215. Resilient Pedagogy

The global pandemic resulted in rapid and dramatic changes in instructional practices. These transitions were supported by many resources created and publicly shared by teaching centers and instructional designers. In this episode, Travis Thurston joins us to discuss a superb open access resource on resilient pedagogy that he and his colleagues created with contributions from many thought leaders in higher ed.



John: The global pandemic resulted in rapid and dramatic changes in instructional practices. These transitions were supported by many resources created and publicly shared by teaching centers and instructional designers. In this episode, we discuss the creation of a superb open access resource on resilient pedagogy created by one teaching center with contributions from many thought leaders in higher ed.


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: …and features guests doing important research and advocacy work to make higher education more inclusive and supportive of all learners.


John: Our guest today is Travis Thurston. Travis is the Director of the Office of Empowering Teaching Excellence at Utah State University. He is also one of the creators of and editors of Resilient Pedagogy: Practical Teaching Strategies to Overcome Distance, Disruption, and Distraction. Jessamyn Neuhaus, the Interim Director of the Center for Teaching Excellence at SUNY Plattsburgh, the author of Geeky Pedagogy, and a frequent guest on this podcast will be filling in as a guest host. Welcome, Travis.

Travis: Thank you so much for having me.

Jessamyn: Hi, Travis.

Travis: It’s great to be here, thank you.

John: Today’s teas are… Travis, are you drinking tea?

Travis: I am not, but I am drinking a lovely orange citrus Mountain Dew Kickstart.

John: Very good.

Jessamyn: Do you need a little burst of energy, Travis? [LAUGHTER]

Travis: Like I always need a little burst of energy. [LAUGHTER]

Jessamyn: I’m drinking some kind of wild orange tea, I just finished it. Really getting wild over here in Plattsburgh. [LAUGHTER]

John: And I am drinking a Tea Forté black currant tea.

Jessamyn: Fancy.

Travis: Very nice.

John: We’ve invited you here today to discuss Resilient Pedagogy, an open-access anthology that’s designed to assist faculty in addressing the disruptions and challenges associated with a global pandemic and other forms of social stress. How did this project come about?

Travis: This really came about because right at the start of the pandemic here in the United States, this was March 2020, I got really sick after attending a regional Teaching for Learning Conference here in Utah… got home and went to my local clinic here, and it was before we even had COVID testing available in our area. And it ended up being about the same week that our university shut down operations and shifted to emergency remote teaching. And I ended up getting really sick, and I was out for over three weeks. And so I actually missed all of our transition to emergency remote teaching, which I know that actually seems like a good space to be [LAUGHTER] given what most of us experienced. But for me, as someone who has been an instructional designer and supports faculty regularly in their teaching, it was a moment for me where I felt like I wasn’t able to do my part. And so into that summer of 2020, as folks were discussing what we can do moving forward… Jessamyn and I are connected on Twitter, and there’s such a fantastic presence with folks on Twitter. I definitely lean on my community in Twitter. But I saw folks like Josh Eyler discussing this concept of resilient pedagogy, and it really resonated with me. We were in the process of teaching our faculty how to do blended learning for those who hadn’t. And so, as I was thinking about these terms and thinking about how we could support our faculty, we started talking with a few of the folks here at our university, specifically Chris González, who’s a faculty member, and Kacy Lundstrom, who is in our library here. And we decided to take on this project, this idea of putting together the book, as a way to share these strategies that can support faculty members, and ultimately can support our students.

John: A very timely project. [LAUGHTER] You more than made up for your absence right at the start of this. [LAUGHTER]

Jessamyn: Travis, how did you find the authors for this collection?

Travis: Yeah, great question. Speaking of Twitter, we put together a call for chapters, and we pushed that out on our social media channels. And we had dozens and dozens of fantastic chapter proposals. And so we went through a process of just blind reviewing all of the proposals that we received, and then selected the 15 that ended up publishing in the chapters. And so we landed with about five of those chapters coming from authors here at USU and 10 of those coming from folks external.

John: And you released this as an open-access text. We really appreciate the fact that you did. [LAUGHTER] Why did you choose the open-access format for it?

Travis: We decided to go the open-access route for a few reasons. One, it was a way for us to get these ideas out in a timely manner, of course. But really, it ties back to our purpose in putting it together in the first place, to try to share it with as many folks as we could. And we felt like an open-access volume would help us to achieve that.

Jessamyn: So the first section of this text deals with theory and foundations. What are some of the major principles of resilient course design?

Travis: That is a perfect question. And I think it’s actually quite pertinent because as we jumped into putting this book together, we challenged the authors not to just stick with one idea or one definition of resilient pedagogy. We kind of left it up to each of them to parse out what they thought resilient pedagogy meant. And so you’ll see in, like, chapter four, Rebecca Quintana and her colleagues there, they had been doing a MOOC on resilient pedagogy in the summer of 2020, taking a lot of these ideas of resilience from other fields, and then applying them to education and what we do with course design. So, in their chapter, they talk about these three principles of extensibility, flexibility, and redundancy, which we see in architecture or even in environmental fields, where we’re trying to support and sustain whatever it is we’re engaging with. So for me, when I start thinking about resilient design and resilient pedagogy, those three concepts definitely come to mind. How can we extend what we’re doing into different modalities that also ties into things like Universal Design for Learning, specifically with our students? How can we provide for multiple means of engagement or multiple means of expression within our courses? The idea of flexibility, I think, is something a lot of us have ran with the last 18 months or so in finding ways that we can not only be flexible with our course design, but also be flexible with each other. And what I mean by that is with our colleagues as we’re working on courses and with our students, as we’re thinking about the requirements that we have. And then I think a great one is this redundancy, which is not only helpful in general as a practice in the learning science of adding in redundancy. But as Jacob Fortman pointed out—he’s another author of that fourth chapter—he was teaching a course on virtual reality, which they typically have resources for within a brick-and-mortar face-to-face setting, and can provide support and troubleshooting. But when they started teaching that in a remote setting and they’re sending this equipment out, they can’t necessarily sit down and troubleshoot with every student. So they started developing additional support materials that can be used for students at a distance. So to answer your question, when I start thinking about resilient pedagogies, resilient design, those three concepts really stand out to me as a starting place for us.

Jessamyn: I always thought redundancy had negative connotations. But I must say, now, the more reminders I get, the more calendar shout outs I get to remember where I was supposed to be, when “Oh, what was I supposed to do here, there?” The more the better. So I definitely incorporate that into my teaching as well.

John: That example you mentioned about moving from a brick-and-mortar institution to online with classes, reminds me of a general issue that came up, in that it was fairly easy to ignore the inequities that our students face when they’re all on campus, when they all have access to computer labs, to the campus network, campus printing facilities, the library, and so forth. But when people moved online, the inequities that our students face in their day-to-day lives became much more visible to faculty. What are some lessons we should take forward from this period of remote teaching that we can use to help create a more equitable environment going forward?

Travis: There’s a couple of things that our institution ended up doing that I think, as we’ve been discussing it, are things we’re going to continue doing. Which when we talk through them seem like, “Well, why weren’t we doing this before?” Like, “Why weren’t we providing these things before?” And they’re things as simple as checking out laptops to students that don’t have technology. Our institution is the land-grant university here in Utah, so we have over 30 campuses across the state. So, for example, at some of our campuses that are in rural Utah, we actually had to set up Wi-Fi areas for students to be able to come and even access the internet to be able to be online doing their work. So there’s really simple things like that, in providing access to the technology, to the infrastructure, that is like a basic necessity to even be able to start doing this work. So from that standpoint, then when we even start thinking about how when students are maybe a little bit cautious to turn their camera on, to show their surroundings, or they keep their mic muted because they’re engaging in childcare while they’re trying to attend class. Or things like this that, like you said, John, are things that were easy to overlook when everyone was coming into the same space. But there are things that we should be thinking about and that we should be providing accommodations for our students and really adapting what we do to fit the needs of the students that we have.

Jessamyn: Switching away a little bit from the student-centered, I have a question. As the pandemic drags on, I’ve started to hear from faculty who are feeling overwhelmed and unable to do any new thing. The returns on their big pedagogical learning, the new things they’re doing are kind of small. And as a thought leader in education, Sherri Spelic, recently tweeted, “I’m tired of being resilient.” The word itself might be taking on some negative, toxic positivity. So how can we encourage faculty to do this to make their courses more resilient without placing a big, additional burden on them or resorting to rose-colored glasses?

Travis: I think I saw that tweet myself, and I may have retweeted it. [LAUGHTER] Because I think it really is pertinent right now for us to think about. There are so many demands on our time. And there are so many inequities and things that we could be trying to account for and trying to adjust for that, yes, we are tired of being resilient. So one of the things, as we were producing this book, I reached out to Jesse Stommel, who again is a fantastic person to follow on Twitter, because he had a tweet over the summer of 2020 with his list of words that he hopes he never hears again, one of which was resilient. [LAUGHTER] And so, I actually asked him if he would be willing to write the foreword for this book, to really play with that term and talk about those differences. And one of the points that I love that he makes in that forward, is that when we talk about resilience, it’s generally coming from a perspective of privilege. That we have the privilege to be resilient, which sometimes gets pushed onto our students, “Well, you know, if you just try harder.” But I think the same can be said with our faculty, and I think that’s why a lot of us have felt that the negative connotation to that term is because we feel like, “Well, you know, just keep doing what you’re doing and be resilient and you’ll get through this.” That was a long preface to my answer here. But for me, what we can do is just continue to make those small steps, make the small changes. For me, I try to emphasize this with the faculty that I support here at USU, that teaching excellence really is a journey. And so we’re just going to keep taking one step at a time as we keep moving forward. And sometimes, yeah, we’re gonna have to step off the trail and take a breather, and that is okay, that is okay. The other thing that I try to remind our folks here is that they don’t have to go at it alone. We have a robust community here—librarians, instructional designers, multimedia professionals, folks here in faculty development like myself—who really care deeply about teaching and learning. And I care deeply about our instructors and our students. And so, making sure that they are able to connect with those people that can lift them up and can support them when they are tired of being resilient.

John: During the period of emergency remote teaching many people were offering classes in this online synchronous manner, and some of that has continued into the following academic year. That differs quite a bit from what two of the authors on chapter three of this anthology, Noffs and Wilson, refer to as optimal online learning. Would you say that this transition and this form of emergency teaching gave some faculty and students a somewhat false sense of what constitutes online learning?

Travis: In a short answer, yes, I do. [LAUGHTER] And we’ve seen this in articles in The Chronicle or opinion pieces here and there, where folks are like, “Well, we tried online learning and it didn’t work.” And for someone who has studied instructional design, and specifically online course design, and has worked designing courses for years and years, what the majority of us were doing during that time was not what we would call “optimal online learning.” [LAUGHTER] And as my kids would remind me, research on this topic was going on back in the 1900s, as my kids would say, we had research on online learning back in the 90s. And a lot of that was, at first a lot of it incorporated synchronous engagement, where we were getting on some sort of technology and engaging with our students, probably with giant headsets. In fact, here in our building at Utah State where our office is located, we’re in the distance education building. And there’s this one particular hallway that has all these pictures of what distance learning looked like before. [LAUGHTER] And so there’s one picture down the hall that has the picture of some professors that they call the “Flying Professors” that would literally get on an airplane and fly to different campuses across the state to bring distance learning. There’s this other great picture of a professor putting this giant laser disc into a machine. [LAUGHTER] And then our very first real interesting innovation was that they had this trackpad that they could write on that would transmit the image to another location, all these interesting innovations. And so I look at things like that and then I look at what we were doing with emergency remote teaching during COVID, and I think exactly that. Like, we just had the wrong sense of what online learning is because there are mountains of research on what good online courses and what good online teaching looks like. And so, for me, and for us, the work is to continue to share those principles, not only as we are starting to shift back to face-to-face. But pre-pandemic, one thing I would always sit down with faculty members and say—when they’re coming to me and they’re going to be designing an online course for the first time, they’ve never taught online and they’re worried about it, they’re concerned about it—I would just tell them, “Good teaching is good teaching. And so it’s going to look different, it’s going to feel different in an online setting. But you have support, and there are strategies and there are ways to get to know your students that have been working for years, and we’re going to help you get there.” And I don’t want to be too critical of our approaches, because we literally were on the fly trying to change modalities. And typically, when we design a new online course, we spend months in development of that course, and training, not three days or a week. [LAUGHTER]

Jessamyn: Not three days, while your brain is about to explode trying to cope with a totally unprecedented situation.

Travis: Exactly. All the trauma of a worldwide pandemic, and social justice movements, and all the things going on in the world. Not to mention, I forgot to mention this earlier, but we have students who are food insecure or housing insecure. And so, yeah, of course these things are not going to take precedence, and shouldn’t, we’ve got to take care of each other. But yeah, there are definitely principles and things that we can do that are more effective than some of the emergency remote teaching that happened.

Jessamyn: Following up on that, can you give us some examples of some specific things, some steps that faculty can take, to design courses that are more equitable and more resilient to changing conditions?

Travis: One of my favorite suggestions comes from chapter one with Lindsay Masland. And she begins by giving this great self-determination theory approach to teaching and learning. And an aspect of that is that, as humans, we have this need for autonomy. And for this sense that we have some control and that we’re agents of our own learning. And so we can actually build those things into our courses. And so I would definitely start small with this, there are ways that you could build this into an entire course, but I would start small with an assignment. Look at one assignment and say, “Is this an assignment that I could allow for some choice?” And what I mean by that is: If this is traditionally a written assignment, does it need to be a written assignment? Or have we just always done it as a written assignment? Are there other ways that students could demonstrate their knowledge or understanding for this particular concept? So I would start small with something like that. We actually looked at this pre-COVID because we work closely with our Center for Student Analytics here at Utah State University. So I kind of look at it as a 360-degree type thing. We look at what’s working well for students, and then we think about… How can we enhance that by providing faculty development that helps folks to incorporate these things that are helping students more into their course? And then again, we kind of just cycle through and see what’s working. So one thing we found that was working really well for students was providing simple navigation in their Canvas course. We use the Canvas LMS, and for instructors who were using the tools we have to put in a syllabus to organize some topic or weekly modules, we actually found that, overall, students had an increase in persistence at the university when they were taking one of these courses. But more interestingly, we found that first-gen students who took those courses had almost a 3% bump in persistence when they were engaging in a course where an instructor had taken the time to organize the course well. So we know from the literature and research that when students’ cognitive load is reduced, like, they’re not trying to find where to go or what the assignment is, they can spend more of that effort, more of that brainpower, on the actual learning in the class. So yeah, there’s some small things we can do.

John: And that reminds me of the findings that Viji Sathy and Kelly Hogan found in terms of the importance of providing students with more structure in reducing the achievement gaps for first-gen students. There’s quite a bit of research showing that that’s very helpful.

Travis: Absolutely.

John: Section two of the anthology focuses on reflection and practice. You’ve talked about some of the practices that could be helpful, but what are some other specific practices suggested by authors in this collection?

Travis: There’s too many to choose from, honestly. But some of my favorite ones… one comes from Jenae Cohn, who’s fantastic. I love her work outside of this book, but in this book it’s great too. [LAUGHTER] Specifically, she talks about the need for us to build digital literacy skills directly into our courses. So this isn’t a new concept, but I love the spin that she takes on it in saying that, “As more of these courses are using digital elements, we need to be teaching our students how to engage in effective ways with those resources, and building those skills and those supports directly into the course.” So, for example, we have this myth of the digital native, who they were just born to know exactly how to click on the right button in our course. Like, that’s just not a thing.

Jessamyn: No. [LAUGHTER] Have yet to meet one. [LAUGHTER]

Travis: Exactly. So I love that she points out that there are very specific scaffolds, this kind of goes back to that structure thing, there are very specific scaffolds that we can build in, and things we can do to get to know the students in our courses and provide what they need to be successful in our class. So that’s a great one. Another one that I really like is Kevin Kelly and Rebecca Campbell, they talk about what they call “VHS,” which for someone in my age group resonates well. They talk about VHS as a virtual homework sprint. And again, this kind of builds off of what Jenae’s talking about, where you build in time to your course to help students work on projects, and to be productive in what they’re doing. So they frame this in a way that you actually can get together in a synchronous way. You provide some time and space to get to know each other, exchange what’s going on in your life, those types of things. And then you set out with a specific goal, like, “This is the thing that I want to accomplish in the next hour.” And then from there, you can break into small groups, you can break out individually. I kind of picture this… for me in Zoom, I can throw folks out into different breakout groups. And then as the instructor, I can jump around and see where they need help, where there’s some additional support that they could use. And then about halfway through that time period, we come back together, we say, “Great, what progress have you made? What barriers did you hit that you still need support?” And then you kind of go through that cycle again, similarly to what you might see in a work sprint in a tech company or something like that. You provide that scaffolding, that time and support. And really, it’s modeling how to be efficient in getting some of that work done, and how to feel, and giving students access to the help that they need.

Jessamyn: I love that example of how to use Zoom strategically and effectively. It could be very, very effective used that way, I think.

Travis: I know, because sometimes I get caught up in this, “Well, I need to push them into breakout groups for a discussion thing,” and… Well, why don’t we actually focus on some of the work that we need to do and give individualized feedback as we go? So I love the recommendation for that VHS.

John: Not Betamax, it has to be VHS. [LAUGHTER]

Travis: Now we’re aging ourselves, John. [LAUGHTER]

Jessamyn: Help, I’m trapped in a Squadcast room with two very nerdy tech guys.

John: And that’s coming from the author of Geeky Pedagogy. [LAUGHTER]

Travis: I love it. Another one… again there’s so many… but my last one I’m going to point out comes from Miriam Moore, and she talks about this idea of getting out of the PPR box with online discussions… the prompt, post, reply box… that we get stuck in. This is something that we see quite often with online discussions. It’s not a new thing to the pandemic, this is common in general. And one of my favorite ways to picture this came from a 2016 article. It’s actually an idea paper by Shannon Riggs and Katie Linder, and they talked about it in terms of an architecture of engagement which I think is just so perfect. But they do this setting, like, picture yourself standing in front of this lecture hall—this small lecture hall, 30 students or something—and you’re teaching this face-to-face class and you want to have a discussion. You would not ask the question, and then go through one by one and have every single student respond to the exact same question. And then you would not, further, go through and want every single one of them to comment on something. I love the visual they created with that because it feels so ridiculous. [LAUGHTER]

Jessamyn: Oh, it’s so awkward. The awkwardness is making me nervous. [LAUGHTER]

Travis: Exactly. So that’s what Miriam’s talking about with this kind of getting away from that PPR box, thinking of ways to engage students in real discussion where they can co-create some of these things within the dialog. And so, I talk about this a little bit in the digital power-up strategy. I won’t go too deep into that, but it’s the idea that rather than using a specific question, that you give students different prompts as entry points into the discussion. And it allows them to make the post relevant to themselves, bringing in their own personal experiences, their different backgrounds, into the class. And my colleague, Dr. Mitchell Colver, he kind of describes this as if our online course is a box, a cardboard box if we picture it that way, when we invite students into that box, it should change the box. And so that’s really what we’re trying to do with our online discussions. We want them to be a space for dialogue, for co-construction of knowledge. And we want it to be a space where students can really work with each other and grow and learn along the way.

John: We always end with the question, “What’s next?”

Travis: Yeah, I really love that question actually, so I’m glad you ask it on your podcasts. For us, what’s next with Resilient Pedagogy is really continuing the work. A lot of us were doing this work of teaching and learning before the pandemic, and really, it just continues. Again, one of the points that Jesse Stommel makes in his foreword of this book, is he calls out this line from Lindsay Masland in chapter one where she says, “Do we really need a thing such as resilient pedagogy?” And I love that Jesse says, “We probably don’t.” [LAUGHTER] Because what we actually need is just everyone to continue thinking about teaching in a reflexive way, trying to teach the students we have, and find ways that are going to help us to be successful as instructors and as students. And so for us, it’s just continuing to build those communities and those supports. And so for me, what I really hope comes out of this book that we were able to put together is that it continues to spark ideas, and continues to spark conversations about the things that we can do to continue to improve teaching and learning.

John: It’s a wonderful anthology. I really enjoyed reading it and I’ve shared it with our faculty on campus several times in the past and will continue to do so. Thank you.

Travis: That’s fantastic. Thank you so much.

Jessamyn: Thank you so much, I really enjoyed this conversation. Two of my favorite guys in faculty development.

Travis: Thanks Jessamyn.

John: It was great talking to both of you today.


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.