In episode 12 of this podcast, Doug McKee joined us to discuss the Active Learning Initiative at Cornell. In this episode, Doug returns to give us an update on this initiative and some initial findings on how this initiative has affected student learning. Doug is a Senior Lecturer in the Department of Economics and an Active Learning Initiative Project Lead at Cornell University.
Looking to the future as an instructor in higher education can seem daunting, especially as we plan for a more equitable future. In this episode, Jesse Stommel joins us to discuss some of those challenges, search for hope, and discuss ways forward that are ethical, humane and flexible. Jesse is the Executive Director of the Hybrid Pedagogy nonprofit organization, and organization he founded in 2011. He is also the founder of the Digital Pedagogy Lab. Jesse recently served as the Executive Director of the Division of Teaching and Learning Technologies at the University of Mary Washington. He is the co-author, with Sean Michael Morris, of An Urgency of Teachers: The Work of Critical Digital Pedagogy, and, with Dorothy Kim, co-editor of Disrupting the Digital Humanities.
- Jesse Stommel’s website
- Morris, S. M., & Stommel, J. (2018). An Urgency of Teachers: The work of critical digital pedagogy. Hybrid Pedagogy.
- Kim, D., & Stommel, J. (2018). Disrupting the Digital Humanities (p. 514). Punctum books.
- Hybrid Pedagogy
- Goldrick-Rab, Sara and Jesse Stommel (2018). “Teaching the Students We Have, Not the Students We Wish We Had.” Chronicle of Higher Education. December 10.
- Elbow, Peter (1997). Grading Student Writing: Making it Simpler, Fairer, Clearer
John: Looking to the future as an instructor in higher education can seem daunting, especially as we plan for a more equitable future. In this episode, we discuss some of those challenges, search for hope, and discuss ways forward that are ethical, humane and flexible.
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 Jesse Stommel. Jesse is the Executive Director of the Hybrid Pedagogy nonprofit organization, an organization he founded in 2011. He is also the founder of the Digital Pedagogy Lab. Jesse recently served as the Executive Director of the Division of Teaching and Learning Technologies at the University of Mary Washington. He is a co-author, with Sean Michael Morris of An Urgency of Teachers: the Work of Critical Digital Pedagogy, and with Dorothy Kim, the co-editor of Disrupting the Digital Humanities. Welcome, Jesse.
Jesse: Hi, it’s good to be with you all. Looking forward to our chat.
Rebecca: Today’s teas are:
Jesse: I’m actually drinking peach honey sparkling water. It’s sort of tea infused.
Rebecca: Okay, that’s good. That counts. Also, it sounds really good. [LAUGHTER]
John: I have ginger peach black tea.
Rebecca: …and I have a decaf Assam.
Jesse: I feel jealous of both of your teas.
Rebecca: It’s sad that we don’t have you in person in our office where we have a giant selection that you could choose from, we’ll send you a picture so you know what you missed out on. [LAUGHTER]
Jesse: Well, we’ll have to do that in the future.
Rebecca: Yeah, definitely.
John: They’re slightly aged teas compared to when we last saw them about a year and a few months back, but they are there and some of them we’ll probably have to dispose of. [LAUGHTER] You’ve been a really important voice on behalf of inclusive teaching and very vocal on topics like trauma-infused pedagogy, designing with care in mind, ungrading, and equity more generally. What does it mean to be an ethical instructor as we approach the fall, still amidst the last stages of a pandemic?
Jesse: I wrote a piece with Sara Goldrick-Rab a few years ago, and for folks who don’t know, Sara Goldrick-Rab is an expert in higher education policy, particularly focusing on food and housing insecurity. And she and I wrote a piece for the Chronicle of Higher Education called “Teaching the Students We Have, Not the Students We Wish We Had.” And ultimately, the thing that that piece charged me to do, and I’ve been working with Sara for, I think, close to eight years now and her work and the research that she’s done has really put a kind of specificity to my work on inclusive pedagogies and critical pedagogies that has charged me to think really carefully about how the material circumstances of our students affect their learning experience, and also how the material circumstances of teachers affect their teaching experience. And so if I think about how we begin to move back into classrooms, to find our way back to our institutions, to find our way back to the collaborations and colleagues we may have worked really closely with, I think that the key is for us to do really deep work thinking about who are our students? What do they need to be successful? How have they been affected by the last 18 months? And to do that same work with ourselves and our colleagues. Ask ourselves: who are we as teachers? What do we need to be successful? And I think institutions have a charge that they have to be really careful about how they quote unquote, pivot back to business as usual. I don’t think there’s a neat and tidy pivot back. And I don’t think business as usual is the appropriate place for us to turn to at this moment. So for institutions to ask hard questions of themselves, interrogate the things that they may have done to exclude many of the people who found themselves struggling during the pandemic, the things they did to exclude those students and faculty members well before the pandemic, to assure that they don’t continue the kind of exclusive practices that I’ve seen so many institutions coming to grips with in the last 18 months.
Rebecca: I really appreciate the focus that you’ve put on both students and also caring about colleagues and making sure that we’re being reciprocal in thinking about each other as humans and not just robots that we work with or something. In this conversation of getting back to campuses in the fall, what can we do to continue to humanize this practice with our colleagues too, that you just kind of focused a little bit on students, but what does this mean when we’re thinking about our colleagues and our relationships with our colleagues,
Jesse: I’ve been at several institutions that were struggling. So many of the people listening have found themselves at institutions that were struggling, I feel like the whole of public education is struggling at the current moment, but I’ve had some very specific circumstances at the last few institutions where I worked. About 10 years ago, I worked at Marylhurst University in Portland, Oregon, and Marylhurst University ended up closing down because of financial insecurity. And I was there a few years before they closed down and sort of dealing with the environment and watching the writing on the wall get darker and darker. After that, I went to University of Wisconsin-Madison, where the Governor, Scott Walker, obliterated tenure across the system, taking one of the best public education state systems in our country and making it a mockery. And his decision had a rippling impact across the entire institution. And what I found in both of those situations was that in situations of precarity, situations of financial austerity… and in many cases, those are manufactured, and they’re manufactured, especially in the case of Scott Walker, for very particular political reasons. In situations of austerity and precarity, people start to turn on each other, the sort of fabric of the community that existed prior to those moments that I found myself in at those institutions, I watched it erode and it eroded very quickly. And so the importance of being kind to one another, the importance of supporting each other, supporting our students, certainly, but also supporting our colleagues, and the importance of administrations focusing their efforts not on finding a new contract to a remote proctoring solution, which will do harm to all of the students and all of the teachers at the institution, but to focus their investment and their energy on finding ways to support the community that beats at the heart of the institution. That’s ultimately what we have to do. And it’s so important right now, because I saw over the last 18 months, the same thing starting to happen at a lot of institutions. I saw institutions beginning to create cultures that were inhospitable to the kinds of work that we really want to do in education.
Rebecca: I think one of the things that comes up in addition to food insecurity and housing insecurity with our students is that during the pandemic it became visible, I think, for some folks, that part-time faculty, adjunct faculty, also have some of those insecurities that we often just don’t address or think about. How do you see us, as a larger higher education community starting to support those faculty more and really addressing those insecurities? What can we do?
Jesse: I think there’s an easy answer… that we should all commit to having a permanent full-time academic workforce at all of our institutions. And the truth is that when you look at what the expenses are of our institutions, there are ways to cut costs. Imagine an institution that has just spent $500,000, or if you’re the State of Illinois, just spent $23 million on a multi-year contract with a remote proctoring solution. Think about all of that money, and how many adjunct or precarious faculty that money could support. If you think about the pedagogical benefits of making faculty full-time non-precarious, versus the pedagogical deficit that gets created by creating a culture of suspicion at our institutions, there is money being spent on things doing harm to students that could be easily re channeled towards something like certainly student support, supporting students basic needs, or supporting the basic needs of faculty who are struggling. I think that there is a need right now for us to be really honest about how money is getting spent at institutions and how that money signals what our institutions value and what our institutions don’t value. It is quite clear, across the entirety of higher education, that the vast majority of our institutions do not support teachers or the work of teaching. And that is quite clear via the mass adjunctification across our institutions, as well as the failure to properly invest in the preparation of teachers or pedagogical support for teachers. And that didn’t change in the pandemic. I have not seen a huge amount of money suddenly getting funneled into faculty development and support… at most institutions, anyway.
Rebecca: I think many of the things that we’re talking about right now are all things that were happening before the pandemic, they just became more visible to some people during the pandemic.
Jesse: Yeah, and you mentioned food and housing insecurity, and then alluded to other struggles that people were having… mental health issues… certainly, we are all experiencing acute mental health issues because of the last 18 months. But there are so many people who were experiencing acute and chronic mental health issues prior to the pandemic that weren’t getting properly addressed. And if you also think about disabled students and faculty, and the ways that their needs were not being met prior to the pandemic. We figured out how to do remote work and remote teaching in the midst of the pandemic, or we figured out how to do it as best as each individual institution might have done, which is… your mileage may vary, I guess. [LAUGHTER] But, the truth is that there are so many faculty and students who are disabled in various ways who needed that kind of support well before the pandemic.
John: On a positive note, though, didn’t the pandemic help make some of these issues much more clear to faculty and administrators, when they saw the problems that students had in continuing and when they recognize the need to provide support for faculty who didn’t have computer access at home to even connect with their students remotely? Might that perhaps help lead to a change in mindset?
Jesse: On my Twitter bio, I am called an irascible optimist. That was a moniker given to me by Sean Michael Morris. And when he said that I thought: “That is indeed me.” And I’ve worn that moniker ever since he gave it to me, irascible optimist. I’ll be honest that I have been less optimistic in the last 18 years. And I recognize I’m being less optimistic in this initial start to this conversation than I would have been if we had talked two years ago. And part of that is because of what I have seen over the last 18 months, and the deep, deep struggles that I’ve seen so many of my students having, and so many of my colleagues having, and also the failures of so many state governments, the federal government, and institutions to really figure out what to do and how to handle this particular moment. So if I think about what we’ve learned, is that we’ve learned to listen to our gut, we’ve learned to acknowledge the things that we were already seeing. It’s not like suddenly we saw new things over the last 18 months, we were already seeing them. And so we learned that we actually have to take action. One of the sad things and this is going to keep us maybe on the pessimistic place for just a few more minutes, is that I worry that so many institutions came to grips with these things, because these things started to hit them in their pocketbook. And I hate that that was the reason that many institutions started to solve these issues. On the other hand, what I will say is that the kinds of conversations that I’ve had with fellow teachers over the last 18 months have felt incredible. I have felt more connected, even if my work has been harder than it ever has been. I have felt more connected to that work and more deeply connected to the colleagues that I work with. And I have found new connections, because I have seen so many individual teachers struggling and working so hard to help meet the needs of our present moment.
John: And I’m still fairly optimistic because of that. A lot of faculty were able to avoid some of those issues, even though they may have been generally aware of some of the challenges our students face. When they interacted with them in the classroom it wasn’t quite as clear as when they were hearing from students who were dealing with problems of just being at their class because they had work commitments or because they had other responsibilities. And they had network issues because they didn’t have stable network connections, or they were using a laptop that was 10 years old, and it wouldn’t work consistently. And I think faculty in general have become much more aware of the challenges of our students. I’m hopeful, at least, that that’s not going to disappear. And that that could help lead to more consistent support of students once we do return to whatever the new normal happens to be as we move back to more campus instruction.
Rebecca: I’m really hoping that faculty, given this kind of acknowledgement of a wide variety of struggles, will really work together and push administrators and push universities and push systems to change. Because if we don’t speak up together in a unified way, it’s not gonna happen.
Jesse: Yeah, Paulo Freire and bell hooks both talk about what they describe as critical hope… that hope is an action that we take not a passive state, that hope is a work… that hope is struggle. And just that idea that hope isn’t passive, we don’t sit back and wait and hope. Instead, we take the action of hope. And Maxine Greene, also a critical pedagogue, talks about imagining the world as though it could be otherwise. And so her word there is “imagination.” Again, something active, imagining the world as though it could be otherwise requires us to recognize our agency and how we can have a positive impact and a positive effect. And so pushing back where we can, drawing students into these conversations where we are able, insisting that student voices be centered in these conversations, these are things that we can do and that will have a necessarily good impact, even when we’re precarious and where we feel like our job might be at risk, there are still actions that we can take, and it’s a matter of figuring out how do I engage in the work of hope or the work of imagination.
Rebecca: See, we got to a more positive place. [LAUGHTER]
Jesse: Just give us a few minutes. [LAUGHTER]
John: One of the things you’re really known for is your work on ungrading and creating an environment that’s more conducive to learning. Could you just talk a little bit about that?
Jesse: So I’ll just say that I have been quote, unquote, ungrading for 21 years, it’s a practice that I started my first semester of teaching. And it’s a practice that has grown and changed over time. But, I often say that I have never put a grade on a piece of student work in my career. The truth is that that’s not exactly true, because I love co-teaching and when you co-teach you negotiate a pedagogy with your co-teacher, and so I have put grades on individual students’ work but it was always a discussion and a sort of process that I came to with another teacher. The interesting thing is that I’ve been doing this work as part of my practice for 21 years, but I didn’t start talking about it publicly. I mean, beyond just having conversations about it publicly. I didn’t start publicly writing about it, giving keynotes about it, etc., until 2017. So four years ago that I really started writing publicly about this. Ungrading was a word that I had used, but it wasn’t something that an entire way of my pedagogical thought was centered around. So it has been interesting to watch the transition in me as I’ve moved towards talking about this more publicly. And I’ll tell you the reasons I didn’t talk about it publicly. I was a road warrior adjunct for about nine years of my teaching, teaching at up to four institutions, nine classes a term, dealing with the rules and restrictions at four different institutions. And I also felt like my pedagogical approach to grading felt like something between me and the students I was working with. It was no one else’s business. It was a conversation I had with them. And I felt like I wanted to protect that space for students and me to work through that together. The reason that I changed my thinking and started writing more publicly is because, over the last 20 years, I’ve watched education become increasingly quantitative and watched the reliance on learning management systems, which turn students into rows in a spreadsheet and their work into columns in a spreadsheet. I’ve watched institutions grade and evaluate their teachers in increasingly quantifiable ways. And then I’ve watched, obviously, the turn towards algorithms and the Internet of Things and weird tools like plagiarism detection software that again, feels like it reduces us to cogs, and reduces our work to bits, ones and zeros. And so I felt the need to create a larger conversation and dialogue on this because increasingly, I recognize that grades were the biggest thorn in the side of critical pedagogy and the biggest thorn in the side of my pedagogy. And so many people felt like we’re increasingly struggling with grades as the thing that got in the way of them creating productive relationships with students. And ultimately, when I started writing about it, I was amazed at the response. And to some degree, I feel like there were so many people that had hit that wall, and that we’re feeling that increased quantification over many, many years, almost like frogs boiling in a pot of water. And the other amazing thing was how much conversations with the larger community of teachers, a larger community of students, helped continue to evolve and change my practice. I guess one of the other reasons I started writing and talking about it more publicly was because I needed a push. I needed students and colleagues to ask me to work even harder to ask even harder questions of myself. And the last thing I’ll say is that ungrading is just a word. The one thing I can’t stand about the word ungrading is it tries to take a huge variety of practices that push back on traditional grading, and tries to lump them into one word as though there is upgrading tm, you know, the thing Jesse invented and that you can buy from him for $19.99, [LAUGHTER] three payments, and that he’ll deliver it to you and it will be a stack of 20 best practices that if you implement will change your life and make your relationships with students better. And that’s just not the way pedagogy works. That’s not the way teaching works. And that’s certainly not the way something as complex as assessment works. And so ultimately, this has to be an ongoing dialogue, conversation between teachers, between teachers and students. And what works for one teacher in one context with one group of students won’t necessarily work neat and tidily for another.
John: You mentioned that your practice has evolved in some way. Could you talk a little bit about how your practices involving… I don’t want to say ungrading again… [LAUGHTER]
Jesse: No, I did help coin the term.
Jesse: So I’m all right with us using the word “ungrading.” I think it is good for us to have a word for us to rally these conversations around because we need the energy and the catalyzing force that that term has caused, and so it’s useful and productive in that way. So I’ve done self evaluation, asking students to write process letters, to analyze their own learning, to reflect on their own learning. I’ve asked them to reflect on group and peer learning. And I’ve asked them to grade themselves. And over the course of my career, I almost always give students the grade they give themselves. For the most part, when I change a grade, it’s to raise the grade, especially in situations where I feel like bias has influenced the grades. The thing is bias, even self-internalized bias, affects how we review and evaluate our performance. And the thing that I’ve changed most about is I’ve started to get this nagging feeling that when I have students self evaluate and self grading that I’m taking everything that I don’t like about grades, everything that the research shows is ineffective about grades, everything that is emotionally harmful about grades and giving grades, and taking that and kind of passing the buck on to students. And so my project in ungrading, or my project in my own assessment practice, has always been to turn grades over on their back and inspect them and ask hard questions of them and wonder at them and raise our eyebrows at them so that we feel like we have more agents within a quantified system like we work in. And I don’t think I can necessarily do that by just taking all the problems of grades and passing that over to students. So I’ve started to rethink how I ask students to do that work of grading themselves. One of the things that I found is, over so many years, giving A, A-, B, B+, B, B- is that when students went to grade themselves, they would give themselves something like, “Oh, it’s either an A plus, or an A minus, or it’s a B plus.” And they would quibble these tiny details, which that kind of evidence suggests to me that I had passed the anxiety of grades and quantification on to them. And so recently, in the last two years, I’ve removed A minuses and pluses from the approach that I use, I tell students just round up. And it’s interesting, because the second that I did, that students stopped quibbling the tiny details, and this is really drawn from some writing by Peter Elbow, where he writes specifically about minimal grading, which taking 100 point scale or 1000 point scale and reducing it to a 10 point scale, or a five point scale, or a three, two, one point scale. And the more we reduce it, the more clear it becomes, and the more it communicates, and the more effective it is as an assessment tool. And so giving students less gradations to quibble about. But on the other hand, I also recognize that these are decisions that I’m making, that I still have power in the classroom and trying to think about an inspect my own power and privilege in the classroom and how I can begin to at least dismantle that, not to remove it, because I think classrooms need strong leaders, but at least to dismantle it enough that I’m leaving space for students to sort of carve out their own space within their educations.
Rebecca: Seems to me that a lot of the ungrading work is really tied to this idea of flexibility that you’ve talked about pretty frequently: being flexible as a teacher and offering options, but it’s also in popular in frameworks, like UDL. But I also know that the idea of providing flexibility can cause a lot of anxiety to a faculty member in trying to figure out how to do that and make it manageable and make it sustainable. Can you share some ideas about making that a sustainable practice and also what you mean by flexible options for students.
Jesse: So the interesting thing is flexible does become more complicated. If we are engaging in the work of teaching as a form of policing student learning, or even not policing, just monitoring, even, monitoring student learning, or collecting or gathering student learning or gathering evidence for student learning. The second that we as teachers move away from that role of feeling like we are the evaluators, we are meant to rank students, we’re there to police their learning, we’re there to ensure compliance…. which honestly, even good teachers, so much of that is baked into just how our system is structured, that we do it without even realizing that we’re doing it… even the structure and shape of a syllabus has so much of that baked into it. I think that flexibility becomes a lot easier when you hand that over to the students. So people often say, “Oh, well, you let your students do five different things for an assignment or you let them just pick something… anything?” And I say, “Well, I don’t let them I invite them to do that, first of all.” Second of al, “Well, then how do you manage all the different things you get at different times?” I say, “Well, I don’t consider myself the primary audience for student work, I create a space in my course where they can share this work with one another. And they can give one another feedback.” And then, “Well gosh, how do you deal with all of the requests that you might get?” I don’t ask my students to ask permission. I invite them to modify, remix, to take advantage of flexibility. So in other words, the more that I remove my bureaucratic burden, the more flexibility becomes super easy because if a student says to me, “Well, can I” I can say, “of course you can. I invite you to change, remix,” in some ways, I don’t even have to do the work of considering the request. Because the request isn’t necessary to the relationship. I’m sort of there to offer feedback to students, and to be surprised and to marvel at whatever it is that they end up doing for the course. The other thing that we often do is we think that our role is to rank students against one another. That’s one of the reasons why I can’t stand rubrics, because I feel like the entire structure of a rubric is set up to put student work into neat and tidy boxes. And when we do that, we essentially are ranking students against one another. And so if one student does something that is just in a completely different universe from another, how do you assure that they both earned the A ? Well, ultimately, if you just remove the idea that our work is to compare students to one another. One student does a traditional academic paper and the other gives you a piece of installation art that moves around campus and that you can’t even quite make sense of it. You don’t have to hold them up and say, “Well, how do I really justify giving that piece of performance art an A?” You take it on its own merit, and you recognize what it is, and you marvel at it. And you allow yourself to be surprised by it. The more flexible I am, the more fun teaching ends up being, people often when I say things like that think, “Oh, your classes, just chaos.” And actually, no, I’m a pretty type A person. I’m pretty OCD, I actually structure a really neat and tidy syllabus, the structure of my course, is very organized, partly because I sort of subscribe to improvisation within a frame, which I take from jazz music, but I don’t know much about jazz. So feel free to tell me if I’ve interpreted that completely wrongly. But this idea that we need a frame and a structure in order to improvise within it. And so you set up the sort of guardrails for students, to some extent their boundaries, but it’s more like their guardrails, you set them up so that students feel like they can experiment within the space of the classroom. And then, to some extent, it allows you and gives you the freedom to play without worrying if you’re just going to go completely off the deep end,
John: You mentioned being surprised by some of the things your students have come up with as ways of demonstrating their learning. Could you give us just a few examples of some of the more interesting projects your students have selected?
Jesse: I kind of alluded to it in our last conversation. But this was at University of Mary Washington, and the assignment was to reinvent, rebuild the internet. And the assignment had a very short prompt that gave space for students to interpret the instructions in so many different ways. And the answer to this assignment for a group of students was to create a pile of trash. And that pile of trash had multicolored bits of crumpled paper in it. And it was a piece of installation art that migrated around campus. And they took pictures of it in different locations around campus. And then at one point it showed up in our classroom, and they wrote an artist statement that talked about the detritus of the web, the deep and dark web and all the bits you can see and the bits you can’t see. And that was marvelous. The sort of meat of the project was how captivating and how just seeing this thing, and wondering at how this fit as an interpretation of the assignment. I often come into class, and when I’ve just picked something like a reading or designed an assignment, and I’ve kind of done it instinctually maybe it’s because I’m doing that reading for the first time, I’ll often go into class, and I’ll say, “Why did I choose this reading?” And I mean that honestly, it’s not a rhetorical question. It’s like, this is the first time I’ve taught this and I’m trying to figure out whether it fits and how it fits. And so ultimately, that’s what this group of students’ project did for me, is it forced me to ask myself, “Well, gosh, what is this course even about?” And to me, that project managed to get at the biggest question of the course, which is, what are we even doing here? Why are we talking about the internet, and for me, that was marvelous. On the other hand, another teacher might look at this pile of trash and say, “Hey, that’s just a pile of trash.” And so there’s something idiosyncratic about how we engage with student work. I’ve also read really, really good academic papers. And so even some of those have surprised me, in part because sometimes it’s that punctum in an academic paper where the academic paper is just going along, going through the motions of a traditional academic paper, and then it just veers. And then you have this moment like Roland Barthe’s punctum where all you can see, you almost have it burned into your retina, this sort of moment of friction within the work. And truthfully, those are the most interesting parts of education in general, is the parts where we do something that we weren’t expecting, or where students turn something in that we never would have imagined for a particular assignment.
Rebecca: One of the things that sometimes comes up with flexibilities not just the trepidation of a faculty member, but also of students. When there’s a lot of options available, students sometimes can freeze and not know what to do. You mentioned the guardrails. So how do those function? Or how do you make sure that those students that are overwhelmed by choice feel included?
Jesse: One thing is to have very clear parameters, and I tend to have really short provocations for students… let’s call them provocations instead of assignments, because even the idea of assignment suggests a transactional relationship between a teacher and students, I still haven’t found quite the right word, invitation doesn’t feel strong enough, but maybe provocation is what it is. So I try and be very, very clear to have very explicit instructions. And also to have them very short. I find that so often, we create assignment sheets that end up being longer than the papers themselves. I’ve seen two-page responses that have an assignment sheet that’s three or four pages describing what students should do and their two page response paper. And I think partly we do that because we’re anxious about the questions that we’ll get, and we’re anxious about students falling through the cracks. When what happens is the more words that we put in our assignments, or provocations, whatever you want to call them…. I think I’ll, for the purposes here, I’ll keep calling them assignments. I think that’s fine. We fill our assignments up with language that’s all there, in some ways defensively, but every single word we put in there is a pothole that a student might fall into. It’s a rabbit hole a student might fall down. And I find that the shorter my assignment descriptions are, the less questions I get, the longer they are, the more questions they get. And people just think, well, if I just answer all the questions in advance that I won’t get any questions. And that isn’t how it ends up working out, because students are really worried about what our expectations are. And I think we have to break that down. And the reason that a student feels overwhelmed by choice is because they’re worried about meeting our expectations. And so we have to make sure that, in our language, we make clear, this isn’t about my expectations, it’s about what you expect of yourself. And here’s the thing I don’t necessarily know that works if we’re using traditional grading systems, because ultimately, if you’re putting a grade on a thing, your expectations are what matters. But if you’re giving over some, or even all of that work to students, it starts to break down this idea. They recognize, “Oh, he’s not grading this anyway. So this really is about my expectations.” And if, when I engage with the work rather than approving of it or disapproving of it, instead, I encounter it the way a reader would, by having a reaction to it and telling students what my reaction is. And then I encourage students to do that for each other. Peter Elbow talks about ranking, evaluating and liking… ranking being the thing that we shouldn’t do, we shouldn’t rank students against one another, evaluating being a thing that still has a place because certainly there are times when students do need some amount of evaluation from an external mentor, I think those moments are much fewer than we end up doing. And then he talks about liking, which is just giving ourselves space to appreciate student work, to not have to evaluate it, to just enjoy it, and to respond to it and to be an expert reader for students.
John: Could you elaborate on that notion of being an expert reader for students? What sort of feedback do you provide them as an expert reader?
Jesse: Well, I think one of the things is that so much of our so many of our traditional grading systems call for us to be objective. And we can probably have a whole other podcast around objectivity versus subjectivity and whether they’re even possible. There’s a lot of research that shows the idea of objective grading is just a fallacy to begin with. But I think that it’s about allowing ourselves to have a subjective response, allowing ourselves to bring our full humanity to that moment of engaging with student work, to laugh at it, to wonder at it, to marvel at it, to be silent, to be struck silent, to raise our eyebrows at it, to ask hard questions of it. And so what that might actually look like with a group of students is letting them see me puzzling over it, letting them see me just work through my thinking about what I’m seeing. And so oftentimes, I have students do sort of expos in class where they bring all of their work and they just lay it out, whether it’s a paper, whether it’s a pile of trash, whether it’s a video, whether it’s a documentary, they lay their work out, and we just hang out together and go around and look at each other’s work. And what I sort of see my role there is just to model what it looks like to appreciate the efforts that they’ve made and to encounter their work and talk about my experience of it, as opposed to saying, “Oh, you did this? Well, this needs improvement.” …to sort of hold back that this needs improvement, because there are moments when that’s really important, but then other moments where it isn’t. For example, I taught first-year writing for a long time, and in first-year college writing, it’s not getting to success, it’s about just getting comfortable writing, just getting comfortable in your skin as a writer. And that means not a lot of that kind of evaluative feedback, it means more just here’s what happens to me when I encounter your words.
Rebecca: Some of what we’ve been talking about with this flexibility and ungrading is really starting to get a sense that individual students and members of a learning community really being members and belonging to that community. Can you elaborate on ways in addition to this flexibility idea that might help students from a wide variety of backgrounds feel like they belong, especially those that we saw during the pandemic and we know they existed before that, really struggling or having barriers and helping them really feel like “You really do belong here. You really should be here. We want you here.”
Jesse: I think that we do that from the very beginning and how we structure education at so many of our institutions, the reliance on the idea of seat time. classes that meet two days a week, Tuesday and Thursday for a set amount of hours, classes that meet Monday, Wednesday, Friday, really bizarre ways of thinking about hybrid learning or online learning where there’s too much of a reliance on synchronous engagement. Ultimately, when we make those kinds of decisions with how we structure education at our institutions, we’re telling whole swaths of students: “This isn’t built for you, this isn’t made for you.” And increasingly people talk about adult learners. Well, at the college level, all of our students are adult learners. And increasingly, the vast majority of them are working adult learners. And we’re not doing enough to structure education so that it acknowledges their experience. I had a student who was disabled, he had chronic migraines. And, luckily, at the time I worked at an institution where I was developing a new hybrid degree program. And I had in a sense developed the program not just for him, but for all of the students I was working with, who were like him in various ways, who had no access to education, without serious rethinking about how we build our curriculum. So thinking about when we move online, relying increasingly on asynchronous ways for students to engage asynchronously, because most of the students who turn to online need more flexibility, their time is not their own in many cases. And when we’re designing degree programs, rethinking things like the 15-week semester, rethinking things like seat time, rethinking things like classes that meet Monday, Wednesday, Friday for 50 minutes over the course of a 15-week period. Honestly, I increasingly think that’s absurd. What a weird structure…50 minutes three times a week, how is where a student is at on Monday any different than where they’re at on Wednesday, is 15 minutes really enough time for us to develop the kinds of thinking that we’re trying to get at in our courses. Ultimately, I think, just asking ourselves, are we continuing to teach students in the way that we are just because this is the way we have always done it? Or is this actually what will help students learn and give space for students to learn? Also, if we go back to those adjuncts, when I was a road warrior adjunct trying to teach a Monday, Wednesday, Friday class that met for 50 minutes, that was 45 minutes from my house, trying to fit that into my schedule with my other eight classes, was nearly impossible. What I needed more than anything was not just one approach, I needed to be able to teach one course asynchronously, one course on a tuesday, thursday schedule. So I needed a variety of different things in my schedule. And that’s what a lot of students are needing. The students at my institution, where I’m currently teaching still at University of Mary Washington, so many of them are quote unquote, traditional students who want face-to-face interaction. And so the institution says we are on ground residential institution, we will be back full time, everyone will be back at their desks in the fall. But that’s not what the students actually want. The students want most of their educational experience to be face to face, but they’re struggling to fill a schedule, because they’re also working. And so they need to be able to take some courses online, some courses hybrid, some courses face to face. And they really want to be able to build a much more thoughtful approach to education. And also, when we think about specific classes, some disciplines, some courses, lend themselves to one format, some lend themselves to another. So I think that that’s the way we invite students in is, from the start, actually building with the students. And not just for the students building for those students would be great, but also finding ways to build with them, and to design curriculum alongside of them. So it really meets their needs and challenges them appropriately.
John: One of the things that’s going to be a bit different this fall is that we’re going to have some students who are sophomores, even, who’ve never been on campus. And most students have not been interacting in person in classrooms for the last year and a half or so. What can we do to help create a sense of community when we bring these people together for the first time after this long break from face-to-face interaction?
Jesse: The first thing I’m thinking about is something that I started saying, from the very, very start of the quote unquote pivot to online, right around the beginning of the lockdown last year, I started to say, we need to make sure that it isn’t continuity of instruction that we’re trying to maintain, but continuity of the communities at the heart of our institutions. I don’t know if many institutions figured out how to support those communities online. I think they figured out how to keep the lights on and to keep people taking classes. But, I don’t necessarily know that the communities were maintained. What I worry about as we return to campus is that we will try and pick up right where we left with that continuity of instruction. Rather than realizing that where we need to most place our efforts is not just starting up the wheel of delivering content to students, what we need to do is figure out how to revitalize those communities. And that needs to be a huge part of our efforts. So if every teacher is imagining that they’re going to go back to teaching the same amount of content that they taught before the pandemic… one, they were probably trying to teach too much. They were probably teaching too much at the expense of developing community even two years ago, but recognizing that we need to put a lot more breathing room into our courses. And also a lot more conversation between courses, because communities don’t just exist in a vacuum, you don’t just have a community in your first-period class, and then a community in your second-period class community is living, breathing, and it’s sort of echoes between those spaces. So thinking about what happens between period one and period two. How are those two courses connected? What are students doing on campus? Where is the life of the institution? And how can we invest as much as possible into supporting that, and I don’t think it’s with algorithmic retention software. That is the worst possible thing that I see institutions turning to to try and support community. Algorithms are not going to help us build and maintain community, human beings are the ones who are good at that. So any dollar you’re spending on an algorithmic retention software, please give that to adjunct and contingent instructors.
John: In terms of reducing the amount of content in classes, I think a lot of faculty realized that when they switch to remote or online instruction. Is that something you think people will automatically recognize or do you think people are going to try to go back to how things were before and forget the lessons that they’ve learned about this during the pandemic?
Jesse: I think a lot of individual faculty, individual teachers, individual students will take so many of these lessons back to their work this fall and beyond. I think institutions are much harder to shift. And so the problem is, I don’t know that institutional culture will change in the way that it needs to in order to support the efforts of those students and faculty. And so this is really a charge to institutions and administrators to put that breathing room also in the institutional culture and important ways.
Rebecca: And maybe even really, to push it within a department because that might be a place where faculty can start to expand it out. And think about it. When you were talking, I was imagining a time that seems so long ago now. It may have been 10 years ago, and seems like a really long time now.
Jesse: Yeah, it feels like it’s either a week ago, or like 10 years ago, to me,
Rebecca: I had colleagues that we would, if we had classes at the same time, we would actually schedule activities together. We would cross pollinate to have some of that community. We’d have design challenges and investigate and do different things with each other. We’ve lost some of that play, just over time with assessment requirements and this and that. It has fizzled. So I’m hoping that this fall will bring back the play, bring back the fun for that community that to marinate a little bit.
Jesse: And if I can think of some really practical things institutions can do in order to seed that community that you’re describing. If your institution is not paying adjuncts and contingent staff for faculty development, it needs to. Even Walmart and Subway and Starbucks pays their employees for required job training. But then the other benefit is that those are the spaces where community germinates. Another example is there are so many barriers to collaborative teaching at our institutions, “Oh, well, who’s going to get the credit for it? Whose load is it going to count towards?” If that’s your answer to collaborative teaching, you need to stop right there and ask yourself, “What kind of environment are we trying to create?” And if we want a collaborative environment, if we want a community amongst our faculty, then right then and there, decide and commit yourself to figuring out the obstacles to collaborative teaching, which I’ve watched get worse and worse and worse over the last 21 years that I’ve been teaching. And those are just two small things. And the truth is, they’re relatively easy. There are bureaucratic systems that feel like “You can’t possibly… how are we going to deal with that within our institutional database?” Like get over it, figure it out. [LAUGHTER] The truth is that those are things that we all know we want. I’ve never talked to someone who says “no, no, we don’t want people collaborative teaching” then why don’t institutions charge themselves to figure that out?
Rebecca: So many good questions raised in this conversation, Jesse. As always, I wouldn’t expect anything different with a conversation with you. We always wrap up by asking, “What’s next?”
Jesse: Oh, wow, that’s a really, really large question. What’s next? Okay, well, I’m gonna say that, as some folks listening to this may not know, my husband and I and my four-year old daughter just opened a game and toy store which has a classroom and a makerspace in it. And I am really thinking about how helping my husband with this endeavor is going to push me to think about my teaching in new ways. So, it’s a small retail space, 1600 square feet on the main street of Littleton with a retail section and a classroom and a maker space. We’re going to offer classes for kids and adults, so that it isn’t just about selling people toys and games, but teaching them how to design and make and manufacture their own toys and games. And it feels like a respite for me in some ways… one, to have my own project that I’m focusing on, but also to have a space where nobody’s telling me I have to grade. I just get to decide how I approach the work inside this space. So I’m excited to see how helping my husband with this project informs the rest of my practice and thinking about education.
Rebecca: That sounds so fun. Can I come? [LAUGHTER]
Jesse: Yeah. yeah, yeah, ou can. Do you want to be a teacher? We haven’t hired our first teacher. [LAUGHTER]
Rebecca: That sounds really fun. Actually. I’ve taught makerspace things before with kids. That sounds totally fun.
Jesse: And I guess that what’s next is to find joy in this work, because the last 18 months have been so hard. And I think that joy… bell hooks also writes a lot about joy. Joy is also a practice, joy is also struggle… but figuring out how to find the kernel of the work of teaching that has kept me doing this work for 21 years. That’s really something I feel charged to do.
Rebecca: Perhaps a charge we should all have moving into the fall.
Jesse: Yeah, I’m determined to become an irascible optimist again. We’ll see. Check back with me in a year maybe I would have gotten there. [LAUGHTER]
John: And perhaps shifting some of our focus away from grading can help restore some of that joy.
Rebecca: Indeed, indeed. Thanks so much, Jesse.
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.
Faculty development is often done in isolation on a single campus, school, or institution. In this episode Jodi Robson, Brandon McIntire, and Margaret Shippey join us to discuss The Coffee Shop, an initiative that has brought multiple campuses together to share, reflect and learn together and from each other.
Jodi is the Director of the Institute for Academic Excellence at Indian River State College, Brandon is the Director of eLearning at Florida Gateway College, and Margaret is the Director of Faculty Development and Classroom Engagement at Miami Dade College. They have all participated in the professional development programs offered by the Association of College and University Educators (ACUE) and have worked with colleagues at other regional institutions to create The Coffee Shop network for professional development.
John: Faculty development is often done in isolation on a single campus, school, or institution. In this episode we discuss one initiative that has brought multiple campuses together to share, reflect and learn together and from each other.
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 guests today are Jodi Robson, Brandon McIntire, and Margaret Shippey. Jodi most recently served in the role of the Director of the Institute for Academic Excellence at Indian River State College, and has now joined the Association of College and University Educators (or ACUE) as an Academic Strategy Consultant. Brandon is the Director of E-Learning at Florida Gateway College and Margaret is the Director of Faculty Development and Classroom Engagement at Miami Dade College. They have all participated in the professional development programs offered by ACUE and have partnered with their colleagues, Michelle Levine at Broward College and Steve Grossteffon at Santa Fe College to create the Coffee Shop network for professional development. Welcome Jodi, Brandon, and Margaret.
Margaret: : Thank you.
Jodi: Thank you. We’re happy to be here.
John: We’re glad to talk to you. We’ve been talking about this for a while. I’m glad we could finally arrange this.
Rebecca: Today’s teas are…
John: Are any of you drinking tea?
Jodi: I’m drinking tea and I drink tea every day. It is my beverage of choice. And I drink wild sweet orange.
Rebecca: Well, that sounds good.
Jodi: It’s very good… with a little bit of lemon.
BRANDON: My tea comes in the form of soda. And I am getting my daily caffeine fix because it is almost five o’clock. And I am drinking a Pepsi zero sugar.
Margaret: I’m with Brandon on the soda bandwagon, drinking a Diet Coke.
Rebecca: At least you didn’t come in with a coffee, that’s all I’m gonna say.
Jodi: Really? I could’ve…. [LAUGHTER]
John: Oh, do you have coffee shop mugs. Is that what you just helpd up?
Margaret: Yes. [LAUGHTER]
Jodi: Yes, it is. We all have our own coffee shop mug. And it’s funny because we discovered probably about four or five months after we created the coffee shop that there was only one of us who actually drank coffee, which is Margaret, the rest of us do drink tea.
Margaret: They let me stay on.
John: But as long as you clean the cups really, really well. You can still use the Coffee Shop mugs for tea.
Margaret: We’ve tested them with a lot of different content, [LAUGHTER]
John: ..and that could help clean them too. My tea is a ginger peach green tea today.
Rebecca: Back on your regular wagon, huh? And I am too. I have my English afternoon tea today.
Jodi: Those both sound tasty.
BRANDON: They do sound delicious.
John: It’s one of my favorites. I have it very often here. Could you tell us a little bit about how your participation in ACUE helped lead to the creation of the Coffee Shop?
Jodi: I had this vision of faculty working together across disciplines and getting out of their silos at my college. The first two years I was facilitating classes. And I brought faculty together in these live sessions and thyn love to hear each other. I had a vision of faculty working together across disciplines and getting out of their silos at my college. And the first two years with ACUE, I facilitated courses. And I offer live sessions for faculty to come together and to hear different perspectives and they loved it, and they were clamoring for more. And I kept trying to think how can I get more of this opportunity for faculty to come together and hear their colleagues? And I really wanted to go ahead and get beyond IRSC [Indian River State College] and the different disciplines here. During the pandemic, I was asked to facilitate some courses in North Carolina, and as I was reading the profiles of the courses I was covering in North Carolina, I saw a lot of similar interests in a desire to hear the perspective from different faculty across the college and to hear from faculty at other institutions. And when I started thinking about that, I reached out to Dr. Barbara Rodriguez with ACUE who was my contact and who worked with the other four individuals with the Coffee Shop. And I shared my crazy idea. And she went ahead and loved it, and she sent out a message on a Friday evening to four people that I had no clue who they were. And then on Saturday morning I sent this random email about my idea and how I wanted to come together and that I thought that when we come together, we are even better. I think we do amazing work independently, but I felt strongly that if we could come together and unite, we could really go ahead and come up with something amazing. And I sent out an email and they all responded to me by Monday morning and here we are almost a year later with our Coffee Shop team. But Brandon and Margaret, do you have anything that you wanted to add?
BRANDON: It was a really unique dynamic. As Jodi said, none of us knew each other, or really anything about our institutions when we were assembled. I always say it’s kind of like going on a blind date. And Barbara at ACUE was our matchmaker. We were strangers in the night who met each other and we connected. And this connection has been really good. It feels like we’ve worked together for a really long time. The meetings always have very detailed and robust discussion. We always laugh a lot and we support each other. A lot of times in our meetings, we actually present problems that we are currently having, and we help each other professionally in solving those problems. I always look forward to our weekly meetings, because we get a lot accomplished and we enjoy each other’s company.
Margaret: I would just add that one thing that we remark about on occasion is that we bring a diverse set of strengths. And that’s just been serendipitous. We have a mix of tech skills and event planning and logistics, and everybody has their contribution. And we have a core set of skills that we overlap in, in the sense that we do faculty development, but then we all have our own sort of angle on it, too. So that’s just a stroke of luck.
Jodi: Yeah, I’m gonna go ahead and add in that Brandon nicknamed us midway through the year, the Dream Team.
BRANDON: We’re not quite like the ‘92 basketball team, but we’re pretty good. [LAUGHTER]
Jodi: I’m Michael Jordan, what are you talking about?
Rebecca: Before we get too far, can you describe what the Coffee Shop is?
Jodi: We have a variety of offerings. But I’m going to go ahead and ask Margaret and Brandon each to talk about the different things that we offer with our sessions.
Margaret: We started off with webinars, and we’ve offered eight webinars over the last academic year. And the webinars bring together faculty presenters that are ACUE credentialed, or maybe they’re in the middle of taking their ACUE training. And they share their own take on some of the strategies that they have picked up from ACUE. And then the participants come into the webinar experience, hear the presentations, and we have a discussion around that. We grab themes from the ACUE content. Helping students persist was one of our topics, effectively engaging underprepared students. So this is ACUE language, and its higher ed language too, but it definitely comes from ACUE. And we send out a call for proposals at our institutions, that’s where we find our presenters, Jodi named baristas. [LAUGHTER] So, that’s where our baristas come from. And in the webinars we’ve had two each time and they share their own take on this same theme. And after their presentations, we take Q&A through a chat, and then we move into breakout rooms. That’s where that cross-discipline, cross-institution dialogue can really take place. And then we come back out and do a closing with some coffee bean takeaways.
BRANDON: So we decided that we wanted to have a different approach as well, because these webinars are an hour and a half to an hour and 45 minutes long by the time you get done with the Q&A and the breakout sessions. So I came up with the idea of doing something in addition called the espresso shot. So these webinars are like getting a big urn of coffee, and then this espresso shot would be a shorter jolt. So we’re looking at these espresso shots as a one-hour event. And the way it’s set up is we’ll have four to five speakers who present information that people have already gotten beforehand. And I’ll explain that in a second. So after we get the short little demos from each person, we break out and discuss the topic and then get back together and talk out as a group and then we dismiss. So we actually have done one espresso shot so far, and it was on welcome videos. So we send out a flyer to try to get people to join our presentation. And in the flyer we had the four baristas with their welcome video link. And we asked the attendees to watch the video before going to the presentation. So each of the four baristas essentially spoke for three to four minutes each about what their thought process was in creating the video, what type of technology they used, etc. Then in the great breakout groups, we talked about those videos as well as what we do in our own classes. So we attempted to do this espresso shot as a quick hitting, engaging conversation. We felt that it’s a success, and it’s something that we want to do more often. In fact, we’re going to do another espresso shot on Wednesday, July 28. And it’s also going to be about welcome videos.
Margaret: I would just add to that, and Brandon described it. but it’s a flipped model approach. So it’s modeling for the participants a different way of learning.
Jodi: What they’re talking about and suggesting in ACUE, we really try to incorporate those practices in what it is that we’re doing as a group, and that is definitely being presented by our baristas.
Rebecca: Speaking of which, can you talk a little bit about how your breakout rooms are structured?
Jodi: We go ahead and split into breakout rooms with probably anywhere from three to five individuals in each one of the breakout rooms. And then we have guided questions that when you go into the breakout room, you are designated as a specific box. So if your box five, it’s in a Google Doc form, and everybody in your group is responding and adding information in this box, talking about what it is that they heard and learned and how they’re going to use it or a different twist that they have related to whatever the subject was for that session, whatever our theme is for that, whether it was a webinar or the espresso shot. And they’re about 15 to 20 minutes long, and I will tell you, most of the time, we get faculty saying it wasn’t enough time to talk.
BRANDON: So one of our webinars was actually on engaging synchronous sessions. And one of the professors actually did what Jodi said, which was he gives his lecture, and he creates a Google Doc, in which students can write notes. And so everyone is collaborating on the same document at the same time. We thought, “Oh, my God, that’s a brilliant idea.” And we actually added that component, as she said, to our breakout groups. So instead of having different groups talk about something then come back, you’re spending a lot of time spinning your wheels, and talking about the same sort of topic. Each group then writes notes on what they’ve learned, how they can apply it, and then we can give all of the attendees all of the notes that they’ve taken, which are great ideas from every group. So the breakout groups are effective in dialogue, but they’re also effective in the document that we send people afterward.
John: We’ve done a number of collaborations with other campuses, we’ve been running reading groups on our campus for several years now. And I think on at least three occasions, we brought in some other campuses. And one of the things that faculty who’ve participated have really appreciated is the diversity of opinions that come from people in different departments at different institutions, where they bring very different perspectives. For example, we had a reading group a couple years back on Small Teaching, and one of the participants was in a nursing program, which is a program we don’t have on our campus. But some of the things he brought to the discussion were very useful that were picked up by people in disciplines who would not have considered those techniques if they hadn’t heard it from that perspective. Has the collaboration among the institutions done something similar with the Coffee Shop discussions?
Margaret: Definitely, we do see that in the chat. The questions that come in, the comments that come in, and sometimes they reflect the discipline or the institution of the person who’s making the comment or asking the question, and we see it a lot in the breakout rooms. they are formed randomly. I’ll let Brandon talk about the breakout rooms. But I think that that’s an important part about it. Because like you said, you could have a criminal justice faculty member in there with an English or in math and nursing. So that does lead to that rich discussion.
BRANDON: Just to further go with what I just talked about what the breakout rooms is that they’re about 20 minutes long. They’re randomized, as Margaret said. individuals from different backgrounds, from different disciplines, with different institutions come together, and they talk about those topics. The best part about the breakout groups, though, is many times these individuals get each other’s contact information during these breakout sessions, because they either want to further discuss this outside of the Coffee Shop, or perhaps they want to connect someone with a colleague of theirs. So that’s been a very valuable component of them as well.
Jodi: It really has opened a lot of doors. We have this connection in the chats and the breakout rooms. And then we have these additional emails that we get afterwards where we actually have individuals from different institutions reaching out and saying, “Can you go ahead and connect me with somebody?” And when I get that I reach out to my Coffee Mate, and I let them know, I’m going to go ahead and reach out to your presenter and do a virtual introduction and then set them on their way. So that’s happened a good half dozen times, maybe. now.
John: I’ve also seen a lot of people who, when they hear someone present, follow the presenter on Twitter, and that’s led to some other connections where people have formed a web of connections that go far beyond just the institutional networks that people are used to interacting with. So I think we’ve seen something similar in terms of the benefits of collaborating.
Rebecca: Currently, it sounds like you have the Coffee Shop set up so that it’s five campuses that are collaborating. And is that who’s invited to each of the Coffee Shops… that it’s limited to those five institutions, and it’s a closed network?
Margaret: It’s not closed. We started with the five but through Jodi’s connections and relationships with other institutions, and I’ll let her speak about it, we were able to reach into other states. Jodi, you want to talk about that?
Jodi: I believe we’ve had representation from around 13 different states. But as Margaret indicated, we wanted to start small. We came together, we didn’t know each other, but we meshed really well. And for our first session, we did invite the faculty from our institution. But after the first session, we started throwing it out there and inviting other individuals. I’ve been fortunate to sit on several SAC assignments, Southern Association of College Accreditations, and I’ve met a number of administrators over the years, so I shared it with them. And I’m friends with a couple other presidents and I also have attended some Frontier Set meetings and shared it with colleagues I’ve met on the Frontier Set calls. So we were able to go ahead and get representation from California, Texas, Delaware, Illinois, Jersey, up and down the East Coast and West. So we’ve grown and we’re hoping to continue to grow.
BRANDON:Yeah, like Margaret said, we knew that we had a good idea. But having a good idea and executing it are two entirely different concepts. So when we first started this, it was fairly scripted. And we knew that we didn’t want to take it interstate until we had what we felt was a decent product. And that took us several different sessions, a lot of brainstorming. And sometimes we restructured what we did. But it took four, six months for us to get to the point where we felt like we were ready to get out of that pilot stage. And the first time we did that Jodi had brought up saying, “Should we invite an additional institution from the state of Florida?” And we actually had a good debate saying, “Oh, are we ready to do that? We’re not sure.” And now we’re in over a dozen states. So it’s been a really organic growth. And we’re excited about where this can take us.
John: And you also share recordings of the webinars in a YouTube channel. So we will share a link to that in the show notes so that the reach goes beyond the schools that are actively participating.
Rebecca: One of the things that we’ve seen generally, but even more so during the pandemic, is the need for professional development, but the limitation of resources, time, staffing, and just the opportunity, etc. How has this and ACUE helped fill in some gaps or support the work of professional development on your campuses.
BRANDON: We, as an institution, are actually capitalizing on all the amazing work that’s being done across the country and trying to bring it to our institution, whether we’re using this information to train our faculty directly, or to come up with ideas for internal professional development opportunities, referencing ideas that we’ve seen in these workshops, in conversations with faculty, or simply sending links to the Coffee Shop presentation videos on YouTube, our faculty are getting different and unique opportunities to engage directly with the Coffee Shop, which then engages them with content from ACUE.
Margaret: I’ll add to that to say that, for Miami Dade, ACUE has become a standard offering. It’s always available on a regular basis, faculty know to expect it. And we’ve been using this course offering probably for about five years now, pre-pandemic. We used to remark about the hallway conversations that would come out of these sessions, even though they’re digital and ACUE is a virtual delivery mode. And all interaction happens over the web, which helps us as an institution, because we’re a multi-campus institution, and it’s asynchronous as well. So you can connect on your own schedule from your own location. And because of that, it gives you the chance, going back to the cross-disciplinary conversations, it allows you to meet people that you would probably never have… they just don’t have the same schedule as you… to get into the training with them. And so now you’re in the training and now you’re learning some common knowledge base. And there’s a common language now around pedagogy at the college. And it’s exciting to see that grow even more in the Coffee Shop.
Jodi: Yeah, and I would say ACUE, at our institution, has been huge with our faculty at Indian River State College, in my previous position, and they really took a hold of this and commented about how it was the most amazing professional development they have had and transformative in what they’re doing in the classroom, most importantly for supporting them but also to support their students as well to be successful. ACUE has been huge at Indian River State College. The ability to go ahead and tap into faculty and to support the Coffee Shop has really provided our faculty, at each one of our institutions, an opportunity to go ahead and hear from these experts, or as I say, a twist on something that they learned in ACUE, a unique twist. And I personally get a lot of contact from our faculty or from the faculty at Indian River State College. They shared how much they appreciated keeping the finger on the pulse of what was going on and supporting them in the classroom. So great opportunities for discussion and to build from there.
Rebecca: Do you see the Coffee Shop model as being something that other institutions should think about collaborating on a similar kind of structure as a way to support faculty? Or do you see the Coffee Shop itself as being a way to support additional campuses?
Jodi: I think we are a way to go ahead and support additional campuses. And I think my colleagues would agree with me on that. But I also think that this pandemic has provided this opportunity for us to go ahead and reach out to other institutions. So I will tell you that while I’ve shared in talks about the Coffee Shop and what we’re doing in other settings, I just randomly reached out to an individual, Dr. Michelle Cantu-Wilson at San Jacinto Community College and I said, “Hey, would you like to get together and do a book club, collaborate on a book club?” I would encourage people to go ahead and do more of that. I’d encourage them to get involved in what we’re doing here. The five of us have talked about doing different things. I think that we are a form for other individuals across the country, we certainly hope to grow.
Margaret: I would agree. And I would just say that we, as institutions, have learned so much about how to connect virtually.
Margaret: I think there’s a lot more confidence in what we can do leveraging what we’ve learned over the last year and the tools that we have now.
John: We had been offering online attendance at all of our workshops for about a decade or so now, the tools have certainly gotten a lot more powerful and much more stable and reliable (mostly), but one of the things we’re wondering is, with a pandemic, faculty got used to attending virtually and I think we’ve all seen a lot more attendance because there’s been more demand for professional development. And people have just gotten more used to the tools and more comfort with the tools. Do you think that’s going to continue as we move back into what we hope to be a post-pandemic fall semester,
BRANDON: So, I would be under the opinion that most people who worked remotely for the last year got pretty comfortable doing it. There’s no commute, you don’t have to worry about traffic, and it’s very easy to attend. To me, it’s all about the travel part. You don’t have to worry about the difficulties of getting from one place to another. So from my perspective, as Margaret and Jodi said, people in the last year became less technophobic, because they were forced to use these systems, these programs. And as a result, I think everyone is more open to using technology effectively to meet.
Jodi: I know that I’m in transition between these two positions. But Indian River State College hires faculty from outside of the local area. So where’s this professional development opportunity for them? And this forum, again, is just as Brandon said, they don’t have to commute. So we have people that are joining us from Texas and from other states. I think there’s maybe times where people will want that live offering. But I think this is something new and something people have taken advantage of. And I think I finally felt comfortable with this new approach.
Rebecca: I also really appreciate that it feels very collaborative and supportive across institutions, rather than always so competitive. I think maybe prior to the pandemic, we might be more in our silos because we want to keep to our institution or support that momentum. But what we’ve seen during the pandemic is a strong desire to support all learners across all institutions and to work together to do that, rather than thinking necessarily in our individual institutional silos.
John: Could you tell us a little bit about what the Coffee Shop has meant to each of you at your own institutions?
BRANDON: Well, since we’ve started these meetings about a year ago, every faculty member at all of our institutions is invited to attend. And faculty members, both full- time and adjunct from every one of our institutions are attending these events. And we think that’s especially important for adjuncts, because adjuncts generally aren’t given the same opportunities for professional development. And we actually see that there’s a high attendance for adjunct instructors because they appreciate the opportunity to have an opinion and to be involved in these development opportunities. So at Florida Gateway College, we have anywhere from four to 10 faculty members out of 70, So it’s a pretty decent percentage of our overall full-time faculty, who attend these events and get the knowledge directly. But then they are able to share that knowledge with other members within their disciplines. And we are also sending emails out to faculty with some of the tidbits that we learn from these meetings in case they can’t attend. Because that’s a hard part for us to schedule these meetings, because it’s impossible to find a time of day where everybody is available. It’s not like we work nine to five. So we want to be able to make this information as accessible as possible to those who could not attend. And those individuals are having a chance to be impacted as well through the YouTube channel, and through the knowledge that I’m learning from the presenters, as well as those fellow faculty members.
Margaret: I would add to that, that through the Coffee Shop, we are broadening development and supporting good teaching, which is in turn supporting the student experience, and the students are what we’re all about. So if we can open up that conversation, not all faculty can commit to the full, even the micro credential or the full credential, but they can commit to an hour, an hour and a half, conversation on good teaching and get some ideas from their colleagues, whether they’re internal or from other institutions. And our goal is that that, in turn, turns around and becomes good teaching and ultimately a good experience for the students in terms of learning and moving along on their path.
Jodi: It’s definitely the vision of where I wanted it to go for Indian River State College and providing faculty at that institution an opportunity to engage in these robust conversations and to hear from colleagues across the country. And I think it’s doing just that. So, really excited about the opportunity for Indian River State college.
John: One of the nice things about having each of your institutions participate in ACUE, I think, is that all the participants or all the presenters have this common base of core concepts and knowledge of effective teaching practices that might not have been the same knowledge base if each institution was doing their own professional development. Has that helped provide a more uniform language or more uniform framework to make it easier to share these professional development activities?
Margaret: I think it has. The presenters come in, and we also are careful to poll our audience to make sure that we know who’s with us, because you don’t have to be an ACUE alum to join the conversation. So we want to make sure that we’re not using too many words like “exit ticket” and “fishbowl.” We need to explain it. And we prep our baristas to be able to explain it knowing that some of our participants may not have gone through the ACUE learning experience. But I’ve definitely felt that having that common language is powerful at an institution.
BRANDON: And everyone in the Coffee Shop is either an ACUE facilitator or has gone through the ACUE program. So we, as a group, we have that experience to know what specific topic or area of ACUE that we want other faculty members to know.
Rebecca: So we always wrap up by asking: “What’s next?”
Margaret: For us, as a Coffee Shop team, we’ll be using this summer to look back and look forward. We’re gonna hit a pause after our next espresso lunch and learn and reflect and look at the data and our feedback. We moved very quickly over the year with eight webinars and teo lunch and learns in an academic year. And we met in September. [LAUGHTER] It was ambitious, and it was fun, and we pivoted and grew quickly from one webinar to the next. We would make changes and we got better. We know that we got better. But it’s time to take a breath, take a good look at what we’ve accomplished and do some planning for the next year. So it’s a little bit more strategic. And we’re more proactive in our approach.
BRANDON: So, as I had mentioned, we started off in this pilot phase. And now we’re starting to branch out because we realize that we have a really good product. So now that we have a really good product, we need to have a good digital presence. So part of that is to, as we continue to grow as a unit, we need to have a place where people who want to learn more about us or want to know information about prior sessions, that they have a specific landing spot. So we’re kicking around the idea of a website, perhaps a Facebook group, a Twitter page. So we’re looking at these options to figure out how we can expand that presence. As John said earlier, all we have right now is our YouTube channel. But we’re wanting to figure out what other means of communication can we take advantage of to really expand our footprint. For those who are interested in the Coffee Shop itself, if you go to our YouTube channel, you can find the contact information for each of us. So you can send a note to us if you’re interested in learning more about the Coffee Shop since we don’t have that digital presence established… perhaps if they’re interested in being attendees or participants, if they’re ACUE trained, we’re gonna welcome you with our arms open.
Jodi: The “what next” for me, I think my colleagues nailed it here with the what next for the Coffee Shop, we really poured our hearts into this this past year. We all added this on top of the jobs that we were already doing. And this takes a lot of work to do what we’re doing and there’s five of us. But we’re no different than any other organization that needs to be thinking about a continuous improvement plan. So we’re at that spot where “What is next? What do we need to do? What do we need to reflect on? Where do we need to build?” …and Margaret and Brandon very clearly articulated some areas that we need to look at and to think about moving forward. We want to make sure that we’re not missing anything, any opportunities for faculty, and supporting them. And I will say, I’m pivoting into a new position and working with ACUE. So I’m gonna have a little bit of a different role. But what is next for me, something else that I had just started to get involved with was a national teaching and learning consortium that I had mentioned earlier with Dr. Michelle Cantu-Wilson at San Jacinto Community College in Texas. And I’d like to go ahead and get our group merged with her group and to continue these conversations. And while the Coffee Shop’s more about supporting faculty, the TLC, the teaching and learning consortium, would be more about supporting us and what we can do to help each other. So my what’s next is in three different phases here, the what next as it relates to the Coffee Shop, the what’s next for me with ACUE and the what’s next for me with the TLC, but I think we’ve got a lot of great things going on and excited about moving forward.
Rebecca: We look forward to sharing what you have coming up and make sure we have the link to the YouTube page in the show notes. Thank you guys for having us. This has been wonderful. Thank you.
John: It’s great talking to you. We’ve really loved the ACUE program on our campus, and it’s nice to see some of the benefits of that being shared more broadly through the Coffee Shop.
Jodi: Well, we will make certain that you guys get the invite to our Coffee Shops and our espresso shots.
Rebecca: We look forward to it.
Margaret: Thank you for having us.
BRANDON: Thank you so much. It’s been a pleasure.
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.
Women faculty of color experience significant workload differences in course loads, advisement, and dealing with micro and macro aggressions. In this episode, Chavella Pittman joins us to discuss specific steps that we can take to reduce barriers and move towards equity. Chavella is a Professor of Sociology at Dominican University, the founder of Effective and Efficient Faculty, and is the host of the Teaching in Color podcast. She has written extensively about issues of race and gender in higher education in scholarly and general interest publications and is widely sought after for workshops and consultation services related to diversity, equity, and inclusion issues in higher education.
- Effective and Efficient Faculty
- Teaching in Color podcast
- Deslauriers, L., McCarty, L. S., Miller, K., Callaghan, K., & Kestin, G. (2019). Measuring actual learning versus feeling of learning in response to being actively engaged in the classroom. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 116(39), 19251-19257.
John: Women faculty of color experience significant workload differences in course loads, advisement, and dealing with micro- and macro-aggressions. In this episode, we discuss specific steps that we can take to reduce barriers and move towards equity.
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 Chavella Pittman. Chavella is a Professor of Sociology at Dominican University, the founder of Effective and Efficient Faculty, and is the host of the Teaching in Color podcast. She has written extensively about issues of race and gender in higher education in scholarly and general interest publications, and is widely sought after for workshops and consultation services related to diversity, equity and inclusion issues in higher education. Welcome, Chavella.
Chavella: Thank you. Thnk you.
John: Our teas today are: …are you drinking tea?
Chavella: I’m not, I’m drinking water and looking forward to going to grab a craft beer in an hour or so. [LAUGHTER]
Rebecca: Of course, we’re recording early in New York.
Chavella: Well, that’s why I had to add in a few hours. [LAUGHTER]
Rebecca: I’m drinking English breakfast today.
John: I just finished a ginger peach black tea and now I’m drinking a blueberry green tea.
Rebecca: Cup number three, isn’t it John? …it’s pretty early.
John: It is, we had a meeting earlier where I went through two versions of ginger peach black tea.
Chavella: You’re making me want to go get my tea. I’m in the midst of camping. But I have packed with me some hibiscus leaves to make tea and some ginger tea that I picked up in Bali. So you are encouraging me to have tea after I get off.
Rebecca: I think that sounds like a great plan.
John: I drink ginger tea a lot. It’s really nice.
Rebecca: So we’ve invited you here today to discuss the challenges faced by female faculty members from minoritized populations. College faculty members are disproportionately white and, in many disciplines, disproportionately male. Can you talk a little bit about why this results in workload differences.
Chavella: The main issue is that our institutions, regardless of the composition of the student body, a lot of our institutions have made commitments to producing students that can function in a diverse society, that can make a difference in the world. But, the faculty that are particularly suited to do that, in terms of maybe their statuses, or their research, or their experiences, or their pedagogy, happen to be faculty that are from diverse backgrounds. And so, those are the folks who are doing a lot of the heavy lifting, whether it be for service, in the classrooms, in their research, etc. So it’s pretty much the commitments that our institutions are making that’s requiring additional workload for those faculty. Now, obviously, other faculty can do that work. But that hasn’t been the case. These faculty are the ones that are doing it. And they’re often hired to do it, essentially. Our institutions are saying that they can prepare well-rounded students, but they don’t have well-rounded personnel and talent to do so. And the folks that they bring in are usually taking the load of that, because the same way that our students haven’t been prepared by diverse faculty, our faculty and staff haven’t been prepared by diverse folks. So, even with the greatest of intentions, the folks that we have set forward to prepare our students in this well-rounded way, they themselves are not prepared. And they themselves don’t have those skills and abilities. So the folks that we bring in who have those mindset, those perspectives, that expertise, are overloaded, because they’re having to do that work to prepare students, but also to compensate for the fact that their peers don’t have that capacity either.
John: Does this also translate into higher advisement loads for faculty in these groups?
Chavella: Yes, absolutely. Absolutely. So when you have diverse students, odds are they’re going to flock to the people who have interests similar to theirs, that look more like them. So even if students aren’t formally assigned to you, they make their way to you. But it’s not just the diverse students, some of the majority students to see, “Wow, this faculty member is doing research that’s related to this social justice thing that I’m interested in, but none of the other faculty are doing it.” So you end up advising more students formally and informally as a result because they are drawn to those folks that have a broader perspective or have experiences that are missing from the institution. So it absolutely translates into higher advisement. I just reconnected with a student , again, a white male student, so like on top of the students of color that I had, a white male student that I advise as an undergrad,just found me and I had a Zoom meeting with him last week. And I gave him the perspective and the scholarly information that he was not getting from his other faculty. And he became very interested in a lot of these issues. So it’s not just the diverse students, the majority students are flocking to these faculty as well.
John: Might the same thing be true of white faculty and male faculty approaching people who might be able to provide support when difficult or challenging issues come up? And certainly we’ve seen a lot of difficult and challenging issues over the last few years.
Chavella: Oh, my goodness, yes, absolutely. I try to tell people like I know that their request seems like it’s always just one small request. But it’s a drop in the bucket. If you can imagine how many emails I get weekly, asking me to do those things. I don’t want to implicate my own campus. But obviously, I get them on my own campus. But I also get them from organizations, I get them from people that might know me broadly. And it’s a lot. And if you think about the fact that the majority of our women of color faculty are not tenured and at less junior ranks, like the service load that that puts on people, it takes away from their ability to do the research. But people really do get offended. So when your faculty colleagues are like, “Oh, I’m just making this one small ask,” but they don’t understand that you’ve probably gotten five or six just that week. And then, because they don’t have to do that work all the time and face the resistance and the navigation that’s required by that, they don’t realize that not only is it a time toll, it’s an energy toll, and it’s risky. So yeah, that’s exactly what I was saying about our colleagues not having the capacity for this work, but they’re coming to us to do it. And it’s a lot, it’s a lot. And it doesn’t mean that folks don’t want to be helpful, but you can’t do things for other folks to the detriment of your own career or well being. And a lot of times it’s set up that way, that expectation is set up that that’s what needs to be occurring.
John: And especially for junior faculty, it’s hard to say no, sometimes, I would imagine,
Chavella: Absolutely. It’s really hard to say no, even when I was junior, I had senior mentors that helped me navigate how to say no, and how to often say no, that didn’t sound like a no, how to say something that will make the person take the request back, or take something off my plate, or whatever it was to acknowledge that that was labor on top of other labor and the costs or consequence it might have for me, so I’m very grateful for the senior folks who did that for me. And I try to do that now for women faculty of color, for sure.
Rebecca: That reminds me of one of your episodes of your podcast that focuses a lot on the classroom and actual teaching and the labor that’s involved with that. Can you elaborate a little bit on those ideas and how the workload associated with actually being in class and teaching is something that we tend to overlook?
Chavella: Absolutely, absolutely. And I’ll forewarn anyone who listens to those is that you’re going to hear me sound frustrated, because people really do overlook that labor. What I hear most often is people say, “Oh, no one gets tenure for teaching, or no one gets denied tenure, because of teaching.” But that’s not true. It’s not true at all. And what you hear me talk about in those podcast episodes, and in some of my research, or we read other people’s research on the classrooms, is that those faculty, their navigating minefields, essentially, they’re being harassed by students, by colleagues for the content, their careers are at threat because of evaluations. They’re trying to prepare for the inappropriate resistance that they’re going to get in the classroom. And because they’re spending so much time and energy doing that, they are not able to do the research that they need to get tenured, whether it’s just the time or the emotional labor required, it just doesn’t leave space for people to get the research done. So it drives me a bit bonkers, that people really overlook how this stuff plays out in the classroom, because they think it’s not important. But the reason they think it’s not important is because they don’t experience it, and they don’t see it. And they don’t understand how much of a drain it can be and really derail people’s careers. But yes, I talk a lot about that on the podcast.
John: And you also had written a paper about classroom disruptions primarily involving white male students engaged in disruptive behavior in classrooms. Could you tell us a little bit about that?
Chavella: I think a lot of what I’m trying to do for the most part is give voice to the experiences of women faculty of color, because they are overlooked and invalidated. And it’s like missing or people try to find ways to explain it away. But honestly, there isn’t space for the voices of the experiences of women faculty of color. So that article that you’re talking about, in particular, was a research project that interviewed folk and it was about their teaching broadly. So it wasn’t even focused on the disruptions. But the pattern that became really clear was that all the women faculty of color, regardless of discipline, how much teaching experience they had, and their rank, because sometimes people say, “oh, once you’re senior, you won’t have to deal with it.” That’s not true. I’m a full professor. But guess what, I’m still black. [LAUGHTER] I’m also still a woman. And so what was found in that research was, again, across all of those differences, the women faculty of color had the same experiences with white male students in particular, over and over again. They would challenge their authority in a variety of ways. They would make them feel at threat, whether getting in their personal space, some sort of physical threat, or engage in behaviors that would make their careers seem like they were at threat. They would inappropriately challenge the legitimacy of their scholarship. Like they would say, “This is just your opinion.” It’s like, “No, this is expertise. This is scholarly expertise.” So those were just a couple of the themes that were in that data. But those things are common, and they happen on a regular basis. And that’s not acknowledged. And so that’s why I tried to do that research, and try to get it out there as much as possible, because people don’t realize that these are the dynamics that women faculty of color, a lot of them, not all of them, are dealing with in their classrooms.
Rebecca: There’s a lot of the “and” like, it’s the advisement… and the classroom… and course load [LAUGHTER]. They all really add up. Can you talk a little bit about the course load issues?
Chavella: Oh, my goodness, yes, you would think I just started researching this stuff. I’m still having visceral responses to it. When people tell you things anecdotally, sometimes people try to say like, “Oh, that’s not true.” When you look at the data, and see who’s getting the new course preps , who’s being assigned the service courses, which tend to have higher loads. Those tend to be our women faculty of color. Other folks are able to sort of choose, select, be assigned smaller courses, niche courses on their research. And that’s not happening. So for the most part, women faculty of color have higher loads. And again, to give you anecdotal, to see what that looks like, I was just talking with a black woman faculty member yesterday. And she told me that a piece of paper was passed along at a meeting, and her name was just next to three courses. And it happened to be three new course preps at the same time. And so people aren’t watching, essentially. They’re not keeping track of the assignments, they’re not ensuring that there’s parity. So she was completely frazzled, trying to get those new courses all prepped at the same time. And I think two of them were grad-level courses. So yeah, so that’s what it looks like is that when you look at the statistics nationwide of the loads for women faculty of color, they’re more likely to be assigned service courses, intro courses, and new preps. And that’s labor. It’s much easier to teach a course you’ve taught before. It’s much easier to teach a course that has 15 folk in it than one that has 50, 75, 150, essentially.
Rebecca: Beginning courses can take a lot of a toll on any faculty member when you have a lot of students who might not be interested in the subject matter. But you have that layer of extra convincing to do on top of all of this too… [LAUGHTER]
Chavella: Absolutely, absolutely, absolutely.
John: And you also have discussed some of the issues in terms of the pedagogical approaches that are used. Could you talk a little bit about some of the differences that appear there in terms of how faculty of color might teach differently in some ways than what students are used to in other classes? …or faculty are used to?
Chavella: Yeah, you’re right. Students and faculty… being used to… So, again, when you look at the research on faculty, what marginalized statuses, women faculty of color, in particular, they tend to use more… and I haven’t landed on like a particular label. Sometimes I say, innovative practices, but they’re not usually innovative. They’re just non traditional, you know what I’m saying? They don’t lecture the whole time. So that group of faculty doesn’t really stand in front of the classroom and lecture. They tend to do things that are more interactive. They tend to do things that are more participatory, whether it’s emancipatory teaching or the pedagogy of the oppressed, or whatever. I don’t advocate for or against any particular type of pedagogy, but just trying to make it plain that according to the scholarship on teaching literature, these are all the pedagogies that are transformative. These are the ones that are learning centered, and they’re doing that. And a lot of times they’re doing it intuitively, sometimes they’ve studied about it. But we know that graduate programs don’t really prepare faculty to teach. [LAUGHTER] Some of them are doing intuitively… some of them found their educational experiences lacking until they’ve read a little bit about… they’re doing it differently. But they’re engaging in all of these effective pedagogical practices that really transform students in all these different ways. And that are shown to teach them well, but they get great resistance from both students and from colleagues because they’re not used to them. So they’re doing the right thing. It’s just different, and there’s a lot of resistance to the fact that they’re doing something that’s different, even though they can usually demonstrate that the students have learned.
Rebecca: We already know there’s a lot of bias in course evaluations that students perform on courses. But when we have these other active approaches, the questions that are often on those evaluations don’t even match either.
Rebecca: So it’s almost like a double whammy there.
Chavella: It is, and I’m opening up a can of worms. But the can of worms that I’m trying to not open is essentially that there’s a lot of misalignment between what our campuses say is great teaching, what’s on our course evaluation forms, and what’s actually in the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning, and what’s in a repertoire of what the people who are doing those evaluations actually know. For many of those pieces, there’s usually just a misalignment and disconnect between those pieces.
John: There was that study at Harvard done a couple years ago now, which found that students tend to find lecture much more effective, despite all the evidence that lecture is less effective than active learning techniques. So when you add in other forms of bias, that becomes fairly challenging. Anyone trying to use effective pedagogy has to make a case to students about its effectiveness. But when you add in some racial and gender bias, this problem may be a little bit worse, which may also tie into teaching evaluations, either by students or by observations from peers.
Chavella: My faculty development business is called effective and efficient faculty, because I am trying to find the easiest ways to get solutions into people’s classrooms and on the people’s campuses. I read all the literature so that people don’t have to do all that. I communicate it back to people in a way that they can learn it really quickly, but so that they can act on it. And I tell them the actionable pieces, because sometimes that becomes like a stall tactic. People are like, “Oh, I need to research and I need to read and we need to get this through committee… and our women faculty of color, don’t have time for that. So we need to get that stuff going as quickly as possible. And what you said, I mean, highlights what I was trying to say gingerly about the disconnect. All the research says that when you do something different in the classroom that students aren’t used to, your evals are going to go down. But people don’t take that into account when they’re reviewing you for tenure and promotion. Those people don’t know that research, they’re not reading it, they’re not applying it. It’s not connected. And to me, that’s what the problem is. So in terms of like, how do you address all of this, I think there are some institutional actions that people can take. And the first thing you can take is to bring the research to people. So if they’re not going to go to the research, bring the research to them. So people should be trained more on what effective pedagogy looks like. A lot of the people who are evaluating our teaching, are evaluating based on what they would do. And, eh…, that might not be right, for a range of reasons, [LAUGHTER] …might not be the right approach. It’s not grounded in research. But also we shouldn’t be evaluating people on whether or not they’re clones of us, what it is we would do, particularly if they’re people with different statuses. And I’m always trying to tell people, everybody based on their discipline, their pedagogy, their teaching style, what works for you might not work for me. And so there needs to be some flexibility. So, that’s the first thing, is that people need to be trained on what effective pedagogy is. That’s step one. The other things that can be done are, this is going back to the idea of classroom disruptions, every campus should have a classroom disruptive behavior policy, and if you don’t like the word disruptive, you don’t like the word policy, fine. It can be whatever language you like. I know that that sort of raises people’s hackles. But there’s a student code of conduct, you should be looking at it. And when it lists like, here are the things that are prohibited any place on campus, just make sure the word classroom is in there. Because sometimes people think, “Oh, that doesn’t apply to the classroom.” Hello, that’s where the work at a university occurs. Of course, it applies to the classroom. But let’s make it explicit by putting it in there. Some campuses have separate policies about classrooms, that won’t be a one-size-fits-all for faculty, because, again, people teach in different ways. What’s appropriate in one classroom might be not for another, you can yell out answers in my class, another faculty member might want you to raise your hand. But there’s a way in which you can write a policy that makes it plain that classroom management is going to occur in the classroom, and that there are going to be behaviors that will be disruptive to that classroom, and that those are not allowed, and that here are the consequences for that. And while that might make people uncomfortable, those policies already exist on our campuses, for dormitories, for public speaking events, for the dining halls, etc. And so it’s actually already normative to let students know that in order for us to sort of work and function as a community, here are the guidelines by which we should operate. And here’s what happens when you don’t abide by those guidelines. So the classrooms need to be looped into that. Student ratings, now that’s a can of worms. People will defend those things to the day that they die. I don’t get into that squirmish, that’s not the squirmish that I get into. The squirmish that I’m more interested in is I want people to read more about what the folks that make those things themselves say about their use in personnel reviews. They’re not saying they’re supposed to be used in personnel reviews. The history of those things are to give people feedback. So when you’re doing that new, innovative, fun thing, they’re meant to be a way for you to get feedback from that. They’re not meant to be evaluative and some of the items that people use, like the overall item that they actually say like “don’t use that item at al…” then people are like “that’s the best item to use.” So we need people to learn more about what student ratings say and don’t say about effective teaching and we need people to be trained, taught, learned, well versed, on what to do with the data from them. So if we’re going to use them in reviews, what is the best practice methodologically and statistically for how we use that data? So we need people to know that. And I think, just broadly, we need people to understand how to evaluate teaching for tenure and promotion. And they don’t. People might be methodologists in their discipline, and they know how to do that perfectly. None of that seems to translate to how we evaluate teaching on our campus. And again, none of these things are things that should take two years of committee work and five years of faculty governance meetings. I definitely teach people really direct simple things that they can do and shifts that they can make to get this into play. But I think those are the main magic wands, teach people about effective pedagogy, learn about student evaluations, learn how to use the data soundly, learn how to evaluate teaching, and make sure that you reward effective pedagogy. So don’t just learn about it. Don’t punish it, reward it… a novel idea. And to make sure that faculty have resources to get support off campus, because a lot of folks get relegated to the teaching center as though something’s wrong with them, like “Oh, go to the principal’s office, you got bad evals, go get fixed.” We want to make sure people have resources to go to other places where there maybe aren’t eyes. I know that teaching centers stay out of the evaluative process, but they’re overwhelmed. They’re overworked. People have put so much stuff on their plate and may not actually know some of this research, with intersections with women faculty of color, they may not have as much experience supporting women faculty of color. So you need to make sure that you give faculty resources to get the support they need off campus. So lots of magic wands.
Rebecca: So speaking of magic wands, I know you have some about workload related to advisement and course loads. Can you talk a little bit about those?
Chavella: Oh, yeah, absolutely, and these are simple. So this is actually a really good example of what I mean when I say, “Oh, even though I said a magic wand that sounds like it takes forever, that it’s really easy to resolve.” So for teaching loads, this is the magic: track them. Make an actual chart where you track people’s loads. And how many courses are service loads? What are the numbers of the loads? How many are their new preps, and you just want to keep track and make sure that there’s some equity, some equitable distribution across that, or maybe not even equitable, because if you know you’re going to give a woman a faculty of color a whole bunch of service stuff, then that means that they have a lighter load. But you need to track the load. And you need to be more mindful about the teaching assignments moving forward. So just track them. People don’t do that at all.
Rebecca: I think sometimes these things seem so obvious. But we need to say them out loud.
Chavella: Yes, absolutely. Yes, simple excel sheet, anyone can do that. They could do that today, if they wanted to.
John: And while this wouldn’t eliminate bias in evaluations, might it be worth having institutions revise their teaching evaluations, or any rubrics they use for peer evaluations, to focus a little bit more on evidence-based teaching methods in at least a general format, to nudge all faculty to move into the use of better teaching techniques, to reduce some of the disparities that are being observed there.
Chavella: Absolutely. And honestly, that’s what I teach people to do. And when you do that… obviously, bias is still going to exist for humans… but it gives you more evidence instead of just the bias, essentially. So one of the things I teach people to do is, this gets back to what you were saying, Rebecca, that someone might be using a different pedagogy, but that’s not represented on the evaluation form in any way, shape, or form. So one of the things I teach folks how to do is evaluate the faculty member on what they were trying to do, that’s usually not represented anywhere in the evaluative process. So what were they actually trying to do? How are they trying to get there? And what’s the evidence that that’s what they did? If you just start there from how you evaluate teaching and learning, because it’s an evidence-based approach, that goes a long way. So even if students are having resistance in some other way or form on evaluations, if you have some data that say I wanted to make sure that students knew how to apply a theory to something real world, and I say, “This is the strategy I use to teach students how to do it, I write about that and I explain it. And then I produce data that shows the students learned how to do that. That’s evidence versus the student rating of them having resistance to the strategy I used to teach them or their resistance to the topic. It’s a much better process.” So yes, an evidence-based process is way better than what most of our campuses are doing now, which is just looking at the evals and looking at the scores and saying, “This person is a great teacher, this person isn’t a great teacher.” But, that’s not what the evaluations are saying at all. They’re student reactions to various things about the faculty member: their course content, their personality, their pedagogy, their statuses. Students love lecture, but when you do objective measures of what they learned, they haven’t learned. Student reactions are important information, but they’re not always important information about whether or not effective teaching occurred.
Rebecca: Definitely. Learning’s hard.
Rebecca: I imagine that all of these things tend to show up in our student evaluations, because it’s just not always a comfortable experience. And so that tends to be reflected rather than whether or not they learned something.
Chavella: Exactly. And the research supports that.
John: In addition to in-class challenges, women faculty of color are likely to face other microaggressions from colleagues. Could you talk a little bit about that?
Chavella: Yeah, absolutely. I’ll cling pretty closely to the teaching ones, because I think they’re the ones that are overlooked. People talk about a lot of the other things that go on. Essentially, what happens is that the same way that students can be resistant, institutions want us to come in and provide these broad perspectives and these new ways of knowing and doing, but the colleagues are as resistant as the students are. So colleagues are like, “Well, why are you teaching that? You are teaching this, that means that you’re not teaching that, and that’s the canon…” like you have to teach so and so. Or if it’s like a survey course, and the person’s like, “Well, guess what… other people were around and involved in the development of this. And I’m making a point to include those voices that were omitted.” Colleagues resist that, it challenges their own preparation and expertise, and etc. So I hear that all the time, that people are like, they’re being told to not teach something, they’re being told to only lecture. So their advice for students resisting the teaching that they do that’s transformative, they say, “Well, just lecture, if you know, students don’t like that, just lecture.” So they’re effectively telling them to engage in the teaching practices that are popular, versus the ones that are effective. And so, on a regular basis, I’m hearing that a woman faculty of color is being told, “Don’t teach this particular topic, it’s not actually scholarship, don’t teach in this particular way, don’t make students call you by your title,” like, “oh, let them call you by your first name.” …just the level of, I don’t know, I wanted to say control. But that’s what it is. They’re trying to control their content, their pedagogy, their interactions with students, from their lens, not from the lens of that person with different statuses. And again, it’s not benign, this isn’t just interpersonal stuff, these are going to be the folks that are reviewing them. These are gonna be the folks that are voting on their tenure, these are going to be the folks that don’t understand that they haven’t been able to complete their book or their article because they’ve been told you have to get your course evaluations up. How the heck do you do that? Where’s the magic wand for that? That’s the magic wand I want to find. And the ones I know of are like the trickery ones, like: “give them pizza, give everyone A’s.” I’m not suggesting that at all. But these are the things that they’re being suggested to do to get their evals up. And faculty can be pretty aggressive and territorial about what’s taught in a class and how it’s taught. And that varies by disciplines, like I can think of a couple of areas of disciplines that people are very territorial, because, I think, for them, it waters it down, or it makes their stuff not seem as valid. So colleagues have been very aggressive about what women faculty of color teach and how they teach it… in their reviews, not just interpersonally, but in their reviews. And if people end up not tenured as a result, they get pushed out.
Rebecca: And then we wonder why there’s no faculty of color.
Chavella: Not only that, we wonder why there aren’t any. And then if you say, “I think teaching’s a problem, they’re like, “Oh, no, that’s not it.” It’s one of many problems, obviously, but it has to be on the list. And it usually isn’t on the list at all… just thinking of, again, of all these things that happen with colleagues around these topics. And in the water cooler talk like faculty member goes back and tells the majority member faculty member, “Well so and so’s teaching XYZ in her class ,”or “I don’t like so and so, they’re mean” or “this person doesn’t seem approachable.” The watercooler talk that gets rolled into some of the antagonistic colleagues that women faculty of color have, because students have come back and said, “Well, they’re unapproachable,” like they’re not unapproachable, you’re just not used to dealing with black women, or you’re not used to dealing with Asian- American women or your lack of experience might be causing some discomfort that may make you miss perceive that interaction. But that’s making its way back to colleagues and colleagues or passing judgment and that’s working its way into interactions versus them sort of pausing and saying “something could be going on.” But again, our colleagues aren’t used to having interactions with these statuses either, so they’re navigating at the same time the students are,
Rebecca: …which makes it very hard to mentor…
Rebecca: …because there’s many generations that need to undo learned behavior and learned biases and to start working on institutional and cultural change. But it takes a long time.
Chavella: Absolutely, absolutely. It doesn’t have to take a long time, you can make some small shifts in how you evaluate teaching and how you evaluate teaching what you do with student ratings, there are very small things that you can do that will make a huge difference, like you said, just looking at the dang gone teaching assignments, actually taking into account what the faculty member was trying to do when you evaluate them. People don’t do that. They’ll tell you, “Oh, that’s biased. It’s like teaching to the test.” Excuse me, how do you know if my teaching was effective if you’re not even looking at what I was trying to do?” You’re only looking at the student ratings. That doesn’t make any sense. But it’s what a lot of people do, and they stick to it, right? And that’s what we’ve always done. That’s how we evaluated so and so, so it’s not fair to change now. Well, those ways of being stuck are things that maintain inequality, essentially.
John: You’ve talked about some ways in which institutions can make changes, are there any other things that institutions can do or individual faculty and departments can do to help reduce some of these challenges?
Chavella: Well, I’ll definitely revert back to all the magic wands I said earlier, and I will get like a broken record, because I want people to start those places. And like Rebecca said, they seem so easy, but a lot of people don’t state them out loud. Not only do people not state them out loud, but when they hear that they sound easy, they don’t do them, either. They’re like, “Oh, that won’t make a difference.” I’m like, wait a minute. So I will say the same things over and over again and encourage people to do them. So, same things. So what I would love for people to do, administrators or institutions alike, pull open your student code of conduct and see if there’s anything in there explicitly about classroom behavior. I want people to do that, immediately. I would like people to look at the definition on their campus for what’s effective teaching, and then look at their student rating form and see: is there alignment? Now that doesn’t mean revise the heck out of the student rating forum to increase alignment, because the student rating forum isn’t the place for all of those evaluative things to occur, there has to be some peer evaluation involved in that, but at least looking will shake up the way people feel that the student rating form is like the beginning and the end of the evaluation for faculty. Look at your peer observation process, is that aligned with the institution’s definition of effective teaching? Do the ratings form or the observation form, take into account what the faculty member is trying to do? See, these are all very simple things that institutions can do, like how do we incorporate what the faculty member was trying to do that day into what we’re observing, into what we think the data is telling us? So these are very small shifts… and then start putting some money aside. Our women faculty of color have been beat up this past 14,15,16 months, like, the shouldering of the emotional labor of the pandemic, of folks’ heightened awareness for racial injustice. It’s been a lot of us, you know, doing a lot of that labor. And so people need to put their money where their mouths are, I’ve had a couple of kind of painful moments of women faculty of color saying that they’re suffering on their campus. They make their way to me, and an institution has said, “No, we have a teaching center.” And I’m like, “Uhhh, the teaching center isn’t equipped to do that for a range of reasons. They’re overloaded, all the teaching and learning people are like “pandemic, much?” like, “have you not noticed, our hands are full.” People really need to free up funds to help people get the support that they need for these things. So those are the things I would suggest people do as individuals. Make money available for women faculty of color, look at their classroom disruption policy, look at their student evaluations, their peer observation form, learn about the dang gone research on student rating, learn about how to evaluate teaching, and the real call to action: “Don’t take two years or one year of committee to do it, make a change that you’re going to enact in fall.” And if you need to figure out how to do that, and that seems impossible, then make your way to me, and I’ll help you figure it out.
Rebecca: I love that your approach is so actionable. I think a lot of times we spend our time in some conceptual space, spinning our wheels, not doing anything, but you’ve given us many very specific, very actionable items. So I hope our listeners will take your lead and just take those steps.
Chavella: I hope so, because I’m watching the women faculty of color that get weeded out through negative tenure promotion reviews, or renewal reviews if they’re like adjunct or something like that who leave the institution. So while people are spinning the wheel, people are suffering. So it seems like an intellectual exercise to some people. But it’s like “Hello, people’s livelihood and health are on the line.” So I don’t have the luxury of all that committee work. I’m trying to support folks now, because they needed to support yesterday, but I’m trying to help them now.
Rebecca: So we always wrap up by asking what’s next? It seems really, really, really loaded.
Chavella: Well, I’m writing a book, actually, I’m writing a book. And again, that same frustration, anger, and hope that you hear in my podcast is pretty much what the book is about. I’ve been doing this for over 20 years. And I think I thought that, at some point, institutions were going to catch up, particularly as more research has come out even when it’s not about race or gender at all, when research has come out that says these are the best pedagogies, here’s the best way to do this, that and the other I thought great people were going to start making hard left turns and do something different, or the more and more research that comes out on women faculty of color’s experiences around teaching, I thought, “Oh, great, people are going to make a turn.” They’re not. And so I’m writing a book. And the book is explicitly for women faculty of color to help them navigate the challenges that they’re most likely to face. And to do it using the scholarship of teaching and learning. And it’s very much so about helping them be their most authentic selves in the classroom and finding joy, but protecting themselves from the review process. So it’s all about retaining women faculty of color, but allowing them to also continue to teach authentically and joyfully and I’m frustrated that I even have to write the book. But I’m hopeful, because I know that I can get it into people’s hands and they can feel much more empowered until their institutions catch up, essentially. So that’s what’s next.
Rebecca: Unfortunate that it’s a needed resource.
Rebecca: But, glad that we have someone who can write it.
Chavella: Yes, thank you. I’m excited about it.
John: And much of what you’re advocating is just doing better at our jobs and teaching more effectively, which is something I hope we’ll all take seriously in moving forward. But progress has been slow, as you’ve noted.
Chavella: Yes, absolutely.
John: And we should note that if anyone would like to learn more about these topics you’re Teaching in Color podcast is available on all podcast platforms, and is one that people should listen to.
Chavella: Yes, it’s interesting, I hope that people will find it interesting. And I wanted to say that the podcast and the book that I’m writing, even though it’s directly for women faculty of color, I do want allies to listen, participate, and buy, because the more that they know, the more they can make some of these things normative and get some of these changes moving. So I’m very intentionally writing to women faculty of color, because they’re usually ignored and silenced. But there’s a lot there for allies to learn. So, whether they’re allies in a teaching and learning space, or ally administrators, or ally faculty, there’s a lot for them to learn from the podcast and from the book to help them support these folks to be successful.
Rebecca: Well, thank you so much for joining us today and for all the work that you do.
Chavella: Thanks so much for having me and for encouraging me to go enjoy that tea that I have.
Rebecca: There’s always time for tea.
John: And we hope we’ll be talking to you again in the future. Thank you.
Chavella: Absolutely. Thank you. Thank you so much.
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.
Visualize a classroom. Perhaps there’s a whiteboard in front with students seated. We tend not to think of the outdoors or students actively moving around or engaging all of their senses. In this episode, Susan Hrach joins us to explore embodied cognition and how we can leverage sensory input and physical space to support learning. Susan is the Director of the Faculty Center for the Enhancement of Teaching and Learning and an English Professor at Columbus State University. Susan is the author of Minding Bodies: How Physical Space, Sensation, and Movement Affect Learning.
- Hrach, S. (2021). Minding Bodies: How Physical Space, Sensation, and Movement Affect Learning. West Virginia University Press.
- Verschelden, C. (2017). Bandwidth recovery: Helping students reclaim cognitive resources lost to poverty, racism, and social marginalization. Stylus Publishing, LLC.
Rebecca: Visualize a classroom. Perhaps there’s a whiteboard in front with students seated. We tend not to think of the outdoors or students actively moving around or engaging all of their senses. In this episode, we explore embodied cognition and how we can leverage sensory input and physical space to support learning.
Rebecca: This podcast series is hosted by John Kane, an economist…
John: …and Rebecca Mushtare, a graphic designer.
John: Our guest today is Susan Hrach. Susan is the Director of the Faculty Center for the Enhancement of Teaching and Learning and an English professor at Columbus State University. Susan is the author of the recently released Minding Bodies: How Physical Space, Sensation, and Movement affect Learning. Welcome back, Susan.
Susan: Thank you. I’m happy to be back.
Rebecca: Today’s teas are… Susan, are you drinking tea?
Susan: I’m sorry to say that it’s already gotten hot here and I’m drinking a cold water straight from the fridge.
Rebecca: That sounds actually nice and refreshing.
Susan: It is. We keep cold, refillable glass bottles in the fridge to be able to grab.
Rebecca: Perfect. How about you, John?
John: Well, for the first time on this podcast, I believe, I’m drinking inced tea instead of regular tea. I’ve been in meetings since very early this morning and have not had a break to go down and heat up some water. [LAUGHTER]
Rebecca: I think you might have had iced tea one other time.
REBECC: I know we have a friend of the podcast who will let us know. Today I’m having English breakfast. So when we hear the word cognition, we tend to think of heads and brains and not necessarily the rest of our bodies. And in your book, Susan, Minding Bodies, you challenge the assumption by introducing us to the term embodied cognition. Can you define what you mean by embodied cognition for listeners and maybe introduce the six principles that your book is organized around?
Susan: Sure, yeah. So the way that I am defining embodied cognition is a recognition that your whole body and your immediate environment really play a role in your thinking process. So internally, your heart rate, your spikes of cortisol or endorphins, your digestive functioning, maybe externally, the position of your limbs and your posture, your prior experiences. And then most importantly, the level of bodily energy that you bring to any moment of perception is all simultaneously at work in cognition. So I read a lot of neuroscience, especially from the past couple of recent decades, is when the embodied cognition work has really taken off. And I came up with these six principles just to provide a framework for understanding it for me and for the book. So the first one is to recognize that our bodies are constantly moving, one scientist explains that we might more accurately think of ourselves like clouds or waves than objects. And because we’re constantly moving, our bodies try to conserve energy. And brains use a lot of energy. So that’s important for our efforts to conserve it. So the way that we partly conserve energy is by engaging affordances around us. So that’s tools, it can be other human beings. And then because we’re such social creatures, and we engage each other as affordances to our thinking, each of us affects each other’s ecosystems of thinking. We can directly affect the other person’s experience or perception of any given moment. The fifth one is that we construct knowledge through embodied experiences. And then last but not least, our bodies reward learning in a physiological way, we experience pleasure when we learn under the right condition.
John: Following up on that, you note that our brains have evolved to conserve energy by basing predictions on past observations, while ignoring most of the input being taken in by our senses. And how does that limit our ability to understand the world around us and to learn?
Susan: Yeah, that’s huge. So this whole default prediction mode was something that it took me a while to kind of revise my own prior understanding of how thinking operates. But basically, your brain is trying to conserve milliseconds of time predicting what it expects to happen next. And it will anticipate what it expects to happen in a way that is also able to override what does happen. So that explains why if you are at the scene of an accident, and different people have different accounts of what they saw, it’s because their brains are literally being shaped partly by what they expected to see. And that’s why some people can be so sure that they saw the witness holding a gun, but there was no gun. Those are all just reflections of the way that brains are not really reliable recorders of perceptions. So the way that you can override that default prediction network is basically to bring a huge amount of energy, bodily energy, to being present in the moment and being very open to your sensory perceptions and also just having enough energy to be really self aware about what you’re encountering. And so having the opportunity to explore something from a different perspective, to connect your prior knowledge to something new. Those are ways that you give yourself the best opportunity to be present in the moment and resist the pull of that default prediction network.
John: And that’s a useful skill, I think, for us all to acquire. And I think we’d have a much better political climate, if we could help everyone get free of those biases or help to escape some of those biases.
Susan: Yeah, you know, it’s really hard. I think it’s most important for us to just know about it and be aware of it. I don’t know that we can completely escape it. This is just how our brains are wired to work. But yeah, I mean, even this new development of like the deep fake news, it’s sort of based on our predictive brains, because we’re not paying close enough attention to the image to recognize the telltale signs of how it’s been faked. And so those attempts to persuade people are relying on the fact that our brains are willing to just jump over the step of being as observant as possible.
Rebecca: In the first chapter of your book, you focus a lot on physical space and how space impacts learning. And you open by noting that a student in a college class is expected to spend about 112.5 hours sitting down and you use the phrase “sitting is the new smoking.” Can you explain to our listeners why we should reconsider this?
Susan: Yeah, sure. And I can’t recall exactly how I came up with the 112.5 hours, I suspect I might have gone to the accrediting body’s site in which, you know, they list seat time… isn’t that a terrible phrase?
Rebecca: A very terrible phrase. [LAUGHTER]
John: We should note that while we’re recording this, you are standing to get around this.
Susan: I am, and Rebecca…
Rebecca: Me too. Me too.
Susan: And Rebecca too. That’s right, Yeah, you can find articles about this pretty much every day in the popular press. I’ve stopped saving them, because there’s no point in having it in 500 different places. But the bottom line is, especially in the past 40 years, 50 years, we’ve engineered movement out of our lives in a way that’s been really detrimental to health, even if you get a really intense workout at the gym once during the day, that’s not enough to override the whole day of sitting. And so I don’t like the word exercise as much as movement, because exercise implies that like, “Okay, we’re going to set aside this special time to do this special activity.” And really, what would be better for our overall health is just to get a lot more movement worked into just our ordinary activities. So that’s because human beings evolved over all of these years up until the last 40 or 50, to spend a lot of time walking, moving, being outside, having the normal hours of daylight, kind of regulate our sleep patterns, eating a wide variety of foods that are natural. And so we’ve changed all of that in the not too distant past. And in order to recapture some of that conditions for human health, you have to be a little bit of a weirdo these days, you have to resist the car, you have to say “Actually, I’m going to purposely make myself take the stairs, or I’m going to use my body to transport myself from one place to another,” and it’s countercultural. But if we do work in more ways to move around as ordinary part of our day, our whole health, and therefore our brain health will be more resilient. And they’re just learning about the ways that that impacts our overall aging and resistance to disease, as well.
Rebecca: As a residential campus that’s got a lot of green space and walking space. I know one thing that both faculty and students really missed during the pandemic was walking from building to building, maybe not during snowstorms. But on a nice day, we had a lot of walking in our daily lives and had to find a way to do that when we were working remotely. But now I think a lot of us have been working remotely and found ways to do that, like maybe taking a break from the screen by taking a quick walk or folding some laundry or doing some other things that get your body moving as a part of the work day that I think we’ll all need to be thinking about as we head back in the fall. And just think about how to keep movement or reintroduce movement, [LAUGHTER]
Rebecca: …whatever the case may be, depending on the circumstances you were in when you were working more remotely.
Susan: That’s right, Rebecca, and I’m glad that you mentioned that just because the environment is not all about just your personal choices that we’ve also paved over the universe, and, [LAUGHTER] in the case of campuses that are not residential, made it really difficult to get around using your own bodily effort. And maybe you’re living in a place where it’s not very conducive. There aren’t sidewalks or safe places to walk in. Those are the harder, longer term challenges that we face as sort of reversing the way that the past half century has engineered movement out of our lives.
John: Yeah, and I’ve been thinking myself that one of the reasons why so many of us have Zoom fatigue is we don’t have those little walking breaks. I know when I’m teaching in a large class, I often use a step counter. And I often would get in a mile, or a mile and a half of walking during an hour and 20 minute class period. But then I was thinking, I was doing that, but those students were stuck in those seats. What can we do to give our students more opportunities to benefit from more motion, rather than just asking him to sit in place constantly.
Susan: Um hmm. That’s right. And I’m so glad that you raised that point, too, because we are the lucky ones, we’ve got freedom of movement in the classroom. And you’re right, your experience of getting all of those steps in during class, I think, is the experience of lots of faculty, and that blinds us to the fact that nobody else in the room has had the opportunity to get those steps. So really, if we can use any opportunities to get students moving around, that’s the ideal use of the space. If we can change up the arrangement of the furniture and get them to help, that’s giving them a chance to be up and about. If we can change their whole experience of the space by leaving the classroom on occasion that will help them to be more alert and give them a little bit of bandwidth recovery. So you’re probably familiar with this bandwidth concept that Cia Verschelden has used in her book: Bandwidth Recovery. It has to do with basically giving students the opportunity to be mindful of how much energy it takes to be a learner and give them opportunities to recover bandwidth that’s getting sucked up by other things, whenever we have the opportunity. Another thing I would suggest is open the blinds in your room. So how many times do we go into a classroom and someone has turned it into a cave, because they needed it to be very dark for the PowerPoint? And so be a stealth natural light provider by resisting the shut blinds, and, if your windows open, open your windows. Fresh air is a wonderful thing to have in a classroom.
Rebecca: So Susan, what about some of the spaces I teach in that have no windows? [LAUGHTER]
Susan: Right, exactly…
Rebecca: That’s where they put all those computer people… in the basement of buildings. [LAUGHTER]
Susan: Yes. Well, I started sending to our print shop pictures that I’ve taken with my phone camera that are of trees and sky and outdoor scenes. And I just get them to blow them up and put them on foam board and hang them as sort of pretend windows, and people comment on it all the time. “Ooh, that’s so beautiful.” When I say “Right, yep, not expensive, not hard.” But it really changes the feel of a room to at least have an image, a beautiful natural landscape, on the walls.
Rebecca: I’ve had the opportunity to teach quite a few classes where we’ve had travel abroad components where we are doing place-based learning and really being able to be outside and walking around and really using our full set of senses. In fact, one of the classes I co-taught with a colleague of mine, Chris McEvoy, the whole framework of the class was around the five senses in India.
Rebecca: …which was amazing.
Rebecca: But then I think about classes like my web design class and think “Hmm, I would really love to get around.” So as I’ve read your book, I’ve been brainstorming ways to break down those ideas. But one of the things that we do when we have these travel classes is often alert students to things that they don’t expect, because we’re so used to sitting in a classroom and not moving. So we say things like “there’s a lot of walking, there’s stairs, there’s heights,” all these things that we have to alert students to because they’re not expecting it in a learning situation. So when we start thinking about these embodied experiences, what are some things that we need to do to prepare students and to make sure that students who may have mobility limitations that might not be visible, for example, or maybe someone who’s really sensitive to the sun, there could be all kinds of things that we’re not thinking about, how do we make sure that everyone’s going to be able to participate or be included in these embodied experiences?
Susan: So this is a really important question. And I’ve thought a lot about it too, because inclusivity is so important. And I would say, as a blanket statement, no activity is so valuable that it would override the need for inclusivity. So, that’s first priority, but my approach to movement in the classroom is more in line with UDL, universal design for learning, principles than trying to create extra work for the accessibility office by providing three more things that students need to ask for accommodations for. I really would not want to do that. So every activity that you plan really should have options. You should think it through really carefully, walk it through if you can, be able to describe really transparently and well in advance what to expect. And then think about options. And I needed to do this even for new faculty orientation, because you never know when somebody has twisted their ankle the day before, and they show up with crutches, or somebody who is in their last trimester of pregnancy. There’s just all sorts of things that affect our mobility, that we need to be able to plan for people to participate in whatever way that will be manageable for them. So options, I think, are the key thing. As you get to know your students in your class, you will find out whether there’s somebody who has a really significant reason to not be able to go outside, for example, or that we need to really give plenty of time for this person to be able to move outside of the classroom or even inside of the classroom, I think an atmosphere of respect and encouragement and the way that you build community with your students. Those are all things that should be the bigger context of any activity that you plan, so that it doesn’t become a source of exclusivity in any way, but just something to negotiate, and something to discuss together to figure out what will work. And the other aspect, I would say that’s important here, and I get this from the Faculty Development Center at the University of Pacific where Leslie Bayers and Lott Hill have been doing really great work for years in embodied kinds of faculty development, is to be really clear about the difference between things that are uncomfortable, and things that are unsafe. So they say sitting on a blanket in the grass may, for you, think about this… is it uncomfortable in a way that you could stretch a little bit to try to imagine how this might be an experience that will be okay for you? Or is it actually unsafe, for whatever reason? And that distinction might be important for students, because you’re right, a lot of them as you said, this is not what they expect from a college class. So they need some time to absorb it and to know what to expect.
Rebecca: Susan, do you introduce any of these ideas in your syllabus, for example, or introduce how you might use movement in the class on the first day.
Susan: I do I do. So I started including under the material list, an old towel or blanket, and I tell them why I prefer days where we might be going outside. I haven’t had anybody say that that was objectionable, or that that was going to be a problem. In fact, a lot of them said, “Oh, I don’t need to sit on anything, I’m fine on the grass.” So that gives them just the opportunity to know that if you feel like you’re not gonna want to sit directly on the grass and you bring something you don’t care about getting dirty to sit on. The other thing that I’ve done just this past semester with my class that was mostly online, is that I spent the first night.. we actually did a guided meditation the first night. And so I spent a while telling them that we were going to begin each class with contemplative practices and why, and that I wanted them to feel like they had the opportunity to transition from whatever crazy things were going on in their lives outside of this class to being fully in the moment and present. And that I was very aware of the way that the pandemic has been stressful for all of us, and that I wanted to give them a chance and some space and time to regain some serenity, some quiet, some ability to reflect and that I had done this research to show that their learning would be enhanced. It would be more smoothly facilitated if they were given the opportunity to quiet their busy brains and prepare for the rest of the class just by taking five or 10 minutes at the beginning to do something a little unorthodox. And they were totally receptive. Nobody said, “This is weird. I’m not doing it.” I mean, they immediately were game to kind of close their eyes and listen to the recording of the guided meditation. And there was one student [LAUGHTER] who came in a little bit late that night and we’re all sitting there with our eyes closed in complete silence. And I thought, well, this has got to be an interesting moment, you know… [LAUGHTER] …walking into a class on the first night and the professor and everyone else are just sitting there quietly with their eyes closed, but I was able to explain to him what we were doing afterwards, and they were cool with it.
Rebecca: On the same idea, Susan, I was doing a lot of warm up drawing activities and things in my design classes at the start of class during the pandemic and students really noted how helpful that was for the same reason, to refocus or get into the space of the class and allow them to stop thinking about all the things going around them. So I got a lot of feedback at the end of the semester. about that.
Susan: Oh, that’s great. I think a lot of us have recognized in the virtual environment that you just really have to find a way to begin that is the icebreaker activity almost every time. Like you’ve got to make that transition somehow,
John: As we move into the fall, we’re moving into a situation that’s very different, where many students have not been in the classroom, and people who are going to be sophomores may not even have been on the campus that they were enrolled in. What can we do in our classes in the fall to take advantage of some of the notions of embodied cognition to help our students be successful as they transition into a new environment?
Susan: Well, I would say if you have the opportunity, as you’re planning your fall syllabi, to plan a couple of experiences that would be connected to your content, and perhaps involve taking your students somewhere else on campus than your classroom. That would be one really interesting thing to experiment with. If you have the opportunity to take them to somewhere on campus, that’s even more exciting. But of course, the logistics and the resources might be more time intensive. The other thing people might consider for this fall is having… and again, the natural sciences and the arts are so lucky in that all of their disciplinary work is lab or studio enhanced as well. But for those who don’t have a normal lab or studio as part of their disciplinary context, can you create that inside of your own classroom? Can you bring some objects to explore and have students touch and move around with or draw, for example, smell maybe, in a way that you haven’t tried before. That would give them a really hands-on sensory experience with an object that your discipline values, or here’s another inside of the classroom idea. If you haven’t used those giant sticky pads that you can just stick on the wall, the sheet-size paper with markers, or if you have access, maybe through your Center for Teaching and Learning, to portable whiteboards that you can pass out to each student or just a couple of students per whiteboard, can you think of just one new activity you might try in your classroom that would have them using those tools. So those are affordances for learning, and they give students some sort of more tactile experience that will help the learning to be experienced in an embodied way. I do believe that students are more willing to jot down tentative ideas or be more just free with their initial ideas with whiteboards because they’re just so easily erased, that it feels a little bit safer to go ahead and just jot some things down.
John: We’ve been through this experience where most classes were taught virtually, but it’s likely some of that’s going to be continuing as we move into what we hope to be a post-pandemic future. How can you take advantage of some of these concepts of embodied cognition when you’re teaching students virtually say with either asynchronous courses or synchronous remote classes?
Susan: Right? So I imagine that others have read these pieces about Zoom fatigue. And this is great because the people who work in cognitive psychology have been trying to figure out why is it so tiring for us to be on Zoom all the time, recognize that human beings are not really accustomed to staring straight into each other’s eyeballs, uninterruptedly. This is exhausting for us. And then they also recognize that we are not used to staring at our own faces for hours and hours, and that’s super distracting, and also exhausting. And so I think we’re adopting some new practices that recognize what was a little unnatural about the virtual meeting, the fact that we need a break from looking at ourselves that maybe, I think, some of the platforms now have even adjusted so that the default setting is for you and your little square to be minimized, which is helpful. But just to recognize that it’s important for us to have a break from staring into each other’s eyeballs and planning moments to say, “Please turn your cameras off, because we’re now going to have a little stretch break. And I’ll guide you through twisting in your chair, touching your toes, doing a little bit of chair yoga so that we can bring our attention back to the conversation here.” Those are things that we might now recognize as important to do in synchronous meetings. I think there’s also some attention we could pay in the online universe to space. So students should know that their space matters, the place where they’re learning remotely is worth paying attention to. I think it would be great at the opening of an online asynchronous class, there could be like a special assignment to prepare the space where you’re going to be primarily engaging with the course. Can you think about what will make it a more productive happy space for you? What are you staring at? Where’s the desk facing? Can you change up the arrangement of the room in a way that will make it feel more pleasant for you? Or is there somewhere else you might go outside of your house? And how can you make it into the most pleasant kind of learning space for you? And that has to do with relatively superficial things? Can you think about the fresh air in the room? Do you need to make your bed? Are there ways that you can have that space, give your brain the best opportunity to function. And then also, I think the opportunity to get your students away from the screen through activities and assignments that you design to be done elsewhere is just a really worthwhile thing to try. If you can assign podcasts and tell them, specifically, “I want you to not sit and stare at the computer while you’re listening to this, I want you to do some chores, or take a walk or do something else that requires movement so that you can be absorbing this audio experience while you’re moving your body, and tell them why. Because this is often an opportunity for your brain to be more alert and awake and absorb the material in a different way than it would if you were just sitting and vulnerable to opening three more tabs and doing other things.”
Rebecca: There’s one thing that was sprinkled throughout your book that I was really happy to see but also a really important thing to pay attention to. And that was you open today talking about how all of our systems are kind of connected to cognition and the digestive system and all of these things. So students who might be going hungry are not having nourishment or not having warm clothes to go outside and these other things. So I was wondering if you could just talk a little bit about some of these other barriers that students might be facing that are impacting their sensory experience and their embodied experience while they’re learning?
Susan: Yes, absolutely. And I think the number one problem there is sleep deprivation. And so a couple of years ago, we had Roxanne Prichard, from the Center for College Sleep come and give a talk to faculty and staff and also students and coaches at the beginning of the year. And people have told me,I’m not exaggerating, that that changed their lives, because it was so shocking to learn how much we really disadvantage ourselves and our own ability to function best by getting too little sleep. If we prioritize the need for sleep in order for our whole bodies and our brains to function at our best, it really matters. It makes a difference. It improves your performance so that you are able to do things more quickly and more accurately, and you save time that you maybe thought you were needing by getting less sleep. So setting your assignment deadlines at like 5 pm instead of midnight, sends a signal to students that you value, their ability to wind down and sleep in the evening and telling them there’s some great infographics and things availabl… I have a reference to this in my book as well… that will share with them exactly how sleep impacts their cognitive functioning and can impact their grades. I think there’s even been some SOTL work that shows how students GPAs were affected when they change their sleep habits. So that’s one thing. And then of course, their nutrition is another thing. And this is again, you got to be really kind of countercultural, like it’s so easy to just feed them pizza all the time and donuts and soda and what’s in the vending machine on your campus. And you really have to be assertive and challenging to get the whole campus to recognize this is really working against our main mission, which is to help support brain growth. And so we could have trail mix in the vending machines instead of just potato chips and doughnuts. That would be a step.
Rebecca: What’s easy for me as an art and design faculty member to think about how to have [LAUGHTER] embodied experiences in class and how to use our senses. But I don’t think that’s so obvious to faculty and some other disciplines. Can you talk about some ways to use the senses or to have more movement in maybe spaces that aren’t so obvious?
Susan: Yeah, well, I think one of the things that we need to do is just be willing to absorb the notion of flexibility. So even just on the recent past years, I remember looking at some of these designs for active learning spaces where they had a bunch of not uniform furniture. It was like “oh, here’s a grouping of stools and high top tables and here’s some sofas.” And I use a lot of group work, and I kept thinking like, how could I do that unless there’s round tables that each have four or five chairs around them. That’s messing with my sense of what my primary mode of delivery is. And then I had to sort of gradually come around to recognizing that people really like choice and options, and they like to be able to choose where they are in a space and how their perspective is. And there’s really no reason that groups need to be sitting in uniform spaces with exactly the same tables and chairs. You can still have groups and let them choose whether they want to sit on the floor, or perch on sofa arms, or be in some space that doesn’t have uniform furniture, and it will be okay. In fact, they might like it more, because they’ve got this choice and variety in their learning experience. There’s just these tiny things about the space that we inhabit that can help to make the experience feel a little bit different in any discipline. But there’s also practices that might be familiar to people like the concept of the gallery walk or stations where you’ve got them moving around the room to contribute to different pieces of the content on different walls of the space. And those have been recommended as active learning practices for a while now, because they’re opportunities for students to be interacting, but embodied cognition explains in a new way, why they work, it’s because you’re getting people up and moving around. And so I think any faculty member in a discipline, even that has not traditionally been as focused on sensory experiences or movement or objects, it just needs to reflect on what made you fall in love with that discipline yourself. Was it the smell of the books? Was it the handling of the special objects that might seem sort of mundane, like some sort of a measuring tool or something that we wouldn’t necessarily think of as being especially exciting, but offers a more tactile kind of way into understanding the concepts. I think individual faculty members are going to come up with their own really creative ways of figuring out how to bring students into a more direct experience with the thing itself that gets them so excited.
Rebecca: That sounds like a key piece is moving away from just always being so conceptual in our heads and just into some sort of physical realm or space.
Susan: It’s true. And I think part of what we excel at in higher ed is conceptual and abstract thinking and this is why we have achieved advanced degrees and become disciplinary experts, because we’ve moved into this conceptual and abstract realm with our disciplines that we’re now prepared for, because we have also moved through other encounters with our discipline that might have been more embodied. But we didn’t necessarily acknowledge or recognize them in that way. And I think of one of my early experiences in graduate school. And this is going to date me for the technology, but was working with the microfiche or the microfilm. Do you remember those? And it was like this big giant… [LAUGHTER] it was like an X-ray machine or something, you put your head in there. And you have to get the reel from the special library container and put it in and figure out the movement controls to be able to see the thing magnified. And I remember telling my professor, it was a little bit like time travel because you could kind of get lost in these really old documents that were suddenly blown up in front of your face. And she said to me, “Ah, you’re in the right place. You belong here.” I mean, that was a fantastic response for her because I was just thinking, “well, I guess I’m some kind of weirdo. [LAUGHTER] I liked the microfiche.” But that was a very embodied experience of the text for me. And as I got to be more credentialed, I was able to go to archives and actually handle these rare objects myself. And that was like sensory explosion because it was just so exciting to be able to touch these old, old things and see the handwriting and it was transforming.
John: Well, I guess the challenge for us is how we can create experiences like that for our students who may not have those microfilm readers or access some of those objects.
Susan: Yeah, and I think the library, the museum, the archives, the places on your campus, where we don’t normally think of them as classroom spaces. These are the places we need to be taking our students.
Rebecca: So we always end by asking: “What’s next?
Susan: So I should say, I’m really enjoying just having readers at this point and being able to have conversations like this one, because you spend a long time thinking about all of these things in writing and trying to carefully craft the whole message so that somebody will be listening to it. I’m not really looking ahead to a new book or anything, because I’m just enjoying the conversations that are arising from this one at the moment. But I am, and we’ve talked about this briefly the last time I was on the podcast, continuing to pursue a certification in coaching. And so I’ve got a course I’m taking this weekend in somatic coaching, or using embodied principles to help people be able to have a felt sense of the change that they might want to make in their lives, or how they’re in touch with what they know and what they’re figuring out about, where where they are and where they want to go. I’m really excited about that.
Rebecca: It’ll be interesting to see how that work ties with your embodied cognition work, moving forward.
Susan: Yeah. And I feel like I have such a good grounding now in the science of it, that I’m just really excited to hear from other people who have been practicing what that looks like in a one-on-one conversation. What do they actually ask the person who’s being coached to do with their body or to tune into, so I feel like my brain is rushing ahead and predicting, but I’m going to be open.
John: Excellent. Well, thank you. It’s been great talking to you again, and I’ve really enjoyed reading your book.
Susan: Well, thank you. I appreciate the opportunity to reach a broader audience and just to talk through some of these ideas, because they are, in some ways, really common sense and in other ways, sort of a radical new way of looking at them.
Rebecca: Yeah, I’m looking forward to processing your book as I’m thinking about my fall classes.
Susan: That’s great.
The ability to work effectively in teams is a skill that is highly valued by the employers of college graduates. Group projects in college classes, though, are not always designed to develop teamwork skills. In this episode, Lauren Vicker and Tim Franz join us to discuss strategies that we can use to create group activities that help students develop their teamwork skills while addressing complex problems. Lauren is a Professor Emeritus in the Department of Media and Communication at St. John Fisher College. Tim is a Professor and Interim Chair in the Psychology Department, also at St. John Fisher College. They are the authors of Making Team Projects Work: A Resource for High School and College Educators, which was released earlier this year.
- Franz, Timothy and Vicker, Lauren (2021). Making Team Projects Work: A Resource for High School and College Educators
- Making Team Projects work blog
- Flaherty, Collen (2021). What Employers Want. Inside Higher Ed. April 6.
- Olga Stoddard (2021). Gender and Groups. Tea for Teaching podcast. Episode 182. April 7.
- Lauren Vicker – LinkedIn
- Tim Franz – LinkedIn
John: The ability to work effectively in teams is a skill that is highly valued by the employers of college graduates. Group projects in college classes, though, are not always designed to develop teamwork skills. In this episode, we explore strategies that we can use to create group activities that help students develop their teamwork skills while addressing complex problems.
Rebecca: This podcast series is hosted by John Kane, an economist…
John: …and Rebecca Mushtare, a graphic designer.
John: Our guests today are Lauren Vicker and Tim Franz. Lauren is a Professor Emeritus in the Department of Media and Communication at St. John Fisher College. Tim is a Professor and Interim Chair in the Psychology Department, also at St. John Fisher College. They are the authors of Making Team Projects Work: A Resource for High School and College Educators, which was just released earlier this year. Welcome Lauren and Tim.
Lauren: Thank you.
Tim: Thanks for having us.
Rebecca: Today’s teas are…. Lauren, Are you drinking tea?
Lauren: I am drinking tea. I am drinking Trader Joe’s Moroccan mint green tea, one of my favorites.
Rebecca: That sounds like something John would rock. [LAUGHTER]
John: I actually have a backup tea here which is Moroccan mint, but it’s a different brand.
Tim: …and Wegmans decaf green for me.
Rebecca: It’s a good one. Wegotta have the Wegmans on…
John: Wegmans has a wonderful collection of teas, especially in the larger stores. And I have ginger peach green tea.
Rebecca: …and I am back to my good old English afternoon, John.
John: It’s been a year. I think you only had that once on the podcast in the last year or so.
Rebecca: Yeah, yeah, I know. I was thinking like, I haven’t been drinking it very often. I need to get back to it.
John: Well, we have six boxes of it still in the office for when we return.
Rebecca: I have six boxes in this office too. [LAUGHTER]
John: So, you should be set for the week.
Rebecca: I’m good. I’m good.
Tim: I took all my tea home last August, because I knew it would be a while. I did finish all the office tea.
Rebecca: It’d be hard for us to do that.
John: We have hundreds of teas in the office, so yes. We’ve invited you here to discuss Making Team Projects Work. Could you tell us a little bit about how this project got started?
Tim: Yeah, this was an interesting project, because it’s really been something that Lauren and I have been talking about for years. When I first started here back in 2000, at St. John Fisher, we realized pretty quickly that we offer two similar courses, one in small group communication that Lauren was offering and one in small group dynamics that we were offering in psychology. And so what we did was merge the courses. And then we started team teaching it and have been team teaching for about 20 years together. Over the time of our team teaching, we realized that we were going way beyond with our team projects than most of our peers, most of our colleagues at St. John Fisher. And we realized that a lot of people don’t know all the details about running a team project. So, we wrote the book.
Rebecca: Sometimes students complain about group projects. There’s a lot of strengths and benefits, but also some reasons to maybe not do group projects. So can you talk a little bit about both some of the benefits and some of the weaknesses of doing group projects.
Lauren: So one of the best reasons came out last week in Inside Higher Ed a story about a survey that was done by a AAC&U (American Association of Colleges and Universities) where they surveyed 500 employers, CEOs, and hiring managers, and asked them about the top skills that they were looking for in their new hires. And number one, a top skill turned out to be ability to work in teams. So we really need to be preparing our students for the workplace. And that’s one of the best reasons to use a group project. It’s also a much better way to engage students while they are in the classroom. Get them involved, have them work with other people, give them some of those professional skills that they need, and also keeps them more engaged than say, listening to a passive lecture. So there are a lot of reasons why people don’t use group projects. And it is a lot of work to set up a group project, and to do it well. A lot of faculty think about group projects as a way that they can minimize their workload. So what they’ll do is they’ll take an individual project that they might give to students, and just turn it over to a group and say, “Here, do this.” Give it out. And then you don’t hear anything until the end of the semester or close to the time when the project is due. And that is definitely not the way to do it. And so what we’re proposing is that people follow a very systematic process. And we actually have a model that shows how you can walk through each of the steps and be able to turn what might be an individual project into a really good team project.
Tim: Rebecca, there are other reasons why faculty think you shouldn’t run group projects… for example, student complaints, sometimes you get some pretty serious student complaints about a project, or the problem with so many projects and so many team projects, especially, is social loafing, where one person just sits back and lets the other do it, or conflict, or all these other problems that teams can run into. But the reality is that the well designed team project can help to minimize a lot of those problems, especially if the faculty member uses a structured process, such as we suggest in our book, where there’s lots of steps involved, and the faculty members are checking in regularly with the team. Now, the other problem is that does take a little more work. But with good planning and practice, team projects can be really effective.
Rebecca: I’m certainly an advocate for collaborative work. I do a lot of team projects in my own classes and know there are a lot of planning things to do at the beginning. Can you outline some of the key things to think about before introducing a collaborative project to your students,
Lauren: We talk about an input-output model. So let’s start maybe with the inputs to the group. A lot of people think that they can, as we said before, just take an individual project and make it a team project. So attention to the task is really important. And we can talk about that more if you want to talk about what makes a good team task. But also, the people are a huge input. And one of the biggest mistakes that faculty make is allowing students to choose their own teams and just to say, “Okay, everybody break up in groups of four, or five, or six,” and go ahead and do it. And that is the worst way to do it. Because you are not going to get any heterogeneity, you’re not going to get people with diverse viewpoints and experiences, people are just going to be working with their friends. And the final input is actually the context. A lot of people overlook that, but it depends on what kinds of experiences do students have with working in teams. And there are some colleges and universities that have a lot of teamwork going on, and others that are still using a lot of lecture-based sage-on the-stage type of teaching. And so if the culture of the school isn’t used to doing teams, or if you don’t even have a physical setup for teams, where people are in kind of an amphitheater classroom, and it’s hard to move around into groups, all of those things can actually thwart it. And you have to also consider what else is going on at the time. So those of us who were using teams when the pandemic hit know exactly the challenges that that entails. So what we find is that you have to start at that very beginning in the planning… on planning your task and planning the people who are going to be there and then looking at the context that you’re going to be considering.
Tim: If I can follow up on one thing, Lauren, this idea of picking your own teams that so many people, and in our presentations, we’ve gotten some pushback on this, that “Oh, the students love picking their own teams.” But number one, and we’ve seen this in our class, and we both seen it separately. Sometimes friendships break apart in those teams, because the friends realize they have very different working styles and get very frustrated with one another. And then the other problem with letting people pick their own teams is the elementary school kickball on the playground problem where somebody is the last to get picked. And honestly, I had somebody in tears in my class a couple of years ago, when I did a very short project and decided I don’t have time to do all that. And the person didn’t get picked until very last. And that was awful. And this is not the way we want people in college to be picking their teams. When they get out in the workplace, they’re not picking their own teams there either.
John: I’ve had a similar experience when I’ve used group projects in my classes, and students will always say, “Can we make our own groups?” And what I’ve done the last several times I’ve done it, and it’s worked really effectively, is to ask them how they knew each other. These are upper-level classes, primarily, where I’m doing this. And they’ll say, “Well, we’ve taken a lot of classes together.” I said, “So we’d like to have teams where everyone has a good mix of experience on all the teams. But if you know these people because you’ve taken a lot of classes with them, that means you’ve probably taken more courses in the discipline than other people have. So if we put everyone together who has the most background in the material, we won’t get as much diversity in the group, but we’ll also end up with some teams having some really rich backgrounds in the discipline, and others having a somewhat weaker background. And that may not be the most equitable way of creating teams.” And once you say that to students, you get much more buy in and they’ll generally accept it. And then I’ll often ask them, “What might we use as a criteria to balance the teams?” …and they’ve come up with some good suggestions. And that’s worked pretty well.
Lauren: You’re absolutely right, John. We’re a really big fan of the team-based learning approach to forming teams, which is: make the criteria very transparent. So if you say “I don’t want you with people that you’ve had two or three classes with,” or “I don’t want you with people who are in the same major or at the same level,” that’s great. We’ve done a number of different things. Sometimes faculty can pick the criteria as you have done, John, other times I know Tim has used a questionnaire that he’s had students fill out like a self assessment of their skills, and then he’ll put the teams together that way and tell the students this is how you were put together. I actually had one class where I did let them pick the criteria, or suggest the criteria, and I said “That sounds like a good idea. Let’s give it a try.” And when we put the teams together, we realized that they were perfectly balanced. And it was one of the best TBL classes that I had. And when we went online during the pandemic, it was almost seamless, because the teams had already really been formed, and they had an identity, and they’d had successes together. And so it was a really great way to do it. So we’re a huge advocate of not letting students pick their own teams,.
Tim: …and letting it be that transparent process. That transparent process is so important.
John: I’ve used a Google form in the classroom, where, when it’s in the classroom, where it’s displayed on the screen, they submit their responses, I’ll sort them from highest to lowest according to that criteria, and just go down the list assigning the teams 1-2-3-4, etc., and it’s worked really well. And another nice thing about it is when the teams are formed with this sort of criteria, instead of by social network, the team has been created for a specific purpose and they tend, when they’re working together, to focus on their purpose, rather than talking about what they’re going to do that weekend and other things. I found that the students tend to be much more on task when the teams were created to be balanced, separate from any friendship relationships. They tend to separate it from the social networks that otherwise might tend to dominate some of the discussions when they’re in a physical classroom. The groups have been really productive that way.
Tim: That’s a fabulous point.
Rebecca: Yeah, I’ve had very similar experiences in my classes as well. I tend to have a lot of different majors that come together and so I often use that as one way of dividing up the differences of experience for these collaborative projects, and it tends to work out well, and they tend not to know each other, as a result. [LAUGHTER]
Tim: Well, and then on certain teams, Lauren, I don’t think you even know this, but two of the students in our last class, our last group dynamics class, are now the closest of friends. And they didn’t know each other before a class, so that division can actually open up the doors to new friendships as well.
Rebecca: One of the things that you talk about in your book, and this seems like a good moment to bring it up, is that teams need to form and get to know each other, understand the project, understand what each member’s expertise might be, what the tasks are at hand, and also a need for someone to kind of step into a facilitator role. We might call it a leader, we might call it a facilitator, whatever that might be, can you talk about how to make that process go smoothly? …because if that process doesn’t happen, as you indicate in your book, the team doesn’t work, because nothing ever gets done. [LAUGHTER]
Tim: Right. And the team can take so much longer to get to a level of performance. When we talk about team performance, the key theory of development is Tuckman, where most people have heard this… that forming, storming, norming, and performing… and we want to get our class projects right into that performing stage as quickly as possible, and a team charter can do that. And in that team charter, it’s allowing the team to create some guidelines. In those guidelines should be things like attendance and deadlines, how to deal with conflict, the levels of participation that they expect from one another, their communication standards and rotating responsibilities, as you said, Rebecca, who’s going to be taking notes at the meeting, who’s going to be facilitating the meeting, when is each person going to be taking the lead on each thing, meeting times and places and then even things like decision rules and ways to solve problems when they occur. Those are all things that we encourage our teams to develop upfront ahead of time so those discussions are productive, rather than during a time of conflict.
Lauren: And if some people think that a team charter is too formal, we’ve actually had the class as a whole agree on: What are the norms for the class? How are we going to run this class? …kind of giving them ownership. And we have all the teams get together and generate different rules for the class and then we post them up on our course management system. And so when there’s an issue, we say, “Hey, look, we said that people were going to answer any texts or email within 24 hours, or within 12 hours, or everybody was going to show up prepared to meetings.” So we can actually point to those. But I want to back up before we actually start the team charter, we are huge fans of icebreaker exercises. And I know one of the things that we had the luxury of doing in group dynamics was we were teaching about groups, so we could spend a lot of time talking about these issues. However, most faculty have content that they need to cover. I also teach a course in the Wegmans School of Pharmacy and I know how much content people in the sciences and the humanities… they have so much to cover. They don’t really have a lot of time to talk about the group dynamics. And so they might assume that just because you’re working on a team project, you’re learning to work in a team, but we really want the teams to be able to do some icebreaker exercises in the beginning, even if it’s just fun stuff, you know, like what do you binge watching? What kind of pets do you have? Where are you from? …just getting to know each other. We think that that is hugely important. Just to get to know each other on a personal level, and then they get a little bit more ownership of the team. So while John’s right that not knowing people may be good and make you a little more task oriented, you still have to be concerned about all the people. And we know that, like this past year, a lot of students have really suffered from some anxiety and mental health issues. So we want them to feel comfortable talking to the group when they need to, we think that that is an important piece. So starting with that, and then they can constructively work together on that team charter.
Rebecca: To take one of those icebreaker activities that I’ve done in my classes that’s been really fun is to design an emoji. Of course, I teach a design class, so it’s related, but the students have had a lot of fun doing that activity, but it immediately gets them figuring out a way to work together and just talk a little more socially. So it’s kind of a task to do, it doesn’t really matter what the outcome is.
Tim: Some of the best icebreakers are actually relevant to the course or relevant to the team project. If you can make them relevant, they’re even better. And so I think that’s a perfect one.
Lauren: Yeah, emojis or I have them design a logo for their team… come up with a team name, and then a logo, and in the olden days, I would print up the logo and put it on their team folder. Now we have to do that virtually. [LAUGHTER]
John: One of the issues that, as you mentioned before, often shows up for students in terms of past experience with groups, are those people who may be sharking. In your book several times you mentioned the student named Fred. Could you tell us a little bit about Fred and how to deal with students like Fred.
Tim: Fred is actually a real student. This was not a hypothetical story. I think we embellish a little, but you saw us both laugh when you mentioned, Fred.
Rebecca: I think I’ve met Fred. [LAUGHTER]
John: I think we’ve all met Fred. [LAUGHTER]
Lauren: So again, we go back to what’s happening with this project? What is Fred doing or not doing? What has the team decided on their norms, or their roles for the team? And what are the sanctions for someone who is social loafing and not pulling their weight in the team? And one of the things that we talk about extensively, and this is also a big part of team-based learning, is peer evaluations. People who are not doing what they’re supposed to be doing on the team should be getting feedback from each other, and not just at the end of the project. Very often, we wait to the end, and we say, “team evaluations.” And all of a sudden it says, “Wait, Rebecca didn’t show up for any of the meetings. John wasn’t prepared for the presentation.” We need to know that along the way, and we recommend check-ins frequently with the groups. So we spend time informally checking in with the teams, meaning just wandering around the class or, if they’re in breakout rooms, popping into the breakout rooms to see what they’re doing, or actually having formal check-in times. We’ve sometimes given surveys to the class to find out how things are going, sometimes we make them anonymous. So we find out where are you on the project? How is everybody doing? And other times we ask them to specifically evaluate the contributions of each member. Another thing that we’ve done in the past is actually set up Google folders for all of the teams with instructor access. And that way we tell them, “Okay, everything that you do is going to go into that Google folder.” So the instructor has a way of looking in and saying, “Fred, it’s been three weeks, and you have put nothing into the Google folder, what’s going on?” So we can talk to the teams individually, but also talk to Fred individually, as well.
Tim: Yeah, and just as instructors, it’s our job to give students those skills for teamwork, because that’s what their employers and grad schools want. It’s also our job as instructors to develop our students. And that process of multiple check-ins, though, that’s one of the areas where it does take more work, we need those multiple check-ins to see how things are going. And Lauren, I think you emphasized and I can’t stress enough, the importance of these formal and informal peer and instructor evaluations that are going on throughout the process of this team project to keep them on track and develop their skills so that they can improve and be better team members when they leave our campus.
Rebecca: You have a couple other scenarios of student or learning situations around leadership that I think are maybe important to address as well, the idea that the team seems it’s going great, but come to find out it’s the one person doing all the work and no one else is allowed to do anything. And then there’s also the opposite where just nobody’s doing anything because nobody knows who’s in charge. Can you talk a little bit about how to make sure that there’s maybe a leader who’s not a dictator? …someone who’s really acting more as a facilitator within a team.
Tim: Well, I think this is another area where it does take a little extra time. And if we want to develop these teamwork skills in our students, we need to teach to the teamwork skills and teach to the leadership skills, at least a little time …and I’m not talking taking whole weeks of class but 15 to 20 minutes to put our expectations down and have them help get those expectations out there so that they know what it means to rotate through leadership. They know what the five or 10 top leadership characteristics are that their team expects of them when they’re leading. And we do emphasize the importance of rotating in the leadership role. That is important because we want everybody to lead team meetings and everybody to take notes at team meetings, not leave all that to one person.
Lauren: And students are really reluctant to take on the leadership role. They don’t want to seem like it’s a power grab sort of thing. And so it’s important for them to understand the nature of leadership, that it isn’t one autocratic person telling everybody what to do, that they understand the different perspectives on leadership. And again, we have the luxury of being able to talk about that, about different types of leadership, and we have our students do leadership assessments. And it’s helpful for them to be able to talk about when they go to a job interview. They’ve got something where they can discuss how they see themselves as leading the team.
Tim: Right, those demonstrable activities that they can actually show on paper in a portfolio, I say on paper, but it certainly could be electronic in these days.
Rebecca: I think one thing that comes up frequently when we talk about groups and group dynamics is setting on and establishing roles. And I’m hearing you both emphasize the idea of rotating some of those roles. And I think this is a place where faculty struggle to set up good structure. Can you talk a little bit about some of the rotating roles that should be there and how do we encourage students to rotate over the course of a semester?
Tim: Some of those roles I think we’ve already mentioned, certainly leadership should rotate at meetings. A lot of those roles occur in meetings. So, at a meeting, you want somebody who’s leading or facilitating, we often prefer the term facilitating, because that is somebody who’s just leading that meeting, then you need a note taker, then you need on top of that a timekeeper, somebody who’s keeping that team on task. But even beyond just the simple meeting strategies, where everybody should be getting some practice and learning opportunities throughout all those, when you’re thinking about roles, there’s also those informal roles, like somebody who could be the cheerleader for the team and trying to get people to feel better. And somebody who could be the one who’s asking the questions or giving the task-based answers, keeping them on track during their problem solving or decision making. These are all roles that each person should be practicing. We all tend to fall into our own roles that we are used to. And by forcing them out of their comfort zone and into some of these other roles, they can get better at being a team member, and bring more inputs, as Lauren introduced at the beginning, into the team project.
Lauren: But having said that, it is a lot more challenging to do when you’ve got an online class or online team projects, because, especially if it’s an asynchronous class, so it really depends on your circumstances. And another thing we found is that as the project progresses and students are getting closer to the deadlines, they definitely have to start solidifying their roles, they need one person who’s going to collect all the data and one person who’s going to do the data analysis and one person who’s going to organize, whether it’s a portfolio or slides or whatever that they’re going to do. So that part becomes important as well. And so one of the things we’re teaching them is to be flexible in their roles and realize that maybe you were a leader on the last project, but you’re not the expert to be the leader of this particular project. Or maybe you’re a really good graphic designer. And so you should do our slides for our presentation or design the portfolio. So trying to make sure that everybody gets a chance to show their strengths, as well.
John: I know when Rebecca and I have presented together jointly, she was always very quick to volunteer to do it, [LAUGHTER] because she wanted to make sure I wasn’t doing it. [LAUGHTER]
Tim: Well, Lauren and I have the same exact relationship, because I’m going to give Lauren some credit here, [LAUGHTER] she is way better at doing slides. And now when I’m doing the slides, I do my outline and hand it over to Lauren electronically to clean it up and make it look nice. [LAUGHTER] And it looks a lot better when we get it to the point where we’re going to use it.
John: So that does suggest though, that using the expertise of some of the group members can be helpful. But you do also want to provide some rotation in tasks. And that could be a bit of a challenge. Would you recommend instructors giving students are a rotating list of at least some of those positions? Or would you encourage the teams to do that on their own, such as the leadership role and other roles?
Tim: Well, I think the areas where you have expertise, you should certainly…. that’s the advantage of teams… you can spread the work out but you can also at least get closer to that idea of team synergy because you’re pulling together all those diverse views, all those diverse backgrounds, all that diversity in expertise. And oftentimes when we use the term diversity, we use it to mean race, but diversity is much, much broader than that. And so you can pull together that diversity in expertise and come up with a much better outcome, a much better product that the students are proud to share, and show off in the future. So yes, you certainly want to leverage the expertise of your students. But there are certain areas where you want the students to get some practice with those roles, as you pointed out, John.
Lauren: And I think if we don’t set them up, they probably won’t happen naturally. And so we need to be talking to them about it, giving them some experience doing it. A lot of it is putting the responsibility on the team and the students to say, “Okay, here’s something that we want to see you doing,” and have them explain to us how that happened. So one of the things that we’ve done when we have students give team projects is not just talk about what they found out when they did the project, but what was their process like? …and describing that, because you can learn a lot from hearing how other teams managed it. And you can actually see, during presentation time or reading portfolios, how they approached it, and which processes were most successful.
Rebecca: One of the things that we do in our design classes is something called a process video for just that. So if they’re working collaboratively, they describe and show their process for the project in a short video, like a three- to five-minute video. And it’s really interesting sometimes to see the way that different team members describe the same process.
Lauren: I love it. I love it.
Tim: That’s fabulous. The importance of reflection on their group work, it can’t be understated, because a lot of times is, Professors, we focus on the task outcome, but what we want for our students is also all the other stuff that comes along with teamwork, where they learned what it means to be a team member. And it’s those reflective activities at the end: “How did you get to this? Where did you help? Where could the team do better?” Those are the things that can really help our students develop those teamwork skills in the future.
Rebecca: Sometimes those things are so invisible too, unless we directly ask them to explain or narrate. I’ve been surprised often, in watching the process videos like”Oh, is that how you did that? I didn’t realize.” [LAUGHTER] It’s really interesting sometimes to see how they did something technically or how they arrived at a particular idea which hadn’t been explained to me in a one-on-one meeting or something or with a group meeting.
Lauren: And one of the things that we have done at the end of a big project is we have asked the teams to self assess, and actually tell us verbally, in front of the whole class, what they think they did well, what they’d like to do if they were going to do that project again, or going forward, how they will use that. And then we have other teams give peer feedback too, so it’s a good discussion. And it’s after they have finished the project, so there’s a sense of relief. But also, it’s important to say “Just because you turn the project in, that’s not the end of the process, you’ve got to look back and take those lessons with you to the next group experience.” And we should point out that there are some programs, especially in graduate programs, where people are in the same teams for a year or even two years. And so if you’re going to be doing more projects with the same team, it’s just invaluable to be able to learn from each of those experiences and take it forward.
John: One of the issues along those lines that came up with a podcast we did earlier with Olga Stoddard was an examination of long-term group projects and leadership roles in terms of gender. This was in an MBA program, which was disproportionately male dominated. And one of the things that happened in groups where women were in the minority, their leadership tended to be undervalued, or their rating of their leadership skills tended to be rated relatively low, while in groups where they were the majority or represented the whole group, their leadership evaluation was quite a bit higher. So one of the things, in terms of roles, that could be an issue is gender bias, and so forth in constructing the group. There’s also lots of research that shows that women are more likely to be asked to take minutes in meetings or to be the recorder in groups. Might it be worthwhile to address some of these issues with the groups before the groups create their charter or before they start their processing?
Lauren: Absolutely. And we do talk about implicit bias, not just gender, but on other factors as well, that it is important for students to have that call to their attention. Fisher has more females than males. So we haven’t had that much of an issue in classes. But I have seen that happen. I taught at the Simon School of Business at the University of Rochester for a while and you see that sort of thing happening, but students may not even realize what they’re doing. And so calling it to their attention is really important. I recently hosted a DEI panel at the TBLC conference. And one of the things that came out was, if you only have a few people of color in the class, don’t spread them out. So each group has one person of color who has to represent their entire race. And it’s that sort of thing students don’t really understand. And I think sometimes faculty don’t even understand what the implications are. But how valuable that lesson can be for the students going forward.
Rebecca: We spent a lot of time talking about interpersonal relationships in groups in our discussion today, but maybe we can also talk a little bit about the kinds of activities that might be appropriate to do as a group, as opposed to what might be more appropriate for individuals.
Tim: Well, there are definitely tasks that are not appropriate for teamwork. For example, writing a paper, if you want people to write a paper together, that’s a task that really isn’t a typical team task. A team task, one that’s designed for a team, should be complex, it should be challenging, it should require lots of ways to solve it, and it should force some level of cooperation. And I wish we could give some examples. But the problem is that the task is very discipline dependent. And what task works for one discipline is different for another. But if you’re trying out a team task, then you can use it, you can see what works and see what you need to change or have some of your colleagues and peers review it and see what they think is relevant and what they think works and what they think might not work about it. Because we’re all trying to improve. We’re all lifelong learners. And so we can improve ourselves, too.
Lauren: And that’s another reason why you don’t want to take an individual project and turn it over to a group. Because those cooperation requirements are so important. They’re valuable for the students learning the content for the course, but also learning how teams work and how they can develop in those.
Tim: And back to those multiple check-ins. Once you start to force people to cooperate in a complex and challenging task, then it’s really difficult for certain students to let go their control and let others do it. But if you’re doing the multiple check-ins, you’re getting the information about which members are doing their work, and which members are not in time so that they can change and improve and develop.
Rebecca: Although cooperative tasks are different in different disciplines. Can you give an example from the classes that you’ve taught together, of where cooperation becomes an important key or important element to a project that you’ve assigned?
Tim: Oh, yeah, we’ve got quite a few of them, because we use team projects, not just together in our group dynamics class, but in many other classes. And so I ‘m going to pick my industrial and organizational psychology class. And in that class, they do a client project where they go out and they do a survey within an organization. And when they do that survey in an organization, I have them divided up to one person who’s the main client contact, and one person who does the data analysis, and one person who’s the lead for the first half of the project. And the project takes a lot of steps, I give them a stepwise document for what they should do, but there’s a lot of steps involved. And it’s something they’ve never done, writing a client type report instead of…. I’m in psychology… that dreaded APA-style paper that is [LAUGHTER] so frustrating for so many students. And in this case, they haven’t done this, so they’re trying to figure this out, dividing it up, and then coming back together and building on each other’s work to do this client survey.
Lauren: Now another project that we did in our group dynamics class was we had students actually do an observational report on a real-life group on campus. And so they had to choose a group, they had to get permission to observe the group, they had to observe the group at least three times, they had to give a certain number of instruments, whether they were things that measured interpersonal skills, leadership skills, roles, conflict resolution, that sort of thing. And then they had to go and observe the group and do a post-meeting analysis and ask people to say, “How did you think the meeting went?” So it required a lot of coordination, because they had to find a group that would give them permission to observe. And then they had to come back and figure out how were you going to collect this data, who was going to be responsible for doing that. When a meeting’s over, most of the time the students all get up and they want to leave the meeting, get to class or whatever. So they had to figure out how they were going to get that information from people. And when it was all done, they had to put it together and display their data. They had to show the results of all of the surveys they had done, the observations, they had to look at the task, the people, the contexts, and analyze those things. And then they were asked to analyze all those things that happened when the group got together. How was their communication style? What kind of norms did you notice? And it became really interesting to watch the students recognize things that they had done, and maybe not even realized, that they were either supportive of the group goals or not so supportive of the group goals, depending on what was happening. And then they had to come and give recommendations. And the groups that they observed were told that, if they wanted the recommendations, they would give them the executive summary from their report. So that was a task that required everybody being involved because they couldn’t all do all of the things. And it was pretty complex, and a long semester project.
Rebecca: So it sounds like scope is an important piece of the puzzle with collaborative assignments.
John: Do you have any other advice for our listeners?
Lauren: One of the things that we haven’t talked about was making sure that everybody is involved in the group. And it’s easy for people in groups to get lost if they don’t know the people well, if they may be shy and not comfortable speaking up… maybe it’s their first class in a particular subject matter. And so we’ve talked about this idea of checking in and making sure that everybody’s involved and that’s one thing that you can do is to encourage that sort of feedback, and making sure that everybody understands that everyone has to be involved, that that’s part of the requirements for the group tasks. Starting off with those icebreakers is just great, because it gets you to know everyone, and so people start to feel more comfortable. And especially again, I’ll say with online classes, it’s an issue because people don’t put their cameras on, they mute their microphones, they don’t show up for team meetings because of a scheduling conflict, and that sort of thing. So it makes it difficult, but you’ve got to make sure that with formal and informal check ins that everybody is involved and know what their role is and what their deliverable is going to be for the project.
Tim: And if I can follow up on a different thing, but it’s related to what Lauren finished on, in the online environment. We are all teaching in this different environment now, getting used to teaching online. And that’s difficult. And it’s difficult for us, it’s difficult for our students. What we found is our students often don’t know all the tools available to them, nor do they know how to use all those tools that are available to them. And so helping, especially on a team project, helping them realize all the different ways they can communicate, because if left to their own devices, it’ll be primarily by text, [LAUGHTER] and if other students are like ours. And so helping them to see that they have all these other things available that are both things they can do at the same time (synchronous tools), and asynchronous tools (things that they can use that drop information where other team members can get to it later).
Rebecca: I think that’s a really important point, Tim, not just in the online environment, just generally when students are collaborating, because they may not always be able to be in person together at the same time in any context. So having strategies to deal with communication or deal with sharing materials can be really helpful. And sometimes that means, in my experience at least, doing some little activities to introduce them to those tools so they can kind of level up in the technical skill sets that might be necessary before expecting them to be using it in their teams.
Tim: Absolutely. What’s interesting is, I’m going to date myself here, and sorry, Lauren, you’re coming along on the ride with me on this one, [LAUGHTER] but when Lauren and I first started teaching group dynamics together, we used to talk about teams that were either virtual or not virtual, because that’s the way it was at the time, your team was one or the other. And now in today’s environment, no team is all face to face, and no team is all virtual. I have a colleague next to me that I’ve texted, emailed and called and her office is right next to mine. And so we have a lot of computer-mediated communication, even in face-to-face teams now. So it’s the level of virtuality, everybody is using these tools. How can we use them to match the task and to match the skill set that the people on the team have?
Lauren: So at the beginning of this conversation, we talked about our book being based on a model that was an input-output model. And so we talked a little bit about the inputs, the things that happen in the middle are the communication and the conflict and the norms and roles, but to really be aware of what the outputs are. And faculty need to be aware of those before they assign the project. As much as we hate having to put together rubrics, it’s something that students need to have, they need to know how are they going to be evaluated. So we tend to focus, though, a lot on the task rubric. And that’s important. Obviously, we want students to get the content that relates to the course material, but we also need to have a rubric for those self and peer evaluations. And so the output is not only the task output, how did they do on the task? …but what did they take as a result from working on that task together? What kind of feedback did they get? How are they seeing themselves? …and actually having structured rubrics not just saying, “Well, what do you think? How did you do?” actually giving them a form to fill out and we’ve got some examples in the book and on our website too, that show what people can do. We’ve even got some from high school that were not as detailed as the ones that we gave our college students, but it’s important that they see the output of it is not just what the grade was on the project. But there’s more detail for that.
Rebecca: Students have a tendency to think that the output is the thing that the most weight or value was placed on. And I know, in my classes, it’s really the process. [LAUGHTER] So when I show them those rubrics and show them the weighting between the task versus the actual process of making the thing that you’re outputting, they’re often surprised. And I have to remind them constantly throughout the process, or through the project, that this process piece is important, you need to stop shortcutting this, this is the thing that actually matters the most, this is where the learning is happening.
Lauren: This is so true, I teach public speaking, and students think that the person with the best delivery is going to get the best grade. And I said, but look at the rubric, delivery is only 15% of the grade, you’ve got to do research, you’ve got to do organizing, you’ve got to have your citations in there, and you’ve got to have visuals, and how you handle Q&A, and all of those sorts of things. So it is a good example, Rebecca, of how there’s a lot more to it. And we need to lay it out so students know what it is.
John: And sharing those rubrics in advance with students in the learning management system or in person if it’s face to face, but preferably in the learning management system, so they have access to them anytime, and referring back to them regularly, will help remind them and help you be more transparent and how you’re assessing student work.
Tim: We remind our students: we want to start with the end in sight, what is it that you need at the end and build the project based on that end goal. So if we can provide those rubrics and those processes through which we’re going to be evaluating them, we get better work from our students. And that’s what we all want is better work for our students.
Lauren: And from time to time, we actually pull the rubric up during class and say, “Does this look familiar? Did anybody notice that this is the way you’re going to be evaluated?” …because they get involved in their project and then they lose sight of some of those details that are going to be important. For example, we had a project where students had to use two synchronous tools and two asynchronous tools when they were working on their project. And we went around and started asking them well, like, “What’s one of your synchronous tools?” They were saying: “Well, we’re using Google Docs.” We’re like, “Well, wait a minute, just because you’re both on the Google Doc at the same time, doesn’t make it a synchronous tool,” [LAUGHTER] and so it gave us a chance to really give them some clarification about what they needed to do. And so that’s why the rubric at the beginning is so important.
Rebecca: I think this is a good moment to wrap up in some ways, because it’s like we’ve got our end in sight, we’ve got a process in place. And so we always wrap up by asking: what’s next?” (that nice reflection kind of question) [LAUGHTER]
Tim: That’s a great question, because we do have the “what’s next.” Number one is we post blog posts on our LinkedIn sites every Tuesday. So we’re constantly developing content. For example, on May 18, we talked about giving feedback and peer evaluations, we have something about how to teach peer evaluation, so your students do a better job at it. That’s on our blog posts. And we also have a student version of our handbook coming out in September. It’s going to be matched to the professor version, the handbook for the instructor, except it’s going to be more student friendly, a lot less writing a lot less “how to” in the text and a lot more based on checklists and exercises and guidelines, rather than simply explaining the things.
John: That sounds like a great project.
Tim: Thank you.
Lauren: Thank you. And we’re looking forward to being able to get more feedback from educators. We have a lot of professionals who follow us on LinkedIn as well, and so respond to some of those topics. And we’ve done a number of professional development seminars for different colleges and universities that have been pretty well received. So we’re looking forward to it. But we’ve got a lot of resources on our website, which we can put in the show notes and people can find a lot of information there and just get an idea of some tools they can use as well as contact us if they want more information.
Rebecca: Excellent. Thanks so much.
John: Thank you.
Lauren: Thank you so much for having us. It’s been a lot of fun.
Digital texts and materials have been increasingly used in college classes. In this episode Jenae Cohn joins us to explore some of the affordances of digital texts and discuss strategies for effectively engaging with digital material. Jenae is the Director of Academic Technology at California State University Sacramento and the author of Skim, Dive, Surface: Teaching Digital Reading, which has been recently released by West Virginia University Press.
- Cohn, J. (2021). Skim, Dive, Surface: Teaching Digital Reading. West Virginia University Press.
- Christina Haas (1997). Writing Technology: Studies In The Materiality Of Literacy. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Assoc., 1996
- Smale, M. A. (2020). “It’s a lot to take in.” Undergraduate Experiences with Assigned Reading. CUNY Academic Works. 1-10.
- Smale, M. A., & Regalado, M. (2016). Digital technology as affordance and barrier in higher education. Springer.
- Power Notes
- Kalir, R., & Garcia, A. (2019). Annotation. MIT Press.
John: Digital texts and materials have been increasingly used in college classes. In this episode we explore some of the affordances of digital texts and discuss strategies for effectively engaging with digital material.
Rebecca: This podcast series is hosted by John Kane, an economist…
John: …and Rebecca Mushtare, a graphic designer.
Rebecca: Our guest today is Jenae Cohn. She is the Director of Academic Technology at California State University Sacramento and the author of Skim, Dive, Surface: Teaching Digital Reading, which has been recently released by West Virginia University Press as part of the superb series on teaching and learning, edited by James Lang. Welcome, Jenae.
Jenae: Thank you, Rebecca. Thanks for having me.
John: We’re glad to talk to you again.
Jenae: Such fun.
John: And we’re really glad to see your book out. When we last talked to you, you were finishing it up but we didn’t actually get to see it. So this time, we’ve had a chance to actually read it before talking to you.
Jenae: Oh, I’m so thrilled you’ve had a chance to read it. It’s so exciting to get to talk to people about it, finally.
John: Today’s teas are… Are you drinking tea?
Jenae: I am drinking tea today. I’ve got an English Breakfast tea.
Rebecca: I’ve got a Scottish afternoon tea. So, do you have something for the evening, John? [LAUGHTER]
John: No, I actually have English Breakfast tea from Tea Pigs, which is a new tea company for me. It was a gift.
Rebecca: That’s an unusual choice.
John: It’s very good, actually.
Jenae: I’m always up for new tea recommendations. I have a whole tea shelf. I was really born ready for this podcast. So I am wishing I had some Sleepy Time now to complete the full…
Rebecca: I know, right?
Jenae: …section of daytime to nighttime. That’s alright, it’s still morning here for me. So, I wasn’t quite ready for that yet. [LAUGHTER]
Rebecca: I go straight for the afternoon, even in the morning. So we’ve invited you here today to discuss Skim, Dive, Surface. Digital content has been really increasing in our college classes for some time. And there are some affordances of digital content that print content doesn’t have, like OER and some accessibility features, etc. Can you talk a little bit about some of the affordances of digital content?
Jenae: Sure, I’d be glad to. And I love that we’re starting from this place of affordances., ‘cause I think often enough in our teaching, we can make choices about what we use based on our prior experiences, or what we found comfortable. And I would love to see us having a measured conversation about what we get when we make these choices, to be really mindful about the kinds of choices that we make. So, to me, one of the greatest affordances of thinking about adopting digital text is their flexibility. Digital texts can be modified and they can be transformed on different kinds of devices and using different kinds of applications. So when you’re encountering a printed book, something that publishers and writers really love is that you can really control the experience. And sometimes there’s real pleasure in seeing that really controlled experience. But, for a student, for a teaching context, being able to modify the size or the shape of the text, to modify the spacing, to be able to cut and paste and remix things, that can really be of tremendous benefit on the learning side of things. Rebecca, you mentioned equity-based concerns around digital reading as well. And I think that’s, to me, the hugest motivation to doing this work. We know that, according to EDUCAUSE data that’s been collected for years, we know that mobile device usage in college classrooms is nearly ubiquitous at this point. Mobile devices are not a luxury device, they are the standard device that students use. And they’ll often choose to use a mobile phone for their learning more than a laptop, more than buying scores of heavy textbooks. So the more that we can make our learning experiences accessible on mobile, the easier it is for us to be able to reach students who, again, may not have access to more than one device or who may not have the budget to be buying all their books, who might be doing a lot of their learning on a bus on their way to campus, for example. When people start repopulating campuses, one thing I think we’ve learned in the Covid-19 pandemic is that mobile phones were often a more stable source of WiFi internet connection than home wireless access was. So we also knew that from a kind of a download access perspective too, mobile really provided a lot of touch points that made access to materials even easier. But I sometimes struggle to read on a mobile phone. That’s not how I learned to read. But there are some things that I read all the time on my mobile phone. So the more that we can think about, again, what’s possible in those spaces, the transportability, the adaptability, the flexibility, the more we can start to think inventively about how we’re distributing and thinking about access in those spaces.
John: You mentioned mobile devices as a platform for student reading. And that’s especially true for first-generation students and students from lower income households, who face some of the greater challenges in being successful and continuing their studies. So I think that adds to that equity component, And one of the reasons we’ve been pushing for this on our campus… and I think this is true everywhere… is that, in general, text in digital format is easier to distribute to students through the LMS so they have day one access, where if you have physical textbooks, generally students have to pay for them, and sometimes that’s a bit of a struggle for students in coming up with the funds to require textbooks. And certainly with OER, but with digital materials in general, you can have them there so that all students start from an equitable standpoint.
Jenae: Absolutely. It’s a great point that often our OERs are digitized, which makes them more affordable when we’re concerned with student budgets. Not all digital texts are affordable, but the other piece I’d like to mention here, that I think I always appreciate underscoring is that a lot of libraries have way more access to digital collections through the kinds of publication packages that they purchase. I think we forget about the amazing resources our librarians are thinking about. And so many of our librarians are educators who are being really thoughtful about what they’re procuring online, there’s also this real potential if we’re willing to accept that good, deep, close, mindful reading can happen on screen that we really get this world of new things that might be opened up to vis-a-vis collaborating with our librarians, and thinking about what kinds of types of texts or resources might be really well suited for the kinds of educational goals we might have.
Rebecca: I think one of the things that I discovered from doing some interviews with students about their experience learning during the pandemic, is that access to textbooks was actually a really big problem, because some of them depended on course reserves and things physically in the library. And then when they went home during remote learning, and then maybe even any online courses afterwards, they just had a lot less access, because, previously, they might have shared a physical book with other students even so that it was more affordable,
Jenae: Right, absolutely. I think libraries had to be really creative in giving students that access that maybe we took for granted, when we were thinking about the campus from a brick and mortar only perspective. And especially when it comes to books and reading, we kind of come by the attachment to the printed books quite honestly. Decades of survey research suggests that students and faculty alike prefer and find, or at least think that, they read more effectively by print. Librarians have researched this, literacy scholars have researched this, neuroscientists have researched this, and they’ve all basically found the same result. So I think there’s been a lot of behavior that has been driven around that data. And I don’t mean to suggest that we should ignore that data, I think there’s probably lots of people who do read more closely and more analytically when they have a paper book in front of them. I don’t think that data means that it’s impossible to read in a digital space effectively well, we really just have to be thinking about strategies that work for it and assignments that are aligned.
Rebecca: As a designer, I appreciate the physical artifact of a book. And I was really, really, actually very resistant to reading online, but wasn’t for pleasure, which is really weird, because I’m a digital designer. I design websites, I design apps, that’s the kind of design I do. And I was really resistant to that for all of those kinds of emotional reasons probably. And it wasn’t really until the last couple years that I started using a digital format for more scholarly work or research. I don’t know why I didn’t do it sooner. I’m discovering all of the affordances that I should have known as a designer who designed things digitally, [LAUGHTER] it’s just you get into habits and you don’t think of these things. So can you talk a little bit about some of the reasons why students find reading digitally more challenging than in a print format?
Jenae: Sure, there are a number of things that come up when students read online. One of them is what rhetorician Christina Haas studied a long time ago, back in the early 90s, actually. So we’ve been thinking about digital reading for quite some time. But she found in some small scale studies of student reading behaviors online that students lost what she coined “text sense” this ability to sort of locate and recall information based on where they appeared spatially. So one real challenge is when you read online, and you’re moving from kind of the logic of a codex, a traditional printed or bound book, which sort of moves from left to right in a certain kind of way, is a linear narrative order. When you move from that to what is typically sort of a scroll when you read on a screen, that creates a different sense of spatial awareness of where you might find that information. So it can be harder to remember, for example, where a certain key point was made, where you don’t have the materiality of paper to dog ear a page, for example, to create a kind of tactile difference in where you find information. That can be a challenge. So you do have to come up with some new strategies for simple memory and comprehension recall. The other research in this space, again, especially from cognitive psychology and neuroscience has demonstrated that in small time studies people of all ages, young and old, do tend to remember information better from print, again, especially if it’s short recall, because of that text sense, that ability to really quickly and nimbly place where information might be found in a book. Another challenge to reading on screen that students might have that they might have been used to in print are some strategies around annotation as well. I think that, in a lot of contexts, students have learned how to use a highlighter or a pen to underline or mark where important information is on a page. And it’s not always immediately obvious where you might do that annotation work online, unless you have learned about tools available for markup. So I’ve always been surprised when I’ve worked with students at all kinds of institutions… every place I’ve been in, there’s always this range of what students just know about how to markup or read digital documents. Some students know all about PDF editors and readers. Some students know about browser extensions or add ons that might allow them to annotate web pages. But many don’t. Many think that the only way that you can mark up a text is by printing it out. And this isn’t just students, faculty, professionals, people all over are still learning. I don’t know that, for whatever reason, there’s necessarily widespread awareness of what it really can look like to manipulate texts that are not designed to be manipulated,…again, especially documents like PDFs that are stable, that are designed not to be necessarily changed. So there is a certain amount of scaffolding that we would need to do with students to help them understand exactly how they can directly engage with or build upon that affordance, and as we discussed at the beginning of this conversation, to have that real flexibility to modify and engage with the text and make it their own.
John: And students at some point in their educational career had learned how to use highlighters, and they were given highlighters by their parents at some point. But as you said, they’ve never been taught how to mark up digital documents. One of the things you suggest is that that’s probably something that we should work with them on in our courses. Are there any suggestions of where that should occur? Or is that the conversation, perhaps, we should all have with our students when we’re giving them digital text?
Jenae: Right, I think there’s a couple things we’d want to engage with students on and not take for granted. And I would maybe even take one step back and just engage students in conversation about what it looks like for them when they read in academic context. To your point, John, I do think that many students have been equipped with some of the skills to do basic markup in print. But some didn’t even get that. Maura Smale, who’s a librarian and researcher herself,has a great article about reading, and she surveyed a bunch of students and the quote that still really stands out to me, she talked to one student who said “In college reading is your problem.” And that quote, really still just sticks out to me, because it just goes to show that, I think,as instructors in a college setting we can take for granted that students have learned this academic skill to be able to figure out what to do with the reading. And as instructors, I think we need to be challenged to think really critically about what we also want students to be doing with that reading. Do we want students to read for content uptake? Are we wanting them to learn key terms, critical definitions, concepts? Are we asking students to do what a lot of humanities faculty call close reading, which is trying to unpack language and see what we learn from language choices? Are we wanting students to read like writers, that is, are we wanting them to read to emulate certain conventions in the discipline or the field? So there’s a lot of reasons why we need students to read. Sometimes we don’t always articulate this. So I would say that one thing we could do with students is to make explicit what our intentions are for the reading task as well. And to also ask, “What have they done? What strategies have worked for them? What have they found useful?” Just as you might ask them to do the same when they’re starting a new writing project, we want to think about the genres of what they’re reading and how those genres might shape the kind of actions that they take. Then when you start thinking about media on top of that, then we can start to open up to what strategies, tools, or resources might make those ways of reading possible. So just as an example, if you’re wanting students to read closely, just read for language moves, to do a close reading, those kinds of markup and annotation tools might be extremely useful for, say, color coding a document for certain kinds of moves or patterns that they’re noticing in the language. But if you’re wanting students really to read in a more curatorial way, that is wanting students to read for research, pull out a bunch of main points, put them together, come up with their own argument or analysis, maybe that highlighting is still useful, but there might also be tools like citation managers, bookmarking tools, heck, even a really good word processor, using the sort of capacity of the word processor to copy and paste and bring things over to make a kind of collage of new ideas. These are other kinds of tools we can leverage as reading tools. But again, we’ll have to think about why those tools might be serving our purposes successfully. And it won’t always be obvious to students what those hacks are. Sometimes they’ll come up with new things and ways to do it, but until we make explicit the ways that we are inviting this reading work, it won’t be clear how to really adapt the media in any way.
Rebecca: And I think one thing that comes up in your book, too, is the idea that there’s a lot of tools to handle a lot of these different techniques, some only work on one platform, which might not be the most optimal choice. But sometimes that’s all you have, and that you need to find a suite of options that are available across different platforms and things like that, because we don’t want students who have to read, perhaps, on their phone to feel like they’re not included or that they don’t have access to things and that there are tools available but they may not be aware of them. I’m always surprised even for students not realizing that there’s an Acrobat reader for their phone and that they can have things read out loud to them with a pretty easy free tool.
Jenae: Yes, text-to-speech applications are so transformative for so many students, text-to-speech applications are the perfect example of “accommodations for some” are “accommodations for everyone.” As long as we, to your point Rebecca, make those options really visible, we can really empower students to figure out what works well for them, that we don’t need to get too rigid in our conception of what’s possible. I was worried that some readers would see all those tool options in the book and think, “Oh, that’s so overwhelming. I don’t want to have to learn how to use six different things, so I don’t know how to recommend to students a whole suite of things that I barely use any of them myself.” And so I do encourage readers or listeners who are feeling that way, or having that reaction, to just know that they’re not alone in doing this work. I would say there are resources on your campus that you can tap into to learn what some of the options are. A lot of institutions do have some really good local tools and solutions that go beyond the kind of private or free options that are more well known and well recognized. So I really tried to steer away in the book from naming particular tools where I could, that’s one really good way to date your book, and make it not very useful after a small sliver of time. But I do have an appendix with some contemporary options in case people really just want the list of tools. But I would encourage collaboration, not just with other colleagues in your department or your discipline, but again, I’m really pushing hard for libraries today. [LAUGHTER] Libraries are really great places to talk to about these tools, IT offices, teaching and learning centers. And I suspect that listeners to this podcast are already tapping into those resources. But it’s a good reminder that staff and faculty on campus can really partner on some of these initiatives. And these offices are there to do the research, to create the infrastructure that makes these different options available to everyone.
John: One of the things that economists have often noted is that when new technologies appear to do things that were done in a different way, in the past, people generally try to do the things in the same way. So when, for example, water power was replaced by internal combustion engines, and then later by electric power, and so forth, people initially were using the same basic systems where there was one central mechanism transmitting power to different locations in the building. And it took decades and in some cases, centuries, to fully exploit the new technology. I think the same thing happens when we have new ways of teaching. When people first started teaching online, they initially tried to replicate all the things they did in the classroom, whether they worked well in the classroom or not, they tried to come up with equivalents, and it took a while for us to come up with more effective ways of teaching asynchronously. I think maybe the same sort of thing is happening here. And that initially, the first thing people wanted to do were to be able to highlight and to be able to put bookmarks in digital text. But as you’ve suggested, there’s a lot more that you can do when text is in a digital format. What are some of the ways in which digital reading environments can transform the way in which we engage with content more effectively than occurred when it was in a fixed print format? You’ve mentioned a little bit about that. But I think there’s several other things you talk about in your book.
Jenae: Yeah, I have the most affection for the chapter where I cover 1000s of years [LAUGHTER] of media history, which was also the hardest and most painstaking chapter to write, because I was terrified that I would misrepresent all the complexity of book history. But in any case, we can get back to that at some other point.
John: Before we leave that, though, that was one of the things that really struck me, where you mentioned talking about how when people were first reading, they were reading aloud as the normal default mode of reading, because that’s how communications had taken place in the past. And there was concern that reading silently would result in learning less than by speaking the text aloud. And it struck me that that’s happened so many times with any new technology in education or ways of engaging with content.
Jenae: Yes, I think it’s really easy to forget that history. And to forget that books are a new technology. Books themselves, as a ubiquitous technology, are only a couple hundred years old. That’s so mind blowing. I could not stop geeking out over that [LAUGHTER] as I was working on this book, to realize that so many of the assumptions about reading and writing I have held so dear, are very contemporary assumptions that in… gosh, just like the 16th century, the 17th century, orality was really the primary means of distributing information, of comprehending information. Memory was the most valued component of being a literate individual… that is so different in the moment we’re in now where we want to sort of ossify ideas in a very linear form, which is really what a Codex, the printed book, privileges as a technology. There’s a very iterative relationship between media technologies and what we value in our thinking. And something that struck me in writing this book are the cyclical patterns in which our technologies and assumptions we make about our technologies change our assumptions and values about what good learning is, or what acceptable sociability is, or what acceptable learning behaviors look like. And so the same thing is happening in a digital moment where because reading on screen looks different than reading on print, it’s less linear, it’s less controlled, it is less bound… there’s a pun there… is less bound to a certain isolated knowledge space that the author kind of creates. Those things seem like they are less rigorous and less scholarly, when, again, those perceptions of what rigor is and what good reading is. It’s a social construct that’s bound up in the material conditions of how we learn.
John: But even going back further, the book itself was seen as something that would cause us to lose the memory skills that people had from trying to memorize things directly. People objected to books, they objected to reading silently. And we’re seeing exactly the same objections to digital reading. I thought that whole section of your book was fascinating. And I learned a lot from it.
Jenae: Oh, thank you, I’m so glad. [LAUGHTER] Again, it was the portion of the book that I feel like was definitely the last practical part of the book. But maybe as a humanist, in my own training, I really enjoyed that process of getting to tell a very, very, very slivered slice of that history, because really, there’s no way I could really capture centuries of scholarship. But I felt like we needed to have some context to recognize that what we’re struggling with is not new, I think it’s easy in narratives about technology to just focus on the novelty, to focus on what’s shiny and different. And as a technologist, I resist that too. That really, when we’re thinking about technology, I like to shift the conversation more into thinking about space, and about behavior, and about activity, and less about what’s the latest, greatest gadgetry for the sake of gadgetry? I realized I never answered your question. It got us started on this about what we could do differently with digital reading. So I’m happy to go there.
John: So what are some of the new ways of engaging with content provided by digital formats.
Jenae: So I think there’s a handful of things that are really, I’d say, uniquely possible in digital environments. And I’ll frame what I’m about to describe in terms of the digital reading framework that’s really at the heart of this book. And so there are five strategies for digital reading, that they’re broad strategies and, in many ways, the strategies that you could use for reading in any media, but I call them strategies for digital reading framework, because I think you can uniquely map some affordances in digital environments to the strategies. So for example, one thing that’s really unique about digital environments is how easy it is to curate… curation is the first part of my framework… how easy it is to curate lots of different pieces of information, and bring them together. You can, of course, do curatorial activities in print by, say, organizing index cards, or putting together a filing cabinet of articles and information. But online, you can curate even more of a detailed level. So, for example, there are activities I really like to do with students where we use things like tags, you know, metadata, that users generate to create clusters of information. So, if you invite students to tag, for example, a collection of articles they’re finding for research, they can start to see what key topics or terms might be shared across sources they might not have otherwise seen, if they were just trying to index that. You could put together broad buckets of information under those tags much more easily with citation management tools, for example, or you could go even a little bit more old fashioned and use bookmarking tools for this in your browser. You have bookmarking tools where you could create folders that are basically topical tags to sort things. You can even do it on a desktop if you want to do this offline, you could create folders that are organized by subject headers or tags to put things together and create collections of resources. That’s one thing I think is unique is its ability to bring a lot of information together. The other thing I think is really unique and exciting about working online is the second part of my framework, which is connection, which is this easy ability to link lots of different pieces of information together. Again, you could do this in print when you look at the references section of a printed out article or the works cited of a book. You can find them there, but when you’re online, it’s so much easier to generate and follow hyperlinks from one website to the next or to look at a citation trail and see who has cited whom and see how particular ideas are connected to each other, or even at the sentence level to see whether a reference to a particular person or place can be connected to encyclopedic information about that person or place to deepen your knowledge of things that are referred to in the text itself. Let’s say there’s also a description of an image or a graph, you could find the illustration of that and make that connection between the visual and the textual to create a more multimodal experience as well. Again, all possible in print, just easier and uniquely accessible to do when you’re doing this work digitally, I’ll say one more thing that I think is unique about working digitally. And I’m gonna veer a little off from the framework here, but we can return to that if you’d like, but that reading digitally can be even more nimbly social, and more easily shareable. With print, the best ways that we can share ideas are by talking about this, as we’re doing now. Of course, if you go to a used bookstore, you might find some good books that have written annotations of people of yore in them, which always feels like a wonderful discovery. But online, there are all kinds of tools where you can annotate together in real time. So this can be done in something as simple as a Microsoft Word document with Track Changes where you can share back and forth, a Google Doc, a lot of people use now as a really easy way to annotate in real time, and of course, there are specialized tools that make social annotation visible as well, Hypothesis is a very popular one, Perusall, is another popular one, Power Notes is another popular one. There’s a whole suite of things now that are really encouraging students and faculty to work together to make their thinking really visible and social in one text. And I think all those movements have such transformative potential to spark conversation, because reading really is about having a good conversation.
John: I’ve been using Hypothesis in a couple of my classes now for the last three years and students have just found it so incredibly engaging, and that they’re reading things so much more deeply and having conversations right in the text, which is so much more informed than when they were working on a discussion forum online talking about it, or even when we had class discussions about it. My students have generally responded extremely positively to that social annotation process.
Jenae: That’s wonderful. I’m glad to hear it. There’s good scaffolding that needs to make that happen. Your social annotations can turn into a discussion board quite easily. Without the framing, there’s a potential to highlight part of a text and have someone comment and someone else say “I agree.” But, the book actually offers some strategies. It sounds like you’re doing this brilliantly, John, if you’re getting really good results from your students. I’d be curious to hear how you’re framing it because that’s always, I think, the challenge. And in the book, I do talk about some things you could ask students to look for, simple prompts, not just highlighting moments that are important, but also inviting students to ask questions, or inviting students to look at which parts are sort of popular when you do look for things that are important or interesting. So there’s a lot of different ways you can frame that task.
Rebecca: I did that trick with my syllabi during the pandemic, to get students to make sure they’re looking at the syllabus and doing a careful reading of the syllabus and see if there was any policy questions and things and encourage questions about it. And we ended up having some really great conversations as a result of essentially annotating the digital version of the syllabus.
Jenae: Yes, that’s a great assignment. Remi Kalir has some great articles about annotating the syllabus. I don’t know if that was part of your inspiration. And Remi Kalir and Antero Garcia also just wrote a great book about annotation from MIT Press that I think is really… someone’s listening to this and thinking, “Oh, I want to learn more about annotation.” My book is one starting point there. But their book is a much deeper dive into just annotation as a learning practice.
John: We’ll include the citation for that in the show notes.
Rebecca: When we start talking about social annotation, one question that may arise for folks is privacy issues and ethical issues about sharing and making something that historically we might be thinking of as being a private experience more public. So can you talk a little bit about some of these ethical issues around digital reading?
Jenae: Yes, I’d be glad to. And in the third part of my book, I address this conversation in a lot more depth. So this will be sort of a thumbnail sketch of thinking about the real ethical dimensions, as you put it, to digital reading. So, when it comes to social annotation, in particular, we have to be, I think, really thoughtful in our framing about what we’re asking students to share. One thing I would suggest is, as instructors, if you’re going to ask students to use any kind of annotation-based software, (A) to make it really clear to students who will see it. So with most social annotation tools, you can control the privacy settings to make sure that certain annotations might only be visible to the class community. But as an instructor, there is, I think, a little bit of responsibility on you to do that research and to make sure you understand before you ask for mandates and tools, that you know, where students data is going, when they enter it into any kind of cloud-based platform or internet-based platform, in particular. I think this is where tools like Google Docs, especially, get into very dicey privacy-based territory, because Google, in particular, we know has a track record of… especially if you’re using an instance of Google Docs not managed by your institution… that data is owned… all of your written data is owned by Google and is used for optimizing their ad services. So I think before we just sort of uncritically adopt these tools, we have to think about the implications of what we’re doing and give students the option to opt out. Social annotation can be really powerful and really transformative. But there always needs to be ways for students to contribute if they don’t want to have their words online or they don’t want to use a platform. Even if it is private to the class, we still always need to let students make evidence of their work private, because ultimately their thinking is their intellectual property. But it’s also just we want to make sure students have the agency to decide where and how their thinking is made visible. So I would say the other thing we want to think about with digital leading too is where we’re asking the students to read. I think we can forget that every website we go to on the internet is tracked, whether that’s the browser based cookies, if we’re using a university proxy network, a VPN, the University knows [LAUGHTER] where we’re going on the internet. Again, that sounds a little scary, but it’s true. That’s just the reality of the connected world that we live in. It’s not necessarily dangerous, but it could be. There’s always sort of potential for data to be weaponized in ways that we need to be cognizant of. So I would just say that, for as many possibilities as there are, there are also risks that we need to assess and be mindful of. And I realize one reaction to this risk is let’s just go back to paper [LAUGHTER] and forget about it. Why put ourselves into the surveillance network that is the internet for our learning. But there are real risks to reading in print too. There’s less permanence. If I spilled my tea on this book, this book work is no longer accessible to me. It’s like paper’s actually a very fragile technology that way. There’s a reason that some people’s whole jobs are to be preservationists of print materials. So we have to kind of weigh the risks and affordances. And again, give our students choices where we can. So that might just mean, again, as an instructor, letting students for example, if they don’t want to annotate publicly, they could probably easily do the annotation in a Word document and send that to you privately to have it be an offline document, they can even expand their thoughts on a print book and take a picture. If they’re really insistent on doing that, that’s still a kind of digital reading, in a way, even if they’re using a print-based technology to do the optical work of scanning the words on a page, they can again, snip a picture, send it to you, and keep the digital infrastructure intact. And I think encouraging questions… If you as an instructor don’t know what the privacy policies are on the technologies you use, again, partnership with your IT office that looks into information security concerns all the time, your accessibility office that might also be thinking about the risks associated for students who might not always be able to use particular technologies, these are all things that can start to be thinking about when we design these activities and work in these spaces. It might not all happen at once, and that’s okay, too. I think it’s always good to experiment and think about what’s best for maintaining an active learning environment. But these are considerations that we don’t want to ignore, and it might just take our own continuous learning and our own continuous digital literacy development to really make sure we’re understanding just what we’re doing when we’re asking the students to work online.
John: You mentioned that that’s especially a concern with Google tools that are personal Google tools that you might ask students to use. But when you work with Google Apps for Education, there’s generally an agreement where the educational institution owns the data, which provides more privacy protection…
John: …and Google agrees not to use that in any commercial manner.
Jenae: Yes, that’s a great point. And so it’s certainly worth, if you don’t know, if your institution has a Google for Education license, this is just something to look into. Because to your point, John, the kinds of licenses your institution manages centrally may impact the ways in which student data is used. And yet another example of this… if your institution matches certain tools to protect logins behind Single Sign On authentication for your tool, so students have to log in with their university username and password, that also usually suggests a greater level of security than say a student has to create new accounts and logins to use the tool. Even more risky is if certain tools invite students to create an account with their Facebook username or other social media kinds of connections. If you’re looking to expand your students’ reading behaviors to some tools, it’s always worth just thinking about, “Okay, what are the access points my students will have to engage in to use this? To what extent is it disconnected from our university’s existing infrastructure? And what are the risks of moving further away from the infrastructure or using it?” And again, if you don’t know and you have questions, this is really what a lot of experts on campus are happy to talk to people about to understand those choices more clearly.
John: And even if there is a Google Apps for Education agreement, not all the apps that are provided may be subject to the terms of that. I know, in the SUNY system, there was a core set of apps that were negotiated. And then many other apps such as YouTube were not part of that agreement. So, use of that, or at least at SUNY, is not subject to the same set of protections as are the core apps of the educational platform, though, it is worth exploring, as you suggested.
Jenae: Yeah, I know, it’s kind of in the weeds. And sometimes it’s like, “Oh, gosh, all the legal and technical stuff is super complicated, it’s kind of frustrating.” But I think there’s also really, again, exciting potential to learn with your students. The world we live in now is a world where we both have access to so much more and once more things open up more risks just emerge. just kind of part of living in an interconnected world. And so I think that being curious is a really great habit of mind. And so sometimes I get down these conversations, I too can feel a little bit like, “Oh, it’s so annoying that we have to ask all these questions.” And yet I try to approach it from a perspective of curiosity. And that was part of my motivation for writing this book, too, was just being really curious about imagining what would happen if we really developed a clear understanding of what we get when we do our operations in digital spaces. What’s possible there, and how do we explore that in ways that are engaged and thoughtful and attuned to the material conditions of the world we’re in?
John: One of the nice things about your book is you include a set of activities that you can use in classes to help students engage more effectively with digital content. Could you share, perhaps, a couple of those?
Jenae: Sure, so this can kind of bring us back to our framework a bit. So maybe I’ll share a couple activities that we haven’t talked about yet. So a third component of the framework is “creativity.” And so these are activities that really inspire students to create new ideas based on what they’ve read. We know that reading is mentioned to inspire new thoughts and develop new ideas. So one activity that I think has a ton of potential is one that I call “visualize that” where we ask students to create some infographic or a map of what they’ve read and invite them to really take a step back. Again, doing this online isn’t possible in print. You could have someone draw an infographic. But there’s a lot of tools where students can easily create shapes, create maps, you could do this in your cyber tools, you could use this in explicitly designed mind mapping tools. And if you have students who can’t use these visual tools, or for whom visuals was not an especially effective way to learn, I found a good workaround is actually students create a spreadsheet, like an Excel spreadsheet, where they map connections between ideas to take a step back from the reading itself. So I think that’s one activity that is really exciting for reading digitally. Another one is in the contextualization section of the framework, which really invites to think about not just like how a text exists on its own, but why it exists, who wrote it, etc. So there’s one really simple activity that I call “the journalistic investigation,” gathering the who, what, where, when, why… which, again, you could do this in print, but what’s really nice about doing online is you could have students basically create a shared resource where they work together to gather: “Okay, what do we know about this author? Who are they? Where do they come from? Why do we care about them? Why did they write it? What are the contexts in which this book, or this article, or this piece of research exists?” …and to really inspire students to see text, not just kind of as a floating isolated thing that came from this author’s genius brain, [LAUGHTER] but that exists in a particular context. And that can really shape the way they understand that past.
Rebecca: Thanks for all those great ideas, Jenae, and really thinking through all of these different considerations of reading online and reading digitally. I know that everyone that picks up a copy of the book will find many nuggets within the pages that are far beyond what we talked about today. But we always wrap up by asking: “What’s next?”
Jenae: Yes. So one thing relevant to this book that’s next is that I will be at the Distance Teaching and Learning Conference hosted by the University of Wisconsin – Madison in August. I’m really honored to be one of the invited speakers of that conference where the theme is what’s next. And the topic for me is “what’s next is text.” So making the argument that as we think about futures of online learning, after a year of working remotely, that we really can take a step back to be thinking really critically about what we do with text in online spaces. I think a lot of folks got really into video and audio and the online moment, all of which is wonderful. And yet text is one of the most accessible, flexible, ways that we distribute content and engage with learning and learners if students don’t have access to high bandwidth, internet speeds using chat and using text-based tools really has tons of potential. So I’m thinking about expanding some of this work into, I would say, an even broader conversation about low-tech online learning is kind of where I’ve been really interested in going next with some of my work and thinking about how we kind of strip out the, I think, intimidating overhead of really high-tech gadgetry when we talk about teaching grant technology to remind ourselves that teaching with technology actually involves a lot of tools that are extremely low bandwidth, extremely easy to use, and can be really transformative and have a really high impact. So I don’t know what my next big project is, but I think I want it to have something to do with like low tech, high impact. I haven’t decided how yet. But immediate next is that conference. I hope to see some people there.
John: It’s great talking to you and we hope when you do come up with that next thing you want to address, that you’ll join us back on the podcast again.
Jenae: Oh, I hope so too. Thank you so much again for having me, always such a pleasure to speak with both of you, John and Rebecca. Thank you.
Rebecca: Thanks for your time, Jenae.
After a year of experimentation during the pandemic we can reflect on practices worth keeping. In this episode, Martha Bless joins us to examine what we’ve learned from this experience about building and maintaining a productive class community in multiple modalities. Martha is an Academic Director at the Association of College and University educators (ACUE). She has been working with us at SUNY Oswego to support our faculty in the ACUE program for the past two years. She’s a member of the Education Department at Albertus Magnus College and Southern Connecticut State University.
- Bless, Martha (2021). Revisiting pandemic teaching advice OpenStax. January 25.
- Michael Wesch – ACUE page – YouTube channel
- Lang, J. M. (2016). Small teaching: Everyday lessons from the science of learning. John Wiley & Sons.
- Darby, F., & Lang, J. M. (2019). Small teaching online: Applying learning science in online classes. John Wiley & Sons.
John: After a year of experimentation during the pandemic we can reflect on practices worth keeping. In this episode, we examine what we’ve learned from this experience about building and maintaining a productive class community in multiple modalities.
We should note that this episode was recorded in late April when there was still a great deal more uncertainty about the success of the vaccination program. Today, we’re a bit more optimistic about the fall semester than we were at the time of this recording.
Rebecca: This podcast series is hosted by John Kane, an economist…
John: …and Rebecca Mushtare, a graphic designer.
Rebecca: Our guest today is Martha Bless. Martha is an Academic Director at the Association of College and University educators (ACUE). She has been working with us at SUNY Oswego to support our faculty in the ACUE program for the past two years. She’s a member of the Education Department at Albertus Magnus College and Southern Connecticut State University. Welcome, Martha.
Martha: Thanks, Rebecca. I’m so glad to be here. It’s like being with my friends again. I love it.
John: It’s good to talk to you.
Martha: Yeah, yeah.
Rebecca: It’s been a while.
Martha: I know. I know.
John: Our teas today are…
Rebecca: Martha. Are you drinking tea?
Martha: Yes. Special for this occasion, I poured myself some iced green tea because we’re experiencing beautiful weather here in Connecticut where I live.
Rebecca: Wonderful. I have Scottish afternoon tea. I’m back on a streak again.
John: And I have Lady Grey tea.
Rebecca: That’s an unusual choice for you, John. It’s caffeine in the afternoon.
Martha: Is that like Earl Grey? Only Lady Grey?
John: Yeah, they use something different. I actually like it better than Earl Grey.
Martha: Earl Grey is strong. Yeah, it’s got that strong herby flavor to it.
Rebecca: So we’ve invited you here today to follow up on an OpenStax blog post you wrote in January titled Revisiting Pandemic Teaching Advice. Now that we’ve survived the spring semester, and maybe are planning for the fall… maybe we’re in denial about the fall. But for many faculty, that might be back to in-person classes that are socially distanced and masked after multiple semesters of online teaching. So what are some things that are on your mind as you look back over the past year and into the fall?
Martha: Yeah, that’s a great question. So, I’m already getting questions from faculty about this idea of a HyFlex classroom. you’ve heard this term before, where they might be in a face-to-face classroom, but it’s going to be socially distanced, they’’ll be wearing masks, they might have students who are also Zooming in at the same time that their students are face to face. So, that’s gonna pose them real challenges. My husband teaches in a K-12 world, and they’ve been dealing with that all year. So he has kids Zooming in, he has kids who are in the classroom. So it’s a real juggle, and I will say the first couple of weeks of that kind of a classroom can be super stressful. But a way to help with that is to try to have your students who are in class bring devices, whether it’s a tablet, or a laptop, so that, if you want to do small group instruction, for example, you could have the students who are Zooming in sit with the students in the classroom at a desk on the laptop, so that it feels like they’re there. And then I would just say it’s all the same strategies and practices that I’ve been talking with faculty about for the entire year, which is focusing on building that relationship, focusing on getting the stress out of the room first, so that people can focus on the teaching. And that includes you as the teacher. It’s okay in those kinds of situations to come in and say, “Okay, my tech isn’t working today. So let’s talk it through,” or whatever’s on your mind. But I think for HyFlex, again, if you were teaching online this past year, and now you’re going back to campus. In that situation, again, there’s going to be a big learning curve there.
John: What are the best ways of building community in a classroom, because as you noted in your blog post, that’s one of the most important lessons taken away, the importance of maintaining community.
Martha: One of the things that struck me when, in March of 2020, when we were all sort of thrust into this, like, learning curve, where we didn’t have a choice anymore, we had to learn how to teach online. I know I experienced, both as a faculty development professional and as a teacher myself, as a faculty, I get this barrage of emails from multiple companies, from my IT department, from my department chair, all my colleagues, etc. And every day, there would be some new, like, “Try this, here’s this training. Come to this session.” And for a lot of us, it was overwhelming. So what I found was, I tried to sort of filter through all of that barrage of what, in many cases, was very helpful information. Sometimes it was a lifeline, like, “How do I use Blackboard? I need help with that.” But when it came down to it, I think when the dust settled, it occurred to me that there were really two big takeaways with that abrupt shift, one of which was: one of the most important things about online teaching, whether it’s synchronous or asynchronous, is building community. That’s one of the challenges because obviously, you’re not right there with them. You don’t have facial expression, you don’t have gesture, you don’t have tone of voice. So that became really important for me to focus on as a teacher. And then the other thing that bubbled up for me and a lot of us was the workload, the sheer workload that, if you’re new to online teaching, it can be a real time suck. And I always say this about online teaching and learning, The thing about online learning is it’s a great way to learn because you can do it in your PJs, you can do it whenever you want to. It’s always there. You can go to it when you have the time and when you schedule it, but that also is the thing that makes it, from a learning perspective, really easy to forget about, which is why we have often high dropout rates, high failure rates in online learning. From the teaching perspective, I think it’s that same thing. The great part about it is you can do it anytime, you can get to it when you have the time. But the flip side for teaching in an online class is the time management piece, because we often feel like we always need to be online, we always have to be there to answer the email right away. And that can be a huge pressure. Because again, it’s always there. You never know when to turn off, turn on. When am I teaching, when am I not teaching when I teach an online class? So for me, one of the biggest things was… well, a couple things really… at the beginning of the semester, in your syllabus, in your conversations with your students, to make sure that you clearly identify the parameters of communication in your online class. How soon should they expect an answer to an email? When are you available for meetings? When are you not available? About how long is it going to take you to give them their feedback, and so on. So I think, for students, if they know from the get go, here are the parameters, here’s what you can expect from me in terms of communication, then I know I can set that schedule and stick to it. Because it’s like a contract between me and my students. When I say to them,“No, I’m not going to email you back at three in the morning, I’m not going to email you at five in the morning, I’m going to email you between these hours and get back to you within 24 hours.” So I think that that’s a big thing for me in terms of time management that worked really well.
Rebecca: Circling back to the idea of building community, maybe we can take each modality one at a time, what are some strategies in asynchronous environments to get back community going?
Martha: In asynchronous environments, I think that’s one of the hardest because there’s no set time to be together. So I think a couple of things are really important. The first is to get in there and communicate with an announcement, before your students actually arrive, have it populated in your course so that when they open the course they see either an announcement or a video welcoming them to the class, something warm and inviting, not “Hi, here’s what to expect,” but “Hi, here’s who I am. Here’s what we’re going to be doing in this class. Here’s how it’s going to impact your life.” And, particularly in an online asynchronous class, I think video becomes really important. And I know that people are hesitant about being on camera, it can be a little tricky, it can be like, “Oh, that’s really me? That’s what I look like?” But I think we need to get over that and just sort of embrace the camera and make short videos that reveal your personality. And if you’re familiar with Michael Wesch, I know he’s wonderful. He has a great YouTube channel. And he has a wonderful little short video about how to make short videos, which is hilarious. And his point, and also others, James Lang, for example, who wrote Small Teaching, and Flower Darby, who wrote Small Teaching Online, they all refer to the use of video and not to be afraid of it. Because, in fact, research tells us that students actually prefer videos from their teachers that are not slick and highly produced. They prefer them that are more homey, that give them a sense of who you are as a person, maybe a little window into where you live and what your family was like or who your pets are. Those are often more well received than something that you might work on for hours and hours that’s really slick and prepared. So don’t be afraid to create these small little videos and post them frequently. Typically, what I do in an asynchronous class is I post at least two announcements a week and at least one video announcement a week. In the beginning of the semester, I typically do it at the beginning of the week. And then as the semester rolls on, they’ve submitted their first or second assignment, I usually do a short little video that says, “Hey, great assignment. Here’s what I noticed.” And I do a little recap about common themes and threads that I saw in the assignments. So video is a really important thing in an asynchronous class. In a synchronous class, when you’re meeting with students, I think encouraging them to go on camera… I know it’s been a real challenge for faculty. I’ve spoken to a lot of faculty who say, “My students just won’t go on camera, how can I get them to go on camera?” …and certainly we can’t make them. We can do as much as we can to encourage them, including having them use things like background screens, etc. If they’re a little bit shy about coming on and showing where they’re living or whatever it is, but encouraging them through incentives and through modeling it yourself and being on camera, I think, is really important in a synchronous class. And also using active learning techniques where you’re putting students in groups. I do a thing called a chatterfall often at the beginning of class where I have all of my students do a check in and I say, “Okay, type of word into the chat, how are you feeling today? Don’t submit it until I say ‘go.’” And then you say “go” and the chat explodes with all of these words from your students. So doing fun, active, things like that, I think is a way to build community in a synchronous class. Face to face…. obviously, in a HyFlex classroom, of course you’ll have your students in front of you and your students Zooming in. One of the simplest things that has the biggest impact, believe it or not, is learning and using students’ names. You would be amazed how much of an impact that has on students in a face-to-face classroom, in a synchronous classroom, and as am async when you’re replying to discussion forums, for example. “Hey, Rebecca, great job in this discussion, I love that you enjoyed the story.” Just using someone’s name communicates to them that you see them as a human being, that they’re included in this learning community and that you value them. So simple things like that, and be a good way to build community as well.
Rebecca: I know one of the things that faculty might be particularly stressed about, and obviously we have some faculty who have a little experience of this over the past couple semesters, is teaching in person when everybody’s masked. So you might be used to seeing facial expressions, even if you were teaching synchronously online, you might still have gotten to have that, right?
Martha: That’s true, yeah.
Rebecca: So what are some ways or things to be thinking about or planning for in person when people might be masked, but still generate community?
Martha: That’s a really great question. I wonder if doing things like “Hey, bring in a picture of you doing something and share it with the class, when you weren’t masked? What are some things you’d like to do” and share that. And I’ll share that on the screen: “Here’s me at the beach without my mask, here’s me with my family without my mask,” so that at least people can get a sense of the whole person. That’s really one of the only things I can think of.
John: One thing that I’ve done, it was primarily in asynchronous classes, but I’ve thought about doing this in synchronous classes too, is to have students create short flipgrid videos or voice thread and have them do short introductory videos, and then just share them. Now that may not scale very well in a large classroom, so I don’t think I’ll be doing that in a class of 400 students this fall. But that is a way of at least asking students to share something of themselves where at least they can see each other. One concern I have with incentives for turning on the camera is that many of our students are in crowded living quarters with multiple people in the room, there’s often a lot of noise and distraction, and sometimes they’re on limited bandwidth. And so the students who would find it easier to turn on the cameras are those who are living in nice living quarters with their own private space where they can work, where there’s no other people around. And so it’s essentially rewarding the students that are in a better environment, and it would disadvantage your students who are not able to do any of those things.
Martha: I agree. And when I say incentives, I mean things like not points or grades necessarily, but a nudge, or like, “let’s do some gamification, because everybody’s on camera today,” that kind of thing, more interactive conversation. Yeah, I wouldn’t use it as a carrot for a grade or extra credit points or anything like that. But certainly doing more fun activities, and saying, “Hey, if everybody’s on camera today, guess what? We’re gonna stop five minutes early, and I’m going to show you this really cute, award winning short graphic novel,” something that’s more the social oriented incentive, rather than a grade incentive, because, certainly, that wouldn’t be fair at all. I have students who come in on their iPhones. In one of my asynchronous classes, I have students literally all over the world. I have a student in China and one in St. Vincent. This was the best excuse email I ever got, by the way, as a teacher, I don’t know if you know, but St. Vincent in the Caribbean is just experiencing a volcanic eruption. He emailed me and said, “Dr. Bless, I’m so sorry. I’m not going to be able to hand in my paper. I’m being evacuated because of the volcano.” And I was like, “please just stay safe. It’s okay.” [LAUGHTER] But yeah, that was the best late excuse I think I’ve ever gotten as a teacher.
Rebecca: I’ve had two synchronous online classes this semester, and camera use is way down. But I’ve discovered that during certain activities, students will use their microphones quite a bit, and the chat a ton. And we’ve been using interactive whiteboards, like Miro, and students are super active in those environments. So although I can’t see a single face, I actually feel like I’ve gotten to know many of these students. Sometimes they’ll turn the camera on if we’re having a one-on-one conversation or something for a small amount of time. I even had a student turn on her camera the other day, she’s like, “I don’t want anyone else to see this, but I’ll let you see my crazy hair.” [LAUGHTER]
Martha: I love that.
Rebecca: But it’s been nice. I’ve had students presenting work, just speaking a little bit about what they’re doing. And then students are asking all kinds of great questions in the chat, providing good feedback, and it feels really engaged, maybe even more so than in person sometimes.
Martha: Yeah, it’s so funny that you say that, because, thinking about my synchronous class, and a lot of them don’t go on camera. But it’s amazing how much is conveyed just through your voice. Like, I know who they are when they speak, like, “Oh, yeah, so and so? Yep, absolutely. Thanks for you know…” And you’re right about the chat, they are more likely to use the chat than they are sometimes to speak. And I’m okay with that. That’s participation in my mind, as long as they’re sharing their thoughts via chat or voice. And it’s one of the things that I wrote about in the blog piece is to save time in terms of the grading load of any course, and that’s always a challenge for teachers. It’s always like, “I really want to give feedback. But oh, it takes so long to give so much feedback on papers.” So I found a tool when I was working on my dissertation. My doctoral work was about feedback in classrooms, and how to make that process more streamlined and better from both perspectives, for both the student and the teacher. And I came upon this tool, it’s called Kaizena, and it’s actually an add-on for Google Docs. Like a lot of these tools, there’s a free version and a paid version. But it’s not very expensive if you’re a teacher, and the students, of course, don’t have to pay. And what I’ve found is I use that tool, that allows me to drop an audio file or a mini lesson right into the student assignment. Then when they open it up, they hear me giving them comments. And I’ve been using this now for about a year and a half. And in every semester, about mid semester, I survey my students and I solicit feedback from them about various things, my teaching and Kaizena, specifically, and I ask them, “What are your thoughts on the audio feedback,” and far and away, most of them say, “Oh, I really like it, it’s more personal, I can hear the explanation that you give, that makes more sense.” And from my perspective, I can give them a lot more about what they can tweak in their assignment and how to do it than I ever could writing it on Word or in a margin on a real piece of paper. And the other thing that’s kind of funny about it. And sometimes when I give a video summary of “Let’s talk about this assignment and trends that I saw,” one of the last ones I created, I said to them, and it’s you know, towards the end of the semester, so I’ve given them a lot of notes already. And I said “In this paper on Kaizena, some of you may have heard my voice change a little bit and get a little irritated.” [LAUGHTER] And they laugh, and they’re like, “Oh, I know, I know, you’ve given me that note before, Dr. Glass. And I promise next time in the next paper, I won’t do it again,” or whatever, or “I’ll make it better.” But they always tell me in that mid-semester feedback that they really appreciate the voice component of it. And for me, it’s also a time saver. This is one of the other things that I found about the workload in online classes and how to derive that and it makes it more enjoyable. It takes some getting used to like I’m just talking to my computer, but my students really enjoy it. So for me, that’s become a really valuable tool.
John: And the tone of voice in terms of showing when you’re getting frustrated can also show when you’re not being quite as serious, when you’re being a little bit more flippant, which won’t show up in the same way when students are reading the comments, because we know that people in general are more likely to interpret things in a negative way.
Martha: It’s really true. And what I found is that, of course, on the flip side, I also give positive comments like, “Wow, that’s an amazing story. What a great sentence you’ve written here, terrific thesis.” And I can also give little personal anecdotes. One of their assignments is a little short memoir. And I can say, “Oh, yeah, I did that too,” or like relate to them in that way. So it’s a multi-purpose tool for me in both building community and in time saving, because they can hear that connection to me, to what they’ve written, which I think they really value.
Rebecca: I think that also happens too, when you’re trying to give encouraging feedback about improvement, but they just hear “Don’t do this. Don’t do that.” When it might be like, “Oh, you did this thing here. You could do it better by doing X,” which is really different.
Martha: Yeah. And the little mini lessons that I’m talking about… So, in Kaizena, what you do is, you set up your account, and I can create mini-lessons by pulling in content from the web. So like, “Here’s a little video on how to not use passive voice.” “Here’s a little video on APA format,” whatever it is, and I drop it right into the paper so that they can click on it and hear a little one-, two-minute tutorial. They’re very honest in their feedback, and some of them say, “Okay, I didn’t watch all the videos, but thank you for giving them to me.” But the ones who say “Yeah, those were really helpful.” I think it’s a valuable thing for them to hear not just “bad, bad, bad,” but “Okay, this is an edit, and here’s how to edit it. No big deal.”
Rebecca: Can you talk a little bit about accessibility related to audio feedback.
Martha: Yeah, great question. I always put in my syllabus and also talk about or put a video on the first day that I use this tool. However, if that’s not going to work for you, for whatever reason, email me. And Kaizena also lets me put in text comments. So I have that as an option as well. And because it’s a Google Doc add-on, I have all the Google Doc tools as well for editing and reviewing. So this, give them that right from the beginning and say, “I’m using this tool, if that’s going to be an issue for you just email me privately, you don’t even need to tell me what the issue is just say ‘No, I’d prefer text.’ So I give them that option.”
Rebecca: It seems like it might be helpful to do one more check in after the first time of leaving feedback as well. Like now that you’ve had some of that voice feedback, does it still work for you?
Martha: Exactly. Yeah. And I do, if it’s a synchronous class, I’ll, after the first paper comes in, I’ll walk them through it and ask “Does anyone have any questions or comments?” And if it’s an async, I usually post an announcement and then hold the virtual office hour for anybody who wants to drop in and chat with me about what they heard or any concerns they have.
Rebecca: Time saving tips are really popular amongst faculty, do you have any others?
Martha: Yeah, Kaizena has saved me a lot of time in grading. Sticking to that schedule, I think, is really important. It’s something as simple as putting things in your calendar. So if it’s an asynchronous class, and you don’t have a scheduled time, I find it really important to give myself that schedule, and try to stick to it. Because if I put it in my calendar, and I give myself a reminder, I know I’m going to be disciplined and sit down and get my work done in that hour and a half that I’ve put in my calendar, and then on to something else. So, really simple time management strategies, I think, work the best. I think thinking about creating videos ahead of time, so much of online teaching is done ahead of time, so anything that you can do before the semester starts during break week. So if you know what your schedule is going to be, you know, you can record your little intro videos for all the sections or courses that you’re teaching so that you can just quickly upload those. Making your videos not so specific to a course so that you can recycle them as well is another time saver. So rather than saying welcome to English 130, or whatever the course is, just say, “Hey, welcome to the course, this is who I am.” And then you can use that video in whatever course you’re teaching. Sometimes you can do that with videos, sometimes not, because I obviously like to make it personal for the students and the feedback that they need. But sometimes you can recycle them and that saves a bit of time as well.
Rebecca: I think i n your article, you also mentioned using rubrics.
Martha: Yes, one of the things that’s really interesting to me is that before the pandemic, most of us who are teaching face-to-face all received a course shell in our LMS, whether it’s Blackboard or Canvas or whatever it is, but the data, the statistics on use of those shells was just terrible. Like I think it was maybe hovering around 30% of face-to-face instructors actually used their course shell. Now, I think one of the positives to come out of all of this is that we didn’t have a choice anymore, we kind of had to use our course shell. And one of the things that I learned very quickly was the rubric tool in the learning management system. And again, it’s one of those things that, it’s time upfront, but you get that investment of time back multiple fold. By using the rubric tool to either convert existing rubrics that you have for your assignments or create rubrics. I created a discussion rubric for my synchronous and asynchronous classes. I had existing rubrics for some of my assignments. So I took some of that and just created it in the LMS tool itself. So that now I can go in there and just click, click, click, quickly grade it. And I’ve given them the feedback in Kaizena. So all I need to do in my LMS gradebook is grade the rubric and it’s done. And the other thing about rubrics, particularly for discussions, is I tried to get not too complicated. Don’t overthink it. I think Flower Darby talks about this too, in her book, particularly with discussions. And I’ve gone to a kind of three-pronged rubric, which is “Yeah, you got it, almost… mmh, almost there, not quite… and that’s a do over… like 1-2-3. And if they get a that’s to do over, I actually allow them to do it over because often it happens early on in the semester where they don’t quite have the hang of it. I give them an opportunity to redo because my goal as an instructor is to actually get the students to do the assignment and do it well. Rather than just feel bad about getting a bad grade.
John: Another nice thing with rubrics is that if you share them with students in advance, you’re making transparent what the expectations are. And that makes it easier for students to meet those expectations, because students often, in the beginning of a course, are trying to judge what you expect from them. And we’re not always as clear with that as we should be. And the use of rubrics can make that very explicit and create more transparency in the assessment process, which makes it easier for students to meet those expectations.
Martha: Exactly. I think there’s a level of respect with that, that “Here, I’m telling you, I don’t want you to guess what the teacher wants. I want to spell it out clearly for you.” And I also want to spell it out, not in teacher lingo. I want to make sure that my rubrics are clear to students about even making assumptions, like “analyzes source material…” Well, do I really know that my students understand what analysis entails? And so I think it’s important, when we share the rubrics with the students to parse that language a little bit and say, “Okay, who knows what that really means? What does it mean to analyze a source?” and if they don’t know what it means, then provide that definition for them. But I try not to make it too, too jargony in my rubrics as well,
Rebecca: One of the things I quickly learned… well, maybe not so quickly, I should have learned it more quickly… is that students don’t necessarily know where the rubrics are in the LMS. And you got to kind of explicitly point that out. I think it was halfway through last semester. And I’m like, you need to look at the rubric. If you looked at the rubric, you could get full credit on this assignment. And the students are like “There’s a rubric.”” Like, “Yes, there’s been a rubric on every assignment all semester, and some of them are in the syllabus as well.” But I had to show them and they’re like, Oooooh,” but as someone who hadn’t taught online before, it wasn’t obvious to me that I needed to show them where that was.
Martha: Yeah, it’s another great idea for a short video, the first week of the semester, let’s do a walkthrough of our course, here’s where you find the rubrics and do it as a screencast. And I made that same mistake in the fall about three weeks in, I emailed this person, and they hadn’t turned something in and they were like, “Oh, where do you hand in the assignment again?” …that kind of thing. And I was like, “Oh, gosh, I assumed that people knew Blackboard.” But I really shouldn’t make that assumption. So making a short little, “here’s how to navigate our course” video, I think, is a good thing to do as well.
Rebecca: Yeah, with all those little details, I did the submission piece, like I didn’t forget that part…
Rebecca: …but, where the rubrics are, no, didn’t manage that
Martha: …not so much…
Rebecca: Like, here’s a checklist of all the [LAUGHTER] pieces of the class to go over.
Martha: Yeah, an important thing, when you make that video, if you make a short little, “here’s how to do Blackboard” video for your students make sure you’re in student view, because I’ve made that mistake, I’ve started out my video on like,” Oh, wait, I’m not in student view.” So I need to do it again.” [LAUGHTER] …a little thing to remember. And actually one of the new versions of Blackboard, I don’t use it, but my understanding is that they also have a voice comment capability in Blackboard, and so that’s also a great tool to use if you have it. I don’t have it in my version, but I know it’s out there.
Rebecca: One other quick thing to remind students about too, in one of those video walkthroughs, is that the app version is different than the website version, and not all the content that is available in the app version, including some of the accessibility features. So sometimes they’re like, “I can’t find this.” And then you find out it’s because they’re accessing it from their phone and so they default to an app. And they may need to be doing stuff on their phone, because that might be a primary portal to the internet for them. But the web version does work on their phones as well. And pointing out that they might need to switch to that view to get some of the content is maybe helpful.
Martha: Yeah, definitely. As I said, I have a couple of students who access the course on their phone.
John: We always end with the question. What’s next? …which is something we’re all concerned about right now.
Martha: Yeah, that’s a great question. So my “what’s next” is, and I’ve mentioned that I think there are some positives to come out of this, and that is that it really catapulted us even kicking and screaming some of us into the world of online teaching and learning. And now that we’ve sort of gotten comfortable with some of those practices, and with using an LMS, my “what’s next” is what’s gonna stick? Like, are the statistics for using our course shells in a face-to-face course going to go up? Are we going to utilize those grade books more often? Are we going to bring in some of our video and those kinds of communication skills moreso into our face-to-face classes? That’s what I wonder about, like, “how much of our new learning is gonna stick?”
Rebecca: And it seems particularly important if we might be masked and stuff in the fall that we do have that strong digital presence moving forward, at least as we transition back to what will become our new norma.
Martha: Absolutely. Yeah,
John: And I know on our campus, they’re talking about cutting back student print quotas to encourage more continued use of digital materials.
Martha: Wow, that’s really interesting. Yeah.
John: So the goal there is to encourage both faculty and students to take advantage of those features because it’s in everyone’s interest to do so.
Martha: That’s really interesting because, of course, when computers and printers and digital documents first arrived, everyone was like, “Oh, nobody’s gonna use paper anymore.” 20 years later, and we’re still using lots of paper. So that’ll be interesting to see if it has an impact on that. I hope it does.
Rebecca: Well, it’s always wonderful to talk to you, Martha, thanks for joining us.
Martha: This has been so fun. Thank you so much, Rebecca and John. It’s good seeing you.
John: Thank you. And we will include a link to Kaizena in the show notes.
Martha:Awesome. That’s great.
The global pandemic resulted in a dramatic increase in online instruction. This was accompanied by an expansion of the use of online services that, in return for a fee, provide students with solutions to assignments and exams . In this episode, James M. Pitarresi joins us to discuss strategies that faculty can use to preserve academic integrity in their online courses.
James is a Vice Provost for Online and Innovative Education and the Executive Director of the Center for Learning and Teaching at the State University of New York at Binghamton. He is also a Distinguished Teaching Professor in the Department of Mechanical Engineering at Binghamton.
- Course Hero
- Redden, Elizabeth (2021) “A Spike in Cheating Since the Move to Remote?” Inside Higher Ed. February 5.
- Lancaster, Thoa and Codrin Cotarian (2021). Contract cheating by STEM students through a file sharing service: A Covid-19 pandemic perspective. International Journal for Educational Integrity. Vol. 17, no. 3. February 4.
- Adams, Susan (2021). “This $12 Billion Company is Getting Rich Off Students Cheating Their Way Through Covid. Forbes.” January 28.
John: The global pandemic resulted in a dramatic increase in online instruction. This was accompanied by an expansion of the use
of online services that, in return for a fee, provide students with solutions to assignments and exams. In this episode, we examine strategies that faculty can use to preserve academic integrity in their online courses.
Rebecca: This podcast series is hosted by John Kane, an economist…
John: …and Rebecca Mushtare, a graphic designer.
John: Our guest today is James M. Pitarresi. James is a Vice Provost for Online and Innovative Education and the Executive Director of the Center for Learning and Teaching at the State University of New York at Binghamton. He is also a Distinguished Teaching Professor in the Department of Mechanical Engineering at Binghamton. Welcome, James.
James: It’s a pleasure to be here. Thanks for bringing me on board.
Rebecca: Today’s teas are… James, are you drinking tea?
James: I had my cup of tea. I drink Barry’s Irish tea with a little bit of sugar and milk, and I’ve already had it today.
John: And I am drinking Spring Cherry Green tea.
Rebecca: And I’ve got a near neighbor with my Scottish afternoon breakfast.
James: Oh, nice.
Rebecca: …to James, not to John. [LAUGHTER]
John: Yeah, I’m not sure where this one comes from. It’s a Republic of Tea tea.
James: Well, I have to try the Scottish Breakfast. I’ve had the English Breakfast tea.
Rebecca: This one’s a Scottish afternoon, and there’s a morning as well, but I actually prefer the afternoon. It’s a little smoother or something.
James: Ok, Yeah, I’ll look for it.
John: And for many episodes, English afternoon was the preferred which is a little bit harder to find. Well, it’s probably comparable to the Scottish afternoon in terms of ease of locating,
Rebecca: You got to know where to look, John, you got to know where to look.
John: Well, we actually have six packs of twenty in the office where they’ve been sitting since last February when they came in.
Rebecca: We have to hurry up and drink those up.
John: So the global pandemic, which began last March, caused many faculty to shift from face-to-face instruction to online instruction, many for the first time. And we’ve seen a tremendous shift of students from face-to-face to online instruction. And that seems to have been accompanied by a fairly dramatic expansion in the use of online services that facilitate academic dishonesty. And a few years ago, at least on our campus, much of that seemed to be taking place using Course Hero. In the last couple years, much of the expansion seems to have been from Chegg. I saw a statistic recently that between April and August of 2020, the number of student uploads or questions to Chegg approximately doubled, and I think that expansion has continued since then. Why are the sites so popular?
James: Yeah, John, great summary of the challenges we face right now. I’ve done a lot of interviewing with students. And actually I stumbled into this in, I think it was June of 2019, at the American Society of Engineering Education annual conference, I think it was in Tampa. And I was doing one of the keynote breakfast things that are sponsored, McGraw Hill was sponsoring it. And we were talking about the future of educational materials. And the session was well attended by both faculty and students. We had a great panel and I was emceeing it. And the conversation came up about Chegg. Now this is pre-pandemic, and the question came up about Chegg. Many of the faculty hadn’t heard of it. All the students had heard of it. And it was an incredible conversation and eye opener. And what came out of that hour and a half meeting was, for me anyways, “Well, why were students using these type of websites?” …and there are many out there, I think Chegg is probably the leading one right now. And it was fascinating, having the conversation with the students. Of course, fast forward to the pandemic, and this all exploded. But what I’ve discovered, in having both focus groups and individual conversations with students from across the country, is that there seems to be a sense that students don’t want to leave points on the table. So if homework is worth 20%, or 25%, or 50%, they’re going to get all of those points if they can, and most students work hard to try to figure it out. But if they’re stuck, they’re not going to leave those points on the table, they’re going to go someplace to get help. And in the past, that might have been the person living in the dorm down the hall, or maybe you went to tutoring or some other source to get help. But these online sites are a couple mouse clicks away. And so the barrier to entry is so low, that if you’re struggling with a demanding curriculum and other things going on, the temptation is so great. And so what I found, in talking to students using these websites, is one of two general flavors. One was the student that was, “I’m not going to leave points on the table,” and frankly, blurring the line between academic dishonesty and trying to actually learn, and that’s sad. And we’ll probably get into that in a little bit in this conversation. The other group of students were students that were really trying to use these sites to learn, they were stuck on something, they couldn’t get past it. They’d submit, they’d take a look or search around. And to a large extent, they really want to learn. The pandemic came, everybody shifted online, and they took a look around and said, “Well, wait a minute here, this person’s cheating. That person’s cheating. I’m the one not cheating, I’m going to get the low grade because I’m really trying to do well, I’m not a cheat.” I heard this over and over again, “I’m not a cheat, but I know everyone in the class is cheating, and I’m not going to be the one getting a B, when they’re getting an A.” And so it became this crazy dynamic of a mix of “I’m not going to leave points on the table,” and “I’ll be darned everyone else is cheating.” And the barrier to entry is so incredibly low that the students who would never cheat, it’s a mouse click away. Oh, there’s the answer. Yeah, I knew that, hand it in, Sorry, long answer, John, but that sort of summarizes my exposure to it.
John: I actually had a conversation with a student just a few weeks ago that mirrors that exact discussion. Her response when we talked about this is she should have had more faith in her own ability, but she was using it as a crutch because she wasn’t that confident, so she was using this in every one of her courses. And I was just the person who happened to catch her doing it.
Rebecca: Academic dishonesty has been an issue for a very long time. But the pandemic has definitely put a spotlight on, especially this kind of digital version of academic dishonesty, even though that same mouse click was there a year or two ago, and these platforms definitely had traffic, they seem to have increased during the pandemic. Can you talk a little bit about the role of the pandemic in this particular issue?
James: Rebecca, you’re absolutely right. Unfortunately, cheating has been going on for a long time. And, usually, the way most professors adjust to that is, let’s say the homework or something might only be worth 10,15, 20%. It’s not particularly high stakes. It’s designed to be formative anyways. It’s the exams. And so in the past, they were face to face. And while young people tend to be very innovative and brilliant in solutions to circumventing academic honesty, in general, it was very hard to do. The pandemic rolls in. And now, exams are online. So we’re in a situation where the barrier to entry to cheating on an exam when it was face to face was pretty gosh darn high. Now, it’s extremely low, because you’re at home, you’re sitting in your bedroom or whatever, at the kitchen table, you’re taking an online test. Many faculty, many universities don’t use a proctoring service, we can talk a little bit about those, they’re typically a cost added, usually to the student, if they become very expensive to do institutionally. And quite frankly, I have a lot of experience that those systems don’t work, they don’t deter cheating, it’s pretty easy to cheat while these systems are being used. And I’ve unfortunately been involved with faculty that I’ve talked to, from my institution and other institutions where cheating has occurred during the exam while it was being video monitored. So in the arms race of trying to prevent cheating in the online world, we as instructors have a tendency to be a step behind. But you’re right, Rebecca, the pandemic shifted us online, including the big assessments, the big summative assessments, the exams, and we struggled with how to do it. Frankly, it was a little bit of lack of imagination on our part, and maybe an unwillingness or not recognizing that this change was afoot. The faculty that I’ve talked to that have modified their exam processes, have had some success. And interestingly enough faculty who have had upfront discussions with their students about academic honesty, and integrity, and setting standards, and a North star for yourself in terms of what your behavior is, they’ve had success in deterring cheating and academic dishonesty. But yeah, the pandemic brought it on, and it was the shift to online, plain and simple.
John: One of the things I think many teaching centers have been advocating for years is to use more online quizzing that’s automated to take some of the pressure off professors, and also to give students lots of formative assessment, as you’ve suggested, much of which is often done as a low-stakes summative assessment too, where students have multiple attempts. And so many faculty have been routinely creating these large test banks and updating them, but they pretty much all appear online pretty quickly. And the benefits of that, in many classes, have effectively disappeared. What can faculty do, without creating thousands of questions every semester, to get around this issue, to give students the benefits of that low-stakes or no-stakes formative assessment, while still making sure that students are actually learning from and ar not just looking things up on one of the services?
Rebecca: John, are you just looking for personal advice?
James: Chances are, it’s out there, John, I’m sorry to say, but hopefully…
John: I actually have been checking and I have done a few things that make it more difficult. But I’ve also been writing hundreds of new questions every week this semester.
James: Yeah, John, that’s part of the challenge is not only is it a shift in thinking for instructors, but it’s a shift in workload. So one approach is you did the work upfront, you’re writing hundreds of new questions with subtle changes, perhaps. And so it makes it very difficult to keep up with all those. The backside is to have more open-ended problems, but then your grading, so your extra work is on the backend. Part of this is having the conversation with the students, an honest conversation about their learning, connecting what you’re doing in the class, what you’re doing with the subject material to the issues that they’re going to face, perhaps in other courses, perhaps in their life and their career choice… so just an adult conversation, this is why it’s important for you to learn that, and I’ve come up with these low-stakes tests, so you can see where you’re at. And yeah, you can cheat on it. If that’s going to be your approach, then I don’t agree with that, and I think it’s eventually going to get you in trouble. So one approach, John is, yeah, you just do it, you have that conversation, and you say, “Look, it’s like taking your temperature to see if you have a fever. Just go and check. You want to know, if you have a fever, you want to know if you really have this material. I think you got to combine that when you get away from the frequent formative testing… the mantra, frequent formative assessment… when you get away from that, and you’re kind of saying, “Okay, here’s the next level test. This is a summative assessment, I need to know where you’re at with it.” That’s where the challenge is at right now, because the test banks have all been widely distributed. And unless you’re a glutton for punishment, and can write hundreds of questions, it’s going to be a real challenge. We’ve had some luck with using Gradescope. John, Rebecca, have you guys used Gradescope?
John: I have not. I know some colleagues who have, although not on our campus that I’m aware of.
James: We’ve had some, I would say modest success with it. It’s a tool that I think works best in a face-to-face type of exam, but you can do it in an online format. It helps speed up the grading process, it leverages artificial intelligence. There are some technical issues and glitches and so forth. But folks in chemistry and math have been experimenting with it with very good results. And one of the things it does is it can reduce the grading time. And that’s been the big pushback from my colleagues is “I’ll make open-ended problems, but then their grading is so hard.” One thing I did, and again, mechanical engineering, so I’ve got an advantage in that I can ask design-type questions. And what I have done in the past… this is pre-pandemic… is I would assign each student in the class slightly different parameters for a design problem. And then I was able, using some software (I think I used Mathematica or MATLAB, I don’t remember), I was able to run all the different variables and come up with approximately what their solution should look like. And so I split the difference, there was a little bit of upfront work in setting it up and a little bit of extra grading. But here’s the thing, the students loved it. And not because it was a design problem… I would say they like design problems. Here’s the insight. They loved it because they could work together, but they all had their own set of parameters that they had to do on their own. So they were like, “Oh, this is great. We got together, four or five of us got together and talked through it and explained it to each other.” But then everyone had to sit down, and kind of run the numbers for themselves. And they all diverged to slightly different solutions. That was a big insight for me. It would be interesting. I mean, I don’t know how you’d expand that to other disciplines. It would be interesting to go back and try that some more and see if that sort of assessment would get around all this. Now that said, could someone post their specific parameters on Chegg and get the answer? Yeah, unfortunately, the answer might be yes, John.
John: And in fact, I did that with my first econometrics exam when we moved online. I created seven variants of each of seven questions for a class of about 30 students, and nearly all the questions ended up online within about an hour of the test. And the first appearance was within 15 minutes of the test opening. So yeah, they can and they get a custom solution that can then be used by others. And for most of them five or six of the variants ended up appearing online very quickly.
James: Yeah, I wish we had a solution. Because if the three of us had the solution to it, we’d be going up for the initial public offering and starting up our company. But yeah, part of it is student behavior, and helping them understand what’s at stake about their learning. Part of it is changing our behavior as instructors. And while I understand sites like Chegg have introduced, I think it;s called honor shields, and so forth, the colleagues that I’ve talked to said it’s not very effective, they haven’t been happy with it. So yeah, this is a very vexing problem. And one that I don’t see a clear solution to in the future, I will say there was a math professor with a small seminar type class, and he just had oral Zoom exams with each student. He just set up a time and asked them. And the same professor, in his larger class, told students, “I might randomly contact you to explain how you solve a problem on a test.” And I think the fear of that alone probably drove students to study. [LAUGHTER] But yeah, you hate to resort to techniques like that. But there it is.
Rebecca: Especially when the platform’s themselves, like Chegg, they’re well designed for the behavior they want to occur. They’re designed in a way that rewards people uploading content, and so it’s designed in a way to be kind of effective at getting students to upload content because they want content.
James: Yep, exactly.
John: That’s actually the Course Hero model where you get free subscriptions if you upload a certain amount of graded material. And then you get access to materials that other students post. With Chegg, there’s a monthly fee, which I know, because I have to pay it just to keep track of all the cheating that’s taking place in my classes, which is really troubling. But it does have a nice interface, which is fairly similar to the interface that Netflix and similar services use. “If you like this problem, you will also like this problem.” And, in general, you can trace your way through and find many other questions from any given assessment that you posted
Rebecca: …referrals and recommendations. It’s amazing.
James: This is the Amazon model. John, one of the things that I found was interesting in talking to students who use Chegg is it recommends another problem. A number of students said that they enjoyed that, because while they saw the solution and everything, they felt that they were getting more experience with different types of problems, and they like that. But what was really interesting is when I would interview students and talk about their use of Chegg, one of the things that kept coming up, over and over again, is they liked the way, with certain types of problems in Chegg, that there could be hints. There are a whole spectrum of solutions available there. But the ones that are sort of curated, they thought were done very well, every step was explained, there was no “Oh, and it can be shown” and “then completing the algebra you get”… they showed all the steps. And some problems have hints, and you can choose to uncover the hints. And many of the students said they loved that. It was in plain language, and it showed all the steps. And maybe we should take a lesson from that when we put together course materials and study guides for our students, maybe that would be more beneficial for the students, would help them work their way through it. But I thought that was an interesting insight, that those were key aspects. Here’s another aspect, there’s not a lot of video content on Chegg. Now part of it is because “I just need to copy the answer and hand this homework in,” [LAUGHTER] but the students said, “Yeah, they didn’t really care about the video content, they were happy to read through the sort of solution walkthroughs.” And that’s interesting, because that’s sort of the opposite of YouTube, where it’s all video. And so the different learning methods and styles and approaches I thought was interesting. I just wish they didn’t cheat. [LAUGHTER]]
Rebecca: I think taking a lesson from some of those design aspects is important too. A lot of the things that students complain about is the learning management system and what that looks like and feels like or, for example, the problem sets that you’re talking about and wanting it to be in plain language rather than in language that maybe seems too difficult, or it’s not the right level of challenge. All of those things are things that could help the student maybe not want to leave your course and go somewhere else if it was built in. But it all requires a lot of time and resources and materials. And many of us don’t have that available to us with workloads expanding and especially during the pandemic having to turn around things quickly to shift gears,
James: Rebecca, you’re right, the massive shift from face to face to online, the anxiety, especially in the early days over this pandemic, and I don’t think the anxiety has gone down at all. But all that and the extra workload of learning to transition online, and figuring all this out. That’s been a consistent challenge during this whole period, that crazy shift in workload. And it’s been a challenge for all of us. It’s been a challenge for the students, certainly the types of students we’re talking about, in general, are students who went to college, they went to a residential experience. And all of a sudden we told them, [LAUGHTER] “Well, no, you’re actually attending an online institution at this point.” And Rebecca and John, I did want to point out, there was another interesting insight. I was interviewing some students on our campus, and then when I interviewed students from other universities, I was able to find similar things. And here’s what a student said to me, and I won’t use names, but they said, “Oh, in Professor X’s class, we never use Chegg.” Well, why not? “We didn’t have to. Her lectures were great. She explained everything. The homework was tied in, it made sense. And she gave us all her old exams. And she said, ‘Oh, you’re gonna know this for the exam.’” We had her old exams, and we’re like, “Oh my gosh, she’s right. We need to know this for the exam.“ And there was good support and tutorial services. There was great support. This is a quote, one student said “Chegg, Chegg who?” …obviously being a joker about it. But I thought that was fascinating, that when the course is well designed, when the material is presented in a clear way that’s student centered, when the students clearly understand how they’re going to be assessed, they know there isn’t going to be the trick problem to separate the stratospheric A from everybody else, they were like, “Yeah, we don’t need Chegg. We have everything we need from the professor and the student support services.” And when I asked students from other universities, I said, “Well, tell me about a course that you didn’t use Chegg.” And pretty much, I’d say well over half of them had “Oh, yeah, in organic chemistry, in thermodynamics, yeah, I had a great professor.” So there’s something in there that we need to learn as instructors. But that said, another quote from the same students who did use Chegg in another class, when I said “It’s academic dishonesty, you can be expelled.” And he said, “80% of the class is using it, they gonna expel all of us?” That’s an interesting perspective from a student. So yeah, but talking to students and getting their views on this has been tremendously fascinating. And it’s really helped inform a lot of the advice I give my colleagues about how to make the best of this situation. But it’s a challenge.
John: And I suspect the number of classes where it’s not being used has probably declined quite a bit, because once they’re paying that monthly fee, and now Chegg has a really nice mobile app, where you just take a picture of a problem on the screen, it uploads it, and the response comes back generally in 15 to 20 minutes, the marginal cost of engaging it in additional classes has become a lot lower for those students who might have considered it but didn’t think it was worthwhile before.
James: Yeah, the barrier to entry is now at ground level, other than the fee of $15, or whatever it is. It would be nice to engage with Chegg and other platforms. We need the students to learn this material. This is important. Let’s work together. I mean, the honor shield, okay, if it’s not working, why isn’t it working? Let’s figure out why it isn’t working on our end, working with students on academic honesty, and having a North star and having their own internal what’s right and what’s wrong, and helping young people build that set of skills and beliefs about themselves. You mentioned earlier that the young woman, she didn’t have the confidence in herself to be able to just do it. And part of it might be down the road, do departments and schools and universities and so forth, make a big fuss out of this? Is there legal action in the future? This is interesting. Where is this gonna go? I think the article in Forbes, which was very enlightening, they talked about the valuation of the company in the billions. And so if you take a very crass look at this, you got a multi billion dollar company based on cheating. That’s a hard swipe, and so forth. But let’s have a conversation.
John: And it’s basically all copyright infringement of textbook publishers’ content and faculty members’ content. So basically, they’re making millions, essentially from encouraging academic dishonesty and from infringing on everybody’s copyright. So it wouldn’t really be all that difficult, I would think, although copyright law with digital materials is a little bit tricky, because we do have the DMCA out there. And I know Chegg in particular, and I think Course Hero as well, is pretty good at responding to DMCA takedown requests, because I’ve sent dozens of them there just in the past semester, and quite a few over the last couple of years. And Chegg is actually also very good in providing faculty with information on the login ID that students use. Up until last year, in my experience at least, students were mostly using their actual college email address. Now they’ve tended to switch it a bit where they’ve created fake Gmail accounts, but they’re still logging in from the same IP address that they’re using when they submit their exams, which makes it really easy to do a look up between the exam and the person contributing the material. So there are ways of enforcing this. And if more faculty crack down on it, perhaps, it might deter a bit more of this activity. But there’s millions being made, as you said, and it might be nice if some of the publishers would work together to try to take back their ownership of the material they’ve paid to create.
James: I don’t know copyright law. But some of the problems I’ve looked at, where they were explained in more detail, whoever wrote that up, sort of wrote it up independent, they did not photocopy the instructors manual, the solution manual, they worked it out themselves. And truly I do not know what the copyright law is there.
John: The solutions, I think, would not be violations to copyright. But the photocopies of the problems and the test questions and so forth would be a violation of copyright.
James: That’s right, when we make up exams and so forth. But I mean, I’ve talked to faculty who had the exam, and had on the exam, “do not upload to Chegg,” [LAUGHTER] and it appeared, as you said, John, within 15, 20 minutes, and in those cases, it’s pretty easy to prosecute. Chegg will, as long as you go through the official academic honesty policy on campus, they’ll provide information, and that gets ugly really fast for the student. And here’s the other issue, John and Rebecca, I’ve pursued academic dishonesty cases, not involving Chegg, and it is work, it’s effort, it’s stress, and then you get the emails from the student: “You’re ruining my life” and all this kind of stuff. And It can be like, “Oh, boy, wouldn’t have been so much better if we had this conversation and you said, ‘Hey, Professor, I’m really struggling, can you give me some extra help or help me find a tutor.’” Here at Binghamton University, and I assume at many universities, students pay various comprehensive fees. tutoring is free, just go and sign up for tutoring, you’ve already paid a comprehensive fee that covers it. And I make that pitch to the first-year students all the time and say,” You’ve already paid for this, go and use it.” But yeah, I mean, think of the effort it takes for you to then go through all this work and crosswalk an IP address to this and that, I mean, that’s part of the equation we talked about, the time shift, you have to spend time on front creating assessments, on the back end grading it, and all through the process, pursuing it legally, a real challenge.
Rebecca: I think sometimes the argument, too, for students about being honest works a little better when it’s in their major, because there’s a slightly better sell of like a direct impact of “this skill set is really going to get you when you start that job and you can’t do the thing.” But we have to work on our arguments for the courses that might be in general education and things and help students recognize how those are valuable as well out in the workforce. Because I think sometimes that argument can be really compelling for students, but we have to be ready to help make it and help them want to be authentic in what they’re doing so that they can have success.
James: Absolutely. And you’re right. When I talked to students, certainly, for the courses outside of their major, they were much more willing to just survive the course, they really didn’t care. And, again, what lesson can we learn from that? Why are students feeling that way? Why are they saying that? Are those courses not connected? Or did we just not make the connection? We didn’t show them, “Oh, yes, that’s important, that gen ed is really much more important.” I’d argue, certainly in the STEM fields, as so many STEM degrees are being offered worldwide, as technology allows for so many of the things that used to require a person, now can be done by AI, that it’s our ability to work in teams, our ability to communicate, its ethics, and how do you tackle big challenging problems? I might be a mechanical engineer, I bring that background, other people bring other backgrounds and experiences. And that, what a great way to tie in general education courses to the bigger picture. Are we making that argument? Are we helping students make those connections? So, something to think about. I don’t have any answers, guys, so I’ll have to stay tuned to your podcast as you bring smarter people in to say, “Oh, well, when James said that, I have the solution.” [LAUGHTER]
John: Are there some other approaches that faculty could use in place of more traditional exams to eliminate some of the incentives and the possibility for this type of academic integrity concern?
James: Sure, there are, and they’re are more time consuming. So I’m going to be honest with myself, it’s a little easier to have 10 multiple choice questions in mechanical engineering on an exam, a little bit of a testbank, a little bit of taken from the homework, taken from my notes, super easy to grade. If you got 100 plus students, you can grade that pretty quick or you bubble source it. And I justify it, because the licensing exam is multiple choice. Well, it’s okay. It’s okay. I think we got to go back and say, “Well, maybe a judicious blend of some multiple choice questions.” Hey, you know what? The licensing exam is multiple choice. And sometimes you just got to get the right answer. With longer answer prompts that ask them to evaluate something, that’s the approach I use, and it weighs heavily on the back end. The grading is now something that you spend the weekend with a stack of papers,going through them. And you know, you guys know how that is, you can’t start grading a problem and stop halfway because you lose it in your head, right? You got the rubric in front of you. But still, you get a certain “Ok, I took a point off for that, yeah.” And so you got to sit and do that whole problem. And that’s for a lot of folks, I’ll just say, for me, that’s a shift in doing things as we shift to online. I hope that when we go back to face to face, and let’s hope it’s this fall, that we don’t forget some of these lessons, that we really should be designing better assessments that really challenge what the students know. My argument is, if you can google on it, and it’s three mouse clicks away, it’s probably not worthy of testing them on it. And the students are telling you that by saying I’m just gonna copy it. So I don’t have great solutions. I know some of the learning management systems, you can put problems in there, they’ll mix up the order, they’re timed, you can’t go back. But, the only problem I have with that is what is it we’re really testing? The time thing just puts a lot of anxiety and pressure on people and I’m not a good one under those conditions. And you know, John, I’m a “Oh shoot on problem two, wait a minute. Yeah, I did. Oh, I did that. I want to go back to problem two. I just remembered, cause in problem six, there was something similar.” You can’t do it. So yeah, there are things we do out there. But they’re not getting at the heart of what we want. And that is students to learn this material and for us to assess it in a fair and reasonable way, and help the students connect all this for whatever goals they have in their lives. What are you trying to do? Why are you in college? What’s your goal? Let’s connect what we’re doing to that goal. So Chegg’s not in front of that, that’s a deeply philosophical question for another podcast. [LAUGHTER]
Rebecca: I think combined with that, James, depending on your class size, open pedagogy or authentic assessments are also options, but it has to be the right kind of course, with the right kind of content, and the right kind of class size…
Rebecca: …for those things to all work in the mix.
James: Yeah, Rebecca, right now I’m teaching an innovation class with 10 students. [LAUGHTER] It is an absolute joy. It’s 10 motivated students, we’re using a platform called mural, which is an online collaborative platform. And so when the homework is due, I can actually go into Mural and see them doing the homework and they see each other’s homework. It’s like, yeah, we’re all going to collaborate on this. And so they can actually look and see what other people are putting in. And I mix it up, I randomize some stuff. So they have to do the reading and then they have to do parts. But, the students love it. And believe me, it’s almost like a bespoke education. This is like hand crafted somewhere between there and I used to teach some of the big sophomore engineering classes with 175 students, and I know some of your listeners who are teaching even bigger classes. That becomes almost industrial in scale. And the ability to give authentic assessments becomes very, very difficult. And until we get those AI engines up… and I’ll tell you what, when they get to the level of being able to do that. we’re all out of a job…. [LAUGHTER] or we better redefine what it is we do as educators.
Rebecca: I think what you’re pointing out, though, James, in some ways is that it tends to be those lower level classes that are bigger, those introductory classes. And so although they might get away with it, in those lower classes, they may not be thinking about the long-term game there.[LAUGHTER]
Rebecca: …because those are skills and things that they need in those upper-level classes, especially in their major, it’ll come back to get them in a way that if they don’t take an upper- level class in something else, they might not experience the same kind of consequences. But even reminding students of that, particular long-term consequences of their choices, could be useful.
James: That’s excellent. Rebecca. And as we talked earlier on, I mentioned some of the strategies that seems to work was faculty instructors talking about this, just having a very frank conversation. “Yeah, I know, all these platforms exist. Let’s talk about it. Here’s what I’m trying to do in this class.” Rebecca, I don’t think, in general, we do a great job at connecting the courses across the curriculum. And so I’m teaching my course and I do my thing. And then I hand the students off over the fence. “There you go, go take the next course,” unless we’re doing kind of self studies within our disciplines. “Hey, you know what, I teach this basic thing here at the sophomore level, and you don’t use it till last semester senior year, when does the student practice that thing?” And now we’re expecting them to pull that out of their hat and be experts at it? Why don’t we change things so that they’re constantly using it? And these are great conversations to have… a good hard look, a deep dive into how we build curriculum, helping students connect it, helping connect it to the progress they’re trying to make in their lives. Why are you studying mechanical engineering? What do you want to do with that? Let’s connect those dots through the program, so you can see where things are connected. But as long as the barrier to entry to online cheating is low, [LAUGHTER] but we got an uphill fight.
John: I have tried using some open pedagogy projects, including student-created podcasts and videos created by students, but it’s so much more work evaluating that, that it just doesn’t scale very well. I have been using them in my classes of up to 50 in my online class, but I have not yet committed to doing that in a class of 400, which I normally teach in person… last fall I taught synchronously online.
James: Wow. Yeah, you’re absolutely right. And what are the recurrent themes here? Part of it is: let’s have conversations with students, let’s rethink formative and summative assessments, are there solutions at different scales that make sense? The real challenge, Rebecca, you’re absolutely right, is the big introductory sort of classes where we’ve become used to having sometimes hundreds, if not more, students in the class, these pools of multiple choice questions that make it, and I’m using the phrase industrial and I don’t mean that in a pejorative sense at all, but it’s this ability to be able to expose students to a chemistry curriculum or mechanical engineering curriculum at scale in a very efficient way. [LAUGHTER] I mean, It’s kind of what STEM people do: how do we make this more efficient? And then a big change comes, a huge disruption, and we have to scramble. And so, I don’t see a way around the fact that this is going to be a lot of extra work. And if this were a long term shift, then absolutely, I think we’d be talking about how we restructure higher education in general and different departments and disciplines. I think because it’s short term, the concern I have is, we are going to forget all this, we’re going to wipe our hands of it and go back to face to face and go back to the old way, and not address some of the structural challenges that we’ve uncovered here: helping students understand why it’s important, and “oh, by the way, if the courses are disjointed, that’s on us, go fix that, put some effort into that, and have those conversations with the students.” That’s one of the things I always think about is what is it going to look like a year from now. And I’m concerned that we’re going to miss learning the lessons, we’re going to forget to apply these lessons, when we get back to our old ways, because we’re used to them. “I’ve got my research, my scholarship, my teaching, I’ve got it all balanced just right. I’ve been doing this for a long time, don’t make me change.” But we might have to in order to really help the students be successful. And one thing I always remember is this generation of students is going to be taking care of me when I’m old, so I want them to be good decision makers, [LAUGHTER] and have a good strong set of ethics and a moral compass. So they’re like, “oh, yeah, we have to look at society in a bigger sense.”
Rebecca: That keeps it in perspective, I think, James. [LAUGHTER]
James: Yeah, that’s right. It’s like, “Make sure I’m nice, because when I’m retired, these will be the wage earners. So I want to make sure that they keep the wheels of the economy turning and keep healthcare going and all the things we rely on, that we became painfully aware of during this pandemic, and how thin some of those threads were, how tenuous some of those systems were and are.” So really, it’s amazing how this pandemic has impacted absolutely every aspect of our lives. And we’re talking about some very specific things here. But there’s deep stuff going on here. And this is an opportunity for us to rethink how we move forward.
Rebecca: Especially because it’s easy to go back to what we had or to desire that, especially when we feel potentially burnt out with the workload and things of shifting, or just even having to have the difficult conversations with colleagues about really needing to do significant change when it’s really hard work that needs to be done.
Rebecca: So it’s easy to want to avoid it. [LAUGHTER]
James: Yeah, and I’m assuming this is a true statement. But, as a mechanical engineering professor, my training was watching my mechanical engineering professors, right? And their training was watching their professors. And so we teach the way we were taught unless we pause and take a look at the science and research and scholarship in teaching and learning, and then try to apply that. And yeah, Rebecca, you’re right, it’s work. And when you upset that balance, what’s going to happen here? And what does this mean for the future of how we do things? It would be great to not have these massive classes where you could interact with students more directly. I don’t know that that would solve the cheating problem. My students aren’t cheating in my class, there’s only 10 of them, I know them extremely well, they’re very motivated and interested, and they see where it’s connected. So how do you do that at scale and how do you do that across the curriculum?
John: On a more positive note, many faculty who had not been very involved in professional development, who had not reflected on their teaching, because they were just doing it the same way they always had, were suddenly forced to confront some new realities, and they’ve learned a lot during the past year. And I’m hoping that much of what people have learned will not be forgotten as we move past the pandemic.
James: Yeah, I agree. And I’ve been, as I’m sure you’ve seen, I’ve been just blown away by my colleagues, the huge shift, the willingness to just jump on board, to try new technology, to experiment with things and get feedback. Hey, I tried this and it really works great. And then we’ve been able to get that in the hands of other people. It was incredible to see and you’re absolutely right. So let’s pull these good pieces and bring them back. I can see myself now, even when we go face to face, just being more than happy if a student wants to Zoom with me for 15 minutes, and it’s in the evening, I could set up two evenings a week, set up an hour to do that. Like, before, I would have been: “When I get home, I’m toast. I just want to maybe catch up on my reading, catch up on my emails,” I could see that changing. And John and Rebecca, one of the things I have done, is for my entire staff, I have a weekly Zoom town hall where they can ask any questions, I give them updates. It’s fantastic. Folks really like it. And then I run a scholarship program and I just have… every two weeks, I set up a time chunk of time, vast majority of them show up, and we just chat, like, “How are things going?” And I didn’t do that. I mean, I certainly didn’t do it on Zoom before. And I might see individuals now and then, but it made me much more accessible. But in a way that was acceptable. It’s like, “Oh, I’m used to Zoom now, yeah, I don’t mind sitting in my attic studio at home and setting up a 45-minute Zoom and meeting with some students or some colleagues. So what a cool thing to be that accessible and be comfortable with it, within, obviously, within limits, and so forth. That’s a cool thing that I want to continue. A lesson we learned is that when we shifted to online, one thing became apparent right away, is there were a lot of students in socio-economic situations, they didn’t have a laptop, they didn’t have a camera, they didn’t have headphones, they didn’t have internet. And this pandemic has widened the gap to a very uncomfortable level. And so paying attention to that. And what we did at Binghamton is SUNYgave us laptops, we went out and bought a bunch of laptops, we bought mobile MiFi hotspots, 250 of them. You don’t even want to know what my monthly bill is for those… unlimited data. But we just did it. We just did it and sent it out. The other thing is we did a phone campaign just to reach out to students. And we recruited faculty and staff. And it was incredible, just to have a conversation with students. They were like, “Hey,” the overwhelming comment back was “Wow, like, thanks for contacting me.” “Yeah, I’m doing okay,” or “No, I’m not doing okay, I’ve got to take care of my younger brother and sister, my mom is working as a nurse, and it’s absolute chaos here.” So those are two things we learned in the pandemic that I hope we pay attention to, because there are students for with having all this fancy technology, that doesn’t exist. They’re in school, because there’s a computer lab and they don’t own this stuff, they don’t have it. And then the other is just reaching out to students, being a human, you know, “Hey, how’s it going?: …incredible, how powerful that is.
John: This has all become much more visible for faculty as a result of the pandemic. Those inequities were always there, but they were hidden. And now that faculty see that, it may also provide a richer appreciation of the inequities that students face as they were reaching the college level. And that’s something, as we move into the fall, that I think we’re going to see magnified because most students completed most of the last academic year remote, and some students were in well-funded school district with many resources, and all of the students and the faculty had good equipment. And in other schools, they did not have that sort of environment and much less learning occurred. So, we’re going to be faced with a student body that’s going to be experiencing greater inequities as they arrive on our campus in the fall. And I think that’s something that we all have to be prepared for.
James: John, you’re absolutely right, and well said. I think it’s always been there, and now there’s much more awareness. And I think that is something we cannot forget. And the second part of that is the students coming in… we’ve had some conversations with school districts, principals, high school principals, so forth, superintendents, and what we’re hearing is exactly what you said. It’s all over the map in terms of what that academic experience is. We know that the incoming first-year students had a pretty crazy year and a half, a lot of school districts had a “do no harm” policy. So John, if my average in your class was an 87, it didn’t matter. I couldn’t get worse than an 87. So am I motivated to work harder? Or am I going: “and thank you, I just got to take it easy.” And so I may not have learned all that material. So we have that. We have principals telling us that people have moved because of the pandemic, they had to move in with relatives. So the student isn’t showing up, they go to the house, they don’t even live there anymore. Like, where are they? So that’s a challenge. So if you think about the social aspects at home, you think about the emotional growth aspects, you think about the academic aspects, and then you add in standard test optional. The cohort of students coming in is potentially very different in a lot of ways. And we’re going to have to look at how we support them. It’s not a deficit model on their part. It’s a deficit model on our part, too, as instructors. So what are our deficits? And how do we change and modify to meet the students at a place where they can be successful? And I think that’s very important. But John, here’s the thing that was most sobering. One principal told us that it’s not just the seniors, it’s the juniors. It’s like, “Oh, yeah, so not only did the first-year’s propagate through the system, right behind them is the juniors who had a wacky…” and here’s what one principal said: “The biggest failure rate they’re seeing is in the high school sophomores.” This is a problem that isn’t going away. This is going to wash up onto the shores of higher education and if we’re not ready for it, we’re going to be in for a heck of a shock. And quite frankly, those students are going to be in for a shock. So we’ve got to figure out, what do we need to do as institutions of higher learning? And how can we best support students to be successful? No one goes to college to flunk out. They’re going because they’re trying to make progress. They’re trying to make progress in their life. Okay. How do we help them? Oh, yeah, deep and profound stuff, John and Rebecca, the effects of this are going to be with us for years to come.
Rebecca: …at least 13 years, I think, K-12. [LAUGHTER]
James: Oh yeah, right?
John: The preschoolers might have gotten past it by the time they arrive, but…
Rebecca: Yeah. A lot of preschools, I think, still maintained in person, but…
James: Yeah, so big challenges out there. I think we’re up for it. What I love about being in higher education is that we constantly question, we’re curious by nature, stubborn sometimes and have to see data in order to change our minds. But, these are all things we’re good at, and as long as we pay attention, don’t forget the lessons we’ve learned and recognize that the world has changed, and if we’re willing to figure out how we change, then I think this has a good ending. So I’m optimistic. But it’s going to be a lot of work. [LAUGHTER]
Rebecca: Definitely, and some values, of changes of things like flexibility are things that we see as value, perhaps, in students now that we didn’t see before as important skill sets and things, and adaptability.
James: Yeah, and helping students persist, and all the qualities that helped drive us to moving forward in higher education, and so forth. How do we instill some of that curiosity and work ethic? All of us, each one of us, has a unique story of why we went to school and how we want to move forward with our lives. So how do we tap into that and help students be successful? That’s what gets me up in the morning and makes me excited about my job.
Rebecca: And we always wrap up by asking what’s next?
James: Good question. So I can tell you what’s next on my horizon. I’m in the STEM field, I’m doing some research and doing some digging. I’m concerned about traditionally underrepresented groups of students in STEM fields and their success and persistence. I am very fortunate to have an NSF grant that’s sponsoring some work in this area. And when I interview and talk to students, their perspective is very interesting. For example, I was talking with a young Hispanic woman, very smart, already has a job lined up, great, great student. And she said, “Yeah, they bring guest speakers in the class, and no one looks like me, all the guest speakers look like the professor,” …which is like me, an old white guy. So where are the young people? Where are people that, I know it sounds silly, but that look different, but more importantly, have different backgrounds and different experiences and different paths to success. And that’s such an easy thing to fix at all our institutions. We have alumni of diversity who are out there. So I’m concerned about our ability to attract and retain traditionally underrepresented students in STEM fields, because that’s the pipeline for faculty in STEM. So you want to attack the faculty problem in STEM, let’s fix this problem. And you can argue let’s fix K through 12, but I can impact where I’m at right now. And down the road that’s going to impact senior-level administration. So the more people who choose an academic career, the more diverse points of view we have, the more likely that they’ll persist in the career and move into leadership. So, that’s a big problem I’m working on. That’s what’s next for me is some research and scholarship in that area. Because I want the best and brightest students no matter what their background is, because they got to take care of me when I’m old. And I’m already getting pretty old.
Rebecca: I think that’s a perfect note to end on. [LAUGHTER] Thanks so much for that conversation. Really important things to be thinking about.
James: Yeah, good stuff. And thank you so much for inviting me. I really appreciate it. Best wishes to you all. And let’s reconnect in the fall and see what lessons have we hung on to and how crazy is the fall. So, let’s circle back if you don’t mind, I’d love to catch up with you again.
John: That would be great. It’s always great talking to you. Thank you.
James: Great. Awesome. All right. Bye bye.
The COVID-19 pandemic resulted in an explosion in the use of remote synchronous instruction, a modality that was rarely used until March 2020. In this episode, Dan Levy joins us to discuss the affordances and the challenges associated with this relatively new modality. Dan is an economist and a senior lecturer in Public Policy at Harvard University where he teaches courses in quantitative methods, policy analysis, and program evaluation. He is the author of Teaching Effectively with Zoom, A Practical Guide to Engage Your Students and Help Them Learn, which is now in its second edition.
- Levy, Dan (2021) Teaching Effectively with Zoom: A Practical Guide to Engage Your Students and Help Them Learn. 2nd ed. LSC Communications
- Teaching Effectively with Zoom website
- Invisible Learning by David Franklin
- Public Leadership Credential
- Levy, Dan (2021) Teaching Effectively with Zoom: A Practical Guide to Engage Your Students and Help Them Learn. 2nd ed. LSC Communications
- Teaching Effectively with Zoom website
- Invisible Learning by David Franklin
- Public Leadership Credential
- Google Slides
- Bruff, D. (2010). Teaching with clickers: Engaging students with classroom response systems: Creating Active Learning Environments. Wiley.
- Levy, D., Yardley, J., & Zeckhauser, R. J. (2017). “Getting an Honest Answer: Clickers in the Classroom.” Journal of the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning, Vol 17, No 4, October.
- Renee Stevens (2018). Augmented Reality. Tea for Teaching podcast. Episode 28. May 9.
- Kathleen Gradel (2021). Google Apps. Tea for Teaching podcast, Episode 180. March 21
- Matt Anderson (2021). Statistical Simulations. Tea for Teaching podcast. Episode 169. January 6.
- Betsy Barre (2021). Student Workload. Tea for Teaching podcast. Episode 183. April 14.
John: The COVID-19 pandemic resulted in an explosion in the use of remote synchronous instruction, a modality that was rarely used until March 2020. In this episode, we discuss the affordances and the challenges associated with this relatively new modality.
Rebecca: This podcast series is hosted by John Kane, an economist…
John: …and Rebecca Mushtare, a graphic designer.
Rebecca: Our guest today is Dan Levy. Dan is an economist and a senior lecturer in Public Policy at Harvard University where he teaches courses in quantitative methods, policy analysis, and program evaluation. He is the author of Teaching Effectively with Zoom, A Practical Guide to Engage Your Students and Help Them Learn, which is now in its second edition. Welcome, Dan.
Dan: Thank you very much, Rebecca and John.
John: We’re looking forward to talking to you.
Dan: Thank you.
John: Our teas today are… are you drinking tea?
Dan: I love Moroccan tea. My family’s originally from Morocco. And that’s the tea that I normally drink when I drink tea.
Rebecca: Today, I have Scottish afternoon, John… we’re coming back, coming back with the good stuff.
John: And I have two teas here, actually. I have ginger peach green tea and a Moroccan mint tea.
Dan: Oh, wow.
John: That worked nicely.
Rebecca: I don’t know if I’d drink them quite at the same time, but… [LAUGHTER]
John: Well, they’re sequential.
Rebecca: So we’ve invited you here today to discuss Teaching Effectively with Zoom. Could you talk a little bit about how you started this book project?
Dan: Sure. So in March of last year, when we all had to go quickly to remote teaching, I had spent the better part of 10 years trying things surrounding online learning at the Harvard Kennedy School. But I had never spent much time with synchronous online teaching. And so when we had to move to remote teaching, my first instinct was to go and observe as many instructors as possible to see what they were doing. And what I discovered then was an incredible wealth of people who were just doing incredible things, they’re being very resourceful in the way that they were trying to use the platform to accomplish our pedagogical goals. I didn’t set out to write a book at that time, but I was just learning a lot. And at the same time, I was observing my daughters, in high school, receiving online learning instruction. Around mid-May, I sort of had the feeling that in the fall, we would be teaching online still. And I felt that there was a lot being written online, in Twitter and blogs and all of that. But I felt, gosh, this is overwhelming. And so I felt the need to have in one single place, what I thought would be useful gui e for instructors who were saying, “I need to do this, I want to do it well.” And I thought that I had gotten a lot of ideas from the colleagues that I observed teach… which by the way, observing colleagues teach is one of the silver linings of the pandemic, because it’s now easier than ever, and it’s an incredibly powerful way of learning. So in any case, at that point, I said, “I want to write this book, I’ve never done anything like that. And I want the book to be ready by July 1, because that’s how it’s gonna be helpful to people in the world, given the academic calendars.” And on July 1, a book was ready. And then on July 2, we put it out there to the world. And then because so much happened in the fall, I released the second edition based on everything that I had learned since then, from my own teaching and that of colleagues. And it was very rewarding to see people from all over the world who had engaged with the book, also contribute with some of their examples.
Rebecca: I think I need to get one of those magic wands you must have to turn around stuff that quickly.
Dan: Well, no. Thank you. I think there’s nothing like a deadline… [LAUGHTER]
Dan: …and a deadline that I really felt it was important to meet. And I have a good friend who I sent the book, he is not in the education world. And I said, “Here it is.” And then he told me, “Then you lied to me. You told me that you wrote the book in a month and a half. But I know from previous conversations with you that you have been writing this book in your mind for the last 10 years.” And I thought that was an interesting way of putting it because I’ve been thinking about a lot of these issues, but I never sat down to write any of them.
John: It was extremely timely, and I know many people adopted the book last summer or picked up the second edition in January when that came out. There weren’t a lot of resources other than lots of Twitter posts and lots of blog posts on specific aspects. But the book blends together a nice discussion of the technical details of how you do things with effective pedagogy, which is a resource that was very much needed and is still very much needed for many people as we move forward. Because this is an area that people had not really done very much with until this sudden transition.
Dan: Yes, thank you so much John.
John: What are some of the most effective ways that you’ve seen faculty using Zoom in their classes or that you’ve used Zoom in your classes yourself?
Dan: One observation that I had throughout this year… and the book is a little bit organized in this way, but it didn’t crystallize to me until later in the last year… which is that if you conceptualize the way students can engage in your course and think about the different channels… in the book, I describe five main channels, they can speak, they can vote, they can write, they can work in groups, and they can show their work. One of the things that becomes very obvious, at least to me, is that for default, in in-person teaching, tends to be verbal, we speak to each other. And what I realize in live online learning is that of those five channels, the one that most degrades when you go from in person to online is precisely the verbal one. And I think, my sense is that of recognition that that’s the case for many, many reasons, is what I think has made some instructors particularly successful at doing this because they are not wedded to verbal as the main or default channel of communication. So that’s kind of like an overall message that if you think about in which ways can your students engage in your class, and in which of these ways do I want for this particular pedagogic purpose my students to engage with, my sense is that that tends to be a winning combination.
Rebecca: When I was looking at that organization of your book, Dan, it really struck me and was really helpful way of thinking about it. And, in your description right now, made it really clear to me why it was actually very easy for me to switch to synchronous online learning [LAUGHTER] because I don’t really prefer the verbal. [LAUGHTER] So it was nice to engage in these other spaces as an introvert, like I could use chat in other places that I’m actually much more comfortable. [LAUGHTER]
Dan: It’s interesting you say this, Rebecca, because the same thing that you said, is true for students. So introverted students now have different ways of engaging with us that we might not have even heard from them before. And I think if we leverage those ways, we’re going to end up being in a better place. And most importantly, they’re going to end up being in a better place.
John: One of the nice things about written communication and chat is you’ve got that delete key, which, when people are feeling a little more introverted, perhaps, they’re less confident about saying something where they can’t take something back, rephrase it on the fly. And having that delete option, lets them be a little more thoughtful in their participation, and can lead to a much more inclusive environment in many ways.
Dan: Absolutely. The other thing that it does is that you can take your time to compose a message that you write, whereas, when you’re called to speak, you might have perhaps practiced this message in your mind, but you feel like on the spot, you have to now deliver it at that point. And then the introverts tend to have more difficulty with that. And I say that as an introvert. I don’t want to be too binary in the definition. But I say that as an introvert.
Rebecca: Can you talk a little bit about why the verbal channel degrades a bit in a Zoom situation? Because I think that might actually be really helpful for people to think about.
Dan: Sure. So one way in which it does, and I wish the podcast was a video podcast, but one way in which it does is right now we are with this software, and the three of us can see each other. But right now, I’m looking at you, Rebecca, and you think I’m looking down somewhere and not at you. Like you have no idea that I’m looking at you. And you’re like, “Why is this person looking down? I’m speaking with him.” And John right now also thinks I’m looking down. So he doesn’t even know that I’m looking at you and not at him. And if I wanted to give you, Rebecca, the impression that I’m looking at you, I would have to point my eyes to a camera, and I no longer have any nonverbal feedback from you, I have no idea of what’s going on with you. And not only that, now John thinks I’m also looking at him, and I’m not looking at either of you. [LAUGHTER] So, that’s kind of one simple level and I’m optimistic that maybe we’ll have technology that solves this. The other day, I saw a Kickstarter campaign that a friend of mine forwarded to me for this idea that I kind of have been having for a while but it seems like someone actually created a product for a video camera that is in the middle of your screen, rather than at the top or at the bottom. So, in any case, that’s one aspect of it, but another, I think, important aspect… and people have written about it… is that the communication is just not as effective. You cannot signal in the same way non-verbally as you can signal in a classroom. In a classroom, you have your whole body to express, you can use physical distance with the students, to approach, you can move, there are so many other things at your disposal. And the one to me that still becomes the most important one is that you cannot hear the classroom. People have to unmute… if you have a big enough classroom they have to unmute, and that is just much less natural. There’s no “click this” reaction item to sort of say how you’re feeling. No, you just see it automatically. So in any case, those are some of the ones that I have felt myself, I’m sure that you as educators have also other ones. But of all the channels it’s the clearest one in which in-person seems to me better than online.
John: Are there any other ways in which remote synchronous instruction offers some advantages that we don’t have in the classroom?
Dan: Yeah, for example, writing… we were talking about writing. We can use writing in the classroom. I think many of us have shied away, we’re nervous about having our students with their laptops in the classroom and so on. But writing feels to me such a powerful tool, not only for doing the kinds of things that Rebecca was saying before, that you can bring introverts, or the things that you were saying more generally, John, that you can have more inclusive teaching, but you can do what some people might describe parallel processing instead of serial processing. So if you ask students in the classroom, can you give me an example of X, please write it in the chat, within 30 seconds you have 20 examples if you have 20 students, whereas if you had to do it verbally, you would take one at a time. And that, I think, is much less efficient in that sense. So I think there are many, many reasons why chat, even though it’s controversial, can be powerful. And I know one of the favorite ones that I’m sure you’ve all used is this one-minute paper, where you tend to distribute this piece of paper where they write it and they give it to you. And I’ve always had the intention of using this in my physical classrooms. But many times, it seems like the last minute of class there’s something more urgent that I need to do and then there are logistics there. But with online live teaching, it’s very easy. You can do something as simple as “One minute left in class, please everyone write down what was your main key takeaway from today.” And within a minute, you have a lot of information of what happened in that class.
Rebecca: So a lot of faculty also seem to be under the impression that by being physically in the same space, somehow community is automatically formed. Can you talk a little bit about how community does build in an online synchronous space?
Dan: To me, this was one of the biggest positive surprises I thought of all the aspects of online teaching, this would be the one where it would perform the worst. And I do think that there’s something special that happens when human beings are together in the same space. There’s no question for me about it. But I observed many instructors doing things that I think helped create community in the classroom in ways that I was very surprised. And if I had one general guidance to give is that you just have to be a lot more deliberate about creating community than you are when you are in the same physical space together. And people do it in all sorts of ways. But I think just being deliberate and being intentional about it goes a long way. And just to name three very practical things. One is, if you can open your classroom before class starts, in some way that simulates what you would do in a regular class anyway. Second, if you can stay in your online class for a few minutes after to speak with students. It’s another way of doing it. And then there are of course, things you can do that in a physical and in an online classroom that I think are good for creating communities. If you can learn about your students, so that they know that you know them, that you’ve taken a personal interest in them and that you can bring that to the classroom, that I think is just as true or nine as it is in person. Then there are many other things, there like music lists, and many, many things that people have been very creative about. But those are three that come to mind as fairly easy to do.
John: One of the things I really like about your book is you start by emphasizing the use of a backwards design approach in classes. And you suggest that that be done at the level of individual class sessions or individual activities. Could you give us an example of how you might apply that in a synchronous online session in Zoom?
Dan: Many, many people that listen to your show, I’m sure have heard of backward design and subscribe to it in their own teaching. I think in some way, it’s not that different online in the sense that you think about what are two or three things that I want to make sure that students are able to do at the end of this learning experience. And when you plan your class, you organize it around those things. And one of my biggest challenges as an instructor is time management, it’s like, “Oh my god, can I manage time to do this?”… but what has been very helpful to me is I might have a class plan that says part 1 – 15 minutes part 2 – 23 minutes, and so on. And as I look at the clock, I know where I am in the class plan relative to the time, and knowing what are those two or three things that you want to make sure that everyone gets at the end, allows you to make choices in the class that I think become more likely to succeed. So for example, if you feel like you’re running behind, and there is a particular topic that you think is useful, but not crucial to those two or three things, you might decide to skip it, or you might decide to go a little bit faster, or you might decide not to pause for the discussion that you were planning to have. So, having a concrete set of what you are trying to achieve. I know it sounds obvious, but it wasn’t to me when I first started teaching. I conceived of teaching like, “Well, we need to cover this, and this is what we’re gonna do.” And I still remember attending a one-hour session when I was a PhD student at Northwestern University, from the Director of Teaching and Learning Center at the time, Ken Bain. And I remember him introducing this idea. And that was totally revolutionary to me. Again, I know for many of us, it’s not anymore. But that was more than 20 years ago, and has guided my teaching ever since.
Rebecca: You know, Dan, I certainly subscribe to backwards design, both as a designer and also as a teacher.
Rebecca: … but I did find myself doing synchronous online being really specific about time chunks, because it’s like, “We need to mix this up, otherwise, we’re just staring at a screen.” And being even more intentional about that. I’d have an agenda and the students can see me going in there like, “No, we’re changing this agenda. [LAUGHTER] on the fly is like “No, this conversation’s good, we need to do this instead.” [LAUGHTER]
Dan: Yes, I guess they’re seeing your design as you are executing it.John, you were asking about some of the advantages of online. I hate to mention this as an advantage. But the reality is, we now have screens, and we can put to the side of the screen things that we want to remember in a way that’s harder to do in a class. So this is like a super tactical tip, but you’re interested in teaching inclusively in the classroom, and you’re worried about voices that haven’t participated that much, you can do something as low tech as: before your class, you write the name of say, three to five students that you want to call on in a piece of paper. And you tape that piece of paper to the right of your screen, right where the participant, the Zoom participant list normally is, or Zoom or whichever other software. And when you see the participant list and you see a few hands up, you look at your paper list and sort of see is one of the hands up belonging to one of the students that I want to call on. And that seems like a simple thing. But it is helpful. I don’t know if you know, but I co-created this application called Teachly, which allows you to track participation and help people teach more inclusively and effectively. And this makes the use of this app even easier, because once you have that participant list, you just put it next to the participant list in Zoom, either electronically or physically. And you have that as a way to do it.
John: And if I remember correctly, on your companion website, you have a picture of a list of names taped to the side of the screen.
John: And we should also mention that there is a really great list of resources associated with the book. We’ll include a link to that in the show notes.
Dan: Thank you. Yeah, the website. Victoria Barnum, I work with her, she put it together. And it was again, a very quick way to try to put resources out there that would be helpful for people. And there’s one page for each chapter of the book.
John: You mentioned rearranging things to make sure you get to the end result. And that’s something I’ve noticed I have to do a lot more with synchronous remote sessions than I did in the classroom. I think partly because I was so used to doing it in a classroom, I had routines where I could get the things more or less quickly with a whole set of activities. But maybe I’ve been over-preparing, but I have a big list of things I want to do. I do polling in the classroom, I have some group work where they’re working in breakout rooms, and I never can get all them done. So I’m constantly, as I’m going through each day’s session trying, “Well, which of these is most important to getting them to that goal,” which is a way I never really had to think about quite as extensively as I do now.
Dan: Yes, though I will say that I was having those same struggles before online teaching, but I also share your experience that they have become more prevalent, and to the extent that it has forced that conversation on all of us. And “Okay, what is the essence of what I want to make sure that students are able to learn in this class?” I think that’s a positive development. One of the things that I discovered very early on in the process of writing a book is that many instructors, and maybe John, this applies to your experience, were saying that compared to their in-person class, when they try to execute that plan, they generally were only able to do about 80% of what they were doing before. Now I don’t know how much of that is still true today. Maybe as we get better with teaching online, we can get that number closer to the 100%. And I don’t know the extent to which it has to do with Rebecca’s questions about verbal communication degrading and making it harder to communicate. But to the extent that that number is even in the ballpark of being true, it does explain why most of us are feeling that need to interrogate more our class trends.
Rebecca: Maybe it’ll also make us a little more empathetic to students who have time management issues, we’re sure. Zoom has really evolved quite a bit since March, there’s new features and new capabilities and things. Can you talk a little bit about how your own teaching using zoom has evolved over the past year,
Dan: I think as all of us practice has allowed me to become better at it, I remember the first few times, I couldn’t even imagine being able to check the chat at the same time, then I was teaching, I was like, there’s just too much going on here. Now, I won’t say that I can handle any number of comments in the chat. But now I can do it in a way that I couldn’t do it before. And so in some way, teaching online live sessions is an exercise in multitasking, you have to pay attention to a lot of things that are happening in your students in your screen, and so on. And frankly, with as much practice you get better. And I think that’s one thing that’s useful in terms of zoom specific things. I think one feature that has come out relatively recently, which to me opens a whole set of possibilities is the fact that now in breakout rooms, you can set it up so that children’s can choose the breakout rooms. And I think that opens up many interesting possibilities in that perhaps students can choose according to a particular interest that they have, perhaps they can choose relative to position that they might have in a debate relative to a vote they have had in a poll. And that I think, in some way, is incredibly powerful. So that’s one way in which I’ve just began to explore. And I hope by the way, there are other ways of setting up the rooms in the future, that might be good. The second thing, which we haven’t talked too much about the breakout rooms. But I think breakout rooms combined with collaborative documents, such as Google Slides, or jam board or mural, whatever other tools we have, can be incredibly powerful for group work. And that has been an area of constant experimentation for me and many of my colleagues. And that is one area where I think we can make even more progress. And my sense is that we’re going to bring some of that into our physical classrooms, when hopefully someday we come back to our physical classrooms.
Rebecca: I’ve experimented a lot with those new breakout rooms more recently, as well. And even with some mastery learning activities, where we’re doing exercises, and as they complete one, they can move to the next one and moving to different breakout rooms depending on what they’re working on. So they can help each other out and collaborate. And that’s been working really well. And I’ve gotten a lot of good feedback from students about how that’s actually really helpful to like community of people who are actually at the same moment of their learning. So there’s a lot of possibilities there.
Dan: Many, many you can have different themes. There’s one thing we experimented recently, I don’t know if any of you co teach a class, but we were doing this in a program in executive education, we to try to create a more intimate environment, we divided the class into two groups, and each of the group was with one faculty member. And we had asked each of these faculty members to be available for an hour. So for the first half hour, Group A with with the first instructor group, he was with the second instructor, and then at the half hour marked, we swapped them and we thought about Okay, how can we do this easily without people getting lost? And all we did was to swap the instructors from one room to another and all of a sudden you basically had students who are staying with one hour in a breakout room, were able to have a more intimate experience with two instructors. With that, I think would have been hard to do in the physical world.
Rebecca: Nice that we’re getting to the point where we’re appreciating some of the digital rather than scrambling all the time.
Dan: Yes, I think there’s some things that actually worked better.
John: And certainly that ability to mix up groups easily and quickly in different ways. Either having persistent rooms where you have persistent groups working in the same room regularly or mixing it up for different topics or again, doing the self selection gives you a lot more variety and how you mix and match activities.
Dan: It does. My colleague Terry serranos was experimenting with this and I thought that was an interesting use. If you have a teaching assistant and you have your students work on an activity during class, they three or four minutes in silence work on this you can open a couple of breakout rooms and one of them has a teaching assistant and if you would like help from the teaching assistant go to breakout room one if you would like to work alone in a virtual room go to this other room. So I think we’re experimenting in ways that I think are conducive to good learning experiences.
One of the other in recent addition, cism is the ability to let co hosts set up and establish the breakout room. So if you do have a teaching assistant or multiple instructors, if you’re presenting on something, or if you’re working with a group, you don’t have to do the back end arrangement while you’re also trying to do other things. So if that makes it a whole lot easier,
Dan: I totally agree. And sometimes you can multitask. But if you can have one less task to do, that’s probably helpful.
John: You also talk quite a bit about the use of Paul, and could you talk about some of the ways in which people might do Pauling and how polling might be used effectively in instruction,
Dan: I want to first say that I started using polling many, many years ago in my physical classrooms inspired by one of my mentors, Eric, Missouri in the physics department, at our end, I do you have a bias towards using them. But I would say a first approximation, polling allows you to learn what your students are thinking in a very efficient manner. And I’m struck by the number of times where what I think my students are thinking is not what my students are thinking. And so for me, it has been very, very useful tool to center me in the reality of what actually is happening in the classroom. There’s this wonderful book by Derek Braff, he wrote it years ago before the pandemic head, but I still think it’s very applicable. In that book, he describes many, many uses of it. But just in the interest of time here, one way in which I use it is to check for understanding Another way is when I, particularly when there are questions in which I think students might not be so willing to express verbally how they think about something, I want to be able to allow them an opportunity to do that. And then the nice thing about polling is that it can be combined with other things like think pair share peer instruction, or other things that depending on where the poll results, you can take in one direction or the other. So I’m a super, super big fan of it. And if you have listeners who haven’t tried, no matter what your field, I actually highly recommend that you try it. And the best way to do it, it’s just try one or two polls in one of your next classes and see what you learn from it.
John: And it not only helps you understand what students understand or where students are, it also helps students understand what they know, and they don’t know. And it gives them that immediate feedback that would take longer to do in pretty much any other way.
Dan: Absolutely. It also allows them to commit to an answer. So that allows them to more actively participate. The other thing that I find is that I think it emboldened some students to participate. If they my response has 30% of people who voted for the same response, then there’s something here that I’m not going to be the only one defending this use. So I’m going to go out and defend it. So I’m a big fan of it.
John: And once they commit to that, and you tell them they’re wrong, they want to know why. And that’s not something we always say that committing to that answer is really effective. It is it is Dan Ariely. And one of his books talks about a similar experience where he said he presented these results that he did not find very intuitive. And he gave a talk at some firm. And people would say, Well, yeah, that’s exactly what we’d expect would happen. And then he started pulling them, because then you actually got to see what happened rather than them saying, Oh, yeah, that makes sense. That’s what I would have said anyway. But once you got them to commit to it, all of a sudden, they were objecting they were discussing, and they were engaging with material. And I know Eric Mazhar gave a talk at our campus. I mentioned this on past podcast, but he basically asked people to make a commitment deciding what happens to the hall and a plate of metal when you heat it up. And he went through that whole process where students voted, then they discussed it. And then they voted again, he started to go on to the next topic. And people were angry because they wanted to know the answer at he’s used this example at many places. But one of the things he said is, if I was to give a lecture on what happens, the whole and a plate of metal when I heat it up, it would be about the most boring lecture that you could imagine. But now you all want to know the answer. And so motivating curiosity through these types of things and having that engagement and discussion is a really powerful technique.
Dan: There are several components there, right one is questioning for teaching. The other one is, as you said, the commitment that comes from the poll in the other one is the wanting to know aspect that the whole experience created. The other thing about using poll through technology and about paper that we published some time ago with a student Josh Yardley, and one of my mentors at the Kennedy School Richard Zack Houser, where we compare voting outcomes when students voted by raising their hand versus with at the time, we use this clicker devices, and we discovered big differences in the raise of hands versus the polling devices. So I think another advantage of polling electronically is that they tend to reveal more truthful and it sounds like your story from Dan Ariely reveals that more truthfully how tos actually think
Rebecca: it’s probably that anonymity behind the technology, you have to raise your hand. Now everybody knows whether or not you’re right or wrong. Exactly.
Dan: And also, you are seeing other hands being risen. So you might want to side with the majority in a way that you wouldn’t have if you had to do it electronically. I think
John: this is one of the areas where it seems to take me longer when I’m using zoom. Here, we have a campus adoption by clicker, but this works with any type of boring software, students vote on it, then I send them to breakout rooms. And it takes just a bit longer to do that, just because of the time it takes them to go in and out, then it would in the classroom. So I’m not able to get quite as many clicker questions. And so I have to choose them perhaps a little more carefully than I do. And I’m not using the think pair share quite as actively as I would in a classroom, because it’s really easy to say find someone nearby who has a different answer and debate it for a few minutes. And you can pretty easily see when it’s done in breakout rooms, it’s a little harder to do that. So I generally will, depending on the type of question, I’ll pick the time, which should be enough for everybody, but just the time it takes to get them there and back just adds a little more overhead. But on the other hand, I think it’s still working really well. And maybe by being more judicious in which questions I’m asking that might compensate for the additional overhead costs? And
Dan: I’m not sure yes, and it’s interesting you say this, John, because I have had the same experience. And I wonder if one of the drivers of this is that in a physical classroom, the students tend to know the students who are nearby. So by the third or fourth time you do this, they don’t have this awkward bore you. And my sense is that while the default, and probably a good default that we use in zoom to assign students is random. My sense is that part of what’s driving students taking more time is that they’re often put in this breakout room with someone they’ve never met. And the degree to which they can collaborate quickly on your question about the minimum wage, or whatever you’re asking them to collaborate on probably is not as good as if they had already interacted a lot with each other. So wonder, it does have some disadvantages. But I wonder if you might gain some advantages for those quick questions to always assign students to maybe not the same other person, because then if they all have the same answer, we won’t work but maybe a group of three, this is something that I’ve been surprised by as well. In writing the book, one of the things that became clear is that students tended to like break out rooms by enlarge. But the two main problems they saw with them, his instructions, were not always very clear. And that I think is on us as instructors. And then the second one is, we didn’t give them enough time. And I think you’re right that in a classroom, you can sort of see when the sound is dwindling down. But in the virtual world is a little bit more difficult. I think if you use a collaborative tool, like a Google slide, or something like that, you would be able to sort of see where each group is. But that’s for longer breakout rooms,
Rebecca: That’s definitely my feature request is being able to have more information about what’s going on in a breakout room, even working on little activities or projects, I teach longer extended classes. So they might be working on a project for a period of time. It’s like if I was walking around the classroom, I would just know what they’re doing. Sometimes I can see their files and depends what they’re doing. But sometimes we’re doing code projects or things where it’s not quite as easy to do that.
Dan: I think if you had a Google slide that you can see, but sometimes the word doesn’t lend itself to Google Slides. But you’re right, I think it would be great if they could signal that we’re about 80% down. Here’s prejudice. But I don’t know maybe there’s a future version which we can pull students when they’re in breakout rooms. That might be one way of see Yeah, even
Rebecca: being able to chat with the breakout room would do that. In my class, we ended up setting up slack. So we had that kind of better chat experience while they were in breakouts.
John: That’s certainly been an issue. I know my students are getting much more adept when they’re working in breakout rooms for a longer period and summoning me for help. But it’s really common to get called to one of the breakout rooms I’m talking to them. And then they got another call from another group. And it looks like I’m not being responsive, but I’m really just trying to finish a topic in one group. And it can be a bit of a challenge hopping from group to group because the communication ability to break out rooms, as you both said is limited at this stage.
Rebecca: I’ve had people jumping back into the main window for help. And that works better because then if another group or something jumps back into the main window, they can see that there’s a queue.
John: At least then it’s visible. One of the concerns that many faculty have expressed is that they’re interacting with students who they will see typing in chat and they will hear their voices but they never actually seen the students because most of the time, they have to keep their cameras off because there’s other family members around them. Or they’re connecting to Wi Fi in a parking lot next to a fast food restaurant, or they’re working on a mobile device with limited data plans. So that’s perhaps more of a challenge for faculty than it is for the students themselves. But a lot of faculty suffered Warzone fatigue, when they don’t actually get to see their students. Do you have any suggestions on how people can perhaps get past that?
Dan: So when I wrote the book, initially, I was well aware that I was trying to be helpful to as wide of an array of instructors as I could, but I was well aware that different international contexts might make some of the recommendations harder than others. I think, for the reasons that you suggested, it is hard, in some context, to be able to sort of say to students, please use your camera. So even in my environment, I tried to note them to using their camera, but there are legitimate reasons why they might not use the camera. But what I have discovered, I think you might have discovered in your own faculty meetings, and so on, is that sometimes the issue is not the kind of issue that you pointed out for bandwidth connection or anything like that, is that sometimes you just want to be listening without your video showing off. And what I understand that I think that what we do in our teaching at the end of the day can be profoundly human. And I find it to be very hard to create a human learning experience. If most cameras are off my standpoint, it feels like no one is there. But it’s not only from our standpoint, right? It’s even from the standpoint of the other students in the class. I’m the first one who understands about zoom fatigue. And so I’m not above sometimes having a camera of so I can take a break. But I do feel like to the extent that we can motivate that, and perhaps try if we can to reduce the stigma, use a virtual background, do whatever you can, I think it’s better. But again, I’m not at a place to say everyone should do it, I just be like, the experience can be more human and more effective. If we had most of our students on video,
Rebecca: there seems to be a peer pressure component to that classes have personalities. And if there’s a lot of people who tend to have their cameras on all the sudden there’s more cameras on and if it’s a class that just shuts down, everybody’s in shutdown mode, and breakout rooms, where they’re talking to each other tend to make more cameras appear on from my experience.
Dan: Yeah, I suppose there’s a tipping point, I once gave a I think it was kind of like a webinar where it was on zoom. And you know how on zoom, you have 49 little squares, and then you can go to the other 49 and go on in the videos tend to go on the first. So I think they were like 400 people. And they were like 12 with a video on. And to me that just was very, very challenging. And then I’m not expecting people to put their video on because it’s challenging for me, but I’m expecting that it’d be better experience for everyone. If we can look at each other.
John: I agree, it provides more of a sense of humanity, when you can actually see people, it’s not just that array of black boxes. I know in my own classes, and I think many people on campus have suggested that there’s been that sort of peer pressure to have fewer and fewer cameras all the time. And I think that’s made it a little more challenging for everyone perhaps to have that same sense of engagement, encouraging it is certainly valuable. I think,
Dan: I wonder if this is just speculation on my part. But I wonder if in those contexts to the extent that one of the reasons driving it is I just need a little bit of time off the screen. I wonder if maybe there will be periods in the class where you don’t think that video being on is this critical, and you designate them as camera off period. And the default is camera on. I’m not sure whether that would work. But that’s one idea that just occurring to me.
Rebecca: I’ve experimented with things like that a little bit, Dan, in my longer classes, because he wants to be on camera for three hours. I certainly don’t. That’s right. So like between a mix of breakout rooms, and then little activities that they might do on their own. We do have periods where it’s Hey, we’re gonna have a conversation now it’d be really great to like see, you win an invitation to turn them back on but then also for doing something that’s an independent activity, like we’ve established what behavior of the default this camera off so that people aren’t staring at you while you’re writing something down or whatever. And I also turn my camera off and signal that now’s a good time to turn your camera off and then turn it back on.
Dan: Yeah, that makes a lot of sense to me. Sometimes we will just need a break in some days, not even a video break. Last semester. I remember there was a class where I can I mean, I cannot feel it in the same way that I feel it in a physical classroom, but I could feel that the students were tired. And so one of our teaching assistants I knew that she thought yoga. And I was like, Alright, I know that this is not going to be the end all. But we’re going to do one minute yoga poses for just one minute to just reset. And even that can bring a little bit of energy to the class. And so my short answer to your question, john, is that I don’t know how we solve that problem. But I do think that it is a better experience if we can to have more students most of the time by video, and I like Rebecca’s gentle now it’s a good time to have the video on as a way of signaling when it’s important.
John: Earlier, you mentioned teacherly as a tool to help track engagement. Could you talk a little bit about teaching?
Dan: Sure. So digital is an application, we created that Harvard University group of us to help faculty teach more effectively and inclusively. When you’re in a class you call on different students. And what you see happening very quickly during the semester is that some voices start dominating the classroom and you don’t even realize it. And then you don’t even realize which voices you’re not hearing from. So the way that teacherly works is very simple. You basically have someone record every time that a student participates. And then the students, all they need to do is to fill in a student profile that information about themselves. And as an instructor, then you get access to the student profiles, which allows you to know more about your students, which allows you to search their profiles to see if there are things that you want to incorporate into your next class. And the other thing that it does is it gives you dashboards, about your participation patterns. And so you can see which students have tended to participate the most which students haven’t participated. And most importantly, you can take action to redress any participation patterns that you want to redress. It’s a tool that’s freely available to anyone who wants to use it, the website, it’s teacherly.me. And you adopt the version, there are two versions, the main version is the one that allows you to have student profiles and so on. And it’s been used at Harvard for the last four years, we have over 100 faculty members using it. And last year, we launched an open version so that anyone anywhere in the world can use it. And we’re very happy to see people from other universities started adopting even people from high schools have people at UC Irvine, we have people ideal, we have people in Chi in Costa Rica, and we have people at different places using it. So if you’re interested, go ahead and try it out. I hope it can be helpful in your efforts. I always cite as an example, the fact that before I started using it, I had 46% of students in my classroom one year identify themselves or female students, and only 36% of the comments in the class were coming from female students. And that was a total shock for me, because I didn’t think that that pattern had emerged in my classroom, but it had and this allowed me to take corrective action, where easy to see where you need to take action. And now I’m proud to say I’m not the only digital user who would say that, but I have at least a gender equitable classroom, I no longer have that pattern that I didn’t even know I have, until I started using it.
Rebecca: We’ll make sure that that link to teach Lee’s in the show notes. And that’s a really powerful way to remind us how much data can actually help us that technology can help us in a lot of different ways,
Dan: knowledge and data can help us my colleague studies, we’re owners and Victoria Barnum are also behind this effort. And many of us will be happy to hear from anyone who’s using it,
Rebecca: That leads nicely into what are some of the things that we can take away from this year of technology exploration, as we hopefully start moving back into physical classrooms?
Dan: So this is a question I’ve tried to give a lot of thought, because there’s an aspect that I think is very natural for most of us, we just want to go back to our classrooms, and all of this stuff of assigning race and all of that, but we just want to be with our students in the space. I think for many of us, there’s so much lost that we felt when that environment was in some way taken away. And there’s so much longing for that environment. Again, having said that, I would say that there is so much that we learned about eating during this time that it would be a pity, if we just go back and only adopt nominal change to what we’re doing. My sense is that most of us will now explore using Office Hours through zoom or a similar technology. My sense is that a lot of us created videos for students to engage before class and we might reuse those videos. And I think that’s all great, and maybe the biggest change is that I think Because of this crisis, a lot of instructors were questioning what they were doing in the classroom much more than they did before. I’m sure you see that in your teaching and learning center. And perhaps that questioning and that rethinking about what they did, will translate back into the classroom. But old habits are hard to die. So I think there’s one risk. My sense is that the risk is that we want leverage enough of what we learn in the online environment. And so here are just a couple of things that I’m thinking would be great to think about. One is that I would love for us to try to reimagine or physical classroom in light of what we learn, what is it that frankly, you’re now saying, Wow, this was better in zoom than in person? And how can you go back to your physical classroom and see if there’s a way to leverage that in your physical room? For me, the things that I’ve discovered in breakout rooms have been incredibly powerful. And I don’t mean, just as zoom breakout room, I mean, how can we make the work of groups visible? And how can I be able to see that and leverage that in the discussion? So there’s no reason why when we’re in a physical classroom, we couldn’t use some of the things that we did with Google Slides or jam board or whatever technology we use collaboratively, and try to leverage them in the same way that we did before. That is one concrete example where it’d be a pity to think oh, no, I did that in zoom because of X or Y. No, I think we can do some of that. I know it’s probably for most institutions is too early to think about it. But I do wonder if there are changes we should do in the infrastructure, both technology and otherwise, of our classrooms that might help us teach more effectively. I don’t know about you, but the fact that in so more teams, so whichever technology use, you had the name of each student in front of you in such a clear manner was super helpful to learn their names. And at the Kennedy School, we use name tents. But those name tents are physical. And I wonder if in the classroom of the future, we could imagine digital ones that had more information than just a student name. By the way, I think a lot of changes should also happen in the online technology. Like why is it that the only thing we see is the student name? Why can we hover and see something about their background or their whatever, it should be overlaying so much information that we currently don’t have very case, those are just some ideas, I’m sure that you have many, many more, and that your listeners have many, many more. But if I could leave with one note of encouragement to all of us is to think about what we learned and what lessons were helpful in the online experience and bring it to the in person classroom, perhaps in the different manifestations, but I still think could be helpful.
John: Those sound like excellent ideas. And it does remind me a while back, one of our first podcast was with someone who is developing an augmented reality app to do facial identification for students in her class. So that way, she would be able to get that sort of information popping up in a physical classroom, certainly, I will miss having all the names visible for each student, particularly when I’m dealing with a class of three to 400. Students, it’s so nice to see the name when they participate right on the box, where you see them speaking in a classroom, it would be a lot harder to remember all those names.
Dan: We’ve been discussing everything about what will we do when we go back to the physical classroom, but certainly one thing that I hope we’re going to do is embrace online learning as part of four ways of being able to teach. And I’ve always been a big believer in the power of blended learning of using each medium to its comparative advantage. And I hope that this puts us in a better position to do better blended learning than we were a year and a half ago, when most of us had not done much of this.
Rebecca: Yeah, many faculty up until this point really hadn’t experienced online learning as a student or a teacher. And so now there’s just a lot more exposure. So those conversations can be more concrete. So we always wrap up by asking, despite the fact that we already kind of asked you this question in a different way. We always wind up by asking what’s next?
Dan: Before I respond to this question, and I should have done this at the beginning. But I just want to thank both of you, john and Rebecca for what you do. I discovered your podcast not too long ago, and I’ve gotten tremendous value out of it just to name a few episodes not to name favorite children or any of that. The episode on using Google Apps was incredibly eye opening and helpful to Even though I have been using Google Apps in my teaching, I still learned it on the episode on statistical simulations was super helpful to me it statistics. And that was a wealth of great ideas. And the episode where you took on the workload issue and how students were perceiving that the workload was greater. I had heard other things on this topic. And this was the best of everything that I’ve heard. So I just want to first just say thank you for what you do, and for the service you provide to the people like me, who are trying to teach more effectively everyday. Thanks, Dan. Thank you, in terms of what’s next, I don’t know. At a more personal level, I want to say that writing this book was a totally unexpected thing. For me, I’d never thought about writing a book about teaching. And this in some way has opened my eyes to sort of another world out there that I wasn’t that much in touch with, and has allowed me to feel a great deal of satisfaction when I hear from someone who said, Oh, I use this in the book. And it was very helpful in my learning. So even though I’m super passionate, and educator, and every time that I see a light in the eye of my student, that’s like the most rewarding thing that I can drive for. I think writing the book gave me a different venue with which to see some, I think positive effect of some of what I was doing. And that was interesting surprise. It’s not like I have three books that are in my queue or anything like that. But I discovered that as an interesting thing. And I’m right now writing another book. Again, I haven’t written anyone before, then this one is not about teaching. And that process has been very, very helpful to me, in terms of teaching what’s next, I would really like to see how we can leverage what we learned during the pandemic to do the best we can to help our students learn. That’s my hope. We’re all of us.
Rebecca: Thanks, Dan. This has been a fun conversation. I feel like we need to follow up in a year and see what happened.
John: I would love to do that thing. And also how many new books come out.
Rebecca: Your turnaround time is really, really good. So between the magic wand and the crystal ball, you have I think your setup well.
Dan: I think that deadline helps quite a bit I have to say but thank you.
John: Well, thank you. We really enjoyed talking to you and we’re looking forward to hearing more