” Well it’s a little boilerplate language… but basically it says they worked through the module, and they scored a 46 on the module quiz. You might want to reach out to them at that point. So the software is flexible. So you can get these things in real time, you can get them once a day, you can get them once a week, if you want to. I get them once a day. That seems reasonably quick for me. If the students taken the quiz at three in the morning, I’m not up anyway, so it hardly matters. It’s not like I’m going to give them that fast feedback. But what happens is I get that information, and then I get to decide, “What am I going to do about it?” If someone gets a 76 on their first attempt, I generally figure, “Okay, they’re gonna figure this out.” And so I don’t worry about it. If someone gets a 46, then I immediately want to reach out to them and say, “Hey, I see that you’re struggling with this. You know you can take it again. Go back and review the material. And if you’re not sure that you understand it, let me know and I will work with you on this. Because the goal here is mastery. It’s not anything else. Anyway, Waymaker helps me, the instructor, make better, more efficient use of my time. In any given week, Waymaker allows me to know two important things. It allows me to reach out only to those students that need my help. And it lets me know what topics the class is struggling with, so that I can tailor my in-class time to the material where the students need help and not spend it on material where they already know this stuff. Basically, it gives me a better feel for the effectiveness of my teaching and student learning. And that’s really, really important I think as a teacher. I’m embarrassed to think of my early years and teaching, when if I got all the way through the 50 minutes, I counted that as a successful day.

[LAUGHTER]

John: I think many of us started like that.

Rebecca: It ties really nicely to your blog post series that you’ve just recently published. The first one being the critical importance of instructional design…

Steve:Yup…

Rebecca: …where you talk a lot about the instructor’s role is designing the experiences, rather than delivering content. Can you talk a little bit more about how Waymaker helps you do that as an instructor?

Steve: There’s a “just-in-time teaching” element to this. I have a course outline, I know what I’m supposed to be doing on a week-to-week basis. But what happens on any given day depends on the stuff that came before it. I’m absolutely not wedded to the calendar. If the students haven’t figured out what we did on Monday, I’m going to start by spending a little more time on that. But also because of the feedback that I’m getting from Waymaker, there are times when I spend 90% of the class on 10% of the material. Because that’s what I know students are having trouble with. I know that if it’s something analytical, probably what I’m going to want to do is instead of talking to them about it—I mean, certainly I’m going to talk to them about it—I put together some group activities. I do a lot of group activities, small groups, generally two to three people. And then I essentially turn the classroom into a lab experience for that day. They seem to enjoy it more, they seem to get more out of it than me just lecturing over the content. After all the content is in the book. I don’t need to just repeat that stuff. So I guess that’s my short answer to your question.

Rebecca: Can you give an example of the kinds of activities that you’re doing with your students?

Steve: Oh, sure. Supply and demand is the first real model that the students work with. And so one of my learning goals is that they ought to be able to take a scenario… something happens… use supply and demand to analyze the effect on the market for x, gasoline or something like that. Typically what happens is, hopefully they will have read the material in Waymaker. Typically, I spend a day talking about “here’s how you would do it” and then generally what’s going to happen is, I spend a day where I have a couple of problems, like three is all that we’re going to have time to do. And I say, “Get in groups of two or three.” Basically, I count the number of students that showed up that day, because my classes are pretty small. And if it’s divisible by three, I put them in groups of three, if it’s divisible by two, I put them in groups of two. And then I say, “Okay, here’s a problem,” I show them the problem. And I say, “Take 10-minutes to work through this, draw the graphs.” And then they know that I’m going to call some of the groups up to present the results to everyone else. So there’s a little bit of competition. It’s not very stressful. It’s a little stressful for people that don’t like to speak in class, but you’re not there by yourself. You’re there with your group, so it works better that way. So I do a couple of those problems until I’m convinced that most people know what they’re doing. So that would be an example.

John: You also mentioned—when I saw you present at the Online Learning Consortium—how you use some of that feedback to improve the text in your current edition. Could you talk a little bit about that process of revision and creation of the text?

Steve: Sure. While I can’t take all the credit. From the beginning of Waymaker, at least from when I began to get involved… once I realized how integral the assessment process was to Waymaker, I pressed Lumen to make sure that the assessment questions were good. One of the things that I’ve noticed over the years is, test banks seem to be the lowest priority of textbook publishers. Because after all, they’re selling the text but they’re giving away the test bank. So what I want, I guess what we all want, is that the questions in the test bank that Waymaker uses, are discriminating correctly. And that’s harder than you might imagine. To their credit, Lumens put a tremendous amount of effort into this. And more generally, into the design the courseware. This has resulted in a process of continuous improvement. Now, continuous improvement is not a term that excites most faculty. I think that’s a fair statement John? [LAUGHTER]

John: Yes.

Steve: But what it really means is that, Lumen has an ongoing process for improving OER, making it more effective every single semester. And they’ve done this, and we’re now in your five and a half. So how does it work? I have a short answer and a long answer. The short answer is, after every semester Lumen downloads the data from every student who’s given them permission at every school using Waymaker across the country. And then they analyze the data. The analysis identifies where the students are having problems. At that point, we go in and either revise the content to make it clearer, or add some learning activities. Or else we revise the assessments to better capture student learning. We do this a little bit in a panicky way over the winter break, because we only have a month. But we do it intensely every summer. Here’s the longer answer. Over time, we’ve gotten better at doing this more efficiently. Lumen has developed something called “RISE Analysis.” RISE is an acronym. I don’t remember what the letters mean. [LAUGHTER] But basically it asked the question, “Which course materials would benefit the most from improvement?” Or to put it differently, “Which changes would have the greatest impact on learning?” So what we’ve done—and this is all programmed now. So Lumen has dozens of Waymaker courses, not just an economics. Though, I like to think that some of the most interesting stuff is started in the econ Waymaker platform. I’m not just making that up, it’s actually true. [LAUGHTER] So, instead of just doing the aggregate sweep on the data, we particularly look at student learning outcomes. And everything in Waymaker is driven by the student learning outcomes. This is out of order, but let me just throw this in for a minute. The way that Waymaker started is they brought together—I want to say 50 principles instructors from everything from community colleges up to R1s. And we spent four days together. And we asked the question, “What do you have to have in your principles courses?’ And so from that we created a list of primary learning outcomes. And then we drilled down and we now have secondary and tertiary outcomes. So the assessment questions in the test banks are coded down to the third level. So everything is really granular, if you want to think about it in those terms. What we look at is not just which student learning outcomes are students struggling with. But rather, which student learning outcomes where students are doing relatively poorly, are they putting a lot of time and effort into. Because that’s where we’re going to get the biggest bang for the buck in terms of fixing things. So what we do is we look at three things. We look at, “Are the questions badly worded?” We’re mostly done with that at this point. “Are the questions testing what they’re supposed to be testing?” There are some psychometric tests that allow you to do that. And then finally, what we do is—after we’ve exhausted all those—we look at the content and we create new content, or different types of learning activities, and we integrate those into the course. So, the interactives that you saw at OLC John, they were the big new innovation from last summer. So we do this, and then we teach the courses again, and then we start the cycle all over again. So, the process just goes on. It’s not continuous, as in every day, but it’s continuous, as in regular. I’ve used the courseware since the first year, and the courseware has gotten noticeably better. Fewer students are failing to achieve mastery on the module quizzes. And fewer of them are crashing and burning. More of them are in the 60 to 70% range when they fail. But what’s really cool is Lumen has shown no sign that they’re ready to quit, that they’re done with this. As long as they’re willing to do this, I think I’m willing to do this.

Rebecca: I like the iterative process.

Steve: Yeah.

Rebecca: That’s something that, as a designer, I’m very comfortable with… that I do all the time, especially designing online. But one of the things that’s really interesting about this model is that, as the author of the textbook, you don’t just have this finished thing. It’s an ongoing…

Steve: …It is.

Rebecca: … thing. So that’s a really different model of authorship.

Steve: Yes, it is. I think it’s fair to say that we make small changes all the time. And then every summer, we make larger changes. And that’s pretty interesting. Because as a user—as you pointed out—I can see that this is helping.

Rebecca: Yeah, that’s really exciting.

Steve: Right now, the hardest part is getting students to trust the process. Because it’s a very different model of learning. And so one of the things that I’m going to do this semester is, build in opportunities for me to remind them that this is a different process, and that they need to trust the process. One of the things that I did last year, which seemed to help with that was I started using exam wrappers after the midterm exams. And ask them to think about how they were studying, and what they would do differently, and what I could do to help them. It’s real easy to see in 30 seconds, I can tell if they’re taking it seriously or not. And if they’re taking it seriously, I learn a whole lot from what they say. So, anyway, just another little wrinkle.

Rebecca: So we’ve talked a lot about the students and the different learning process for students. You talked a little bit about the different processes being the expert, or the writer of the book. And you also mentioned earlier about the peer-review process for an OER being a bit different. Can you talk a little bit about that?

Steve: Sure, and that’s really important. First of all, people have a wrong idea about how OER is produced. The OER that I have experience with is working with OER publishers. It’s not the loan faculty member working in their spare time in their basement, or something like that. Both the OpenStax and the Lumen experience for me, have been very much a team effort. There have been a lot of people involved. So this is really important because one of the concerns about OER textbooks is their presumed lack of quality. There was an article in The Chronicle about that, today in fact. I have to tell you that the peer-review process that I went through with OpenStax was extensive. The way we did this is, OpenStax purchased a manuscript from Tim Taylor—a prominent economist—as the basis for the first edition. They sent copies of the manuscript out to about two-dozen reviewers all over the country, asking them to identify strengths and weaknesses. Based on those review comments, I rewrote each chapter. Each chapter was then sent out to half a dozen new reviewers. And again, the reviewers were from a range of schools, from community colleges through research universities. I took that feedback and I revised each chapter again before it went through the editorial review and production process. I have to say, this was much more detailed and extensive then when I worked with a commercial publisher. The review process for Lumen was similar, there was a lot of peer review involved. And as I said before, I’ve now written two formal editions of both texts. We’ve gotten lots of feedback from users. I’m pretty happy with that.

Rebecca: Do you find that the difference between OER and a commercial publisher is that you keep getting this feedback from users? And that you’re able to revise based on the use of other faculty, rather than working in a silo?

Steve: If I’d written the principles book for a commercial publisher, I would be better able to answer that. I got no formal feedback on my commercial book. I got a lot of comments from people at conferences and things like that. But we have gotten tons of feedback on the OER books, and that is interesting. You can’t satisfy everybody. Somebody says, “This chapter is too long.” Somebody says the same chapter is too short. But, in general, the feedback has been really, really helpful. And we’ve tried to incorporate it as soon as possible. And with these digital text, it’s really easy to do. I can literally go in and edit if I have five-minutes on the fly. And then it’s out there.

John: While with regular publishers, there’s usually a three-year cycle on intro textbooks.

Steve: Yes. And that’s the other thing that—now I’m not a typical user, but I know that if I want to make a change, it’s going to be done by the next semester. The same thing is generally true of other people who give us feedback. Though, they don’t necessarily know that. W e take that feedback very seriously. And there is no three-year review process. So that’s wonderful.

Rebecca: I love the user-centered design process, like that’s clearly what’s being used.

Steve: Yep, we try.

John: And that iterative process is what we should all be doing with our courses, all the time…

Steve: …Yes.

John: …But the fact that you’re doing it makes it easier for instructors who perhaps, don’t have to do as much of that.

Steve: Yeah. But again, let me just say one thing; Waymaker is not my course, Waymaker is my text. So there’s whole levels to my course that go beyond Waymaker. That’s just one element of it. Not that I’m disagreeing with what you said.

John: I’ve seen you present at conferences on teaching principles, for decades now. And I know you’re constantly changing how you’re teaching your courses and trying new things there. And you’ve been doing a lot of great work for quite a while.

Steve: Thank you.

John: Going back a little bit though, to the question of mastery quizzing. When students take the quizzes at the end of a block, you said there’s one or two questions. When they do it a second time, do they get the same question or different questions?

Steve: No. We are adding questions fairly regularly, and so the test banks are getting larger. From the beginning, I think we started with 2000 questions. But again, that’s across the whole book. The questions are randomly chosen, so the odds are that students would get different questions at the self-check level, at the section level. There’s a different test bank for the self checks than there is for the module quizzes. But there are similar questions. In fact, we wrote two at a time basically when we did that.

John: This is a question more generally about Waymaker. Does it do any type of interleaved practice, where later in the course, does it call back earlier sections? Or is it just based on the current module?

Steve: No, it’s just based on the current module. But my more nuanced response to that is, economics is sort of cumulative. But I have thought about that, we just haven’t thought of a way to build it in yet.

John: In my classes, I’ve been adding that the last couple years where I just randomly pull in questions and the module quizzes from earlier modules. Maybe 10 to 15%, building up to about 20% at the end, just to help do a little bit more spaced practice as well.

Steve: I think I know how you could do that pretty easily. Because instructors have access to the test bank that their students are using, so that you can edit your own questions. But what that also means is that you could move questions from earlier into the course to later in the course. So I think there’s a way to do that.

John: Excellent.

Steve: So John, we learned all this in our graduate training, right?

John: [LAUGHTER] You know, it’s getting a little bit better. Some people are learning these things. We have someone in my department who actually came out of Kentucky where he had a lot of training and teaching and learning. But it’s still pretty uncommon.

Steve: Yep.

John: You mentioned two ways in which, OER materials are developed. Some by primary developers, such as the OpenStax and Lumen. And others, with people working in their basements…

Steve: …Yes.

John: …or working in a dark room somewhere. Which is how I often do a lot of my work. Is that process sustainable? And what role do for-profit publishers such as Lumen play in providing these services, or in continuing the development of OER materials?

Steve: There are a couple questions here. One is, is the development process for published OER materials, or OER materials created by publishers. Is that sustainable? And then the second one is, is the individual scholar model sustainable? And those are very different questions. The individual scholar model, I don’t know if sustainable is the right word. I have a colleague who did this, she did it all on her own. I’m so impressed. She didn’t have any support from the school other than a small summer grant. And she did it without any sort of extrinsic motivators. I think that over time, at least at schools like yours and mine, faculty are going to get credit in tenure and promotion, for creating OER, especially open textbooks. I think that’s really important. I think that people will eventually be able to get sabbatical leaves to create these materials. And I think that’s really important to keep that side of the OER creation process going. As far as revision, I don’t know enough about that to really answer that. But I’m curious. I may have to go talk to my colleague Katie now. As far as the publishers go, and I don’t mean the traditional publishers, every publisher has a plan for how they’re going to do this. Some work better than others. I know something about OpenStax and I know a lot about Lumen, about what their sustainability plan is. OpenStax have develop partnerships with a variety of ancillary publishers like Sapling Learning or Knewton. These people provide aftermarket functionality for the OpenStax books, and in return, they get kickbacks from these ancillary publishers. And by kickbacks, I don’t mean anything pejorative about that. I just mean that they contribute financially. I don’t know any more about how sustainable that model is. I know that that’s what OpenStax has been using. Lumen from the beginning, has been a commercial publisher. It took me two years to figure out how a commercial publisher could make money giving their content away. Maybe others haven’t thought about that, but I sure did. So, the short answer is, Lumen gives the content away, but charges a very modest amount, $25, for the intelligent backend. All the feedback that goes both to the students, and the instructors. Today, you personally, either of you, could go and get a copy of the Lumen Principles and Micro book, or the Principles of Macro book, and it’s yours forever, you can do with it what you want. But if you want to take the full Waymaker course, they charge $25. The idea is, that amount of money is both affordable to students, but also enough to maintain revisions and corrections, and keep the servers running and all of those things. So that’s the answer to that question. And I will say that every semester, I try to be completely transparent, and say, “If you don’t want to pay the $25, you can get all the content for free. But here’s what you lose.” In five years, I’ve never had a student who didn’t pay the $25, because they thought it was like beer money for the weekend, or something. Compared to spending 300 bucks on a traditional text that was nothing to them.

John: What are some of the barriers that you see to faculty adopting OER? You mentioned that people may have this perception of lower quality…

Steve: …Yes .

John: …but there’s quite a bit of evidence that the quality is not weaker in any way. And I think you had done some studies on that a while back, didn’t you?

STEVE. Yes. The number one problem I think is misinformation. The majority of faculty today don’t know what’s available in their discipline. Many of my colleagues have told me, “Yeah, OER sounds like a great idea, but there’s nothing available in my field.” Now, that’s flat out wrong. For your listeners, there is OER available for nearly every Gen-Ed course taught today. So that’s number one, is lack of knowledge of what’s available. Number two is, as you mentioned before, the belief that OER is inferior, that there’s no peer review. And that’s just not true. There’s a couple things here. One is that OER publishers don’t have a sales force, and so it’s going to take longer to get the word out. There’s been a lot of progress over the last few years. But at my school, we’re only in the second-year of our formal OER initiative. So we’ll see how it goes. The other thing that I think gets in the way of adoption of OER is path dependence, and the unwillingness of many faculty to change their textbooks because of the fixed costs involved. “I’m going to have to go through my lecture notes and make sure that I’m using all the same terms as the textbook does,” and that sort of thing. I don’t know the answer to that question. I know that some schools have used financial incentives, fairly modest financial incentives, to get faculty to try to make the switch. As far as my own assessment goes, every summer, I do statistical analysis of the effectiveness of the texts that I’m using. I looked at both the OpenStax Principles book, and also most recently, the Waymaker package. What I’ve looked at is, textbook alone, textbook with ancillary website, digital courseware, and because I used to teach a writing intensive version of the principles courses, I also looked at writing intensive. And what I found is pretty predictable, at least from somebody who has done this for a while. What I found is that there is no significant difference between student learning using OER, with commercial textbooks. I found that using either courseware or an ancillary website improves student learning outcomes, regardless of what the text is that you’re using. And I’ve also found that writing intensive courses seem to work better than non-writing intensive courses, because the students are getting into it in more detail. Over the last two years, I’ve been doing a randomized control trial, where I can really drill down and see what’s going on. And what I found is that using the full Waymaker package seems to have a statistically significant positive impact on student learning. So I’m going to rerun the analysis using last semester data, which I haven’t had a chance to get yet, but I’m anxious to see how that goes too. I believe this stuff works. And so I think sooner or later, more and more publishers—the commercial publishers too—are going to move towards digital courseware type products.

John: I think most of them have started to at least.

Steve: Yes, but it’s like turning the Titanic. Their base is so large that it’s going to take a while before even all of those people get on-board with this.

John: One thing I was wondering is whether you see more collaboration or competition in OER textbooks?

Steve: Initially, there was more collaboration in the early years. And the reason why is because anybody who was doing OER, was increasing the interest in users for everybody’s OER. Now, I think we’re going to see more competition between the users. Especially as more publishers are going to adaptive and personalized learning type courseware. I think that’s a way that publishers are going to be able to say, “Well, yeah, we’re doing that. But we’re doing better in our own particular way.” So I think there’s going to be a fair amount of product differentiation. And it will be harder for faculty, it’s going to take more work to dig in and see exactly what’s going on. I would love to see more published assessment of efficacy on the part of the commercial publishers. They’re only now starting to do that, and the studies that they publish are heavily controlled by them. So it’s not clear that they’re telling us about all of their things, just the ones that work. But at least it’s a start.

John: One of the things I see in most of those studies is comment to the effect that, “Students who use our adaptive learning platform have letter grades on average, one letter grade higher or point eight points higher.”

Steve: Yes, that’s right.

John: And there’s no evidence that they’ve done any control for the students who chose to use it versus those who didn’t.

Steve: That’s right.

John: But it would be nice if we could see more research on that.

Steve: And I think we will. At least I’m hopeful.

John: Earlier you told us a little bit about how your course is structured with some “just-in-time teaching,” and some activities there where you have students work on problems. Could you tell us a little bit more about how you structure your course so that it’s not duplicating the textbook?

Steve: The first thing that I would say is that, my intro course looks like almost anyone else’s Principles of Micro or Macro course. If you look at the course outline, it has all the normal topics in it. A very slight difference is, instead of assigning students chapters to read and problem sets to do, students have modules with content and learning activities to complete. There is some difference between my face-to-face sections and my online sections, because I teach both. My face-to-face sections are pretty much the way I described them to you earlier. My general approach is to do Socratic lecturing with a lot of in-class activities, like the supply and demand problems that I mentioned. I also like to have formal in-class discussions on interesting questions that don’t have a right answer. In the macro class, I spend a day talking about what is money. And I spend the day talking about what is government. And those are things that aren’t done in the same way and the same degree with a textbook, whether it’s Waymaker or something else. My online course is roughly similar. But what I do is I add group and individual activities to the online course to mimic what I do in class. I also have a weekly Google Hangout, a synchronous Google Hangout, where I can give students guidance about what I think they should be doing. And I can give little mini lectures on things that I know students have trouble with. But it also gives them a chance to ask me individual questions in a real time basis, one on one. Not a lot of students come to those Hangouts. I usually have between five and ten, and my classes are about 35. But more than 90% of the students watch the recordings. Google Hangouts are automatically recorded and archived in YouTube. So the students seem to like that a lot.

John: You mentioned that a number of people at Mary Washington have switched over, what proportion, would you say, of the faculty at Mary Washington has moved to using OER?

Steve: Single digits, a handful, probably less than ten at this point. But this semester, I have two new people. So I’m excited about that. And we haven’t yet given them any money or anything to do this. I’ve just been talking to people. I was invited to the College of Business’s summer retreat, and I gave a little talk about OER. And I got two people who expressed an interest in following up. One of whom has already done it. So I think we’re getting there. We just have to be patient.

Rebecca: So we normally wrap up by asking, well, what’s next?

Steve: What’s next for me is I’m continuing to iterate to improve Waymaker. I’m going to continue doing my own statistical analysis. So I get access to the aggregate analysis that Lumen does, but I also have my own analysis. So I can tailor that to my particular students. I also want to do something this semester that I’ve wanted to do for a long time, but have never done it. And that is to write a new non-traditional chapter for the micro book, which is relatively easy to do. It’s just really a question of me sitting down and doing it. So I know it’s doable, but I do want to actually make my version of Waymaker different from the standard version. In part, because it’ll better match the way I teach. But also because I want to see that it’s relatively easy to do so that I can talk about that to faculty.

John: Very good.

Steve: I’m going to the CTREE conference this summer to talk about Waymaker. And this is the first time we’ve actually reached out to a disciplinary conference. So I think that’ll be fun.

John: You know, I always want to go to the CTREE conference, but I teach at Duke in the summer and it runs right into that. So I haven’t been able to go. And we should note that the CTREE conference is a Conference on Teaching and Research and Economic Education.

Steve: I love to talk about this stuff, because I believe it.

Rebecca: Yeah, it was really interesting.

John: Thank you.

Steve: Oh, you’re very welcome. Thanks for the opportunity.

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

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

John: Editing assistance provided by Kelly Knight, Kim Fischer, and Jacob Alverson.

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66. Just-in-Time Textbook

What would you do if you are scheduled to teach a class of 75 students and discover that several very expensive textbooks would be required to address the full range of course topics?  In this episode, Dr. Jessica Kruger rejoins us to discuss how she responded to this challenge by working with her students to  create their own textbook. 

Jessica is a Clinical Assistant Professor in the Department of Community Health and Health Behavior at the University at Buffalo.

Show Notes

Transcript

John: What would you do if you are scheduled to teach a class of 75 students and discover that several very expensive textbooks would be required to address the full range of course topics? In this episode, we talk with someone who responded to this challenge by having her students write their own textbook as they progressed through the course.

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

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

John: …and Rebecca Mushtare, a graphic designer.

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

John: Our guest today is Jessica Kruger, a Clinical Assistant Professor in the Department of Community health and health behavior at the University at Buffalo. Welcome back, Jessica.

Jessica: Thank you. Happy to be back.

Rebecca: Today our teas are:

Jessica: Not today, but maybe a little bit later to relax, thinking about all of this stuff I need to do before the start of the semester. [LAUGHTER]

John: …and I am drinking Rose Garden Black Tea that you brought back from…

Rebecca: …Epcot. So I’m drinking the same thing. We’re having a tea trial this afternoon.

John: It’s one of the blends that they only sell at the Twining store in Epcot I believe…

Rebecca: …Yeah, and it’s a nice counterbalance to the lovely weather we have outside.

John: We have invited you here to discuss the open pedagogy project that you ran last semester in a class with 75 students. Once again, scaling things to a higher level than people normally do it. Could you tell us a little bit about that class?

Jessica: This class is a 300 level public health course. It’s titled Methods and Mechanisms in Public Health. It covers three main topics, so we start out with environmental health and then we move into information about health theories and health behavior theories and then we end with disparities. And so with this class, there was not one single book that would encapsulate all the topics. Instead of having the students buy three or more different books, I started to think, well, what else could I do?

John: The natural thing is to have them write their own book…

Jessica: Of course, why not?! I think the cost of textbooks are continuing to rise, and especially with this sort of course that specialized with these three different areas. I don’t think I would ever find a publisher that would make something quite like that. So why not write your own?

Rebecca: How did you pick the topics that were included and how did you get going on this project?

Jessica: So I actually heard about open pedagogy and writing a textbook with your students at the CIT conference that happened last year, and I was really inspired by Robin de Rosa and what she had done. And so immediately after hearing from her, I thought, “I bet I could do this.” At that time, I don’t know if I was deranged because it was the end of the semester, or maybe it was a stroke of brilliance. Probably a mix of the two. But I thought, let’s figure this out let’s see how to do this. And so, as I was looking over the syllabus and the topics, I started flipping through their textbooks, I started looking at other resources that were available and began to put the topics together and I broke it down by the weeks of the syllabus. So my students were actually writing the textbook before they learned the content. Which for them, was very scary and for me, a little bit scary too. But the great part is they actually had to go out they had to find resources, they had to put it together. And as I was building this, I created Google documents and made skeleton outlines for the chapters and that’s how they kind of got started.

John: So you created the skeletal outlines and then they fleshed it out?

Jessica: Yes, literally. The outlines were a title of the chapter, some objectives, and headings, different headings of sections. I attach some information in each Google Doc, some resources that were out by the CDC or other peer reviewed sources that I thought could be helpful. And of course, I invited them to come meet with me, especially if they have no clue what I was talking about with this topic.

John: …And within each week, did you have a subset of students work on it? Or did you divide it up among all the students? How did you arrange that?

Jessica: So in this class, my very small class of 75, which is actually my smallest class this past semester, I broke them up into groups of four to five students. They didn’t get to choose their groups, but they did get to choose their topics. As they went through and looked at it, we broke it down and said, “Okay, this group decide what is your top picks,” and they could choose. And they knew the order of the chapters, so if they wanted to get it done out of the way, they could do it at the beginning of the semester or wait till the end. And so each group worked together to make a contract, divide up the work and choose how they’re going to execute this.

Rebecca: So what worked well about that method and what didn’t work well about that method?

Jessica: Oh, students love group work. We all know that they love group work, right? If I could figure out the secret to making it go smoothly all the time, I guess I would probably be a millionaire. But nevertheless, I think there was some strategies that did work well. And the fact was, I had the maker group contract. Barbara Oakley actually has a article called “How to work with a couch potato,” and in that article it talks about how to deal with someone who’s not pulling their weight and how to create a group contract that’s actually useful. And so the students worked together with their group and talked about how they’re going to evaluate each other. I didn’t set a peer evaluation, they did, and they also broke up what they’re going to do. So as they’re creating this chapter they would all right in a different colored text. So one student was green, one student was orange, and so they can see visually what each person did. And my caveat was, if someone drops the ball, they drop the ball, you don’t have to make up their work, as long as it’s stated in the group contract, that is fine. If they don’t do the summary they don’t do this summary, your chapter doesn’t have a summary. That’s okay.

John: How did that work? Did everything get completed?

Jessica: Actually, we only had one chapter I believe that doesn’t have a summary and most everyone did their part. There’s always some squabbles back and forth. There were some groups who did really good strategizing and had someone go back through and create one voice for it, other groups didn’t. But overall it worked out quite well breaking it up that way, but also giving them that out, realizing that they didn’t have to make up something that someone else didn’t do.

Rebecca: So how did you handle chapters that weren’t fully complete and you needed the other students to read those chapters?

Jessica: I had a wonderful TA last semester, and the chapters would be due about a week before they needed to be put on to UBLearns. She would alert me to anything that was going on or anything that should be changed and I would look over the chapters. And then I would bring in some other content or modify it. But overall they actually did a really great job of putting this together and finding sources…

John: …you mentioned UBLearns…

Jessica: …UBLearns is actually our Blackboard learning management system. So they would offer it in Google Docs, and then I would take that and create it so that they could comment on it, but not actually edit it. And this allowed them to get feedback from their peers, which we plan to preserve the feedback for the next time is classes taught, so this book is a living continuing iteration.

Rebecca: So as the students were reading the chapters as assigned reading, is that when they were providing the comments and the feedback?

Jessica:Yes, they would go through and we had some very astute grammar students that would go and pick commas, and also asked for more explanation, which was excellent. I could actually use that in my teaching to talk further about areas where I could tell that students needed more help.

John: Did the original writers go back and fill in some of the gaps at that point?

Jessica: Sometimes they did, but for the most part, we left it as is. We used version one and the plan is for the students who take this class next to take those comments, continue adding, continue changing, and revamp the book. So there’ll be multiple versions for each semester that it’s taught.

Rebecca: Can you talk a little bit about how you handled copyright and giving credit where credit is due for each of these chapters and how you might handle that in future iterations?

Jessica: Overall the class work together to figure out their creative commons license, and what they chose was a CC BY-NC-SA. Which means, people must attribute and give credit, it’s non-commercial and it’s share alike. We talked about this as a group, we learned about copyright and they all actually signed a contract as if they were publishers, as they are. We discussed how to attribute content, some chapters did it one way some chapters did it another way. So you’ll see in tech citations in some areas and and others you’ll see, “this was modified from the CDC website at this location.” And so some of it was actually openly sourced information that was reused. Now, this is their first time writing a textbook, so can I stand behind that everything is completely cited perfectly? Absolutely not. But they did a good faith effort to make sure that their information was cited properly.

John: …and there is a little note at the bottom of each page listing sources and saying that, to the best of our knowledge, this is not subject to copyright. If you find anything that appears to violate it, please notify us. So there is a procedure for addressing that stated on each page, I believe?

Jessica: Correct.

Rebecca: Can you talk a little bit about how the groups decided to evaluate each other?

Jessica: Yeah, I think group evaluation and teamwork is such a challenge. I myself, despised group work as a student, and as a faculty member sometimes I’m like, “Ah, I know they need to work with others, but…” But really having them create their own contracts and having them evaluate each other on their own terms, so some groups decided that “we will do everything perfect and we will come to every meeting.” No, that’s not a group contract. That’s not something that you can actually achieve. But what you can achieve is open communication, and so most of the groups actually used GroupMe or other tech tools to stay in contact, they would set up meetings sometimes before after class. They would also work on the Google Doc in tandem, you can actually see when someone else is working on a Google doc and point out different sources to each other and discuss how they’re going to put it together. And so that allowed them to evaluate each other and most students gave each other pretty high marks in peer review. And I don’t know if that’s because they all like each other and they’ve all been in multiple classes together, or if it’s actually how they feel that this came together. But overall, it happened, it got done and so I do think they work together pretty well. Some groups obviously better than others depending on their strategy, but having them create the contract I think is the important aspect that I found

John: And you were able to monitor that by seeing the colors of the contributions?

Jessica: Yes. So I had them color code their contributions and if they didn’t color code because someone was an editor or whatnot, they would note that so they knew what each person was doing. And then before I would send it out to the class, I would take out all those colors and do some type editing. But overall, each of them were contributing and most of the students in the class are juniors and seniors, so they’re upper level students.

Rebecca: Did you have students evaluate each other at the end of their contribution, or at the end of the semester?

Jessica: It was at the end of their contribution, and it’s fascinating because I asked them during that process, not only to evaluate themselves, but to evaluate this project. And it’s fascinating because as I’m going through it, I’m looking at it and asking them, “Do you think other classes should do something like this?” And about 50% said no, at that time. I was like, “Oh my goodness. Is this going to fail? What’s happening? Why do they despise this so much.?” But, at the end when we did an overall evaluation, it was actually overwhelmingly positive, it was all positive about the whole project. So it just goes to show you that as you’re in the thick of something, you may see it as challenging, overwhelming, but in the end, when you see that final product, when you see that 19th chapter for 200 page book that you’ve created with your fellow students, that’s powerful.

Rebecca: You ended up getting your book printed and copies distributed to each of your contributing students. How did you pull that off during the semester you were writing it?

Jessica: Very carefully. I worked very closely with my TA and I spent countless hours editing and making sure pagination was correct. I think in the end I probably put in a whole work week just getting that together and working with the university printing service. I sent it in, it was excellent. I’ve never printed a book before not knowing how to do anything like that, and thankfully our university had some funding to allow me to print books for all of the students. And to see their faces when they got that book, was just outstanding. I actually created a celebration and so I invited the Director of the program, the Dean, the Chairs, and even people from OER Services at SUNY. And the students walked into a cake and people clapping for them, and then I reveal the printed book.

Rebecca: So you had to have had the book finished multiple weeks before the end of the semester to make that happen?

Jessica: Well, I was hoping to have it finished sooner. But you know, life happens, and so they actually got it on the day of their final and their first question is after it’s revealed is, “Do we still have to take a final?” In fact, they did, but it turned out alright. So it was the day of their final which was a week after the end of the semester. But it all turned out fine, everyone was happy, and they got to eat cake.

John: What proportion of their grade was based on this collaborative work?

Jessica: It was actually about 10% of their grade… [LAUGHTER]

John: [LAUGHTER]… low stakes assignment, relatively, for writing a book.

Jessica: It was very low stakes, which, as you choke on your tea, I couldn’t believe that they would do it for 10% of their grade. But in fact, when you take all of these small pieces of writing and put them together, it actually wasn’t a huge whole. When you have 75 people writing a little bit at a time, they got into it when they had to do it but when they were done, they were done. So it was actually just a small percentage of what they had to do. I like to use non-traditional teaching techniques and experiential learning, and so this class also took a field trip and did a lot of other exciting teaching techniques. So this book was something that was a small percentage of their grade.

John: [LAUGHTER] That’s impressive.

Rebecca: How much time do you think each student actually spent on the writing that they contributed?

Jessica: I would speculate a few hours. They were writing in chapters and I didn’t give them page limits, which was interesting because most groups wrote about six pages on average. But then you had some groups write more and they were allowed to put pictures and videos and diagrams because some of these are models. So some of the chapters were far longer and some students are more lengthy writers, some are more succinct. And so it just depended on the group and what topic it was.

Rebecca: Did they also have to present their chapter?

Jessica: They don’t have to present their chapter but they did have to read the chapters. The whole test was based on the book and the presentations that I gave during class on the content.

Rebecca: What advice do you have for other people who might want to take on such an adventure?

Jessica: [LAUGHTER] Ah man… [LAUGHTER] I think you should do what sparks your interest and you should really follow your passion and if this is what you want to do, proceed with caution, but dive in. That seems to be my approach to a lot of these quote unquote weird pedagogical techniques that I like to use. But this was really a joy. It was a lot of work so much work, not only to set it up and get it ready, and then convince students to do it for only 10% of their grade. If you would have seen their faces but, I said, “Hey, guys, guess what? We’re going to write a textbook.” They all looked at me like I was insane. And so did my colleagues. [LAUGHTER]

John: [LAUGHTER] That was gonna be another question. Has anyone there considered following up with this and doing something similar on their own?

Jessica: I have not had anyone take me up on that. I’ve had a few people asked me, “Do you think others should do this?” And my answer is usually, “You should think about it.” It’s a lot of work, but it’s very rewarding the students get so much out of it. For my evaluations, the students not only said that this helps them learn the content better than a traditional textbook, because it was written by other students, but it also helped build their confidence. They were writing a book, and now they can put that on their vitae, and all the students were so excited because they’re going to take it home to their parents and show them what they’ve done in class. They also talked about just that it was new and novel and how that makes them excited about it. But it depends how much time you have, how patient you are, and what the topic area really is.

Rebecca: When you go to do a revision next time you teach the class, do you expect your time costs to be the same, or do you expect it to be a bit different now that you have a structure?

Jessica: I think now that I have a process and understand how much time it’s going to take versus saying, “This will be fine. It’ll work out well,” I think it will take a little bit less time. But I think with that you also have to get students buy-in, because it’s not completely new, it’s something else is someone has created. And sometimes that’s more challenging to add to it, to modify it to make it better. But I think it’s a good exercise in teaching students the importance of revision and adding to something and building it.

John: Did any students object to having the work being posted publicly, or were they all happy with that?

Jessica: They were actually really excited. When we first were doing that hey said, “So where is this going to go?” I said, “Well, it’s going to be public. Everyone’s going to be able to read this.” And they looked at me, and at that time I don’t think they really understood what open source was, completely being on a website in the Lumen platform, being able to see this content. But once it was printed in a book, they said, “Well, where does it go next? Are we going to print more of these is in the library?” I said, “Well you just wait.” And then I was able to send them the URL, thanks to the SUNY OER Services who put it together, so that the students can now show it to their friends and post it digitally and share it.

Rebecca: [LAUGHTER] What kind of kool-aid did you hand out the day you’re talking about this assignment? [LAUGHTER]

Jessica: [LAUGHTER] Well, I should mention that all of these students were actually students that I’ve had previously and I think having that level of trust and understanding that, “you never know what’s going to happen and Dr cougars class, just be ready to roll with it.” I don’t think I could have done that with students that I haven’t had for multiple semesters. So that trust and rapport was really important and saying, “You can do this, I believe in you. Let’s do this together.” I think without that, this would have been more challenging and students would have said, “Who cares about that 10%, I’m out.” But in this case, they understood and they followed along and they were happy to do it. It was something of a challenge. I think some of the comments in which students told me about this, were just amazing. One of the students said that they generally felt this was a great experience and a wonderful opportunity and that experiences like going on field trips and writing a textbook was exciting, and made me feel like a kid again in elementary school. It makes me more motivated and looking forward to learning experiences. So I think having novel experiences and having something that’s new but also exciting and exhilarating and gosh, a little challenging, is good for the students.

John: …and they’re actually creating something themselves, which by itself should be a little bit more motivating than passively consuming a textbook that someone else created.

Jessica: Exactly.

Rebecca: I think the report that you mentioned earlier is important too. I think that’s an interesting component to this particular project that some people might not realize how important that that can be. But having that little bit of trust to go on a bigger adventure, then maybe they’d be willing to otherwise, I think is key, but something that we all can be thinking about.

Jessica: Oh yeah, I think it’s so important to make connections with your students and people do it in many different ways. I’m usually known as being (taryn?? 22:00), that shameful word in academia. But in fact, I think it’s so important and that’s how I can get so much buy-in from students and get them to join me in these learning adventures that we tend to go on.

John: We do have a note to ask you again, to come back at some point and talk about the field trip, things that you do with these large groups of students as well. But I think maybe we should leave that for a future podcast, if you’re willing?

Jessica: Excellent. Sounds great. I love being on the show.

Rebecca: I don’t know if I dare ask our final question. But we always wrap up by asking what’s next? [LAUGHTER]

Jessica: [LAUGHTER] What’s next? Well, this semester I vowed to focus and more self care and I’m actually teaching a new course called Stress and Population Health. And so with that course, I’m trying to take my own advice, which is sometimes the most difficult, and only doing a few crazy activities during the semester. So my students will go on more field trips, they will do some experiential learning, but they’re also going to be focusing on stress within the college campus, and performing some stress reduction tabling around public health and also learning a little bit more about meditation and how overall in the US we’re a little bit too stressed. So with that, I think “what’s next” is we should all take a little bit more care for ourselves, to be around for students and to give a little bit more. So, that’s where I’m putting “what’s next.”

John: That sounds like a good strategy and perhaps chance to relax a little bit and I believe that when I hear about it later, at the end of the semester. [LAUGHTER]

Rebecca: [LAUGHTER] You have to remember that it has to be in comparison to, you know, someone’s lack of stress is really dependent upon how much stress they generally pile upon themselves.

Jessica: [LAUGHTER] Exactly. So, I’m only doing half of what I typically do in my crazy teaching. But still, I think it’ll be fun, exciting, and I’m looking forward to another great adventure and semester.

John: …and you’re also doing a COIL course at some point, aren’t you?

Jessica: I have currently already done one COIL course and I have actually just created a another COIL connection in Jamaica and have plans to create additional COIL connections so that we can actually compare components of health cross culturally and cross nationally.

Rebecca: Sounds really cool.

John: …and we should note for listeners outside of New York that COIL courses are Cooperative Online International Learning courses where classes pair up with classes from other countries.

Rebecca:Thank you so much for joining us again, Jessica and sharing with us how you rolled this project out and giving us all a little bit of inspiration and a little motivation to do some of this work ourselves.

John: Yes, thank you. I’m still amazed by the 10% but I looked through much of the work that your students have done, and it’s a really impressive work.

Jessica: Thank you. They’re very impressive students. I’m honored to have work with such amazing people. It couldn’t have been done without them believing in themselves and believing in what we were doing was important.

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

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

John: Editing assistance provided by Kim Fischer and Jacob Alverson.

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60. Inclusive Teaching

Are your class conversations dominated by a small number of voices? In this episode, Dr. Danica Savonick joins us to discuss a variety of class activities that support an inclusive learning environment and promote equity in participation while increasing student learning. Danica is an Assistant Professor of Multi-Ethnic Literature at SUNY Cortland, and a recipient of the K. Patricia Cross Future Leaders award, a Woodrow Wilson Fellowship in Women’s Studies, and a Mellon/ACLS Dissertation Completion Fellowship.

Show Notes

Studies of bias in the classroom:

Transcript

John: Are your class conversations dominated by a small number of voices? In this episode, we explore a variety of class activities that support an inclusive learning environment and promote equity in participation while increasing student learning.

[MUSIC]

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

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

John: …and Rebecca Mushtare, a graphic designer.

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

Rebecca: Today our guest is Danica Savonick, an Assistant Professor of Multi-Ethnic Literature at SUNY Cortland. Danica is the recipient of the K. Patricia Cross Future Leaders award, a Woodrow Wilson Fellowship in Women’s Studies and a Mellon/ACLS Dissertation Completion Fellowship. Welcome, Danica.

John: Welcome.

Danica: Thank you. Thanks so much for having me. I’m really excited to be here.

John: Our tea’s today are…

Danica: I’m drinking a coconut lime seltzer.

Rebecca: That sounds pretty good.

Danica: It is.

Rebecca: It’s a good alternative to tea, I suppose.

Danica: I think I’m pretending that I’m on a tropical island or something.

Rebecca: Yeah, the weather around here would make me want to do that, so perhaps it’s the same there.

Danica: How far away are we from from each other? I’m here in Cortland, you’re…

John: About an hour and 45 minutes, I think, by car.

Danica: Okay.

Rebecca: Very rainy today.

Danica: Yeah, and I hear we have some snow coming up in the next 24 hours or so, so should be interesting.

Rebecca: I have the Prince of Wales tea.

John: …and I have a holiday tea from Twinings that I picked up in the tropics in Orlando at the Online Learning Consortium a few weeks back.

Danica: Sounds yummy.

John: It is good.

You’ve written quite a bit on creating a supportive environment for discussing issues of race, class, gender and sexuality. Let’s first talk a little bit about the context in which you address these issues. What courses do you normally teach?

Danica: I generally teach American literature courses. Sometimes those are general education courses, sometimes they are within the English major. I’ve also taught a number of writing classes that are a little bit more interdisciplinary in nature, and regardless of whichever course I’m teaching I like to give them a theme or put my own little twist on them. For instance, if I’m teaching a writing course, this semester the topic is the purpose of education and so we’re drawing from a wide different disciplines… people who’ve been writing about different learning methods and then when I teach English courses, some of the topics I like to do are the arts of dissent and we’ll look at the theme of dissent in American literature. This semester I’m currently teaching Intro to Multicultural Literature, which has been super fun and then next semester I’ll be teaching a graduate course on feminist world-making, which I’m really excited about.

Rebecca: Well that sounds really exciting.

John: What are some of the challenges you face in discussing some of these issues in your classroom and trying to have productive conversations?

Danica: Well, some of the problems that I’ve noticed are consistent regardless of what classroom or what school I’ve been teaching in, but some of them vary according to the student population. But one of the most common problems that I see is just a lack of student participation, or if there is participation it’ll be the same two or three students who dominate the conversation… and actually just this weekend when I was home for the holidays I was talking to my family about this—my aunt is auditing a course at SUNY Purchase—and she was saying that the same one or two students speak every single class period and she’s curious about what the other students have to say and what they’re thinking… and even my grandmother who was at Brooklyn College in the 1950s… she said she remembers feeling too scared to talk in most of her classes… and so it was only one or two of the… I guess… the brightest and most vocal students who would talk in the classes. And then, of course, as I started teaching I started to notice this as well and I think it’s every new instructor’s nightmare probably that “What if nobody talks? What am I gonna do? What am I gonna do with all that silence?” And so, I guess the main problems I’ve been trying to address are not having the same one or two students dominate the conversation but having really every voice be heard in the classroom… and the more I’ve thought about it and the more I’ve come to study classroom dynamics the more I’ve realized it’s not entirely the fault of the students in those situations, and actually quite often it is the shared responsibility of both the professor and the students to create a kind of environment where everyone feels like their voice matters and that they have something that they can say… that they won’t get shot down by the professor… that they’re not intimidated by their peers and whatnot. So a lot of my work has been trying to increase participation in classrooms and also because my focus is often on race and class and gender and sexuality in literature, we have to figure out how to have productive conversations around those really difficult issues. And for a lot of students, it’s their first time talking about these issues and so we’ve had to establish ways that we feel comfortable talking about those important questions and issues.

Rebecca: I was actually just gonna follow up to what you were saying… really curious about the emphasis on the first time students have talked about some of these things, and I think that that’s really important. We’ve been having a reading group on our campus with a book called Race Talk and that’s something that we’ve mentioned pretty frequently: that a lot of these students have never been in a context to have a conversation about race… a lot of the faculty have never been in a situation to have a good conversation about race… So, when it’s someone’s first time, how do you help that be productive and feel safe? Because you have to be vulnerable to be in those situations.

Danica: Definitely. One of the most effective things that I think I’ve done is tell students that we’re inevitably going to mess up in these conversations because our educations have not provided us with the language and the grammar and the vocabulary for talking about conditions of structural inequality… and so I make that the baseline or the premise. We know we’re gonna say the wrong thing and we are likely going to accidentally offend someone and so as a class what we do is establish protocols or ways that we want to collectively address how to handle those situations and we come up with a set of community guidelines and principles and ideas that we agree upon for how to behave when we realize that, “Oh no, I could have said that better. I wish I hadn’t said that…” or if one student feels offended by something and so I think that has really helped, especially for students who are having these conversations for the first time; they know that it’s okay to say the wrong thing and we have an established procedure in place for how to deal with those moments.

Rebecca: Can you talk a little bit about how you set those guidelines up and how students participate in that process?

Danica: Yeah, definitely. This is one of my favorite things to do every semester is have students co-author a set of community guidelines in order to foster inclusive discussions of difference. Because I want every student to understand that their voice matters and I know one of the reactions that you can get is students can start feeling alienated if they say the wrong thing. They can disengage. They can start thinking that I don’t have a place in this conversation. …and so one of the ways that we create that environment is we’ll co-author this set of community guidelines. Rather than having students write them from scratch… I think that can be really difficult… so, instead what I’ll do—it takes about I would say half of a class period to maybe half an hour, could be 40 minutes, it depends on the size of the class—I’ll print out some really basic guidelines, four or five things that I think might work well in the class as principles that we might want to agree to abide by. So things like we won’t make assumptions about anyone in the class’s race, gender, ethnicity, things like that, and we read over them as a class. I usually project them at the front of the class and they also have them in front of them on a piece of paper and we’ll read through them as a class. They can ask questions… they can ask me to define a word they don’t understand, and then I give them about ten minutes to read through them quietly on their own with pen and paper and cross off and edit and add and remove anything that they don’t like about the guidelines… to add additional guidelines… to change the wording of certain guidelines… and then rather than calling on students individually and having to put them on the spot, I have them work in pairs of two to go over some of the amendments and edits and adjustments that they would like to make and then after five minutes or so we go around the class and each pair presents one or two amendments that they would like to make and so it really ranges from adding different adjectives and verbs to adding whole new amendments or saying that they didn’t like one of the ones that I put up, which is totally fine with me. The idea behind not having to ask them to do it from scratch is just that they have something to work with—it’s not that I’m wedded to those particular principles, I just wanted to give them some kind of language and some kind of grammar for how they might formulate the different community guidelines.

Rebecca: It seems like the pair scenario would help to mitigate any issues that might arise from a dominant group dominating the rules.

Danica: Yeah.

Rebecca: That was gonna be my question but then I realized as you were talking that that might actually be how you solve some of that issue.

Danica: Yeah, and it’s pretty egalitarian. We go around the room and each group says something, even if it’s by the time we get to the end sometimes the groups are like, “Well, everyone already said what we were gonna say, so we just wanted to agree that we really liked the amendment that this other group made.” And so that way each pair gets two or three minutes to add something, to say something, and then we move on, and so it’s not like one pair gets to really dominate. The other thing I forgot to mention is students go home, they have at least one or two evenings to think about the guidelines that we came up with. They have access to them. They can open them up at home and it’s not until the beginning of the following class that we ratify them, and often when we come back together at the beginning of the next class they’ll have thought of one or two things that they want to adjust and once we make the final edits and adjustments then we as a class decide that we agree to abide by them.

John: Another nice thing about doing it in pairs is when people are speaking it’s a little safer because they’re representing their group; they don’t have to take a stand and it makes it a little more comfortable perhaps for those who might have been reticent.

Danica: Exactly.

Rebecca: I like that you have the ability to review over a couple of days as well because that also gives students who don’t want to speak up the opportunity to email you or communicate with you separately too, right?

Danica: Yeah, definitely.

John: How well have the guidelines worked? Have students responded well? Do you get more buy-in to the guidelines since they created them?

Danica: Yes, absolutely. I was really surprised the first time I did this. I was like, “This is one of those wacky pedagogical experiments; I might fall flat on my face, they might think that I’m an alien from another planet.” But, they were so enthusiastic and I’ve actually had students from former classes say “That was one of the most meaningful things that we did that semester. I think about that a lot. I wish more teachers did that…” and so I’ve gotten really positive feedback on it and it’s also fun. It’s always one of the best conversations that we have throughout the semester. And you know it turns out that they have a lot to say about the issue. Actually, I often do this assignment when we’re teaching a work of literature called Citizen by author Claudia Rankine, which talks a lot about microaggressions… and students have witnessed and they’ve experienced these microaggressions in the classroom and so they’re eager to have a chance to participate in crafting a classroom that isn’t going to have these kinds of uncomfortable and awkward moments. I also should say that when we do this I share with students beforehand several of the studies that have been done recently on classroom participation and who feels most empowered to speak in the classroom. So, there’s been a lot of studies done on gender and the experiences of students of color and what a lot of these studies have found is that those voices that are most empowered to speak in mainstream media and culture are also the students who feel empowered to take up time in the classroom. And so I share this with students before we begin the community guidelines activity and they’re always really interested. I have the sense that some of them have witnessed or experienced or might have some sense that these things go on, but to actually see the research and to see the findings and to see these massive studies that have been done, they’re just interested in it, and especially because my classes are about race and class and gender and structural inequality, I think it’s fascinating for them to see the way that what we often think of as huge systemic issues can come to influence who speaks and who participates in the classroom as well.

Rebecca: Maybe we could share those citations in our show notes?

Danica: Certainly.

Danica: You’ve used something called Commons in a Box. Could you tell us a little bit about what that is for people who are not familiar with that?

Danica: Sure, it’s a free open-source learning and writing platform. It came out of the CUNY Graduate Center. It’s a combination of WordPress and BuddyPress, and so it’s this easy to install package that allows you to create digital learning spaces, and so different universities have taken it up to do different things. Often I’ll see institutions using it as a space for their professors to host course websites. They might want to have some kind of blog that features student writing. They could use it for digital humanities projects… and it’s free and it’s open source and so all you really need is server space. As often as possible, I’ve tried to host my courses on either Commons in a Box, or currently I’m using an installation of wordpress.org as an alternative to using Blackboard or Canvas and I could talk a little bit about why if you’re interested.

John: Yeah, could you tell us a little bit about what the advantages of this is compared to say one of the common course management systems?

Danica: Sure. I see the primary benefit of these platforms as they help students to develop transferable skills that are going to aid them in the world beyond the classroom, and so I’ll talk a little bit about what I mean by that. WordPress is one of the most common platforms on which the websites in the world are built .The latest statistic that I saw was something like 30% of the world’s websites are built on the WordPress content management system, and so I like to organize my courses on WordPress so that I can familiarize students with how websites are put together… how you can build them… how they think… how they organize information… and so what I try to do throughout the semester is scaffold students’ interaction with the platform. At the beginning it’s pretty user friendly: they create an account, they are able to log in to our site and then gradually they start going into the backend (which WordPress calls the dashboard) and they start creating their own content. So, they get to experience the process of going back and forth between the backend and then the front-end and seeing what that process is like and how information is organized on the WordPress platform. So, they start creating blogs and then what I like to do towards the end of the semester is deconstruct our class website and take it apart and break it and redesign it with students so that they can see, first of all, how easy it is to build a website. A lot of my students are new to this. They’re not necessarily computer science majors. They haven’t taken computer science courses, and so they’ve interacted with a lot of websites but they haven’t really gone in and thought about how they might build their own and so I show them how our course website is built and we redesign it we do all kinds of things and then often for students’ final projects they will have the option of designing a website related to something that we have done in the course and they often choose that option. They like it… they like getting to experiment with WordPress. For most of them it’s their first taste of the platform and several of them have said that they’ve gone on to learn more about WordPress because they’ve become really interested in it and I see this as a really great opportunity for students first to think a little bit more critically about how the internet works and how these pages that we’re constantly interacting with… how they’re constructed… and also to develop a transferable skill that could become a really valuable part of their resume and the skills that they will bring to the work world. Being able to build websites on WordPress is huge and so I find that starting that process early can be really helpful. It also creates an opportunity for us to have conversations like why is our course built on WordPress when all of your other courses are on Blackboard and we get to talk a little bit about what Blackboard is and the different ways that content management systems, especially in higher education, work to structure certain kinds of relationships of teaching and learning.

John: Does the institution host WordPress, or are you hosting your own instance of it?

Danica: Ideally, the university will host it. When I was at CUNY they have a really strong culture around open educational resources and free writing platforms and there’s a big community around that. It might exist at my new institution—I have to do a little bit more work to find it. As far as I know there’s a lot of people that are using Blackboard at my institution. Ideally… best-case scenario… the university would provide server space and then you could have an installation of WordPress or Commons in a Box, but currently I’m using Reclaim Hosting and Domain of One’s Own in order to have a classroom commons installation that I’m using across the three different classes I’m teaching.

John: Do you use the open aspect of that? Is the students’ work public or are you keeping it closed to the classroom, or is that something decided on a case-by-case or class-by-class basis?

Danica: Yeah, that’s a great point, thanks for bringing that up. It varies. Parts of the class web sites are public, parts of it are private… and another benefit of working in a quasi-public, quasi-private space is that it allows us to have conversations about what information students are putting on the Internet and what they want visible. What do they want to become part of their professional digital identity? What do they want to show up in search results versus what do they not want to show up in search results? So, we have a lot of these conversations early on in the semester when they’re establishing their accounts. We talk about the risks and the repercussions versus the benefits of using their real name to do the blogging that they’ll be doing on the site, and then for their final projects… often, but not always, I would encourage them to use their real name because they put a lot of time and effort there carefully revising these projects and they are deliberately constructing them with the idea that they’re going to be writing for a public audience. But, of course, in this climate of anti-immigration that we’re living in, you have to be super careful about what you’re encouraging students to put their name on and so I always have conversations around that. There’s always an option never to use your real name. You can always use a pseudonym for the blogging and for the final projects. You can always submit solely to me instead of publishing to a public audience, because I understand there are severe risks and in some cases they will outweigh the benefits of creating something publicly.

John: And we should note that you have an article in the describing your work here and we’ll include a link to that in the show notes as well.

Rebecca: You mentioned student blogging. Can you talk a little bit about how the student blogging is used in your classes and how that augments student learning and how that might facilitate some of these conversations that might be tricky to have?

Danica: Sure. I love student blogging—I don’t know how I would teach these courses without it. My courses are structured around the blog—it’s one of their major assignments, and so for every single class two or three students are assigned to blog about the assigned reading—I think the requirement is something like 800 words or so—and that they have to do a small close reading… so an analysis of the excerpt of whatever literary text we’re reading and it has to end with two discussion questions, and for every student who isn’t blogging. So, the majority of the class they have to leave a comment on those blogs before our class period starts, and so the blogs are due at noon the day before class and then students have from noon until our class period to leave their comments and then the way the course is structured the same day that those three students are blogging… so they’re each writing a blog… they are also facilitating a class discussion… a ten-minute activity… or it can be a presentation… it can just be more of a conversation. They have ten minutes at the beginning of the next class to do whatever they want, and I encourage them to make it the best lesson plan that they have ever seen or the way that they want their ideal course to be structured, and so I encourage them to try things like think-pair-share or to do interactive activities and it’s really exciting to see, first of all, the things that students choose to blog about, because with the readings that we’re discussing there’s so much that you could talk about. I have certain things I want to talk about but those might not necessarily align with what students are interested in within the text, and so having these open-ended blogs allows students to identify what it is they’re most interested in; it allows them to get feedback on their writing from their peers prior to our class session. One way that I’ve come to think about the blog… that I talk to students about it… is as a rough draft for a paper. They’re putting out a thesis… they’re putting out an interpretation… they’re providing some evidence from the text to support it… and then they have this tremendous opportunity to get feedback from all of their peers… and so in the comments the other students will be like, “I really like this point…” “I have another example that can help you support your point…” They might raise objections; they might raise counter points: “Well, have you thought of this other thing?” And so it’s a really great way for them to increase the quality of their writing and their ideas by getting feedback from their peers. Actually, this happened just in our previous class, a student was using a term “devaluing” to talk about sexuality in one of the books that we were reading and a lot of his fellow classmates were saying that word wasn’t working the way that he thought that it was working. So, in his facilitation he kind of talked through the feedback that he got and as a class we came up with a better word that would more precisely name the kind of relationship that he saw developing in the literary text, and so with the class facilitations it provides students with an opportunity to practice their public speaking and to practice standing up in front of a classroom. A lot of the students say that they’re really nervous at first, but that they’re glad in the end that they did it and they always get through it and we always manage… and so this kind of pairing of the blog with the in-class facilitation really teaches students that they are active knowledge producers and that they have something to contribute to the class and that their voice matters. They know that they’re not allowed to just disappear and sink into the background—they’re actually the ones up there in front of the class leading the lesson and it’s interesting to see actually the ways that it increases their performance once they’re back in the chair of the student, because they know what it feels like to be up at the front and so they’ll put out a question and they then get to experience what it’s like to have no one raise their hand and so they become much better as students and much more engaged once they return to their seats and resume that more traditional role of being a student. I never know what students are gonna do for their facilitation. They don’t have to run it by beforehand, so it’s always exciting. I don’t know what they’re gonna do in class today and it’s really made my role as an educator different and I’ve had to learn to listen really carefully to the things that students are saying when they’re up there presenting and my job becomes connecting what they’re saying to the main ideas and the main skills and the main topics of the class. So, for instance, if a student is giving a presentation I might interject and say that’s a thesis statement,… what you just said… you just made a thesis statement and then they start to recognize learning how to make an argument, how to make a thesis statement is one of the skills of the course, but it takes a long time or they’re not quite sure what I mean by that, but when they’re talking they’ll just do it naturally and so my job becomes pointing out to them that they are already doing the things that we’re learning about and just helping them recognize better the ways that their facilitations are connecting to the themes and the skills of the course.

Rebecca: I wanted to circle back to the leaving comments for other students—so they do the close reading, they post about that and then students comment on it. When they’re commenting, how do you help students learn what a good comment is?

Danica: Yeah, that actually becomes a topic of discussion early on in the semester. They’re given a few guidelines: it should be, I don’t know, a hundred and fifty words or so; it needs to make a contribution to the post; it can’t just be “I liked your post” or “I didn’t like your post,” and then what I’ve tried this semester is we implemented—kind of halfway through the semester—this rule that each comment needs to provide a quote from the text so that the commenter is either supporting providing further evidence that will support the author of the blog’s claim, or providing a counter example. One of my students last class, he said “Conversation makes the best interpretation” and I really loved that because they’re starting to learn through the commenting the ways that all academic writing is a conversation among various viewpoints and that when they’re writing a scholarly paper… when they’re writing a research essay… they are inserting their voices into larger conversations; they’re in dialogue with people. It’s not like you write a paper in a vacuum; it’s actually a synthesis of all these different viewpoints and ideas and so I see the commenting as kind of a rehearsal for class discussion. So when we show up in class, say, for instance, students aren’t being particularly talkative, I can say, well, you said this in your comment, and so I know that they’ve already engaged with the ideas and it allows often our class conversation to reach a higher level because they already know what several of their peers’ interpretations of the text are; they’ve already thought about them; they’ve already thought about the pros and the cons and how we might need to complicate some of these analyses; and so it just takes our class discussions to the next step.

John: Do you do anything to ensure that everyone responds to a certain number of posts to make sure that you don’t see everyone replying just to one other post to make sure you get some balance there? Do you have a mechanism for doing that?

Danica: Yeah, that’s a great question. So, for every class students have to comment on at least one post; they’re welcome to comment on more than one, but the requirement is one comment prior to class. I don’t have a mechanism for ensuring that. The class is 25 students, if we have three bloggers, one blog might get ten comments and the others might get four or five, and one way to kind of address that in the classes is encouraging students to think about their blogs, think about the title of the blog, think about the content of the blog, think about how they’re competing for the attention of their peers. I encourage them to say, “Okay, your peers have three blogs to choose from, how are you gonna get them to read yours?” It’s a way of getting them to think a little bit about audience and what is the function of a title. What is the work that a title can do? …and from that introductory paragraph how can they give their reader a sense of what their blogs gonna be about? How can they convince their reader that there’s gonna be a good payoff that their blog is worth reading? And so it’s interesting to see the different ways that they try to attract the attention of their peers. Because they do want those comments and I find they get excited about the different feedback—they’re not required to respond to the comments, but they do often… which, yeah, it’s always exciting to witness. I try to linger, I lurk a little bit on the blogs and I’m often not interjecting in the conversations, but just kind of reading through them and that’s actually the other benefit is that it ends up serving as a mode of formative assessment because I can see what they have understood from the readings and what might be missing… what might be the things that I need to address in the time that I have—what’s not quite getting through to them, either in terms of aspects of the reading that they overlooked or in terms of the skills. So, if I tell them that your blog needs to have a main point; it needs to have a thesis, and I’m seeing that they’re not quite doing that I can then adjust my lesson plans so that that becomes the focus of the next class and I can use their blogs, their own words as an example to say, “Okay, how could we give this blog a stronger thesis?” …and so it’s quite common that we’ll end up editing or revising some of the blog posts. They get projected up on the screen and students, because we’ve created a culture that they’re constantly giving feedback on each other’s ideas, students feel a lot less embarrassed or they understand that we’re all trying to become better writers and so they’re okay with it if I project their blog post and we talk through “What are some of the pros? What are some of the cons? How could we strengthen this?”

John: And it’s a much more authentic learning experience having them focus on audience and trying to build a strong thesis statement.

Rebecca: It seems like the blog post assignment really primes students well for the final projects that you had mentioned earlier that have a public audience because they’re already practicing writing for a specific audience and it’s another writing for a more general audience, I would assume. Can you talk us through that a little bit?

Danica: The final projects for my class often vary, but they’re usually collaborative… they’re usually digital… they’re usually public… they’re usually some kind of creative student-driven element. It’s usually students identifying the topic and then running with it, whether that’s a research blog or whether that’s currently my students in Intro to Multicultural Literature are co-authoring a glossary of key terms for literary studies—I have never done this before. It is a total experiment—I don’t know if they know that this is my first time doing this, so it’ll be interesting. I don’t know if they’ll hear in this podcast, but whatever, it’s fine. So I’ve done different versions of these collaborative public final projects. They vary sometimes based on the content of the course, students’ level of preparation, what are the aims and objectives of the different courses. It’s a little bit different for a basic writing composition course versus a more advanced literature course… and so one of the format’s I’ve done is have students co-author scholarly articles that they would submit to an actual journal, and so I did this in one of my freshman writing classes. We spent the entire semester talking about contemporary issues in education… so related to technology in the classroom… active learning versus lecturing… conditions of educational equality in segregated schools… and about halfway through the semester they were put into groups and they had to identify a research question. They did an annotated bibliography, they developed a whole research project, and then they made it into an article, a short article that they submitted to the scholarly academic peer-reviewed journal Hybrid Pedagogy to see if they could get it published or not, and I had been in contact with the journal’s editors since the summer before the class, so they knew this was coming. It would not have been possible if I hadn’t been working with them because they knew there was gonna be a really quick turnaround time where the students needed to know if they got revise and resubmit, if they got rejected, or if they got accepted… and I knew that this was a wildly fanciful or an unrealistic expectation to ask students to get a scholarly journal article published—these are basic writing students at Queens College—a lot of them are first-generation students… they work jobs… they are English language learners… and so in addition to reviewing of the conventions of English grammar and how to write a paragraph… how to write an academic paper… all things that were new or needed to be reviewed… they were also trying to get their writing published in a major publication… and so what ended up happening with that is that several students got revise and resubmit. But by the time they did it was the end of the semester and finals were happening and so I tailored the assignment a little bit towards the end. I tweaked it, because all semester I’d been telling them “these blogs are important, these things that you’re writing your research, everything, all of this matters because people are actually going to be reading this and you want them to take it seriously and you want them to listen to you. You don’t want to lose their attention halfway through.” … and so we needed to come up with a way that they would still get published even if they chose not to endure the editorial feedback loop of revise and resubmit, or the accept with minor revisions, and so what we had them do is they took the feedback that they got from the editors and several of the groups chose to post to HASTAC.org, which is a tremendous resource. It is an academic scholarly network of 15,000 plus members of scholars and students and academics and artists and activists and so there’s a special group within HASTAC that showcases and features and highlights the writing of undergraduates. So many of my students ended up submitting their final blogs there, but one group did continue—they kept revising their submission and going through the queries that they were getting from the editors and then the copy editors and just all of these stages of the writing process that were very new to them. This is a required writing course… no one showed up at that course eager to do all these drafts and revision and the skills that we teach in a basic writing course… but they continued in that editorial feedback loop for about a year after our class ended and then in August of 2017 their article was published in Hybrid Pedagogy, which was very exciting and so that is now something that they can put on their resumes and I was just so impressed with them for sticking through it because we know everything that goes into writing a journal article but for them they didn’t even know at the beginning of semester what a peer-reviewed journal article was… and so it was like a huge learning process. So, that’s one of the formats of these collaborative public final projects: submitting something to an established publication, which required a lot of willingness on the part of the journal editors to work within a really quick timeframe and the managing editor Skyped into my class several times and talked to students about the journal, helped them with their submissions, they got to pitch their ideas to him, it was great. Some of the other formats I’ve used that have also been good—I’ve had students write explicitly for HASTAC and that’s an opportunity for them to tailor their writing for a very specific community. So that’s something that we did this semester in the writing class that I’m teaching. We read so much about HASTAC… we read about its history. There was an article in Inside Higher Ed calling it the ethical social network and talking about their commitment to protecting their users’ data; we learned about who is a member of HASTAC, who are the different people who are reading it; how does the website organize information—by topic, by tags, by categories and so they were reading and analyzing the site itself before they even started writing their research blogs. So it was a similar process where they identified a research question and they authored blogs that were specifically going to be then tailored for the HASTAC audience, and so one of the big aims of that assignment was this skill of kairos and figuring out how to tailor your writing for a specific community of readers and figuring out what are the conventions? what are the affordances of this specific writing space? and how can I best get my point across to this very specific audience? So, that was useful in helping us have conversations about audience awareness and tone and how you make an argument; how do you convince someone that your point is right without alienating them. So that’s one example of having students write for HASTAC. …and the nice thing about HASTAC is that it comes with a built-in user community. You have sixteen thousand people who are visiting the site and reading things. The other kind of format for these public projects is what we’re doing now with the keywords. Students are co-authoring these individual keywords, they’ve identified specific words that have emerged that they’re interested in throughout all the readings that we’ve done this semester and through our discussions and through the blogs and the final product for that will be something that is hosted on our course WordPress site… so it’ll be a page or an offshoot—I’m hoping to write some kind of table of contents that will link to each of the student’s posts—hopefully there will be media, and so this will be something that they can then share. They can decide that they want to make it part of their professional identity, part of their portfolio, or they can decide not to—it’s really up to them. …and so one of the things that I’m constantly thinking about in developing these assignments is like how to actually connect students to audiences of readers and people who could actually benefit from a keyword entry on memoir or on ghosts… that’s another keyword, apparently we talk a lot about ghosts in my class… and this is coming out of the research that I’ve done on activist pedagogy and really thinking about the role of the teachers connecting students to audiences and people that could potentially benefit from the writing that they’ve been doing. So, thinking about these projects as both a benefit to the students in the class and also to larger publics and communities.

Rebecca: How have students responded to this sort of work? You know, you mentioned that, you know, some of the classes are required courses—students are not necessarily marching in excited to do these sorts of things… so it sounds like you’ve hooked them a little bit. What is their final response to these?

Danica: In general it’s been really positive. The jury’s still out for the semester. We’re gonna do course evaluations I think next week, so I’ll learn more. But in the past, I do a lot of framing around what we’re doing in part because I was always a very willful student and I did not like being told what to do. But if I understood why I was being told to do that thing then I would get really into it and really excited and so with these student-centered assignments and activities I’m always super explicit: this is why we’re doing this; these are what I see as the benefits of this; this is why we’re authoring a set of Community Guidelines; this is why you’re doing a presentation; you’re doing a presentation because public speaking is one of the most valuable skills that employers look for and so when I’m writing your recommendation letters I want to be able to tell them what a great public speaker you are and that’s why I’m asking you to stand in front of the classroom and facilitate this. Also, I should mention this semester and at SUNY Cortland a lot of the students are going on to become teachers and so it’s important to have these experiences at the front of the classroom. I think that being explicit really helps students, and the other thing I’ll say is that I often am explicit about how frustrating student-centered learning can be, and we talked about how it can feel difficult and how sometimes we just wish that the teacher would give us the answers rather than making us figure it out ourselves or making us work in small groups and so I try to create spaces for students to express those kind of emotions and reactions to things. I also try really hard in designing these student-centered assignments… to design… to create the conditions where for instance, we’re doing a collaborative writing project… I try to give them an assignment that actually requires multiple minds and that if they had tried to do that exact same assignment on their own the final product would not be as good as if they were doing it as a group. So I put a lot of thought into kind of carefully constructing these in a way that they will be oriented to succeed in them. Recently I wrote a blog on collaborative close reading, which is a really, really difficult skill to teach—it takes years, you know, for most of us to learn how to do close reading, but I’ve tried to create this assignment that had students work on it in groups, and so rather than having to notice all of a million different things that are going on in a passage of literature, they had a bunch of different minds put to the task and they were all looking at the same paragraph for 20 minutes and dissecting it and they were all contributing their different insights and so rather than having to go at it alone they were able to learn from the different perspectives that the other students brought to the text, and so I think just being really explicit about why behind everything has helped to ensure that the reactions have generally been positive.

John: How have other faculty responded? Have other people started working on building more productive conversations? Have other people in your department started working more on open pedagogy projects?

Danica: Well, I would hesitate to say anything explicitly about my department because I’m so brand-new. It’s my first semester in the department. But one thing that’s been super exciting for me has been to see people… especially with this recent blog that I wrote on collaborative close reading… it went viral on academic Twitter and people have been reporting back, because that’s one of the things that I asked them to do is let me know how it works… let me know if, you know, you have any suggestions for how to make it better… and almost every day I’m getting tweets from people at universities across the country saying, “I tried collaborative close reading and this is what my students did…” and they’ll post pictures of the passages that their students highlighted and so that makes me feel like I’m part of a community that is bigger than my own institution. So, when I’m running these, of course I hope that they will be helpful to my colleagues, but I’m also… I really feel like I’m part of a bigger academic community and part of that is because I post these blogs to HASTAC, and so it really is, people are a community of 16,000, however many users, but then it can get tweeted out. So, even if you don’t have a HASTAC account you can still read the blogs and there’s so many ideas about scholarship being really isolating, but things like that… and getting to talk to people and discuss pedagogy with people at different institutions makes it feel a lot less isolating. But in terms of your question about reactions of colleagues, I have been super lucky both at CUNY and now at SUNY in terms of support for the kinds of things that I’m interested in doing. These are schools with very strong commitments to education, where people are already interested in and talking about student-centered methods and curious and wanting to learn more. The other day I have my students write found poems—which is the genre of poetry where you take some kind of existing document—often it’s a bureaucratic document—and you make it into a poem by cutting it up and whiting it out and mangling it and turning it into poetry and my students created these awesome, awesome found poems; they were beautiful. So, we spent a day in class, I gave them whiteout… I gave them scissors… I gave them tape… They started as banal documents; they made them into stunning poems. They would bring in their tuition bills or song lyrics with offensive stereotypes in them—one of them brought in the transcript from the Brett Kavanaugh hearing and they took these documents and as a way of thinking about language and power they made them into these gorgeous found poems and so I went to the chair of my department and I said, ”Hey, you know, my students created these poems and I would love to have someplace to display them ‘cause I think they’re really awesome” …and not only did she give me permission to tear down what was on the bulletin board, she helped me do it. We tore down these old flyers that had been up there for decades and we put my students’ found poems on and so now we have this beautiful display in our hallway of student work and several of my colleagues have reported seeing students stop and read the poems and take pictures of it and so they’re excited to see their work has become part of this gallery. In general I’ve just been really lucky and fortunate to work with colleagues who are similarly invested in helping students. I did think of a few ideas for people who might not be so fortunate on ways that they could start doing student centered things. The first would be, and I’ve already mentioned this, creating a free profile on HASTAC.org because there are so many people out there doing really creative and exciting things in their classrooms… and connecting their classrooms to larger movements for social justice… and thinking about how do you engage students in really important discussions about contemporary social issues… and so HASTAC has been a phenomenal place for me to connect with other people who are doing that kind of work. I try to start small, and so something like think-pair-share is so easy… it’s taking an index card, giving students 90 seconds to respond to some kind of open-ended prompt, then they turn to the student sitting next to them, they share their responses and then we go around the classroom and I transcribe each group’s answer to the question on the board… and so their ideas become the material that I then get to teach the course through, and we crowdsource responses to some question related to whatever the topic of discussion is that day and something like that is so easy, it’s so simple—we have gone through… I would say we’re in the thousands of index cards in terms of my courses this semester. Because the students like it and they recognize that that changes the classroom dynamic. They recognize that suddenly it’s not just one or two students dominating the conversations. So, when they get up to the front of the class and they get to facilitate something I would say, I don’t know, 65, 70 percent of them choose to do think-pair-share because they recognize that it really lowers the barriers of anxiety about participating in class—everyone has 90 seconds to scribble something on their index card and it’s only an index card,— it’s tiny—there’s not any kind of pressure to write something beautiful and then that becomes just such an easy way to really transform the dynamics of the classroom… low cost… low time investment… and even when I’m thinking at the bigger scale of assignments and rethinking the research paper so that it’s not just being submitted to the professor, but it’s for a public audience, I try not to overhaul everything at once. So it’s like each semester I’ll try one new assignment. Not throwing everything away and starting from scratch each time, because it takes a lot of energy to do these things. And so thinking about how we can make small changes and experiments but not overwhelm ourselves or our students… and the other thing that I would suggest if somebody finds themself in a situation where they want to start trying these things but might not have the kinds of tremendous support that I’ve been lucky to have is… there’s just so much research out there on the effectiveness of student-centered pedagogy. We’ve read a lot of it in my course this semester on writing and education. We read a lot of the studies that have shown how positive of an impact it can have on students to discover ideas for themselves and to work in small groups and solve problems and arrive at answers rather than sitting and listening to a lecture. Just kind of having some of those studies in my back pocket—I’ve always felt that if I was called upon… you know, “Why did you do that? I can’t believe you let the students help assess each other’s papers.” I would have some things that I can cite, that I could go back to to say “Well, actually, it’s been shown that asking students to metacognitively reflect on the implications of their writing is a great strategy.” So that kind of thing has been really helpful for me in terms of thinking about relationships to colleagues and different reactions to this kind of pedagogy.

Rebecca: We normally wrap up by asking, what next?

Danica: Well, at the small scale, I guess, we have this digital glossary of keywords that will be coming out from my multicultural literature students… going to learn all about ghosts and power and assimilation and why these words are important for how we think about and analyze literature… so really excited to see what they do with that… and then I guess at the bigger scale I’m working on a book on the activist pedagogy of teacher poets from the 1960s and 1970s, and I’m hoping that some of that work will help us really understand the ways that a lot of contemporary student-centered practices… things that we’ve talked about today… a lot of them emerged in the 60s and 70s and especially in relation to the critiques of power emerging from the social movements of that era from the women’s movement and the civil rights movement and protests against the Vietnam War… and so I’ve been thinking a lot about how those critiques of power necessitated new relationships of teaching and learning and this was especially happening in the work of poets who I’m interested in and so that book is also considering the ways that interactions with students shaped American literature in ways that we rarely consider and also the tremendous role that poets and authors and especially feminist poets have played in creating a lot of the contemporary student-centered pedagogy that we know today to be so effective.

Rebecca: That sounds really exciting.

Danica: Yeah, it’s really fun to work on.

John: In some of your posts you’ve listed a large variety of techniques that people can try and we’ll include links to those in the show notes as well. Thank you, this has been a fascinating discussion and we look forward to hearing more about what you’re doing.

Danica: Thank you so much for having me, this has been really fun.

Rebecca: Yeah, thanks for joining us. [Music]

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

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

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

57. Scalar

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

Show Notes

Transcript

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

[MUSIC]

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

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

John: …and Rebecca Mushtare, a graphic designer.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

John: Sure.

Rebecca: Yeah, please. [LAUGHTER]

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

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

Rebecca: It’s active, basically.

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

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

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

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

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

Rebecca: But it’s still there.

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

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

Fiona: Yes!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rebecca: I love that idea.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

John: Or is it just a Critical Commons option?

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

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

Fiona: I will follow up. [LAUGHTER]

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

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

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

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

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

Rebecca: That sounds really exciting.

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

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

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

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

Fiona: I am here for it. [LAUGHTER]

John: Well thank you. This has been fascinating.

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

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

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

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

John: Thank you.

Rebecca: Yeah, thank you very much.

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

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

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

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

56. Love’s labor not lost

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

Show Notes

Transcript

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

[MUSIC]

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

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

John: …and Rebecca Mushtare, a graphic designer.

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

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

Mya: Thanks for having me.

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

Mya: I have a peppermint tea with honey.

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

John: What kind?

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

John: Prince of Wales?

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

John: And I have black raspberry green tea.

Mya: Sounds good.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

John: That’s so uncommon in theater.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mya: Yes.

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

Mya: Right.

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

Mya: Yes.

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

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

Mya: Right.

Rebecca: Powell says OER is spreading in your department.

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

Rebecca: So context.

Mya: Yes. [LAUGHTER]

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

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

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

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

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

Mya: Yes.

Rebecca: …the process.

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

Rebecca: She’s one of our librarians.

Mya: Yes, we’re actually using LibGuides.

John: What led to that choice?

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

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

Mya: No.

John: …doing that or are you doing that?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rebecca: Wishful thinking.

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

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

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

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

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

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

M

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

Rebecca: Sounds really exciting.

John: It does.

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

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

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

Mya: Yeah.

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

Mya: I love that idea. Thank you.

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

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

John: RIght.

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

John: …or practically anything. [LAUGHTER]

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

John: Where can people find this?

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

Rebecca: Great.

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

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

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

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

Mya: Oh, yeah. [LAUGHTER]

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

Mya: Yes.

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

Mya: Oh, okay.

John: …in the future.

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

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

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

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

John: Yes.

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

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

John: Thank you, this has been wonderful.

Mya: Thank you.

Rebecca: Yeah, thank you so much.

[Music]

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

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

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

55. Open pedagogy

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

Show Notes

Transcript

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

[MUSIC]

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

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

John: …and Rebecca Mushtare, a graphic designer.

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

[MUSIC]

John: Our guest today is Robin DeRosa…

Robin: That’s me.

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

Robin: Thank you.

Rebecca: Today our teas are…

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

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

Rebecca: Sounds like a nice combination.

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

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

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

John: It’s been there for a year.

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

John: In exactly the same tray…

Rebecca: No…

John: I just refilled it today.

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

John: Okay. [LAUGHTER]

Rebecca: That’s where I got it from.

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

Rebecca: We don’t mess around.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

John: We all do to some extent.

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

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

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

Rebecca: Which they made.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rebecca: Or I’m not represented.

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

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

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

John: That’s scary.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rebecca: I almost did it earlier but I…

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

Rebecca: …I contained myself. [LAUGHTER]

John: But, It is important.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Robin: Exactly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Robin: NASA, the White House….

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

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

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

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

Rebecca: That was good, yeah.

John: And it’s an important message.

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

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

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

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

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

Rebecca: Incremental change is still change?

John: It is.

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

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

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

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

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

John: Okay, well thank you.

Rebecca: Yeah, thank you.

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

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

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

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56. Love’s labor not lost

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