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.
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.
The Society for the Teaching of Psychology has identified 6 evidence-based criteria for model teaching. In this episode, Aaron Richmond, Regan Gurung, and Guy Boysen join us to discuss how those principles translate into effective practices in both physical and virtual environments.
Aaron is a Professor of Educational Psychology and Human Development at Metropolitan State University of Denver. Regan is the Interim Executive Director of the Center for Teaching and Learning and Professor of Psychological Science at Oregon State University. Guy is a Professor of Psychology at McKendree University. They are the authors of A Pocket Guide to Online Teaching: Translating the Evidence-Based Model Teaching Criteria (2021) and An Evidence-Based Guide to College and University Teaching: Developing the Model Teacher (2016).
- Richmond, A. S., Gurung, R. A., & Boysen, G. A. (2021). A Pocket Guide to Online Teaching: Translating the Evidence-based Model Teaching Criteria. Routledge.
- Richmond, A. S., Boysen, G. A., & Gurung, R. A. (2016). An Evidence-Based guide to College and University Teaching: Developing the Model Teacher. Routledge.
- Society for the Teaching of Psychology
- Quality Matters
- Fox, K., Bryant, G., Lin, N., Khedkar, N., Nguyen, A., (2021, January 28). Time for Class – COVID-19 Edition Part 3: The Impact of 2020 on Postsecondary Teaching and Learning of Introductory Faculty. Tyton Partners
- Rogers, D. T. (2012). The Learning Alliance Inventory: Instrument Development and Initial Validation. International Journal for the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning, 6(1), n1.
- Course Workload Estimator
- Workload Estimator version 2
John: The Society for the Teaching of Psychology has identified 6 evidence-based criteria for model teaching. In this episode we discuss how those principles translate into effective practices in both physical and virtual environments.
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 Aaron Richmond, Regan Gurung and Guy Boysen. Aaron is a Professor of Educational Psychology and Human Development at Metropolitan State University of Denver. Regan is the Interim Executive Director of the Center for Teaching and Learning and Professor of Psychological Science at Oregon State University. Guy is a Professor of Psychology at McKendree University. Welcome, Aaron and Guy, and welcome back, Regan.
Regan: Thank you, John.
Guy: Thank you.
Aaron: Thank you.
Rebecca: Today’s teas are… Guy, are you drinking tea?
Guy: I’m drinking coffee black tea. I guess that’s coffee. [LAUGHTER]
Rebecca: So I heard.
Aaron: My coffee is Dunkin Donuts coffee, kind of a guilty pleasure every morning. Currently on water. It’s a little bit late for me to be drinking caffeine.
Regan: Still pretty early here in the Pacific Northwest in Oregon. So, coffee it is.
John: And I’m drinking chocolate mint oolong tea
Rebecca: I was ready for you to say chocolate milk or something. I was like, “Alright, there’s no tea here.” [LAUGHTER] I have Irish breakfast today, heavily caffeinated.
Regan: Timely this week with St. Patrick’s Day and all that. So, yeah.
Rebecca: I try. It just happened to be the one open.
John: We’ve invited you here to discuss your new book together, A Pocket Guide to Online Teaching: Translating the Evidence-Based Model Teaching Criteria. A few years ago, you had written an Evidence-Based Guide to College and University Teaching to help faculty apply the model teaching characteristics that were developed by the Society for the Teaching of Psychology. In the new book, you shift your focus to online instruction. Could you tell us a little bit about the origin of this new book?
Regan: Aaron, you can do the whole origin story since really Aaron, being Chair of the task force that first kicked this off, can give us the whole etiology. So give us the origin story, Aaron.
Aaron: Well, of course, the origin story starts with Regan, [LAUGHTER] as almost every story starts with. And so Regan was coming on as the Society of Teaching of Psychology President which is a division of the American Psychological Association Division Two. And he had like 105 taskforce that he created for us to do. And I was in charge of somehow more than one, it wasn’t just the model teaching competencies. But in terms of this project, he really wanted us to create a committee or a task force to really kind of get at what is it that the model teachers are doing. They originally started in psychology, but then branched out into other disciplines for sure. But really, the call was, what are people doing? What’s the evidence behind what they’re doing that is going well and is doing great work, and all facets of education and Guy was instrumental in that it actually ended up spanning two presidencies, almost three, because it was such a colossal task and ask where that committee was a really good working group. We met twice a month, I think, there for a while. And then we were meeting once a month for two to three years, basically. And so after much, much research, much of it spearheaded by Guy, the task force came up with the model teacher competencies, and we published a couple of articles on it, a kind of a white paper for Division II STP. And then that was the catalyst for Guy, Regan, and I jumping into the first book, the model teaching competency book.
Rebecca: For those that aren’t familiar, can you just talk about what the model teaching competencies is?
Guy: I will say that my memory of how this came about is a little bit different. I kind of envisioned it as almost like a survivor Island type of deal where we were initially this huge task force, and then it turned into an article and a few people dropped off, and then it turned into a book and it was just the three of us. So it’s kind of like we were the people with the endurance to keep trying to push these model teaching competencies down people’s throats until they would sort of accept them. But we think we’ve got good stuff here. And that’s why we stuck with it as we really do believe in these competencies. Basically what we did on that task force is we tried to say, if you’re going to be a good teacher, what are the key things you need to be able to do and so we said, part of that is just being trained. You have to have a little bit of training behind and know some pedagogy. You have to have some basic instructional methods that you use. You have to be teaching content that’s relevant to what you’re doing. And you have to assess learning related to that content, put together a syllabus that’s reasonable. And then also just be asking students how you’re doing, so using teaching evaluations, both formative and summative. And those are the areas we agreed on. And then we defined it by breaking it down a bunch of different ways. And so, I think, to get back to the original question, I think we realized that these things work in the online format, but in our first book, we didn’t really talk about that context very much. I think if you pull out any sentence from our first book, it applies to online teaching, but we certainly didn’t talk about online teaching or LMSs or some of those specific things that would specifically speak to online teachers. So that’s part of the origin for the new book, I think.
Regan: To add to that, not only did it apply, but we didn’t make the connection. I think on the other side of the coin, there’s just so much that goes on in online teaching that is in addition to what normally goes on as well. So, there was a clear cut need for “What does this look like in an online context?” So even though we have six, there’s a nice number to wrap your heads around, there are six model teaching criteria. And you look at all six of those, and yes, they can apply to the online, but it’s a whole different thing when you say, “Okay, let’s actually start from online teaching.” And that final pragmatic piece as to how this came about is we were actually approached by the publishers to do a revision of model teaching, of the original. And this happened to just, if I remember correctly, when the pandemic was kicking off. And I think that’s important, too, because we were all thinking a lot about what does it mean to teach remotely? What does it mean to teach online? And we quickly convinced them or they convinced us and I think it’s more the latter, they quickly convinced us that, before a second edition, maybe if we could address online teaching explicitly, that would be better. And hence, the Pocket Guide. It’s not the full blown, it’s the “let’s explicitly look at online teaching and see what we can say.”
John: At the beginning of this book, you talk about how, at one point, each of you was somewhat skeptical of online instruction until you actually worked with it. I think that’s true of many people who went through the transition to remote or online instruction in the spring of 2020. Could you tell us a little bit about your own transition to online teaching, as well as how your courses were modified as we move to remote instruction in the spring of 2020.
Aaron: I had been teaching online for a very long time. And so I think the pivot for both Guy and Reagan was a little bit different than mine. I had other stressors associated with the pandemic, namely, having five people in my household full time, and kids learning on, and my wife learning online. But for me, I’ll let Reagan and Guy answer the question, mostly because I started teaching online in graduate school as a way to build my curriculum vitae and built my teaching experience. And so it wasn’t as big of a quote, quote, pivot for me, as it is for a lot of my colleagues.
Regan: Yeah, I think I will go in reverse order this way, because I think I’m sort of next up with somebody who had done some online teaching. I had taught online before the pandemic, but hadn’t taught it recently. And I think to fine tune your question, John, personally, it was just more of a question of not having done it as much. In fact, I think I’ll go on record as saying that if you asked me 15 years ago, what I thought about online teaching, before I actually looked into the literature, I had a very different take on it then after I looked into the literature, and then after I really did it. So, it was much more of a question of had done it, but hadn’t done it to the extent and hadn’t looked at the research on it to the extent that I’d wanted to, but that changed very quickly.
Guy: And that’s totally accurate to say that I was the least experienced, I’m fully capable of admitting that. And we have a fully online psychology program at McKendree, and I had designed courses, and I had been trained in the basics of online instruction, but I’d never done sort of a deep dive into the literature like I did when we were preparing to write this book. It was interesting, since in the last year, I’ve taught literally face to face, I’ve taught online, and I’ve taught various versions of hybrid. And then I taught whatever the heck last spring was, as well. So, I’ve gotten a taste of everything in this last year. And so I’ve learned a lot, both writing the book and having to teach in ways that I hadn’t taught before. So I had done the design component of it, and been trained a little bit, but had never actually pulled the trigger and taught a fully online course as an instructor before the pandemic,
Aaron: What I loved about the three of us, and I always love working with these two other folks. But we had this strata of experience with online education. And poor Guy even had the wonderful opportunity to learn a brand new learning management system like two weeks before the start of the fall semester. And when we talk about online education, chalk is chalk, right? But learning how to do certain grade things in an LMS, Guy was really kind of a little bit of a guinea pig, and it was nice to have those three levels of experience because I think we could get fresh perspectives for the book. I’m Quality Matters certified, which is one of the national certifications for online education, and then Reagan and then Guy with not as much experience, and so I think it was a really serendipitous opportunity for us because of that.
Regan: And just along those lines of serendipity, I think one of the things that the pandemic did was had many of us have more conversations with the experts on online teaching on our campuses. Here at Oregon State or e-campus program is one of the top five in the nation with our psych program being number two in online psych majors, which was great, which meant I could go in… actually, I was gonna say go in but during the pandemic, there was no going in anywhere but I I had all these conversations with wonderful people and shout out to Shannon Riggs and Kate Linder, wonderful people who’ve done a lot of work already on online teaching. And we have these conversations, great email exchanges back and forth that really informed, I think, what we then went and talked about.
Guy: I would be interested in hearing, we’ve never had this conversation, whattyou all think, Aaron and Regan, about whether people during the pandemic are actually doing the type of online teaching we’re talking about in our book, or if they’re doing something that’s more of like an emergency remote teaching, because I’ve noticed in my institution, there’s a lot of people who are basically teaching the same class, it’s just that it’s over a Zoom meeting.
Regan: [LAUGHTER] We could probably do a whole podcast on remote teaching versus online teaching. I’ll just say, in brief, Guy, you are absolutely right. What I have seen is the entire spectrum of instructors who are, somewhat alluding to what Aaron said, trying to make sure they can keep teaching. And I think everybody’s circumstances vary. And I think that resulted in a lot of variance in what those courses look like. Some of the courses would look like, I think, what we’d call online teaching, and what we talked about, and then there are others that are very, very quite clearly remote, emergency, doing the best “giving it all I’ve got, Captain” kind of stuff that are working towards it. And of course, now, literally one year later, I can actually see courses that have made that transition that were here spring term, that were here fall term, that were here the next winter term, and so on and so forth. But you’re absolutely right, Guy, it’s not. When you talk about online teaching, and in these conversations, I try very hard to keep remote teaching separate from online teaching.
Rebecca: The visual description of Regan’s hand was moving up, as he was saying here, here, and here. [LAUGHTER]
Aaron: Thank you. Guy’s trying to get us in trouble with our colleagues. I think that the short answer from my department, and we’re a large department, we have over 25 tenure track faculty, and then a whole army platoon of affiliates. Luckily, within our department, because we had a program that was Quality Matters (QM) certified, we had had a lot of core courses that were already certified. And then they were shells given to faculty members. And so in those scenarios, you had what we are talking about in this book, we had a really good pedagogy, a really good online teaching situation. But there was also other classes where, frankly, some of those instructors didn’t know what LMS stood for, had never used an LMS, a Learning Management System, didn’t even use PowerPoint, didn’t use a computer, like literally still wrote on the whiteboard. And so they had to rise to the occasion. And I think it’s more along with what Regan is saying, some of those folks were really just remote teaching, or doing some sort of synchronous teaching, and then some sort of asynchronous teaching that probably wasn’t the best practices. But that’s why we wrote the book.
Guy: Yeah, and don’t get me wrong. I’m not necessarily trying to criticize anyone in what they’re doing. But I do think it’s important to distinguish between what we ended up talking about in the book and what has emerged from some people who don’t have as much training in online teaching and what they’re doing, and are basically just trying to recreate their classroom in a synchronous video session.
Aaron: What we did in our department as well is we buddied up, in a sense, if there was somebody that had a lot of experience online, they would help build the course with the other instructor who had less experience or who needed more assistance, for sure.
Rebecca: I think one thing that you’re alluding to Guy that I wanted to ask about is the literature historically talks a lot about asynchronous online, and when we’re thinking about online education, that’s generally what we’re talking about, but there’s been a lot of experimentation over the last year with synchronous online, and it may or may not be trying to recreate the classroom, there’s a mix of people trying to actively use that environment to do active learning and these sorts of things, and then others that are perhaps resorting to lecturing at in a meeting kind of setting. Can you address that a little bit in terms of whether or not your book addresses the synchronous component, or if it really is focused more on this more traditional asynchronous aspect of online education?
Aaron: We do address that. Our book is organized by really three kind of different types of interactions: one is the student-to-student interaction, one is interaction with content, and then the other is interaction student to the instructor. And I was largely responsible for that section. And it’s a great debate. The whole synchronous versus asynchronous learning’s been debated for as long as we’ve had distance education. And so I think it really comes down to context and situation. For instance, students at Metropolitan State, typically 51% of them are first-generation college students. We’re a Hispanic serving institution, we have the largest military population in the state at our institution and over 60% work full time. And so we try to steer away from a lot of synchronous learning because they’re working full time… just restricting them to a schedule just doesn’t really work. But I think that really depends on the class, it depends on the institution, it depends on the department. And so it’s really contextually driven. And it’s really dependent on the situation. There’s pros and cons to both synchronous and asynchronous learning. There’s definitely engagement with synchronous learning. You could see this face to face, I just saw this meme, it was actually aTik Tok, and I’m not onTik Tok, but I saw a Tik Tok. [LAUGHTER] And it was basically the student walks into the college classroom, and they’re all wearing masks, and it’s like “Hey, professor.” And the professor kind of looks at him like, “Mmmm, I’m not making a connection.” And he’s like, “No, it’s John.” “…not making a connection.” And then he holds up a J in front of his face, [LAUGHTER] and he goes “Oh, John!” …and so there is this idea about synchronous learning and engagement that is really, really important, for sure. And having that one-to-one rapport and connection, but there are asynchronous things that you can do to also increase that rapport as well.
Regan: Well, I think that’s why this debate, not only is it a really interesting question, but like the three of us our motto is, “Well, what does the evidence say?” And I think we’re going to be taking a lot closer look at the evidence in the year ahead. Speaking of evidence, Fox and colleagues, there’s a 2021 report that just came out in January, that actually maps how the percentage of courses that were synchronous versus asynchronous, changed over last year from spring before and then to the next winter. And what you see is a lot of courses. And this is, of course, descriptive data, it’s not causal in any way, but what you see is a lot of courses that started off primarily synchronous, or exclusively synchronous, even remotely, started adding asynchronous components. So even though I think many institutions said, “Look, we were on campus, we’re going remote,we just do everything that we did remotely,” the context changes and you can’t just do everything that you did in a face-to-face class synchronously, remotely synchronously all the time. Now, how much of the time? Which classes? What can you do? Those are all the really cool questions that I think we are now taking a much closer look at.
John: Last March, a lot of people suddenly transitioned to either a remote or online format. But then many people, as we just heard, have been shifting to more and more asynchronous work. In your book, you talk a little bit about some of the challenges that people may face when they’re not experienced teaching online, could you talk a little bit about some of the adjustments people have to make to an asynchronous online environment, as well as perhaps some of the affordances, some of the advantages, that people have come to see, once they start teaching online?
Guy: Well, as the newest recruit to online, I guess I’ll start off here. And I would say my biggest challenge has been just the differences in immediacy between a face-to-face classroom and an online classroom. It’s just a completely different game to say something and make eye contact with students in different rows… front row, back row… and be able to tell whether they’re staring at you or ready to move on versus being online and you have to be reading a discussion board or looking at a quiz score. So it just doesn’t have that immediate feedback. And if you’re talking about the synchronous Zoom meeting type things, then really, it’s kind of soul crushing. I don’t lecture that much, but when I do lecture, and I’m lecturing to the empty space of blank Zoom tiles, it is truly crushing. It is just not an enjoyable experience. It’s just like talking to yourself. There’s some of that spark of immediacy that really energizes the classroom, I have found it difficult to recreate. But the engagement is just different, right? So the engagement might happen in a breakout room, rather than me talking at them in a full classroom. The engagement might happen on a discussion board or on a group project that they’re collaborating on using chats outside of things that I witness. So it’s different. But that’s the thing that was the most challenging for me, is the immediacy.
Aaron: I think I would add a couple things, too. I would definitely agree with what Guy said, I would think also, too, one of the difficulties in that transition is you have to be a little bit more cognizant about your time, and especially if you’re talking about asynchronous learning is like I grade a lot in the evening and at night, because that’s kind of my schedule, but my students, generally speaking, that’s when they’re doing most of their work, because they’re working during the day. So that’s one issue, I think. For a lot of new concepts, too, it’s really understanding time management. I think another thing is, and this is one of the things that Guy alluded to was, I have been teaching online for a very long time, and when I would have a student who had me as an online instructor first, and then took a face-to-face class with me, almost invariably, on the first day, they would come up to me after class and they’d be like, “Man, Dr. Richmond, you are not who I thought you were.” And I would say “What do you mean? They’re like, “Well, I kind of thought you were like this stick in the mud, but you’re kind of a short funny Hobbit.” And after that happened the first couple semesters, I became really aware of it. And really what Guy was kind of alluding to is how do we establish this rapport with our students? How do we establish immediacy which is actually nonverbal immediacy? That’s my hand gestulating, you know, all that kind of stuff, the visual things of teaching? How do we establish those things in an online environment. I think that’s one of the biggest adjustments that most teachers, when they pivot to online having never done it, struggle with, because they take all these face-to-face interactions for granted. They’re not cognitively thinking of how their body posture or the jokes they might use, or the eye contact as G uy was saying. And I still struggle with one of the most difficult things with online engagement rapport, and that learning alliance, as Rogers would call it.
Regan: Lets also add to that, in a face-to-face class, there’s that time before class starts, there’s that time after class ends, where you’re chatting, and you’re talking about stuff. But there are two very significant components to add, both in terms of teaching online, but also teaching remotely, it applies to both. I think the first thing is judging how much work is enough work or not enough work. And I think that’s a huge problem that we’ve seen, is the switch to teaching online or putting something into an online class. If you are not watching how much work you’re giving students, it’s very, very easy to have the tendency to say, “Hey, we’re not meeting for all this face-to-face time or synchronous time. Therefore, let’s have you do more assignments. Let’s have you do more of this and more of that.” And there are some really great time calculators out there right now that I think are important. Related to that, it comes back to there is such a great body of research and training done by instructional designers to help individuals with the management of how much to assign, but also, to get to what Aaron and Guy were saying, how to use all those different tools of a learning management system to try and do those things that you’re used to doing in a face-to-face online class. And there’s a wealth of tools out there in a learning management system. Yes, discussion boards, but even how you use discussion boards and all of that, and how you use chat, that you can do that. One additional thing, and this truly relates to synchronous versus asynchronous, not necessarily face-to-face versus online. But I think one of the things I personally discovered is how to leverage, you use the word affordances, how to leverage things such as the chat, and at first, I was extremely wary of the chat because I’m thinking, “Hey, I have 295 people in this class, is the chat gonna go wild and crazy?” And it went pretty wild, it didn’t actually get crazy. But on top of that, I can tell you what I relied on to look at and see in faces, I was now getting from comments typed into the chat. And I still want face to face. But I can tell you that having that chat open and monitored with rules of conduct, but students were responding in chat, the stuff I was talking about, that I normally wouldn’t see in a face-to-face class.
Guy: And just building off of that in terms of moving to strengths a little bit more. As someone who really loves assessment and appreciates data from students, my, there is a lot of stuff you can assess using the LMS. And I really appreciated being able to log in and see if my students had logged in and see what they had clicked on, and all of this granular information. I had a very small class, so I did not have to explore that too much. But in a larger class, being able to do that and set up agents to monitor them and email them if they’re not logging in, and all these different things you can do. It’s just a wonderful way to increase the engagement in a different way. So in some ways, it almost seems mysterious, now seeing a student every other day, in a face-to-face class, and not knowing whether they had to open their book or not. But if I was teaching a online course, [LAUGHTER] I would know exactly what they have done in between. And I could still have more LMS stuff in my face-to-face class, but it’s different than when it’s all based on the LMS.
Rebecca: So we talked earlier about the model teaching principles. Do they apply in online? Or how are they different in an online environment?
Guy: I said this earlier, but I would definitely say that you could pull out any one of our criteria, the individual ones from our original book, and not tell someone which format it’s in, and they would pretty much all apply. There’s gonna be a few things about teaching very specific teaching skills that might be kind of written in a face-to-face format. So I really do think, almost surprisingly to me, they really do generalize. Training is important in both. Intentional design is important in both. Intentional assessment of learning is important to both. Student feedback is important in both. And, if anything, one of the things I maybe found surprising was that actually what we were saying, however many years ago, eight years ago, nine years ago, when we first started this, is very similar to the stuff that the online quality matters and the instructional designers have always been saying about how courses should be designed before you jump into them. So I was actually a little bit surprised, I think, when I got into the online teaching literature, just how much overlap there was.
Regan: Absolutely. I mean a few words different. I look at a figure that I know normally use when I’m talking about model teaching criteria, and it says “classroom” in there, but apart from little words like that, everything holds. And actually one of the first things that three of us did was we took a look at our self-guided measure that we had created that was in the back of the first book. And we went through it and asked ourselves, which of these don’t apply? And most of them were in there.
Aaron: Yeah, principally, I think that it just holds water. And that’s the beauty of the model. I think you just tweak certain ways in which you accomplish those tasks or accomplish those competencies to the online space.
Rebecca: Aaron, can you give an example of one way that one of those needs to be adapted in an online space?
Aaron: I think the syllabus is a really good example. The online syllabus has changed dramatically in the last 18 months, it used to be a standard format, is you upload a PDF, and don’t get me wrong, I’m not speaking flippantly about syllabi, because that’s my bread and butter, I do a lot of research on it. But you might just load it up into the LMS. And “Hey, go check it out.” But now, I think we’re kind of deconstructing the syllabus a little bit. And really, a lot of people are doing it, where they’re really putting it to the “Start Here” module, and they’re deconstructing the syllabus to where it’s all these different components to it. You can still have a standard syllabus that somebody links on, and if they want to print something out, old school, and they can have, but you really are kind of reincorporating, that syllabus into a startup module, a “startup week one,” however, you want to organize your course. And you’re really kind of diving into it. So structurally, it’s the same, but functionally, how it’s delivered, changes. And I think that’s just one example of the principles there. It’s just how is it surfaced? How is it realized to the learner, it might take on a different form.
Guy: That’s really interesting, because even in I’m teaching in person this semester, and I found myself essentially designing courses, like online courses, where my syllabus is deconstructed to an extent. And I just put the pieces into various modules, so that students don’t have to necessarily go back and read the whole syllabus. So there is a sort of a weird transition, now, and this could be a positive of all this extra work that people are putting into transitioning remote and online is that people will take advantage of some of the things that are in LMSs is a little bit more. So if you wanted to make some money, you could probably start a company right now, or add something to Brightspace or Blackboard where you build the course in the LMS, and then it automatically builds the syllabus for you or something like that. That would be a great feature that I think teachers would love, you wouldn’t have to deconstruct one to make the other, essentially.
Regan: I wanted to go back to something that Guy said earlier that I think is really important in this context, and what Guy said was the overlap between what we all experienced when we read more of the other literature’s in online teaching. And I think far too often, many of us who only have taught in the classroom. And there are still many faculty out there who only teach face-to-face who haven’t taught online. They have missed out on a world of pedagogical practices that instructional designers have been really well aware of for a very, very long time. And so that overlap that Guy alluded to that we all saw, when we looked at that literature, I think, is just a great testament to the fact that there still needs to be some better coordination and communication between those people who talk about and train folks on what the better practices are. And right there when I say that, many individuals who teach online at most universities have to go through some kind of training, but few universities make people teaching face to face go through some sort of training. As somebody who works at a Center for Teaching and Learning, I wish there were more prescriptions to come in and take some guidance on pedagogical practices. So I think that’s a big deal there. Instructional designers have these things down that we could have used. And Guy, I had exactly the same experience about maybe 8, 8, 10 years ago, when I took a Quality Matters course and then immediately used all those practices for my face-to-face LMS. What a great world out there and we need to do some more cross fertilization.
Rebecca: Regan, I think one of the things that’s really interesting that you’re pointing out is we often think about the silos of higher ed as being disciplinary, but it’s also in terms of modality and between staff and faculty. So there might be research done by instructional designers, but somehow that lives in staff world, and it doesn’t live in faculty world. And there’s not a lot of integrations or conversations across those lines. And the pandemic has forced us all to talk to each other in these ways and troubleshoot more because we’re trying to solve some immediate problems. Being more aware of these treasures that are available in different silos that we don’t usually dip into can be helpful.
John: And I know a lot of faculty at our campus have been attending workshops at rates they never had before, because they started learning about all these new techniques and tools, and many of them have said that when they go back to a purely face-to-face environment, they’re not going to teach their class in any way, like they were doing before, that they’re going to port this over. And I know I had the same experience several decades ago when I first started teaching online. All of the tools I picked up and some of the techniques have been used in my face-to-face classes as well. Going back, though, to that discussion of the syllabus, one of the things you note in your book is that it’s really important to provide people with more detailed instruction in an asynchronous environment than it would be if you’re meeting with students synchronously, because students are working on their own and they need more information. And I think that’s part of the issue that you’re referring to with a syllabus, perhaps, by building more information into it. Could you talk a little bit about that?
Aaron: Yeah, I think there are several strategies. We’re always going to compare face-to-face to an online or even a flipped or hybrid course, you have these side conversations in a face-to-face course, like you might have this little 30 second “Hey, don’t forget to do this” and “I want you to really pay attention,” “Work on your APA style,” whatever the case may be. You don’t have that at all in the online setting. So you have to create opportunities for that. And so one strategy that I’ve seen pretty successful is making mini short tutorial videos. Just like a six-line email, students are not going to watch a video that’s more than six minutes. I haven’t quite seen the research on this, but I can almost guarantee you, to a certain degree, there’s this Sesame Street effect, their attention spans not gonna be that strong. Because it’s in a video format. It’s asynchronous. So there’s not a lot of interaction. So I’ve seen a lot of people do assignment tutorials, just generally how to take a quiz, how to do an assignment, how to actually have a discussion, not “Well, I met the minimum rubric criteria and I responded to two people and I cited in reference my work, which is actually to have engaged into a asynchronous conversation. And so you see a lot of video tutorials. And here’s another thing about how principally it works within the model teaching competencies face to face, it just looks a little different in online format. The beauty about all those too is they can be the transcript, they can do a video and if you do it through YouTube or whatnot, you can get closed caption, you can get a written version of it. And so that’s one example I think of having to, what I call, make implicit procedural knowledge. So somehow, you’re supposed to know how to do it, but nobody tells you. And so making it explicit. And so those types of tutorials I’m pretty big on. I was slow to come onto that train a little bit, because there is a lot of upfront work. But once you get good at say Loom (that’s the program I use) or Camtasia, or whatever the program is, you can get pretty quick at doing a three-minute video, posting it, and you can also monitor if they’re watching it, and that kind of stuff.
Regan: And I just wanted to add something else that adds on to Rebecca, to the question you asked, that’s relating to this, which is, what are the things that are different and varied? And I think when we teach face to face, we take just the power of presence for granted. And I think we more implicitly think about what can we do for a student to student interactions. And I know that was something when we were writing this book and thinking about the online nature, if you’ve never taught online before… and really, that’s where we geared this book towards, it’s people who’ve taught a lot of face to face, perhaps, but kinda need to start thinking about what’s different in online. And I think that’s one of those big things that’s different with online, is thinking about, you don’t have people sitting in the same room physically, what do you need to do to explicitly build that student-to-student interaction, so that it’s not just student-to-content and student-to-instructor? But, what are those things we can do to make it an engaging student-to-student environment? And that’s a really big challenge
Rebecca: Regan, you’re making a really good point. And also maybe assuming that students feel that connection with students in a physical face-to-face class that they may not actually feel. But just because they’re in the same space, we make these assumptions. I think that being explicit, maybe we’re learning it for online, but it certainly applies to going back into the classroom as well. [LAUGHTER]
Guy: Yeah, and just to connect a couple different lines here, just with the explicitness of it, the engagements, you even have to be explicit in how you engage what the rules are, what the minimal standards are. It’s something that in a classroom that’s face to face, you say, “Okay, turn to your partner and talk and you can watch and see and they have whatever, two minutes, five minutes, 10 minutes, whatever it is, but online, you literally have to tell them, “Okay, your first comment is due by X, and then you respond by Y, whatever day it actually is.” And so there’s a little bit more of you have to be intentional about setting expectations and, I don’t want to use “moderating,” but really controlling… that’s not a better word is it?… [LAUGHTER]… facilitating the exact behaviors that you want. And I definitely learned that in the spring with the pandemic teaching and even a little bit with the online courses. If you allow students to post online when they want to it will be near the deadline and that’s not a great way to foster engagements. So, you have to design engagement. It’s really about intentional design. You can’t just walk into the classroom and wing it, like a lot of us who were experience teachers can do face to face.
Regan: And great use of the word design, Guy. And I think, really, that’s something that’s so important. Even when you’re teaching face to face, there is design. Teaching should not be an impromptu act, it needs thought, it needs forethought, it needs intentionality. Every once in a while I run into folks who go, “Hey, I really know my stuff well. What’s there to teaching? I step into the class and voila, there you have it.” No. Design, people. Intentionality.
Guy: Out of all the stuff that I picked up in the last year learning about online, the thing that has been most gratifying is this idea that your whole course is in the bag and ready to go before the first day. I’ve been doing that since day one of my teaching, and it’s so nice to hear reinforcement for that’s the way it should be done. And so I think that’s a message that, if we’re talking about learning from the experience of doing online in the last year, that’s definitely one that I hope gets generalized outside of the online environment, because it’s just so important for students and for the instructor.
Rebecca: As an interaction designer, I have to say, Yes, we should design experiences. [LAUGHTER]
Regan: I also want to be respectful of individuals who are in situations where, due to courseload, they cannot be as intentional as they would like, because of lack of training that they don’t know how to be intentional, I think it’s very easy to say that’s a good thing. But it’s really up to colleges and universities to help their faculty, to help their instructors be able to do those things.
Rebecca: It’s a heavy lift to be intentional.
Aaron: And I think I would add to that, as well is two things: one is that and maybe this is opening a different line of thought and questions, but the diversity, equity, and inclusion issue in online is real. And this is kind of related to it. I just read a couple different studies where they’re measuring, essentially in online learning, essentially what modality or what tools students are using, and it varies widely, but it’s somewhere between 40 and 80% of students are only using their phone to do an online course. I accept late work for partial credit and I do that because I don’t want to judge people’s excuses. That’s just not something I want to do. And I just got an email from one of my students that just said, “Hey, I’m going to be late, I understand the consequence, I’m sharing a computer with my roommate. I just got a positive COVID test, so I don’t think I should use this person’s computer…” which is like, of course, right? But I think we need to understand access, we need to understand bandwidth. When we pivoted in March of last year… our university uses Teams and to be honest, sorry, Microsoft, it sucked at the beginning, it was horrible. It took a massive amount of bandwidth. And if you didn’t have really high speed internet, you couldn’t engage in teams at all. So I purchased Zoom, ‘cause Zoom’s bandwidth was like I think a 10th of what Teams… and teams has cleared that up since then… but you have to think of things like those equity issues in what students have access to. And so I think that, in line with what we were talking about, in terms of intentional engagement, you have to realize that not all students can do those things. They just don’t have the opportunity or the access or the virtual bandwidth, the metaphoric bandwidth to do it.
Guy: I’m curious if anyone has read, if there is research on that, with online instruction, that students who maybe are coming in with some access issues if they’re as successful or less successful than students who don’t have those, because I think we’ve seen basically the same sort of stratification in terms of the health effects of COVID, the educational effects of COVID, I have friends who are therapists, and it’s the exact same thing for them, they have patients who are doing just fine, and they have patients who are doing really bad because of all kinds of other issues. But has anyone read research on that?
Aaron: I’ve seen a little bit on internet accessibility, but most of that stuff is in the K-12. My wife is a third grade teacher and teaches online remotely right now, and has the whole time during the pandemic. And she will literally spend hours with one student just getting them to upload a document. But I think that, going back to the original discussion about intentionality, you can build into your online courses, flexibility, and something that transfers from the MTC to the online setting, and whether that means “Okay, I have 12 quizzes, but I’m only going to take your best nine scores,” or “I have 10 discussions, I’m only going to take your best seven…” T here are ways in which you can build in DEI issues, if that’s related to it, where you’re flexible. You still have great standards and high standards, but there’s flexibility and autonomy within your course as well.
Regan: And I see a lot more sensitivity to the kinds of issues you brought, Guy, in online teaching that I see in face-to-face courses. Many online and e-campus programs do such a wonderful job of preparing students for the class. They acknowledge that the online course is different, and they do very different things. And I think, boy, just like faculty training, I think the more we can do to prepare students for face-to-face classes, the better. A long-term gripe has been: in college, we assume that those students know how to study. And one of my pet areas is study techniques and study skills, and all of the skills that we build. And I take a lot of time in my first few days of class to talk explicitly about how best to study for my course. And I think that a lot of folks who make the assumption that people know how to study, and I think together with the “how to study,” I think we need to be more aware of “Do you have access to the material?” Gosh, “Do you have access to food?” …is a big thing. Something that I think a theme that you’ve seen us mention many times that I want to underline is don’t take teaching for granted and don’t take online teaching for granted just because you’ve taught face to face.
John: We always end with the question, what’s next? And we’ve all been wondering that for at least a year now.
Rebecca: So please, please enlighten us. [LAUGHTER]
Regan: So I’ll tell you the writing that’s on the wall here, and I think what I can see in higher education. I think we’re looking at a new modality, remote teaching, and not just what can we take from remote teaching that can stay when we get back, but looking at that modality in and of itself, especially to get at issues that we’ve talked about, access and reaching people who may or may not be able to come in to some of our schools. I see the sweet spot in remote teaching that it unearthed new ways for us to connect to our students, new ways to share content, new ways to get engagement, that I think we need to capitalize on and fine tune and study so we can better use it. I think that’s what’s coming down the pike as far as I can tell.
Guy: Almost the same comment but maybe a little bit different terminology is, I posed the question is everything hyflex now? And so hyflex meaning that basically, you’re delivering all modalities at once to all students online, face to face, video, and the students can basically choose which of those modalities they interact with. And just to use an example is, for students who are in quarantine or what have you, this semester, we’ve been encouraged at my institution to zoom our classes. Well, that has expanded a bit in what students are expecting even in face-to-face classes to have accessibility to classroom videos. And so is that now happening for everything? Is that just something that students are going to expect from here on out? And is that necessarily a good thing? Because in small institutions, there’s not hundreds of students, it can be difficult to plan for a class, if you’ve got 15 students, and you don’t know how many are going to be there, and how many are not going to be there. And you maybe don’t have a classroom that’s set up to do both types of teaching. So it definitely is, I think, been useful for students who have to step away from the classroom for health reasons or for safety reasons. But I’m curious to see what happens if the student culture is going to change in terms of what they expect and if the teacher culture will change in what they’re willing to offer students who desire that type of flexibility.
Aaron: Yeah, one of the reasons that Guy and Regan and I work together a lot, it’s because we think very similarly. And we also have our unique perspectives on things. I think that higher education is gearing up for a paradigm shift. I think that there’s going to be massive differences in models in how we approach classroom instruction, brick and mortar versus a virtual environment. I think what the pandemic has done is, for some students, conditioned a new way of approaching their education. And I think you see this at the K-12 level, I think you see at this higher education level as well. And so I think that the schools and institutions that jump on this opportunity… we haven’t had a situation in which institutions can reinvent themselves in modern times, and I think this is definitely one of them. I think a lot of programs can reinvent themselves. And enrollment is up and down across the country. There are certain schools that are really getting hit. Community colleges are really taking a massive hit in the pandemic. And they’re having to reinvent themselves and figure out how can we do online instruction? How can we do this flex instruction? And so I think that, as a scientist, we are in a reinvigoration of scholarship of teaching and learning… how to do these different things. It’s going to be an exciting next five to ten years, I think, in higher education, from a teaching perspective, from the learner perspective, and from a scientist perspective about studying what’s going on. there’s going to be a lot of opportunities to basically treat the pandemic as a catalyst for change.
Guy: In terms of opportunities, I think my response came off as pretty somber, but I would say there are some things I’m very excited about. So I’m the type of teacher who hates snow days. So I’m excited by the fact that we’re never going to have another snow day ever again. You never have to cancel a class ever again. Every single teacher knows what to do to replace a class that’s canceled for a snow day. And I’m really excited that more people who maybe would not have used an LMS in the past now are realizing the benefits of it. So, we’re going to have more people using those, which is, I think, only beneficial for students. And I’m hoping that more people are realizing that they can move a lot of the stuff that they used to just talk at students in the classroom, that they can move that online. So those are some of the things, as someone who’s still primarily a face-to-face teacher, that I’m excited about how online teaching will have a bigger influence as we move forward.
Regan: Guy said the word face-to-face teaching, and let me say something I’m excited by is that I don’t think there’s ever been as much scrutiny to teaching and learning as we’ve seen in the last year. And I love that. May that continue.
Aaron: I’ll second that.
Rebecca: Well, thank you so much for joining us and sharing some insights from your book and getting us all excited about picking up a copy of your book and also really thinking forward to what is next for us as teachers.
Aaron: Thank you.
Guy: Thank you for inviting us.
Regan: Thank you, Rebecca and John.
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.
When we sort students into cooperative learning groups, we often attempt to create balanced groups that reflect the diversity of the students in our classes. In this episode Olga Stoddard joins us to discuss her recent research that suggests that this approach can be harmful for female students in classes in which a majority of the students are male.
Olga is an Assistant Professor of Economics at Brigham Young University, a Research Fellow at IZA (the Institute of Labor Economics), and the Research Director at the Science of Diversity and Inclusion Initiative, and the Co-Director of the Gender and Civic Engagement lab at BYU.
- Stoddard, Olga B.; Karpowitz, Christopher F.; Preece, Jessica (2020) Strength in Numbers: Field Experiment in Gender, Influence, and Group Dynamics, IZA Discussion Papers, No. 13741, Institute of Labor Economics (IZA), Bonn
- Zölitz, Ulf and Jan Feld (2018), “The effect of peer gender on major choice.” University of Zurich, Department of Economics, Working Paper.
- Sandberg, S. (2013). Lean in: Women, work, and the will to lead. Random House.
John: When we sort students into cooperative learning groups, we often attempt to create balanced groups that reflect the diversity of the students in our classes. In this episode we discuss recent research that suggests that this approach can be harmful for female students in classes in which a majority of the students are male.
Rebecca: This podcast series is hosted by John Kane, an economist…
John: …and Rebecca Mushtare, a graphic designer.
John: Our guest today is Olga Stoddard. Olga is an Assistant Professor of Economics at Brigham Young University, a Research Fellow at IZA (the Institute of Labor Economics), and the Research Director at the Science of Diversity and Inclusion Initiative, and the Co-Director of the Gender and Civic Engagement lab at BYU. Welcome, Olga.
Olga: Thanks so much for having me. It’s great to be here.
John: …really pleased to have you.
Rebecca: Today’s teas are:
Olga: I was going to be prepared and I have my mug, but unfortunately, it’s only filled with water because I ran out of time to heat it. [LAUGHTER] So, water for me today.
John: Tea is mostly water. We’re recording this in mid February when there’s a bit of a nationwide snow covering. And I’m drinking spring cherry green tea to set a better mood for the future.
Rebecca: I think that seems like a good plan. And for a change, I’m drinking Chai.
John: Wow. Okay, I don’t think I’ve seen you drink that on here before.
Rebecca: It’s not a common one for me. But it’s nice to mix it up occasionally. Of course my Chai doesn’t have dairy in it. So it’s just the tea part of the Chai
Olga: Is it flavored Rebecca?
Rebecca: Yeah, it’s nicely spiced.
John: We do normally in our office have a variety of flavored Chai teas, but they’re safely locked up in our building. We haven’t visited in a long while. We’ve invited you here today to discuss your research with Chris Karpowitz and Jessica Preece concerning how the gender composition of teams affects women’s participation and role in team activities. Could you tell us a little bit about the study?
Olga: Yeah, absolutely. So this study was a collaboration with a top 10 accounting program in the US. We partnered with them to randomly assign different gender compositions of teams in this program. So, like many programs in the US, especially business programs, like MBA programs, this particular program relies on a pedagogical group-based approach in which students are assigned into teams, in this case, teams of five. And they work together quite intensively throughout the semester. So throughout the four months that’s their first semester in the program, they work on assignments together, they meet socially outside of the classroom, they even do some of the exams as a group. And so there’s a lot of interaction between those students within those seats. for that period of four months. Normally, because this program has a really small percentage of women, so about 25% of the students in the program are women, the way that these groups had been formed in the past is to assign one woman per group, so as to sort of dilute the women, to have men have experience in an academic and professional setting interacting with women. There is some prior research in the laboratory that has shown that this really is detrimental for women’s ability to be influential, for their willingness to participate, to be engaged. And so what we wanted to do is we wanted to test whether that laboratory evidence plays out in a similar way in the, so to speak, real world setting, more naturally occurring kind of environment. So we partnered with the program and randomly assigned some women to be in the condition where they were the only woman in the group. So the status quo, this is how things have been done. One woman and four men in a five person group, and then other women were randomly assigned to be in a condition where they were in the majority. So there were three women and two men in a five person group. We then tracked these students for the following two years. We had them complete monthly surveys and peer evaluations of their group members. We had them come into the laboratory twice a semester, where we had them work on a team-building exercise, and we watched who’s participating. These exercises were recorded, so we could see who’s speaking, who is interrupting, with speaking for how long. so that we could precisely measure women’s participation, but also measure their level of influence. Because on these tasks, the way that we designed them, women could exert more or less influence depending on certain decisions they make. So we had different ways to measure their level of influence, their participation, and whether others perceive them to be influential, and sort of more like leaders in the group. And so we did that for the following two years. We had two cohorts of students participate in the study. And what we found is that women who were randomly assigned to be the lone woman in the group were perceived to be significantly less influential, and were actually exerting a lot less influence in the group than the equally qualified women who had been assigned to be in the majority in their group. And so we saw really striking differences across those two conditions. Again, these are equally qualified, very well prepared academically women. This program is very competitive. They have prior leadership experience. And yet we find these huge differences across the two conditions in our case, depending on whether women were in the minority or the majority, they were seen significantly less influential by their peers.
Rebecca: Was the perception of the women in the groups different from the start of the study or the beginning of the group formation versus the end of the group formation? Or was it kind of consistent?
Olga: Yeah, that’s a good question. So one advantage of our study is that we can track these students over a relatively long period of time. Most laboratory studies up to date have relied on sort of these one-shot types of interactions, where strangers meet for a period of an hour or so and never interact again. One thing we wanted to know is do these patterns that had been observed in the lab to date, exacerbate over time, or do things get better as team members get to know each other, they get to experience women’s authority or their expertise. And what we found is that it’s mixed evidence on this. So in these surveys, these are monthly surveys that students have to fill out about each other… we call them peer evaluations… and in these peer evaluations, we ask them “Who is the most influential member of your group?” And they state who is the most but also who’s the least influential. What we found that over time, over the course of those four months that these students work together as a group, there is an improvement for the lone women, that their peers perceive them to be more influential over time. For the women in the majority, there seems to be no change. And so we do see the gap closing by the end of the semester, relative to the large gap in the beginning of the semester, but only in the survey data. Once we actually look at the data from the lab, where we observe students interacting in teams, where we can measure who is exerting influence on a task, we see no difference over time. So it seems that there is some improvement for the lone women in these sort of general assessments of influence in these monthly “Who was the most influential member of your group over the course of the month?” But when you actually get down to the specific tasks, we don’t see any improvement for women over time.
John: I know you were looking at this in a very broad context, in terms of teams and organizations and firms and so forth. But in terms of classroom groups of the sort that you were actually experimenting with, a growing number of classes in pretty much all disciplines now rely on group activities. What does the study suggest about how we form these groups in terms of the gender composition of groups, so that everyone can have an active role in the group?
Olga: Like you said, both in the workplace and in many academic settings, group work is crucial. And many faculty members rely on group- based activities. Understandably, they prefer collaborative thinking and develop the skills that students will need as they go on in workplaces where increasingly there’s reliance on group work. And so certainly the implications from our study are that assigning groups in which women are the lone woman or in the minority is going to have costs for women, costs in terms of participation, in terms of influence, in terms of whether they’re seen as authoritative, as leaders in the group. Those are the types of questions we ask and things that we can measure. And so certainly, if at all possible, groups that are gender balanced, or groups in which women are in the majority, are going to be significantly better for women in terms of these types of outcomes. Now, I would add a couple of caveats here. One is that in our study, we can track the grades. We can see what students actually get at the end of the semester. And we find no penalty for women, as far as grades can tell, when they’re in the minority. The women who are in the minority receive about the same grades as women who are in the majority. However, the grades in this program are largely group based. So it may not be surprising, because so much of the grade is based on the group work that we’re not finding those differences. Moreover, we don’t know how women get to those grades. It’s possible that because of these influence gaps, they’re having to work extra hard to get the same grade, or to be seen as sufficiently expert in that particular class. And so those are the two caveats that, even though we don’t observe differences in grades in our study, that doesn’t mean that there aren’t underlying differences in how hard students are having to work or how much effort they’re having to exert. I would also note that, regardless of the gender composition, there were no differences in man’s perception. So the man, whether they were in the minority, or in the majority, saw no deficit in influence, they were equally likely to be seen as a leader, they were seen equally influential. And so, if one thinks well, putting men In the minority is going to all of a sudden hurt the men in the group. That’s not what we’re finding. And there is in fact quite a bit of literature now confirming that. There are laboratory studies and studies in different settings, like nursing school, where men are in the minority, and in fact are not incurring any kind of deficit as far as influence or participation or authority that the women are incurring in these kinds of settings in which they’re a minority. I would also mention one study, it’s a working paper by a PhD student at University of Zurich, and it’s a really great working paper. She’s looking at a setting in which women are a minority… economics… a setting we’re familiar with. And in that setting, she’s using some data from, I believe it’s University of Zurich, it might be another university in Europe, but at that university, they also created different study groups, just like in our study, except these are larger study groups. These are sections of about 50 to 60 students, and they also randomly assigned gender compositions of these study groups. And what she shows is that, over time, the women that are assigned to be in a group in which they’re a minority, are much more likely to drop out of the study group altogether; that they not only incur these potential influence deficits, which we document in our study, but there are, in fact, very serious consequences to their ability to thrive in that class, or to thrive in that environment in which there are a minority. So that’s closely related, of course, to our study, and confirms really similar patterns.
John: We’ll share a link to both studies in the show notes. You mentioned that in disciplines like economics, and more generally, in STEM fields, women are often underrepresented as students, but they’re also underrepresented in faculty. It’s likely that these types of issues will carry over into group meetings and team meetings and department meetings and so forth on campuses. What can women and departments do to address this problem?
Olga: Yeah, that’s a very good question. Certainly, the setting in which we study these topics is student groups. But we are more than confident that these kinds of patterns replicate in a variety of settings, including professional settings, whether you’re a faculty or a student, being in the minority as a woman entails these costs to your level of influence, to your ability to exert influence, to your ability to be heard and taken seriously. And certainly there are other studies that have found very similar patterns in other kinds of settings. So I would not be surprised that if we ran this study in a professional setting or a workplace, we would find very similar patterns among women at all levels, including leadership. Certainly, some studies have confirmed similar patterns among the board of directors, female directors. The question of what can women do to sort of fix this is a really complicated one. And I say that because, what we find in our particular study, for example, is that women can’t just overcome that deficit by working extra hard. One thing that we observe is their levels of participation, how much time they put into coursework, and things like that. And we find that to be the same, regardless of the condition in which they’re in. They’re working extra hard already. Another thing that we observe is their talk time. In this laboratory setting, we can measure how long each person talks. And so you might say, well, maybe women, they’re just not leaning in, maybe they’re not participating enough in these group discussions, and so of course, they’re not seem as influential. Well, we find that’s not the case. These women are in fact leaning in. They’re speaking just as much regardless of the condition in which they’re in. The women and the minorities are going out of their way to try to get their opinions heard. They’re speaking just as much, as far as we can tell, based on the speaking turns and speaking time that we can observe. And so the failure to lean in can’t explain this gap in influence. So the common sort of Sheryl Sandberg “lean in” approach is that women just need to participate more and become equal participants in the process. That doesn’t seem to be supported by our research. Even when they try to do that, that doesn’t help them overcome this gap in influence. And so that’s kind of a depressing thing to discuss, that there isn’t much women actually can do to change those kinds of outcomes when they find themselves in these settings where they’re underrepresented. That it’s really men’s attitudes and men’s behavior that seems to be changing when women are in the minority versus women in the majority. So in our study, it’s men that are evaluating women as more influential when they are randomly assigned to be in a group with more women relative to when they’re in the group with just one woman. But of course, these underlying causes are really structural. So if you were to ask me, you know, what can organizations do to avoid those kinds of consequences for them, and I would say, “Well, number one is they need to hire more women.” Creating an environment in which women are no longer in the minority is certainly the direct implication of our research. However, that might be the more longer term goal. If organizations, say a tech firm, says over time, “We’re trying to hire more women, but we just don’t even have enough qualified women in the pipeline. What can we do now? How can we fix this given that women are still going to be in the minority for a while…” Then thinking about the structures of the teams and how they’re assigned, but also the norms within those teams? So for example, my co-author Chris Karpowitz has done some research in the past about the norms of deliberation and whether teams make decisions by majority rule, or whether teams make decision unanimously. That seems to be really important to women’s ability to contribute in environments in which they’re underrepresented. So maybe restructuring some of the team norms so that decisions have to be made unanimously, such that women’s voices are heard and they’re able to contribute even when they’re in the minority.
John: One thing I’ve been thinking when I read your paper and during our discussion is that there’s a similar cultural issue that affects teaching evaluations. And there’s at least some research that suggests that the negative bias that students may have in evaluating female professors can be overcome somewhat when students are made aware of the existence of this. And one nice thing about studies like yours is that it is making people more aware of this. But it would be interesting to see if students were given information about this at the start of their group formation, if that may affect the way in which group behavior is formed.
Olga: I am aware of those studies and I like them very much, because they show us one way, an easy nudge, which can change behavior, in this case, in the context of student evaluations of teaching. So in our study, of course, we try to keep the framing about students’ participation in this research, very neutral. We didn’t want them to be primed that this was a study about gender dynamics in groups and things like that. But I can envision future work thinking about the next step, which is what can be done to reduce this gender gap, what can be done to improve outcomes for women when they do find themselves in the minority, and one of those could be making students aware then making these patterns a lot more salient. Because honestly, if you probably ask a lot of the students whether they think that women in these groups are incurring any kind of penalty, they would probably say, “No.” The majority of the male students would probably not think that these things are happening. They’re happening in a subconscious basis, not through explicit discriminatory practices. It’s certainly possible that some male students are explicitly discriminating. But one measure that we have of that is how satisfied students are with their groups. And what we find is actually, regardless of the condition in which women are in, they report very high levels of satisfaction with their group. So even when they’re in the minority, and we can see that they’re incurring this really strong cost or deficit of influence, they still report being equally satisfied with their groups, and as happy with the group interactions as the women in the majority. So it seems that even the women themselves are not often recognizing that these deficits are occurring, let alone the male students in the group.
Rebecca: They’ve experienced it forever, it doesn’t seem different, right? [LAUGHTER]
Olga: That’s right, and this is not the first setting in which they’re experienced in this. There’s research showing that these kinds of patterns exist as early as school levels, where difference in competition is found as early as kindergarten, basically. And so the socialization that takes place even prior to college is probably conditioning women to feel that that is a normal kind of environment.
Rebecca: Your study reminds me a lot of conversations around all girls schools in K-12 and some of the benefits of that for women and also thinking about compositions of committees and things that might exist in professional environments where they’re trying to diversify, and they diversify by having token representation. And we often see that that can be problematic, but this is demonstrating other ways in which it can be problematic, which I think is a lot of interesting food for thought.
Olga: Yeah, absolutely. That was one of the biggest motivation… thinking about this is when you look at these policies, both private and public initiatives that are aiming to diversify these settings, like school boards or corporate boards, political assemblies, often, like you said, the solution is let’s just add one or two token women or minorities to the setting to help us be more diverse, and certainly we wanted to know what impact is that having on the women that are added, the women that become those token or lone members of the group and it’s not looking great. [LAUGHTER]
John: It’s a cultural issue and cultural changes tend to be slow. And as you said before, the only real solution is to have more balanced representation in all groups.
Olga: Absolutely. Yeah. And often, of course, what you hear, especially in the private sector is, “Well, it’s a meritocracy. Everybody can apply for these jobs, and we’re just not finding enough qualified women. And you know that certainly could be a valid concern in some stages of application process, but it is an important hurdle to overcome and think about how do we get more women into the funnel? How do we make sure that our women persist through the application process and actually make it into these jobs, because there are barriers at different levels, at different stages of that process that lead to these gender disparities in the share of women that go into these occupations, it’s not all choice. Choices are made, not in a vacuum, they’re made based on the constraints and information that people have. And so making these environments more appealing, more welcoming to women, should be an important objective of any organization that is struggling to increase diversity, gender diversity, in their rank and file.
Rebecca: As someone who teaches when an area of design that is also not balanced, [LAUGHTER] I teach in a more tech heavy side, it’s much more male dominated, because there’s more code and stuff involved and so historically, there’s less women, I’m thinking about all the group work that I do in my own classes, in the context of your research, and thinking about how productive and exciting it’s been to see some groups of all women, and what that looks like and what that feels like. But also having that little voice in the back of your mind saying maybe we need diverse teams that represent different kinds of people, because we’re designing for different kinds of people. And that, for the benefit of males in the class of interacting with women, maybe it benefits them, but they already have a benefit. And so that’s a really interesting consideration that I don’t think we often think about… not in a systematic way… or thinking about groups. I thought about majors and all kinds of things when I was formulating my groups, but I didn’t necessarily think about this.
Olga: Yeah, and I think that’s very common, especially in environments where there are serious binding constraints, you only have a few women. So I’m at BYU, and we have our share of women in the majors only about 20%. So any faculty trying to form group is going to be faced with these really serious constraints. One thing I would say is, in addition to this quantitative evidence that has been generated over the years showing how harmful it may be for women to be in the minority, there’s also, in our study, some qualitative evidence that we find. And since we’ve presented this study in different places, it’s been such an interesting experience, because you get these women just nodding their heads and saying, “I know exactly how this feels having been in the minority, and having compared my experience as a woman in the majority, just how much more heard and influential I feel in those kinds of settings.” So I think compiling qualitative evidence, pointing to the fact that it is significantly more difficult for women in the minority in these group settings to exert their influence and to get their voices heard.
John: Are you thinking of extending this research to other areas in terms of say race or other categories in which there may be similar effects?
Olga: Yeah, absolutely. So the original study certainly can only speak to gender, we have very few non-white students in the sample and can’t say very much since they weren’t randomly assigned across the group composition. But our goal long term is to look at whether these patterns extend beyond the gender domain. My guess is that we’re going to find very similar patterns for racial minorities, for example, who find themselves being underrepresented in many kinds of similar settings. They may even be exacerbated relative to the gaps that we find for women. And so we’re very interested, we’re in conversations with one firm and another institution trying to design a study that might work but this is a work in progress. And I hope it happens, because certainly we want to know whether other kinds of minorities find themselves in similar predicaments when they are underrepresented.
Rebecca: It also seems like it would be interesting to know whether or not, if you have multiple people from different underrepresented groups, if that somehow starts treating that more as a majority of underrepresented people, or if it’s just specific to a particular group at any given time.
Olga: Yeah, that’s a good point. One thing that we are doing is we do have a study in the field that is sort of following up from their original study, which includes the groups in which women are still in the minority, but they’re not the only woman. In our original setting there’s either one woman and four men, or three women and two men. So it’s not a symmetric kind of setting. And that’s by design, because there’s so few women in that program that if we created two women groups we wouldn’t have enough sample size to confidently say whether these results are statistically significant. But in the follow up study that we have been doing in the field, actually, for the last year and a half, we do have groups with two women and groups with two men. So we can compare sort of more symmetric, does it help to have another woman in a team? Or does it not make a difference, because you’re still in the minority. Some preliminary findings that we have, are that, unfortunately, it’s not tipping the scale… that unless women are in the majority, they’re still going to incur those deficits in terms of influence. And that’s supported by some of the prior laboratory research. But this is still ongoing… so, unfortunately, not the full findings yet. Another interesting extension of this work that we have started implementing, sort of by accident, or by necessity, rather, when COVID head and a lot of the group interactions have moved online… our entire lives have moved on to virtual settings… we wondered whether these same patterns would be exacerbated in virtual settings. There’s some anecdotal evidence that it’s even harder for him to get their voices heard in these kinds of settings. And so the study that we had been running in person has been turned into a study using Zoom as a platform. So we can now, at the end of this semester and next semester, say something about whether these patterns are different in online settings versus actual face-to-face settings, and what kinds of additional burdens may fall on the women when they’re having to influence outcomes or participate in the deliberative process in an online setting.
Rebecca: …sounds fascinating.
John: It’s a great natural experiment. …let me rephrase that… [LAUGHTER] we should probably not refer to the pandemic as a great experiment…
Olga: I know.
John: …but it does provide an interesting source of data on that issue, and virtual work is likely to become much more common in the future anyway.
Olga: Absolutely. It doesn’t seem like it’s going to go away. Even if the pandemic ended today, people are getting used to these kinds of interactions. There are advantages to them in terms of flexibility and the kinds of geographical constraints that no longer seem to apply. But they may also have these unintended hidden costs that I think are important to be able to quantify, particularly as it relates to these gender and racial disparities that already exist in a lot of these settings and workplaces.
Rebecca: So we always wrap up by asking: “What’s next?”
Olga: So this study has really led us to think carefully about these gender disparities, and to try to understand what kinds of interventions can help improve the outcomes for women. So the next step is certainly for us to try to test and evaluate the effectiveness of some of these interventions. So for example, I mentioned we’re doing a study in the field using Zoom as a platform for team meetings, we’re playing around and designing different kinds of changes in group norms, which operates through Zoom on, for example, who gets to start the conversation, or timing each participant in the group, so they know how long they’ve been speaking for… things that have been possible through technology, and trying to see whether those kinds of interventions will help improve the outcomes for women when they’re in the minority. So that’s one direction in which we are continuing this research agenda. And then another one, of course, is looking at other kinds of minority status. So particularly looking at race, we’re very interested in collaborating either with firms or other institutions that have ethnic or racial minorities, and are interested to know what implications do these settings have on their minority employees or students?
Rebecca: Looks like a lot of great work coming down the pike. I’m excited to hear what you find.
Olga: Thanks, Rebecca, thank you so much.
John: You’re doing some wonderful work, and I’m looking forward to seeing more of it in the future.
Olga: I really appreciate it. Thank you guys. It’s been a pleasure. Thanks so much.
Rebecca: Thank you.
Many campuses saw the HyFlex modality as a panacea that could resolve the many challenges presented by the COVID-19 pandemic. In this episode, Kevin Gannon joins us to discuss his campus’ experiments with HyFlex during the Fall 2020 semester.
- Gannon, K. M. (2020). Radical hope: A teaching manifesto. Journal of Public Relations Education, 6(2), 193-199.
- Beatty, B. (2014). Hybrid courses with flexible participation: The HyFlex course design. In Practical applications and experiences in K-20 blended learning environments (pp. 153-177). IGI Global.
- Beatty, B. J. (2010). Hybrid courses with flexible participation-the hyflex design. Unpublished manuscript. Retrieved from http://itec. sfsu. edu/hyflex/hyflex_course_design_theory_2, 2.
- Gannon, Kevin, (2020). “Our Hyflex Experiment: What’s Worked and What Hasn’t.” The Chronicle of Higher Education. October 26.
John: Many campuses saw the HyFlex modality as a panacea that could resolve the many challenges presented by the COVID-19 pandemic. In this episode, we discuss one campus’ experiments with HyFlex during the Fall 2020 semester.
Rebecca: This podcast series is hosted by John Kane, an economist…
John: …and Rebecca Mushtare, a graphic designer.
Rebecca: Our guest today is Kevin Gannon. Kevin is the Director of the Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning and Professor of History at Grandview University. He is also the author of Radical Hope: a Teaching Manifesto, which is available from West Virginia University Press. Welcome back, Kevin.
Kevin: Thanks. It’s great to be here again with y’all.
John: It’s good to talk to you again. Our teas today are:
Kevin: I am actually just drinking water today, I am on a goal to stay a little more hydrated. I was sick over the break, so I’ve just got a big old cup of water.
Rebecca: I had a nice pot of golden monkey prepared, but I drank it all. So now I’m drinking [LAUGHTER] Scottish breakfast tea.
John: I’m drinking ginger peach green tea. I had four or five different types of tea today, and I’ve moved to a lower caffeine green tea so I can maybe sleep tonight. We’ve invited you here to follow up with our discussion earlier about the plans for the fall. You were planning to use the hyflex modality there, and we wanted to just check back and see how things went, what worked and what perhaps didn’t work as well as everyone had hoped. I think most people know what a hyflex course is now, but maybe just a quick statement of what hyflex is might be helpful.
Kevin: Sure. So hyflex stands for hybrid flexible. And as it was developed as a modality by Brian Beatty and some of his colleagues at San Francisco State University in graduate ed tech program, they envision classes where students would basically have three pathways to attend, defined broadly: one could attend in person, one could attend the class synchronously but via a video conferencing service online, or one could attend that is engaged with the class asynchronously and online. And the flex part of it is that students have the choice of which of these three modalities that they will use and the expectation and reality is that they will shift back and forth between those three, maybe landing on one that they adopt consistently or maybe staying in a sort of state of variation or flux throughout the term.
John: Why was this so popular with so many campuses this fall?
Kevin: I think for a few reasons. One, we all knew that, in-person traditional college experience was not going to be a thing. Despite the best efforts of a few institutions to put in place a magical thinking strategy [LAUGHTER] and assume that it was. But we also had varying degrees of what in-person might look like in mind. The California State Systems said we’re going to be fully online, period, and they made that decision very early. Other institutions like mine knew, as in our case as a small liberal arts college, that a lot of our students really wanted and needed that in-person experience. But we also knew we couldn’t do that normally and still be safe. Hyflex offered a way to sort of do both, and in our case, have students attend in person, but at a reduced number in socially distant classrooms, for example. But, I think the other big reason that it was so appealing was the flexibility it had for both students, and then faculty and staff. So for students who could not travel back to campus, for example, they might be in several time zones away. So is there a way for them to attend online asynchronously? And then also for us. What if we had to go fully online again. Hyflex, as you build classes that have an online modality already, and I think the thinking was that what we did in March was more emergency remote teaching than it was actual online teaching and learning. We were probably not going to be able to get away with that again, and our students will hold us to a higher standard. And so I think what hyflex offered a lot of institutions… I know this is true for Grandview, my institution… was that it would have us preparing for that eventuality well ahead of time, so if we did need to go full remote, it wouldn’t be the sort of abrupt lurching around off of some cyber cliff that it would be a much smoother transition.
Rebecca: Can you talk a little bit about how it worked at Grandview University and whether or not this modality ended up actually being helpful to both faculty and students?
Kevin: Yeah, so I think it worked well-ish. [LAUGHTER] And what I mean by that is it did give us the flexibility we needed. And that did a lot to help for folks. We did not have a large outbreak of COVID on my campus, which I feel very fortunate to say. Our dorms were occupied, for example, but the students who did have to go to quarantine were able to still maintain their presence in classes in ways that they would not have been able to without hyflex. We also had some students who did choose to do all remote learning this semester… that they, because of a prior condition or something else, did not want to come to campus. And that included both international students but also students here in the Des Moines area who attended either synchronously or asynchronously online. So it did give us that flexibility. It did give us that online component. We learned a lot of things. We knew, I think, intellectually going into the session. That’s when it was gonna take a lot of kind of bandwidth and energy to be able to manage everything that goes into, actually run a hyflex class session. Having students on Zoom at the same time as students in a classroom, how are you going to foster and sustain a discussion? What happens when the tech doesn’t work? Or the screenshare doesn’t work? What about the asynchronous people? Are they just somewhere out there? So all of those things we knew, they would be hard, but actually experiencing it was really, really hard. And I know just from my own… I taught two courses, one of them fully online, asynchronous that was born that way, but a new student seminar in the hyflex model. And I’m good with technology, I think, and it was really hard for me to do. It took a lot of focus and energy. And my colleagues would always say, “You know, we were just exhausted after class sessions.” We also learned that the same was true for students, in many ways, [LAUGHTER] that it did require a lot more for them to attend class. But, on the other side of that coin, there were also students who elected to do the online asynchronous option, who in retrospect, that might not have been the choice they were best served by. Now, the reasons they did it were absolutely compelling and understandable. We had student athletes living on campus, for example, but remaining in isolation, so they could play their sport without testing positive. So they attended all their classes either synchronously or asynchronously online. What we found out was that without more guardrails around that, and without more learning how to be an online learner… stuff that we should have put in front of students… we did some but we didn’t do enough… the students who made that decision were the ones who struggled the most. And then we also learned that there are some classes in which this mode of teaching and learning is very well suited, and then there are some classes where it didn’t work very well at all. And in this, I’m thinking of mostly the classic upper-level humanities type seminars that are almost completely reliant on student discussion where instructors and students both really had trouble doing a seminar type thing where everybody’s sort of collectively in and immersed in the same text and conversation with people in these different spaces, and tried to move back and forth between. It was just, for lack of a better term, it was just weird, and clunky. And so we had faculty who moved into doing them all synchronously online, because at least people were in the same figurative space, so to speak. And that actually worked a lot better for some of those classes that were running into roadblocks. So we did have to shift on the fly a little bit. So I would say that successful for what we needed it to be over the fall. But there were some definite roadblocks that folks ran into, there were technology hiccups, as well, of course, and we were really tired after it was done. But we learned a lot to inform our spring practice. And in conversations I’ve had with peers and colleagues, I think the way it went for us didn’t vary too much from the way that it went in a lot of places.
John: That’s very similar to our experience here. We encouraged preparation for hyflex. I was pretty careful to try to not call it hyflex, because we knew that wouldn’t really be that much flexibility. But preparing for any eventuality gave faculty a little bit of comfort in knowing that no matter what happened, they’re going to be able to provide their classes in whatever formats happened to be possible. I chose synchronous online for my courses, and Rebecca chose the same. One of the reasons I did it was just because I didn’t think I could effectively manage a classroom with students in it at the same time, especially a classroom of masked and distanced students while I was wearing a mask and trying to also engage with students online. The way I saw it is, hyflex works really well, when you have classrooms that are set up for it with good sound systems, when people are mobile, when it’s easier to have communications going back and forth. And our classrooms here just are not generally set up for that. And the challenges of doing that in the current environment just seemed a little bit much to me. I probably wouldn’t have done it anyway, because of my age and other health concerns. But what were some of the specific challenges you faced while trying to engage with students face to face while also maintaining engagement with the online students?
Kevin: I think you bring up a lot of really important points. We committed to this hyflex thing with the intent of putting the flex in hyflex, so to speak. We really wanted students to have the choice of flexibility, even though we do that would be a lot more on the back end. For us. That made a big difference in terms of faculty workload and bandwidth. It’s really hard to build a hyflex course in a couple of months over the summer, because you’re basically doing three different courses that you’re braiding together. And yes, there’s overlap, but as anybody who’s taught online before knows, it’s a different animal trying to build an online course. So not only did we learn the added layers of complexity, building a hyflex course, but again, trying to experience that bandwidth of managing all of these other things that I wrote in one point that I felt like what are those circus performers who spins the plates and the cups and all of the saucers with all this sticks, and I let so many of them drop. I think the hardest part for me and for my students… students say they wanted that in person college experience. Well, what they wanted was to be in the dorms, to be in college, so to speak. Once they figured out that in person meant you’re having a small seminar class, but it’s held in a lecture hall that seats 110, and your all sitting way away from one another you’re masked up and yelling at each other, and half of y’all are coming in on Zoom. That’s not the face-to-face experience. That’s just weird, and kind of sucky. And so what we discovered, what I discovered and most of my colleagues is that our in-person attendance dropped off precipitously by about the end of the second week. And I would go past classrooms… my teaching Center is located at our main classroom building in a high traffic area. And I felt so bad for some of my colleagues, because we wanted to have as many of our first-year classes be fully in person, to have students have that… So there would be these classes scheduled in these large rooms, and so I was right across the hall from one of these large rooms, and one of my colleagues is in there teaching introductory algebra. And every time I walked by, it just felt like there were fewer and fewer students in there. And then one day, about three weeks into the semester, I walked in and there was nobody but him in a room that had been outfitted to seat fifty. So, I don’t know if you’ve ever seen the movie, Real Genius, where there’s the lecture hall, and there the professor’s lecturing on the board, and students are in there taking notes, and it’s this montage of scenes. And every so often, there’s fewer students and more tape recorders on the desk and then there’s a scene where it’s just the professor and all the desks have tape recorders on them. to have the final cue is there’s a reel-to-reel tape recorder playing the professor’s voice. With things that are like that, I felt like that’s where we were by about the middle of October. So students very quickly readjusted what they thought they wanted to do. And that made it even harder for us as instructors to sort of recalibrate there. So, again, there’s something different about experiencing something, even if you know it’s coming intellectually. And I think that was the thing that I struggled with most personally, but my colleagues did too, is we pride ourselves on being a small high-touch institution and the things that we do that we think make us good, we were really hampered in doing those. And so it’s frustrating. You know what you need to be doing? You know you can’t do it. You certainly know you aren’t doing it. And it’s just a tough situation, and I think our frustration was evident to students too on some cases. And then of course, they get frustrated by the same sorts of things. So there were no great options, just the least-worst option. And that’s still better than the worst-worst option. But that’s kind of where we were by the end of the fall, I think.
John: That sounded very much like the experience that faculty here were reporting, that people who were teaching face-to-face or some type of a hybrid environment or a hyflex-like environment kept seeing the number of students in the classroom dwindle until they’d often be the only one in this big lecture hall by the end of the term. You mentioned that some classes such as upper-level humanities classes weren’t really very well suited for this type of instruction, what classes worked relatively better.
Kevin: So, from what I understand, some of my colleagues in the STEM fields actually were able to really build and conduct really effective hyflex classes. Our intro to bio courses, our intro to chemistry and organic chemistry. And these were departments where faculty were already doing a lot of really interesting things and innovative things pedagogically, anyway. So they really, I think, kind of took up the challenge and jury rigged the tech when they needed it. My colleagues in her genetics class was recording using a lecture capture tool. She was trying to find a digital whiteboard to use for all the diagrams and nomenclature because it’s easier just to draw it by hand, and none of the, were really working or picking up right when you were trying to do it through Zoom. So she just tilted her webcam on her office desk down to show a piece of paper where she was writing, and did a split screen. So sometimes those are the solutions that we find. And I think the faculty who approached it as this really interesting set of problems to solve, sometimes creatively, and building upon things that they were already doing had, I think, an easier time making hyflex work. And I think the course material and the course objectives and pedagogical style also fit into that where you had some parts of the class where it was exposition, but then we can do think-pair-share… that’s a little more easy to do, even if you’ve got students in person and on Zoom. So things like that. You know, we have people who are really successful with that. I have colleagues in athletic training, and in particular, they have a graduate program that’s almost fully online anyway. So they adapted some hyflex elements into that and actually thought improved the student experience in what had previously been seen as an exclusively online program. So I think there were faculty out there who really found it, at least most of hyflex, were able to adopt it into ways that work organically with how they approach their courses anyway. And that’s not to say you can’t do it in a humanities seminar course, I absolutely think you can. But I also think experience and time are vital parts of that equation. And those are two things that we just didn’t have available to us.
Rebecca: And given all those challenges that you faced, and hindsight’s 20-20, what does the spring look like for you? You mentioned earlier that you’re already in classes now. So how was the approach different for the spring and how’s it looking so far?
Kevin: Well, the main change that we made institutionally for the spring was with the online asynchronous option. ‘Cause we sort of knew right away in the fall that that was going to be a problem. We do early alerts. We’re pretty high touch when it comes, especially tor first-year student success. And so the third week of the semester, we do early alerts. And my wife is our Registrar in Institutional Research Associates, so I get to hear some of the numbers, and the number of low early-alert grades and the number of low midterm grades reported in week six was something like 270% of our previous semester high. And we also had a significant amount of students who were getting multiple low grades, not just in one class or the other, but that it was endemic across their schedule. And that really correlated pretty strongly to students, especially first-year or new transfer students who had chosen the online asynchronous options of attendance. So this semester, that has a lot more guardrails around it. Students could attend class all semester, asynchronously online, but they have to come to an understanding with their instructor. They have to talk to their instructor, the instructor has to talk to them talk, about how that’s going to look, what they’re going to commit to doing it, what the things are going to need to really be. And it’s not just going to be a student who’s like, “I don’t want to come from the dorm.” So the online asynchronous is really being kind of de-emphasized except for cases. Now for a student who has a temporary absence, who travels with an athletic team, or who does have to go into quarantine because of contact tracing, that option is available to them on a temporary basis. But in terms of doing the class that way, we are trying to steer students away from that option and it nvolve much more. It’s basically an instructor approval mechanism, is what it comes down to. But what it does is it really gets students into the conversation about what are the most effective choices about how I could learn and how I might be most successful, not how I want to learn, but how I’m better at learning. The other thing that we learned is that we didn’t think enough about if online learning is different for students too. And being a successful online learner requires some skills and some competencies that students might not necessarily have had the chance to build, especially in high school coming straight into college. The first year is hard enough without all that layered on top. I wish we had done more. We did some… about here are some things you can do to be a successful online learner, here’s what hyflex looks like, here are the resources we can out in front of you, here are some tutorials, but we needed to do more. And I don’t even think we do knew much more we needed to do until we realized that, especially for many of our first-year students, when high schools what remote in March, for a lot of them, that was it, they just stopped. So these are students who we said “Oh, well, they’ll have some experience online learning from what happened in the spring.” [LAUGHTER] And for about 95% of them that was not the case. So we really were reckoning with completely novice online learners. So the decision- making process about what they’re going to do and how they’re going to attend and what’s going to work, that didn’t go so well for a lot of our students.
John: Under normal circumstances, when students select online courses, when they have many more options to drop, fail, and withdrawal rate is much higher, especially for, as you said, first-year students and students who are not as well established in the college environment. But in these circumstances where people had less choice about whether they were online or not, the problem becomes a little bit more severe. Were all students equally affected, or were some groups of students more adversely affected by some of the challenges they faced this fall.
Kevin: Oh, I think clearly the results of hyflex mirror the larger inequities that we all sort of intellectually knew were there. But again, experiencing that in such an, I think ,visceral way… My own institution, we serve a lot of students from groups that have not been traditionally well served by higher education in the United States. Access to internet and technology was a significant issue even more so at my institution than I would have expected, and I’ve been here 18 years or so. You don’t know what’s happening in some of these students lives. But, of course, with people losing their jobs and all these other things, it becomes even more tenuous. We have an emergency grant program, we had CARES Act money, we invested a lot in technology, not just for faculty in classrooms, but for students as well. But even then, again, that’s half the story, because now I have something to access, but if I don’t have the high-speed internet bandwidth with which to access it, then there’s a problem as well. And then layered on top and all around that is, of course, which students have had in school districts or school buildings that were resourced enough to provide that sort of familiarity and ease with the technology or to get students thinking about metacognitively how they are learners, think about what it means to learn. Basically, what hyflex showed us, and I think what the pivot to online has showed us in higher education is that we could no longer ignore the inequities, the very profound inequities that exist. And a lot of us say that, right? Like we’ve been saying this for a while, but basically what that pivot to online learning did in March and what hyflex is continuing to exacerbate in many ways is we are basically rewarding the students who already have cultural capital, and real capital, but cultural capital in particular, who are able to manage that transition to: A) college learning but, B) college learning at a time of COVID much better than students who have not been in places that have equipped them to do that. And that is through no fault of the students or their ability. It is the structural problems that we face. And what COVID has done has laid those completely bare, and we continue to ignore them at our peril.
John: One nice thing, though, is that I think more faculty are aware of that, because it was pretty easy to ignore those things when all the students have some type of a computing device, (or nearly all) on campus, they certainly have computer labs, high-speed Wi Fi, they have meal plans, and so forth that provide support, but all those things disappeared for those students who were attending remotely and any faculty member who taught any number of students would have seen students encountering some really significant challenges during the past 10 months or so.
Kevin: Yeah, absolutely. And access does not mean the same thing as ready availability, and that was a lesson that we learned as well, because as you point out, so many of our students, their high speed internet access is in a computer lab that also closed down in mid March, or in the library, or a public library, which here in Des Moines, all those closed as well. We had students sitting in the parking lot of McDonald’s using the WiFi on their smartphone or tablet in a car uploading work to Blackboard, for example. So yeah, this is not going away. We may be seeing it more evident than we have before. But, if we’re going to have any sort of conversation at higher ed about what hyflex does and what this online learning is going to do to shape the way we do teaching and learning going forward, which is a conversation we absolutely should be having… But if this isn’t part of it, that we’re not having the right conversation.
Rebecca: As a design faculty member, we have a lot of students that need software, expensive software…
Rebecca: …often and expensive computers to run said software. We had a lot of really hard conversations about “What software do we really need to use? Do we need to use software? How are we going to get students computers? Because having just the internet access wasn’t even the beginning of our problem. [LAUGHTER].
Rebecca: …to even enter into the field. What can you do? So one of the things that I’ve been thinking about… I’m teaching a new class in this spring, that’s an introductory class on theories of motion and interaction. But I’m actually working on a lot of things that don’t require any software so that the students can be included, because I am teaching online synchronously, and we were trying to figure out what classes could we teach in that modality and which ones really need to have access to our labs, so they have access to equipment, so that students can attend at least some of our classes in the modality that they need to. So the inequities just became so, so, so, prevalent, and so obvious to all of us that we had really hard discussions, and knowing that I’m teaching this class, and I know that there are some students that just can’t take it.
Kevin: Yeah, your breaking out software is so essential. Our students in communications and new media, our students in our graphic design program, students who are using Minitab or SPSS… Our IT department… I want them all canonized into sainthood, because what they did was they set up what they called a virtual software lab, so students could telnet into machines, which is obviously not the ideal solution, but it was a solution. That was one of those things, again, we’ll be talking about like we knew that might be a thing, but then experiencing it being a thing at the scale and scope with which we experienced that, really stretched us and we weren’t able to beat those needs. So again, yeah, as you talk about, even if we’re talking about using OER, or low-cost stuff that normally we say, “Oh, this is very accessible.” Well, if you could get in the door, but if you don’t have a door, that’s a problem. And so here we are. I think that’s one of the most important things we need to be working on.
John: One of the things you mentioned is how faculty are in general, exhausted. Faculty workload has gone up quite a bit since March of last year. Are there any things that faculty can do to help keep that workload under control so that we’re not all as exhausted at the end of the spring semester as we were at the end of the fall semester?
Kevin: Well, I don’t know. [LAUGHTER] It’s just we are being asked to do so much more, abd there’s no two ways about it. Not to get oversharing or anything, but over Christmas break before the Christmas holiday, I had to go to the emergency room with an attack of colitis. Certainly stress and being burnt out didn’t help anything. There’s now 15 pounds less of me than there was before,and I wanted to lose weight, but that was certainly not the way I want to do it. I think the end-of-the-semester crash was a really big part of that. And there are things that we could do, but we can’t do them alone. So when I see faculty who are navigating this at least modestly successfully, are faculty who have found their people and are able to have these networks where they could collaborate with one another, share ideas and help each other with the kind of tips and tricks stuff. I also think that we as faculty, this is a really good opportunity for us to be very intentional about focusing in on what it is we do in terms of assessments and is much time the best way for us to do those kind of assessments and is that time the best way we could be spending it. The other thing I think that we could also be doing is we don’t have to learn every new tool. I know the temptation, and I am the worst at this. I am such a dork when it comes to technology, I want all the devices, I want to learn all the things. I want all the cool tricks and toys and apps. But that’s so much bandwidth that I could be using on something else. You don’t need a whole suite of digital tools to teach online or hybrid effectively. You could use two or three Google Docs and a learning management system and your cell phone, then you could do a really great dynamic hyflex course. So being very mindful about how we’re allocating our energy and also being okay with the fact that sometimes we’re not okay, there’s still a global pandemic going on. The republic teeters, and I wish I was being hyperbolic when I say that, but I’m a historian who’s traced race and racism in US history. I’m writing a chapter right now for a project on the election of 1860 and the secession crisis. It’s been a weird week, you know? And I got to be okay with that. I have not been able to do the things that I wanted to do. Last week’s plan went up in smoke, but I can’t kill myself about that. And so just communicating effectively with students, being present with students and one another in an honest, authentic way, and realizing that we’re all trying to navigate this together. I know, that sounds very hippie and Kumbaya-ish, but if we’re not honest and authentic about this, we’re gonna kill ourselves. And it’s like a cliche says, “You can’t pour from an empty cup.” Our students deserve better, we deserve better, there are ways to be better, but we have to be willing to be very intentionally reflective, and adaptive about where we are.
John: One thing we should note is that we’re recording this in mid January, right after an insurrection tried to take over the government a few days ago. We’ll be releasing this a little bit later. And who knows what might have happened between now and then. We’re hoping that the world has returned to something closer to the instability that we’ve been observing in recent years, and we don’t see a further acceleration of crises. But it’s been challenging. I know, when the attack on the capital took place, I was trying to do some preparation for some workshops, and for some classes, and I spent the whole time doomscrolling, going through and watching CNN, reading news reports, checking the Times, the Washington Post, and it’s been a scary time.
Kevin: It has been.
Rebecca: it really makes me want to ask the question about radical hope.
Rebecca: But I don’t know if I should. [LAUGHTER]
Kevin: Well, so I was doing a workshop for another university that morning and again the next day. So it’s like, “Okay, hey, you know, we’re teetering on the brink of total civil and political collapse, but let’s take three hours and talk about hyflex learning…” like it just felt like this out of body experience. And so I centered that right in front, I put a picture up of it, and I said, “Look, here’s where we’re at, and we’re in the space and we’re doing faculty development stuff, but we’re gonna have to be doing this in the ways that work for us right now.” And so, engage with this, however, works best for you, though I can tell you, I’m not bringing my full self to this right now. Because this is just kind of where we are. And so I think part of acting from a place of hope is to be unflinchingly honest about where you are in the present. And so one of the things that perversely I draw hope from is you have to work harder than you would have ever had to work before to hide from the realities that we now have to confront. And have we finally lanced the boil? …to use a really gross metaphor. Have we finally gotten to a place where we’ve done that. I think there are signs that that may be the case. So that gives me hope, because the fewer places you have to hide from the work that needs to be done, the better and more sustained that work will end up being. So if we’re at that kind of place, it may seem perverse, and maybe even Pollyannaish, but I do think that that is occasion for hope. And I do think that being in places like higher education, this affirms are important and what we need to fight for, because higher education has failed in many ways and that’s why we are where we are in a lot of ways. We have work to do at our own communities. So we can’t hide from that anymore. Or if you could, I guess, but it would evolve way more mental contortions that I think is humanly possible. So is that a hinge moment? Is it that kind of inflection point? I think it might be. And so that adds urgency to what we’re doing. It affirms the work that some of us have been doing. It opens up opportunities to break more into that work. It also reminds us to communicate the larger importance of that work to external audiences. And those are all things that ultimately make the work go better and go further. So that’s kind of where I think we are, at this point, at least, when we’re not doomscrolling eternally. [LAUGHTER] But there’s places for that, again, unflinching honesty. And it’s okay to kind of sit with that for a little bit, but we can’t sit there forever in despair. So when folks are ready, you know, Rebecca Solnit says “hope is the axe with which you break down the door in an emergency.” If you can’t pick up the axe right now, that’s okay. Other people have got it. They’ll hold it for you. And when you’re ready, come and help us with it. And then we’ll break down that door and move into a better future. And that’s where I hope we are as a community.
Rebecca: The emphasis on that brutal honesty about no matter where we’re at in the moment, I think, for me actually, brought a lot of hope in the fall because it helped me connect really well with all my students, despite being apart, I didn’t actually feel like I had any less connection to my students than I would in person. And it almost seems blasphemous to say that out loud.
Kevin: Yeah, I think so, and there’s that weird feeling like, wait a minute, we’re actually more authentic in this weird hybrid online space that maybe we would have been if things were “normal.” And I’d also say this, so I had substance in the past, and I’ve been in recovery for well over a decade. But this is one of those moments where you reach that point of clarity like, okay, things could get worse from here. But you don’t want them to get worse from where we’re at right now. So what are you going to do. And so, having experienced that in my own personal journey, and recovered and walked away from that, if we could do that, as a society, island say, “We could continue this, there’s no bottom to a hole, you can keep digging.” But when you decide to stop digging, and do something else, and maybe that takes a shock, maybe that takes what the therapists call hitting your bottom. So your bottom is where you decide it is. There’s always a lower bottom. But as a society, we could go lower. But if we collectively decide that that’s as low as we want to go, and we want to climb back out, we could do that. And some of the things I’m seeing just within higher ed, but also in the broader public are making me think and hope and I think, not in a Pollyanna way that we are starting to climb out. Even if it seems counterintuitive to think that way so few days after what’s happened.
John: Yeah, I see a lot of signs of that with people who had been supporting much of what we had been seeing that was so traumatic, backing away and saying, “No, this is just one step too far. We’re cutting off any funding to your party or anyone who encouraged any of these activities.” And that’s a sign of progress.
Kevin: Yeah, if you’d have told me some of these companies would stop donating to Republicans, 10 days ago, I would have looked at you like you had three heads. Sometimes historical change happens when we don’t realize it’s happening until a year later, we look back and say, “Wow, point B where we’re at now is so radically different than point A.” And I wonder if that will be our experience, that we will look to the before times here, and then a year down the road, when we look back at where we are now and realize that the tectonic plates did indeed shift. And they shifted the way that we might not have felt every shift every day. But we’re at a much different place for the long run than we were before. And I think that there’s a pretty realistic shot of us having that kind of realization, a little bit down the road. And that keeps me hopeful. And that keeps me energized to do the work that we’re trying to do in times like this, and to have our students in community with us in times like this, while we’re trying to do this work, it takes a lot from everybody. So is it worth it? And I would say absolutely, yes, and our students, they’re doing this because they want to learn, because they want to succeed. And that takes a lot of effort, and a lot of bandwidth and resources from them. And we should honor that choice as well.
Rebecca: Every time I think about that idea, though, there’s always the few that couldn’t make that choice. I feel like just in the way that we’re having this conversation honoring those who couldn’t make that choice because they wanted to but can’t. I think it’s also important to because there’s definitely a number of potential students that are having to wait.
Kevin: Yes, I like the saying goes, when we’re sitting at the table, it’s important not just to look at who’s at the table with us, but who couldn’t be at the table with us. And I think as we talk about coming out of COVID, what is the future of higher education? What is the future of student learning? What is the future of teaching and learning? What is the future of hyflex? We have to be very mindful, of who hasn’t been in those conversations, because they couldn’t be, because we need to be paying attention to that too. Otherwise, our work is incomplete. Absolutely.
John: While we’re thinking about the future more optimistically, what are some of the gains that we might take away from what we’ve learned since March of 2020, in terms of how we offer our courses, and we deliver education, perhaps more effectively,
Kevin: I do think the flex part of hylex is an important thing to take with us. This openness to thinking about how students attend class, and I’m using the word attend in a very sort of elastic way. Because you could say, look, the traditional way we do face-to-face instruction hasn’t changed for the better part of a century, in terms of the physical setting and the constraints and the affordances that it has. So maybe we’re at a point where we don’t so much talk about attendance, as we talked about engagement. How are students engaging and being in community with us in this class. Maybe a lot of it is synchronous, but maybe some of it isn’t. That maybe some of it is face to face, but maybe some of it is online. And so I think these are conversations that are: A) worth having, B) that are ongoing, and C) gonna be with us, and I think changed the way that we do this teaching and learning thing, not wholesale, but in places. I think there are programs who are going to say. you know what? …hyflex works really well for us, or for these particular classes that are classes where we need to offer more seats or more access, hyflex is a way for us to scale out these offerings, even if we can’t hire 40 faculty members. What I’m afraid of is that hyflex becomes another way that faculty labor gets devalued in efficiency death. And so that’s where we need to be vigilant in these conversations. But I do think when we think about how our students engaging in learning? What does that really look like? Do they need to be physically present with us in the same room for that to occur? More and more of us have had to really ask that question. So now let’s take the answers that we’ve gotten and do some work with that and reimagine, or rethink or modify, or maybe even just subtly tweak some of our course offerings. I can see myself and the history department that we have at my institution, our survey classes, maybe we have some traditional face-to-face sessions, which is what most of our students would want, I think, and that we have a fully online section or two to to serve our adult and evening programs that are fully online, but maybe we offer a section that’s hyflex, as well. And our student athletes, who at my institution represent a large percentage of our student population, have a way that they could take courses and still travel and not “miss class.” So that’s one of the ways that I think we’re going to be thinking about what this all means. And I think the other thing that’s really salutary here, and I say this as a humanities guy working in a liberal arts college, I think we’ve realized technology isn’t the answer to everything?.So this technofabulism this. “Yeah, we could just put it online. How hard could it be like this teaching is nothing but content delivery, of course online makes everything more efficient?” Well, we have ample evidence that that is not the case. So we need to really be keeping that centered as well. And teaching matters, learning matters, and it’s not something you just throw on the LMS and expect to have happen. And so this sort of techno-utopianism, this “there’s an app for that” kind of thing. Technology is a tool. It’s not the only tool, and it’s not the best tool. And I think we have more than enough evidence that we’ve taken from our experience this academic year, to focus conversations that way. And I think that that’s really important.
John: We always end with the question. What’s next?
Kevin: What’s next for me, is,again, talking about where do we go with hyflex. Or at least the sort of ethos or the ethic that informs hyflex. The rethinking of what learning looks like on the collegiate level, on the higher ed level, and where one needs to be located both figuratively and literally for learning to happen. What’s next for me is that conversation, but I think that conversation is also gonna have a very powerful element of there’s a lot to be said, for the traditional face-to-face method of instruction. And that not everything is an efficiency or a scale up and that in fact, there are things that work worse when we do that. So what’s next for me is what is learning look like? It’s going to be different. But that doesn’t mean completely exclusive from what we would believe learning looks like now. And I think that those conversations are going to be a lot more student-centered as well, because the student experience with hyflex is really important. It mirrors a lot of what the faculty experience has been. And I think listening to student voice with this is not only important for the hyflex conversation, but now brings us back into a place where we realize that’s the most important voice when we’re talking about teaching and learning in general. And so if institutions have these conversations and do the strategic planning and think about the role of technology in terms of the work that they’re doing with their students, I think the incentive to have students involved in those conversations in a really meaningful way has never been more apparent. And so for me, what I see as being next is student voice becoming an even more powerful part of the equation, which I think is essential.
Rebecca: Well, thank you so much for joining us today and sparking a little bit of hope in what feels like a dark time.
John: It’s great talking to you again, and we’re hoping that everything goes well on all of our campuses this spring.
Kevin: Yes. Thanks for having me and always glad to join you and we are in hopeful times and the work we do matters. And if we don’t like what we see now, we have the luck and the fortune to be involved in creating something different, and that should energize us.
We’ve focused a lot on faculty switching modalities during the pandemic, but even experienced online instructors have faced new challenges redesigning their courses to work for students with limited computer technology, network access, and quiet study environments. In this episode, Kevin Kelly and Todd Zakrajsek join us to discuss how universal design principles can be used to provide learning equity and human connections in our online classes.
Kevin works with colleges and universities as an educational consultant and teaches as a faculty member in Education at San Francisco State University. Todd is an Associate Research Professor and Associate Director of Fellowship Programs in the Department of Family Medicine at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Todd is also co-author of Dynamic Lecturing that we’ve discussed on earlier podcast episode. Kevin and Todd are the authors of Advancing Online Teaching: Creating Equity-Based Digital Learning Environments, recently published by Stylus publishing.
- Harrington, C., & Zakrajsek, T. D. (2017). Dynamic lecturing: Research-based strategies to enhance lecture effectiveness. Sterling, VA: Stylus Publishing, LLC.
- Kelly, K., & Zakrajsek, T. D. (2021). Advancing Online Teaching: Creating Equity-Based Digital Learning Environments. Sterling, VA: Stylus Publishing, LLC.
- Discount code: ETS30
Resources and tools
- Sweller, J. (1988). Cognitive load during problem solving: Effects on learning. Cognitive Science, 12, 257-285.
- Tobin, T. J., & Behling, K. T. (2018). Reach everyone, teach everyone: Universal design for learning in higher education. West Virginia University Press.
- The psychology of progress bars. Spindogs. Samuel Merritt University.
- Baker, R., Dee, T., Evans, B., & John, J. (2018). Bias in Online Classes: Evidence from a Field Experiment. CEPA Working Paper No. 18-03. Stanford Center for Education Policy Analysis.
John: We’ve focused a lot on faculty switching modalities during the pandemic, but even experienced online instructors have faced new challenges redesigning their courses to work for students with limited computer technology, network access, and quiet study environments. In this episode, we discuss how universal design principles can be used to provide learning equity and human connections in our online classes.
Rebecca: This podcast series is hosted by John Kane, an economist…
John: …and Rebecca Mushtare, a graphic designer.
Rebecca: Our guests today are Kevin Kelly and Todd Zakrajsek. Kevin works with colleges and universities as an educational consultant and teaches as a faculty member in Education at San Francisco State University. Todd is an Associate Research Professor and Associate Director of Fellowship Programs in the Department of Family Medicine at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Todd is also co-author of Dynamic Lecturing that we’ve discussed on earlier podcast episode. Kevin and Todd are the authors of Advancing Online Teaching: Creating Equity-Based Digital Learning Environments, recently published by Stylus publishing. Welcome, Todd and Kevin.
Todd: Thank you, Rebecca.
Kevin: Thank you.
John: Our teas today are:
Kevin: I’m drinking Irish breakfast tea with honey from our backyard beehive.
Rebecca: …can’t get any more fresh than that.
Todd: Well, I just finished hibiscus tea. But now I have my big old bottle of water to get me to the next round.
Rebecca: Excellent. And I have Christmas tea.
John: And I have ginger tea. We’ve invited you here today to discuss Advancing Online Teaching. Could you tell us a little bit about how this very timely book came about?
Kevin: Well, Todd and I have known each other for years and years. And it just so happened that one day he was telling me about a series of books that he’s created. And he invited me to work with him on a book about online teaching. And we’ll get into more about how that evolved, but Todd maybe can fill in the gaps in my memory there.
Todd: No, this is perfect. And you know, I take credit where credit is due. Sometimes you just get really, really lucky, and Kevin and I this round got really lucky in a way. I wanted to mention the fact that we’ve actually been working on this book for about two years. This isn’t a situation where suddenly everything went to emergency remote teaching and we threw a book together. We started about two years ago working on this, we’re both massively busy folks. And so kind of kept picking away at it and running back and forth with edits and kind of kept working on and working on it. And then it was about December of last year, we talked about it and said, let’s just get this thing done, put some time aside and just crank away at it. And it was about six weeks later that everything started to go sideways on teaching. And so then we talked it over and really focused hard. And within about three months, I guess, got it done, because it takes about six months in production. What I mean by lucky is we had enough of it as a framework, that had been years of work, that we could then dump it into something that we could get out very quickly. And at a time that I think is going to be real helpful.
John: One of the things I really like about your book is it’s focused from the ground up on inclusion, equity, and the use of universal design for learning. Could you talk about why you chose those as the foundation of course design?
Kevin: We wanted this book to be different in a few ways. Many of the books out there about online teaching focus either on the technology side (what buttons do you click to make a discussion forum take shape or what have you), and some of them will focus on the student side (how do you actually facilitate those discussions?). But with work that both Todd and I have been doing in different circles, we decided that we wanted there to be an underpinning, if you will, of these different concepts so that they would be infused in everything people do, not just a tack-on at the end, the way you might find in a college of education: “Oh, here’s a class on how to make your courses more multicultural,” Instead of infusing that into every aspect of every course. We kind of viewed it like when you go to the eye doctor, and they put one lens down and say “Are you clear or fuzzier now?” And now we have these three lenses, you characterize it as inclusion, learning, equity and universal design for learning. But we frame it as universal design for learning, learning equity, and human connection, which is a little bit broader than inclusion. But it was really important for us to really think about: “Hey, there’s a human at the other end of that internet connection when you’re having a teaching and learning experience.” And we don’t want to lose sight of that. What do you think, Todd?
Todd: I think that’s a really good point. And I think the biggest one still is that concept of coming back over and over again to remember the human in the exchange. It’s really easy to post things out there and open quizzes and do all those things, and forget the fact that when you open the quiz the student who might be taking the quiz may be in a car in a McDonald’s parking lot, because it’s the only place they can get internet. So we really wanted to hit that over and over again,
Rebecca: I really appreciated too, the extensive coverage on accessibility and things as well as part of that discussion, which sometimes gets overlooked, which is really unfortunate,
Kevin: Right, and we also wanted to make sure that accessibility wasn’t the only frame through which to view Universal Design for Learning. Often many people think about it that way, but we think about, “Hey, these are accommodations for students with busy lives. These are accommodations for students who may speak English as a non-native speaker. These are accommodations for people who are parents and juggling one device amongst themselves and other people in the house just trying to get work done and survive.”
Todd: And that’s how we did a lot of the themes, and it comes up over and over again. You don’t design something so that you provide an opportunity for a person who has some kind of challenge, you design so that that challenge doesn’t matter anymore. So if a person does take a little bit more time to cognitively process, you could certainly make extra time for that person. Or you create an exam with no time limit, and then it’s no longer an issue. And so Kevin was phenomenal at finding a lot of different ways of, again, constructing the learning environment, in an online situation, so that challenges don’t matter anymore, to the greatest extent possible.
John: Many of the earlier books focused on an ideal condition where students working remotely were students who had good equipment, good connections, and plenty of time to arrange for this. But that’s not the student body, I think, that we’re generally seeing. Even without the pandemic, we see increasing diversity in the students and the time commitments and the challenges they’re facing while they’re enrolled in college. So, I think that focus is really good.
Todd: I think that’s a really, really important point, because is in the past, students who are in online classes chose to be in online classes. And there are certain types of students, my daughter is one of them, she does much better in an online course than she does a face-to-face course. She’s got a lot of learning challenges, and it just works better for her. But what we found with emergency remote teaching about 9-10 months ago, is that everybody, faculty and students who had no interest in being in online environments, were all there, which means there was a tremendous mismatch. So the other things we’re really working on with the book is if you find yourself in that mismatch, how can you match it up a little better?
Rebecca: Can you talk a little bit about ways to overcome some of the racial and ethnic achievement gaps that we see online and some of these other maybe economic issues or just experience differences between students who have a lot of experience online versus students who are new to online?
Kevin: Sure, and I would characterize the equity-based gaps that we see…and often we hear them referred to in reports as achievement gaps… but the literature now encourages us to use words like education debt, so it’s not on the doorstep of the student. But, are we making student-ready colleges as opposed to college-ready students. And so, one of the groups I mentioned in the book Peralta Community College District, I’ve got six years of data, I’ve been looking at their work with students of all varieties, and the only data you can really get in a disaggregated form is for ethnicity, because it’s in the student information system, the database that has characteristics about the students, but the fields for first-generation student, the fields for veterans, the fields for students with disabilities, sometimes aren’t filled in at all. So you won’t be able to tell, to the same extent, that there are either biases, assumptions, or institutional barriers that negatively impact students’ motivation, opportunities, or achievement. So when we get to different things that work for different groups of people, Universal Design for Learning really helps because it allows us to construct multiple pathways for people to succeed. And those multiple pathways may need to take into account that some students are interdependent learners, as opposed to independent learners. They grew up in a culture where everybody’s sitting around the table, and they’re learning as a group, as opposed to individually off on your own reading a piece of text and answering questions about it later. And so to create opportunities for students to learn interdependently with small-group projects or discussions, gives those students who come from, whether it be their family or their identity, their culture, gives them opportunities to succeed in ways that we may be not fostering with highly independent, self-directed learning activities that we commonly see in online courses.
Todd: I want to mention the fact that what Kevin just pointed out is phenomenal in terms of making sure that we’re kind of helping create good learning opportunities for students. But a lot of times people will make that mistake of thinking what we’re talking about here is meshing in learning styles. And you have to be very careful because the literature is very clear on learning styles… it’s one of the trickiest things to debunk out there. We’re not talking about teaching to a given learning style, we’re talking about a situation that if a student is in an environment, for instance, where they’re low bandwidth, and you know, watching videos is going to be really hard… text based material will be a lot better. If you’ve got a student who’s an incredible writer, but they’re extremely shy, then asking them to create a video might be really hard for that person, but creating a paper is not. So, it’s helping to match the types of preferences and abilities students have, not teaching to that learning style. So I just want to make sure there was no misunderstanding there.
Kevin: What you said, Todd, just made me think of some of the research that we’ve been looking at to build the Peralta Equity Rubric. I’ll come back to that in a second. But there’s research that shows that African-American and black students, if they don’t see themselves in the course materials, are less motivated. So back to Rebecca’s earlier question about what can we do? We can make sure that the images and media that we use to represent the content and topics in our courses are also reflective of the students in our classroom, whether that classroom be face-to-face, hybrid, or fully online. And so those types of strategies extend beyond just “What is the content?” but how are we presenting it, as well.
John: One thing that struck me with Todd’s comment is that it may be the case of someone in an environment where writing is easier for them or more natural while video might not be, but for a student who is interacting with a course primarily Through a smartphone, it’s quite possible that the video may be the easier form of representing their knowledge rather than trying to type a paper on a smartphone.
Kevin: Correct. And one strategy that I’ve started using in my own class is for students who may not have access to a device, I had a student who first made me aware of this challenge who was living in his car. And so he didn’t have access to a computer on a regular basis unless he went to the 24/7 lab. So he started using Google Docs and then I told him about Dragon apps so that he could do voice to text. And then I got smart enough, somebody told me about Google Voice, which is a free phone number that students can leave a voicemail message. And so now that student can just write with a pen and paper, not worry about typing it at all, and then read it as a voicemail message just like a book on tape, I can still grade it with the same rubric, but that student has fewer barriers to reach the particular goal with respect to that assignment.
John: You mentioned the equity rubric that you developed at Peralta colleges. Could you tell us a little bit more about that?
Kevin: The short version of the story is that they were moving from one learning management system to another, from Moodle to Canvas. And at the same time, they decided they were going to write their first ever distance education plan. And based on some data that one of the team members had identified during her sabbatical, when you look at the average between all students in face-to-face courses and online courses, that average of retention and success kept shrinking so that students in online courses were catching up. But when you disaggregate that data by ethnicity, you see that Asian students and white students are well above the average and black African-American students, LatinX, Hispanic students, were below. And so we saw that we couldn’t just think about this in one way. And we decided in that distance education plan they wrote for the district, that they wanted the two core values driving the plan to be the learners themselves and equity. And so we didn’t want it to just to be a document sitting on a shelf collecting dust. And so we started looking at how do you operationalize helping faculty members infuse learning equity into their courses. We went out on the web and couldn’t find anything, the closest thing we could find was the University of Southern California has the Center for Urban Education, and they have five principles about equity by design. But that wasn’t very practical for a teacher learning how to infuse equity. So we just went out, looked at all the research that either showed an equity-based gap that negatively impacted student’s performance or an equity-based intervention that positively impacted student’s performance. And those research efforts led to eight criteria that we wove into this rubric. And now we’ve been using it to train faculty. I’m using it in my own course. And it’s been exciting to see how the whole district is responding. It’s gone from an equity rubric to an equity initiative over time,
John: Is that something you share publicly?
Kevin: It is. Yes, if you go to the Peralta website, and we’ll make sure you have the link for your show notes. But the rubric itself is a creative commons document. The training, which is on a new version we’re going to launch in just a couple weeks, we’re putting in the Canvas Commons for free. There’s a bibliography that’s quasi-annotated, that shows the literature pertaining to each rubric criterion, and document that explains some of the core concepts. And some of my work involves taking that rubric and turning it into a framework. And I like to see it,if you’re familiar with Photoshop, or any tool where you have layers on top of layers. The Universal Design for Learning matrix is a grid three by three that helps you identify the checkpoints for integrating UDL principles into your course. And so I thought it would be a nice add-on, it’s not the same as, it’s a new set of ideas for faculty to start weaving in equity principles. So for example, in Universal Design for Learning, we think about different ways of presenting content based on the format, audio and text, or video and text. And then with learning equity, you think about “How do we present multiple perspectives on that, so that we have different ages and ethnicities and backgrounds and cultures and identities, carrying their ideas on the same topic?” And from there, we’ve taken it forward and built it out into a core part of the book.
Rebecca: It’s a much needed thing… grateful that you guys worked on that. I know it’s something that in doing a lot of accessibility related work and UDL work with our faculty and trying to bring in equity more holistically, it’s challenging, because it’s all these disparate resources and trying to make all the connections, it’s nice to have them all in one place.
Kevin: Well, I have to say one of the things that led to the success of this project was the fact that we had such a diverse group working on it. We had people from all walks of life: students, staff, faculty, and it’s one of the things I’m most proud of is the work I’ve been doing with that Community College District
John: Changing the topic just a little bit, you advocate a backwards-design process, as many people do, but you also emphasize the importance of creating learning objectives at the level of course modules as well as at the level of the course and also making those explicit, not just in the syllabus, but also in the course module. Could you talk a little bit about why that’s important?
Kevin: I constantly refer back to what I call the psychology of the progress bar. And so if you’re familiar with progress bars, we as humans are not satisfied or motivated until it’s 75 to 80% complete. So when you have, for every course that you’re taking, and imagine a student with a normal load is taking four or five courses, let’s say you have an average five to 10 learning outcomes at the course level, that’s potentially 40 to 50 learning outcomes, or progress bars, that you’re trying to measure your progress over the course of the 17 weeks. So that means you’re waiting until week 12 of any semester to know how you feel about how you’re doing in a course. So that idea behind having module level learning outcomes means that you’re breaking things into small chunks, students can see that they’ve reached those outcomes right away. They dovetail or fall under the umbrella of those larger course-level outcomes, but provide checkpoints along the way for students to tell how they’re doing and stay motivated. Again, that motivation for persistence and success are key factors in helping our students in these online courses. And then, obviously, Todd brought a whole lot to that conversation, because he knew, just on the back of his head, the entire history of the term “learning outcome,” and why we use that instead of the word objective in the book, Todd, what do you think?
Todd: I’ll just mention this quickly, as I think it’s important for the book, because it seems like folks just love to argue about whether you’re really looking at outcomes or objectives… and goals, we totally get, everybody sees those as being separate… but outcomes versus objectives. So we kind of outline in the book, the different ways that people have actually defined those terms. But one of the cool things about this is that it was back around 1962, that a book was written about objectives, it goes back to the 1800s. But in 62, there was a specific book that was written that says, looking very, very carefully, what is the behavior that’s being done? How’s it being done? What’s the criteria for success, and we should be able to document those things so that we can objectively look at whether or not a person has achieved this. Then in about the late 80s, early 90s, the outcome-based education came along. And the big push was from objectives to outcomes. With the idea being that we’re going to define the outcomes of something we should be able to identify what is the behavior? What’s the criteria for success and how they go about doing it? And then they cited the same research from the 1960s. So we have two or three pages in the book of the folks who say, “Oh, no, no, it’s not objectives, it’s outcomes.” We say, Where do you think that came from? So at this level, and we’re not trying to be rude about it, but it really doesn’t matter. If you’re not writing a thesis on this, what’s important is that you can write a statement that says, “By the end of this unit, by the end of this class, by the end of this whole section, a student should be able to, or will be able to…”, and so that’s what we really went for, but kind of waiting for the feedback. The book’s brand new… out right now …of waiting for the hardcore education folks to kind of explain that we had outcomes and objectives wrong.
John: I gave a workshop on this topic in June for people preparing courses for the fall. And that was something that people from our education faculty were raising, saying, “Well, are these really objectives? Or are they outcomes?” And my point was, it doesn’t really matter. These are the things we want students to be able to do. And let’s just work on helping them get to that point, because both terms are used generally interchangeably, from what I’ve seen.
Todd: Yeah, totally.
John: And in describing them, you do use the SMART acronym. One issue I’ve run into is that there’s many different variants of that acronym, but you adopt one that actually pretty much the same one we had used here on our campus. Could you describe that SMART acronym?
Todd: It’s kind of going to come back to the same thing you were talking about for outcomes versus objectives. For a smart outcome, it is very important for It to be specific, that it’d be measurable, achievable, realistic, time bound, sometimes people change realistic for reachable. And so these words will bounce around a little bit. But I think what’s important, it’s almost… in drawing this analogy to Bloom’s taxonomy, people get so hung up on Bloom’s Taxonomy to say, is this knowledge or is this understanding? You know, it’s foundational. If it’s foundational, I’m good with that. There’s a difference between knowledge and understanding versus application versus synthesis. On a SMART outcome, there’s a difference between writing an outcome that’s just not reachable, it’s not timely, it’s not measurable, those are problems. So again, as far as I’m concerned, as long as you got something that’s specific and measurable, and probably reasonable, those are the big ones. But, that’s what we’re really after.
Rebecca: I love the emphasis on chunking things into small pieces to manage cognitive load, not only of our students, but also of the faculty member teaching the class… because just like students who may have those 50 outcomes they’re trying to head for, faculty are also trying to manage that and keep track of that for their students as well. So I like the idea of the cognitive load management for everybody involved in the learning process and really keeping it organized, which is a key thing for any sort of learning design, to make sure that people know how to move forward.
Todd: Well, yeah, I’m going to say that I think probably one of the most important aspects of creating any kind of learning environment for your students is it comes down to cognitive load. I mean, it really is, because at any given moment, if you have too much to do. For anybody out there who doesn’t know what cognitive load is, think about, like, the expressway. And so you got information coming in, if I’m looking over and I see somebody walking by, and I just watch him for a minute and see what their outfit looks like, that’s one thing I can do. If a friend is talking to me, I can listen to the friend. if they’re talking to me in the car while the radio is on, and then it starts to sleet outside, I’m thinking, you know what? …trying to keep the car on the road, listen to somebody talking, and having the radio is too much. And so it’s just too much material coming through at once. And it’s kind of like when the expressway has too many cars coming in at once, and everything comes to a grinding halt. So what we have to be really careful of is that the more you do something, the easier it becomes. And the more you have frameworks for doing things, the more easily you can do it. So as we build these kind of structures, students can process a lot more information. But that’s the cognitive load. And everybody has that feeling of sitting down to read something and getting about two paragraphs in and saying, “Yeah, not now, I just can’t do this right now.” That’s cognitive load. And we do it all the time. The most important thing to keep in mind is, if you’re an expert at something, the process is very easy, because it’s repetitious, but your students are novice, so they’re going to face a lot higher cognitive load. So the thing that you think, “Oh, this is easy…” they’re holding on by their fingertips. So be mindful of that cognitive load, I think, is really important, from the work of Sweller in the 1980s.
Kevin: And just to build on that and to go back to Rebecca’s concept about the chunking and how important that is, it also serves today’s students. So recently, I was a moderator of a student panel at a conference. And we had in the same panel, a working mother. She was a single mother of two kids and in her 30s. And she said, “Sometimes I’m just trying to get the work done. I’m not aiming for the A, even though I would love an A, I’m just trying to get through this credential so I can get a degree and get upward mobility socially and socioeconomically.” And so thinking about chunking as a universal design for learning concept, where students can track their progress when they’re having to bounce between different priorities, academics, worklife, family obligations, this makes a streamlined pathway. Using Todd’s expressway, we’re creating a carpool lane for busy people.
John: And it also matches with your discussion earlier of the checklist type idea, that when students are given a project, say “write a paper by the last day of the term,” it’s really easy to procrastinate. And then quite often, when people did that, it became overwhelming, and it just never got done. By breaking it up into smaller chunks, you’re keeping the cognitive load lower on each chunk, but you’re also dealing with those human tendencies to procrastination and so forth, to make it easier for people to keep the work manageable to stay on track and not to put things off, because they’ve got many other things that at the moment seem more pressing than something due a month later, or two months later.
Todd: Yeah. And John, you brought up something that’s hugely important there, that so much of this stuff is interwoven. And I think it’s hard for a lot of folks to see all of the different connections that are out there. But if you do a project, just like you just said, that’s due at the end of the semester, students wait till the last minute because they will. As a faculty member, I’ve had reports for Provost that I’ve waited until the last minute to do, but that creates the high pressure. Cognitive load goes up, You start thinking “I can’t do it.” Once I started thinking I can’t do it, now I’ve got to pass this class. And so I started looking out online, maybe there’s a paper I could just buy. So suddenly it becomes an integrity issue. And so a lot of times when you look at the research on students who will do unethical things, or cheating in the classroom, it’s almost always based on pressure. People don’t cheat on things that they don’t feel pressure about. So when you have all these checklists, that Kevin pointed out, through the semester, you keep the cognitive load down, you keep the pressure down, then the need to cheat, so to speak, you take that away. So there are really things that we can do to create a better environment for the students that don’t entice them into these unethical behaviors.
Kevin: Well, and one strategy that we put in the book is to not only provide the due dates, but provide start dates. And when you break up a project into chunks, you can have a first draft, you’re gonna have feedback from a peer, and have those all lined up so that students see it’s not just one thing at the end of the term, and they’ll just wait until the last day. But instead, “Oh, I need to start my draft because I need to turn that in. Even if you’re not going to do a whole lot with it as the instructor, but you’re going to provide opportunities for students to interact with one another to get feedback about their work before they turn it in. All those things are important. I’ve gone to the extent where I have students take a snapshot either digitally on their computer, or with a phone picture if they have a paper-based calendar and show that they have allotted the correct amount of time each week for my class. And I give them, if they want, the ability to download or use an online to-do list that basically sends them reminders to start and finish things up.
John: And that feedback that they’re receiving all the way through also reduces the ability to engage in academic dishonesty and it reduces the benefits of it because none of the tasks are unmanageable. It works a lot of ways.
Rebecca: I really appreciated all of the equity framework built into your book, but I have to admit the chapter I went to first was “managing your workload when teaching online and I think maybe a lot of faculty might switch to that immediately right now, in this moment in time. Can you talk a little bit about some of the strategies to reduce workload for faculty as well?
Kevin: Sure, I’ll start, but I know Todd has lots of ideas to jump in. So a couple things, one, and we’ve referred to this before, and not in this interview. But, Tom Tobin has a book with Kirsten Behling about universal design for learning, and in it they propose this “plus one” strategy, just think about one thing that you can do. So while we present a lot of ideas in the book, it’s chock full of ideas, we recognize that, unless you’re going to do a full course redesign over a summer or something like that, you re lly are going to find that the maximum strategy that will help the most students at that particular time. And so when you’re talking about workload, part of it is parsing out the work of modifying your course. The other is thinking about strategies that will help you maybe be more equitable in how you reply to students in a discussion forum. There’s research that shows it, and that particular study by Stanford 94% of the instructors replied first, and sometimes only, to names that look like white male names. So a strategy might be to create a spreadsheet showing that you have responded to all the students equally throughout the semester, just tracking your own progress. Until they have tools like that in the learning management system, we have to do it ourselves. That increases the workload in some respects, but also decreases the workload in terms of, “Well, I know that I’ve talked to Todd three times already this semester, but I haven’t answered Rebecca once.” If I’m worried about whether or not Rebecca is going to stay in the class, the way to demotivate a student is to give them no feedback whatsoever. So that increases our workload when we get those administrative calls from our department chairs or Associate Deans saying, “Hey, your DFW rates really high.” So just thinking about different things that you can do over time, and also ways of working with colleagues. If you’re teaching a class that has more than one section, you might be able to strategize who’s going to do what this week. The ability to leverage open educational resources, so you don’t have to create something from scratch, but maybe modify it to meet your needs. There’s all these different ways that you could manage your workload in the online course development, and also the course facilitation.
Todd: The other thing I would add to that is… I think it’s really important, everybody’s in firefighter mode, especially right now. You’re just trying to get… tomorrow is all you’re trying to do. But I can remember being a faculty member about 35 years ago, I was kind of in that same framework, too. I know that now is tremendously just pressure for everybody. But you know, last year wasn’t just easy, and three years ago wasn’t simple. So we’re always in this field where, because there’s an unlimited number of things we can do, and if we care about our students and we’re pretty bright, and keep trying to do new things, we’re always kind of overworked. So I think this is no different than a lot of other times, you got to take stock of where you’re at and what you can do. And I think budgeting a little bit of time, even every week just for 20, 30 minutes, and specifically say to yourself, low-hanging fruit stuff… What could I do that would actually cut down some of unnecessary work that I’m doing right now, and not decrease the learning for my students? I could take a thing out here, and they’re still going to learn just as much. Or what’s something that I could add that, after a very short period of time, the cognitive load wouldn’t be bad, because it might take me a couple times to figure it out. But once I got it figured out, then I can do something that takes very little time and has a lot more growth for my students. And so just taking stock once in a while, because I will tell you that I remember when EXCEL came out. So when Excel came out, a friend of mine said, you got to get your gradebook into Excel. And for anybody who’s listening that’s old enough to remember carrying around the green book… the little green book that we all wrote up all our notes with. I had five exams where I dropped the lowest exam. And I was doing my class with 600 students in those green books. And it took me two years before I finally tried Excel, because I was too busy to try it. So my framework now is to say, “What if I had budgeted 30 minutes to try that?” I think in the end, it only took me about 30 minutes to an hour to actually run it in Excel. But I never took the time. So what we’re advocating for is, as busy as you are, take just a few minutes to just say if I jump off the treadmill, what could I do that would take less time?
John: This is going to date me a little bit, but I only used one of those little green books back in 1980 and 81. And then I picked up a Timex Sinclair computer, one of those early things, and I wrote a grade book program and I was using that up until the time I got a spreadsheet. I think Lotus 123 was the first one I used and then Excel after that, and then the gradebook in the LMS. I hated doing all that by hand. So I’ve always tried to automate it.
Todd: Before we move on. You know, I do want to point out, just for nostalgia, that there was nothing in society more powerful than that little green grade book because anybody in higher education had seen that book before. And I can remember my sister got in a car accident and these surgeons would come in, different people come in, and they were very dismissive of us, almost all of us. But, I was grading one time and one of them came in and saw that book and stopped and says, “What do you teach?” And then we got into this really nice conversation and it suddenly occurred to me, even the physicians fear the green book.
John: One of the things you emphasize throughout your book is building human connections in online courses. Could you talk a little bit about some strategies that we can use to do that effectively?
Kevin: So first is being aware of opportunities where students can interact with one another or interact with you, the instructor. And so that awareness then extends to “Okay, we’re going to build it into an assignment but in a way that helps students understand that that’s part of what you want to achieve.” And so we often look at instructions for, let’s say, a discussion forum where it’s maybe a paragraph maybe two of how they should respond to your original prompt, and then please reply to two other students. And so giving them some feedback about what do you want to happen in those replies? Do you want them to extend what the other person did by finding resources that would be helpful for the argument they’re making? Is it to probe or clarify when that student’s not making enough points to really make it clear what they’re trying to say? And so giving them some ideas, and then when we pull in the equity angle, on top of human connection, we can say, “How does your connection to this and your background and your identity map to what you’re experiencing with your student classmate?” And so getting them to start interacting with one another at different levels, also increases that sense of human connection because they know each other better? A lot of instructors I know, especially in fields, maybe like STEM, they’re worried about adding things to the class that would take away time from other important activities. And so it’s finding those ways to do both. I’m a big fan of both/and as opposed to either/or. So, if you’re going to have a discussion, then maybe “How does this physics concept apply to your background? How is it useful in your life?” And so there’s still thinking about the physics concept, instead of just a chance to socialize with your classmates. And then moving on from there.
Todd: I love the way Kevin just covered the one aspect. Another thing we’ve talked a lot about in terms of this human connection is there’s an old phrase that “we teach the way we were taught.” And it’s actually a way to excuse folks for lecturing because like, “Well, I was lectured to, so I lecture.” I don’t actually believe you teach the way you were taught. I think that… in fact I know, back when I was an undergraduate, and we’re talking about back in the late 70s, early 80s, there were faculty members doing service learning, there was small groups, we did problem based learning, we had a lot of different things. I loved this one guy who did storytelling lectures. I don’t teach the way I was taught, I teach the way I best learned. And that makes a lot of sense, because if we really don’t stop and take into consideration other people, every one of us has a way we learn. And we think, “Oh, you know how students will learn best is you do it like this.” And it’s the way you learned. And so what I think the thing is, is we got to break away from this concept of teaching the way we best learned. And by the way, as evidence of this too, you’ll have some students who will do phenomenally well in your class. If you sit down and talk to them, they tend to learn just like you did. And that’s why the class is going so well for them. So I think, for me, what I try to do is to say “Who in the classroom….no matter how I’m teaching, who in the classroom is struggling right now?” And so if I’m teaching something where people raise their hands and just shout and answer quickly, I’m actually teaching to the fast thinking, low concerned extroverts… the people who don’t mind making mistakes. And if I stop and think for just a second, who is that not benefiting? Well, somebody who needs to take a few more minutes to think, a person is a little bit more introverted, or an individual who’s really self conscious about making mistakes. So that’s a part of trying to find that human connection to of getting away from just assuming everybody out there like us
Rebecca: As a slow thinker, I really appreciate that.
Todd: And you know, it’s funny, I just want to say is, I think that’s really, really important. Because people will make jokes about that all the time. It’s like, “Well, you know, we introverts…” They’re all learners. And this is one thing I just loved working with Kevin on. He’s one of the kindest, most human oriented people I’ve ever been around. But constantly be thinking, if somebody makes a joke to me and says, “Well, you know, I’m kind of introverted. So I don’t know if I’ll fit in here.” I’ll say, “Well, wait a minute, how can we make that work? And it’s not a joke. Let’s talk that through.” Because education is by and large, built for fast-talking risk-taking extroverts. That’s just who education had been built for. And online learning actually changes that game, which is why some students dislike it, and others love it. But they’re all humans out there. So we do have some students who are really struggling now with online learning, who wouldn’t be doing much better in the classroom right along with the people again, who are doing much better because we’re online.
John: And we should try to design our courses to work for all sets of students.
Kevin: There you go.
John: We always end with the question: What’s next?
Kevin: Well, I would say, Todd described how this book evolved over the course of a couple of years. And during that couple year period, this thing called a pandemic happened. So obviously, there’s more that we could be doing. And so I know, for myself, in conference presentations and workshops that I conduct at colleges and universities, I’ve been trying to fill in different gaps to help people with immediate needs that we may not have been able to get to to the book, otherwise it would have been an encyclopedia. We packed that thing full of ideas, but I think Todd just constructed a website. I’d love to find ways to engage the community around the equity challenges that they’re facing and help folks identify what this really looks like in a course. When you’re talking about learning equity or Universal Design for Learning or human connection. These can seem like abstract concepts. And so when you’re saying, “But I’m designing an online course, I need something that I can see.” So getting examples of that, not just by the ones that Todd and I put in the book, but by others. Stories that students tell about things that helped them, those are the things I think would really bolster this book and make it achievable for people who are busy and just trying to help their students. What do you think, Todd?
Todd: I think that’s great, Kevin, and I guess that’s, for me, the same type of thing. We’ve written the book, I think it’s an amazing material, quite frankly, and I’m in awe of it at the end. And I’m not saying that just because I’m the co-author of the book. It’s got so much information packed into it. And so we did set up a website, theexcellentteacherseries.com, because this is part of that series. And it’s going to have information on it. So I think what’s next is what Kevin was just talking about, just continuing to put tips and different suggestions on this so it can be a living project, as opposed to a static book. The book itself kind of launches you and then we have this living project that people come back to and contribute with.
John: Thank you. I really enjoyed reading your book. And I’ll strongly recommend it to our faculty here. And we very much appreciate you taking the time to talk to us.
Todd: Thank you.
Kevin: Thank you.
Rebecca: Yeah, thank you so much for joining us and sharing all of your rich information.
Todd: Appreciate that. Thanks for the opportunity.
Kevin: Yeah, and the chance to have some tea.
Todd: Oh, yeah. Gotta love the tea.
Rebecca: Tea is very important.
Some students thrive in online courses and some students struggle. In this episode, Dr. Becky Cottrell joins us discuss the impact of student characteristics and circumstances on their success in online courses. We also discuss strategies that we can employ in our online classes to help all of our students be more successful. Becky is the online and hybrid course development analyst in the social work department at Metropolitan State University of Denver.
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- Austin, P. C. (2010). Statistical criteria for selecting the optimal number of untreated subjects matched to each treated subject when using many-to-one matching on the propensity score. American journal of epidemiology, 172(9), 1092-1097.
- Hooks, B. (2014). Teaching to Transgress. Routledge.
- Freire, Paulo (2006) . “The banking model of education”. In Provenzo, Eugene F. (ed.). Critical issues in education: an anthology of readings. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications. pp. 105–117.
- Freire, Paulo (1970). Pedagogy of the oppressed. New York: Herder and Herder.
John: Some students thrive in online courses and some students struggle. In this episode, we discuss the impact of student characteristics and circumstances on their success in online courses. We also examine strategies that we can employ in our online classes to help all of our students be more successful.
Rebecca: This podcast series is hosted by John Kane, an economist…
John: …and Rebecca Mushtare, a graphic designer.
John: Our guest today is Dr. Becky Cottrell. Becky is the online and hybrid course development analyst in the social work department at Metropolitan State University of Denver. Welcome, Becky.
Becky: Thanks for having me.
Rebecca: Today’s teas are:
Becky: I’m drinking water today.
John: And I am drinking ginger peach green tea.
Rebecca: And I’ve gotten seasonal with my Christmas tea today.
John: I’ve got to bring that back. I’ve got a lot of it up in the office, along with some cinnamon sticks.
Rebecca: I beat you, John, I beat you this time. [LAUGHTER]
John: I saw your presentation at the OLC Accelerate conference, where you were talking about the research you’ve done on student outcomes in online and face-to-face classes at an Hispanic serving institution. Could you give us an overview of what prompted your interest in the topic, first?
Becky: Absolutely. I have been teaching online for more than six years. And I started working with a number of colleagues who really didn’t think that you could teach Spanish online. And I took that as a challenge and really wanted to teach a really great online Spanish class. And from there, it got me wondering who is taking online classes? I noticed a really big difference between my face-to-face students and my online students. And I wanted to know more about who they were and how they were doing in those classes. And combining that with the fact that we have seen an increase in student enrollments in online classes at our institution and around the country over the last many years, even before COVID, it really seemed important to me to know how students are doing in their online classes and what their grades are and what their outcomes were.
John: And that research becomes even more important when we put it in the context of COVID with the rapid shift online. Many people who were avoiding online instruction like the plague, have suddenly been forced to change their teaching modality.
Rebecca: …due to the plague. [LAUGHTER]
John: So, we can no longer say “avoiding it like the plague” anymore.
Becky: And students are complaining now and you hear students who don’t want to pay Harvard tuition rates for a substandard educational experience in an online class. But, are those experiences really substandard? I really want to know that.
Rebecca: That’s definitely a great question and a really relevant one right now.
John: So, this was your dissertation research?
Becky: It was. So, I just finished my PhD in Curriculum and Instruction. So I did a lot of research about what are student outcomes and what do they look like with different types of curriculum?
Rebecca: Can you talk a little bit about where your study was done?
Becky: Absolutely. So we use a pseudonym for the site. So, Russell University. It’s an urban university in the Mountain West and a very non-traditional population. So, lots of older students, lots of first generation students, veterans, working students, more students who are married… helping raise families. So, not your typical just-out-of-high-school students. It’s an Hispanic serving institution, and has been for the last few years.
John: How large was the sample that you worked with?
Becky: I started looking at every class that had online and face-to-face enrollments over two academic years, and at a large institution that ended up with 156,000 total course enrollments. But the statistical method that I was using doesn’t let one student be in the treatment group and the control group. So we had to aggregate students. And so I aggregated them down. There ended up being 28,000 students in the study. And from there, I just wanted to look at the ones who were taking mostly online classes, or mostly face-to-face classes. So those who were in that top 25% or bottom 25%, in terms of online enrollment, ended up being 7765 students over the course of two years.
John: That’s a nice sized sample. In many institutions, you have some students who are only online students, some students are only face-to-face. It sounds like there was a bit of a continuum there.
Becky: Certainly there were some who were all online or all face-to-face. It wasn’t something that I specifically looked at in my study, so I can’t pull out specific numbers of that. But yes, we definitely had students in the study who were entirely online and entirely face-to-face.
John: In terms of the online classes, were they developed with the assistance of instructional designers?
Becky: That’s a really interesting question. And the answer basically, is I have no idea. It wasn’t one of the things that I looked at in the study, I was looking more at student characteristics than course characteristics. That said, Russell University has a really robust online offering. Over the last 20 years, they have increased their online course offerings a great deal, and particularly in the last five years have really ramped up their efforts to develop courses and have really excellent quality matters certified courses at the university. That doesn’t mean that all of our courses meet that standard. But it has been an institutional goal and one of the things that they’ve worked on. but I was just looking at student demographics when I was looking at the study. Partly that’s hard because we have students who are taking maybe 20 different classes, and so they could have had one or two that were developed through an instructional designer, but the others may not have been. So, no real way of knowing.
John: The outcome you were looking at specifically was student success in the course?
Becky: Yes, so I measured student success in two different ways. The first way was looking at student grades, which we measured by course GPAs that was aggregated based on their course enrollments. And the other one was withdrawal rate. So, what was their percentage of withdrawals during the courses that they were taking during the two-year sample?
John: One of the things I found really interesting about your study is that you use a methodology that took into account sample selection in a way that so many education studies don’t. And you suggested the reason for that, I think, when you said that your online students were quite a bit different than your face-to-face students. Could we talk a little bit about that issue of sample selection in studies of this nature?
Becky: Absolutely. This is a really common problem in educational research, that you have something called selection bias. And I think that those of us who teach are aware that our students who enroll in 8 am classes are really different than the students who enroll in 2 pm classes. And we see some of those similar things with online classes versus face-to-face classes. It’s just a really different group and personality of those students. And what happens is students get to sign up for their own classes. There’s nobody randomly controlling them into different classes. They pick the ones that they want with the teachers that they want at the times that they want and in the course modality that they want. And we don’t know why. So that’s part of what I wanted to look at in this research is: what students are enrolling in online classes and what students are enrolling in face-to-face and why? Is there a balance between the groups? Are they really similar? Or are they really different? And so what I found was that there are different students who are enrolling in online classes versus face-to-face classes, which is not unexpected. As an example here, we found that students who are working full time were more likely to take online classes, which makes sense, they need to take the online classes because it fits better with their schedule and has greater flexibility to match their work schedule. But at the same time, what impact does that have on course outcomes? Does it mean that they are really motivated because they have a full-time job, so they’re going to get better course grades? Or does it mean that they are working full time and they’re managing a family and if something comes up, they’re going to put their schoolwork to the side because other things are more important. So selection bias, and the way that students self selected to classes, really changes how they might perform in those classes. Which brings us to that question of are those student course outcomes based on the online course modality? Or are they based on the characteristics that made students choose the online course modality?
John: When you didn’t control for student characteristics, what did you find in terms of comparing the outcomes in online classes with face-to-face classes?
Becky: One of the things that was really interesting here is that those students who were taking 75%, or more online classes actually had significantly better grades in their online classes than they did in face-to-face classes. So the online course GPA for those students taking 75% or more online classes was 2.55. And for those taking face-to-face classes was only 2.34. So definitely a significant difference and higher grades in online classes, which is not what I was expecting. Then, with regard to withdrawal rates, we had totally different results, which is that there was no significant difference in withdrawal rates among the two groups before balancing for those 15 different student characteristics.
Rebecca: Can you talk a little bit about what those 15 characteristics were and how you chose those?
Becky: Absolutely. I used Tinto’s student integration model to look at what characteristics he felt contributed to student success and persistence in the institution. So, I ended up with 15, different personal characteristics related to students. So, a lot of demographic characteristics: age, race, gender, those sorts of issues. We tried to get academic performance through GPA, transfer status, transfer GPA, ACT scores, SAT scores, those sorts of things. We also tried to determine institutional commitment through if they had a declared major. And the one area that we would have liked to have more, but wasn’t available in an institutional data set, was something related to like computer literacy and other skills that were related to performance in an online class, but it just wasn’t something that was available. So 15 different characteristics, including those demographics, academics, and just connection to the institution.
John: So you were using a nearest neighbor matching with, I believe, a two-to-one ratio?
John: Could you describe that, perhaps, for our listeners?
Rebecca: …for people like me that have no idea what that even means? [LAUGHTER]
Becky: So the methodology that I used was kind of an interesting statistical method called the propensity score analysis. And basically what a propensity score analysis does is matches people who are in the treatment group with people who are in the control group. So it creates kind of an artificial match to say this is now one person and what would have happened if they’d been in treatment or if they’d been in control. So it takes all of those characteristics and assigns them a score, and from there can divvy them up and say they are likely to be in treatment or control and it recreates those groups. And that matching allows them to determine the probability of them being in treatment or control groups, which essentially controls for the characteristics that you’ve loaded into the model.
John: To simplify it a bit, you’re comparing people who are similar in characteristics and examining the outcomes when adjusting for those characteristics.?
Becky: That is a great explanation… very concise. And the idea of the nearest neighbor two-to-one matching is basically that for each person who’s in the online class, we found two matching people in the control group. So we tried to keep as many students as possible in the final outcome.
John: And there have been at least some studies that are found one-to-one or two-to-one gives you the best estimates with the least amount of bias from that procedure..
Becky: Absolutely, yes. When there’s a one-to-one match, you get a lot better balance, because you can obviously find a matching student in the online or the face-to-face class that is the best fit. But when you start matching more students, it’s not quite as good of a fit, so you don’t deal with balance quite as well. And speaking of balance, I’m going to jump in and tell you about this right now, just because I think that’s interesting, and one of the great parts about propensity scores is this idea that the first thing that a propensity score model does is say, “Are these groups the same? Are your online groups the same as the face-to-face group?” And what we found out is that they aren’t. And I thought this was a really interesting piece of my research. So they were totally different, different enrollment patterns. and there were about eight characteristics that were significantly different. And this is where I think it’s so fascinating. So we had more part-time students in the online classes… not surprising… but they had higher ACT scores, more transfer students, more credits taken, they were more experienced students, they had higher GPAs, they were more likely to have a declared major and they were all older. So the better students were taking online classes, which is so fascinating to me, and explains ultimately, why we had higher course grades in our baseline data. Students who are better students were taking online classes, where those beginning students who were younger, who had less experience, were taking the face-to-face classes. So I just thought that was fascinating, that it was imbalanced. But it really gave a good picture as to why we were getting the outcomes we were at the institution.
Rebecca: It’ll be interesting to have some follow up studies related to COVID-19 around those ideas, because just anecdotally, students who are newer to being online, or just newer college students, have struggled quite a bit with online learning or complained about it, or just don’t know how to manage their time and those kinds of things. And it seems related to the kinds of findings that you’ve had.
Becky: Absolutely. And I think across the country, we’re seeing that those upperclassmen stay enrolled and are succeeding through these COVID transition. But it’s the underclassmen who are taking a gap year or who are failing out of classes. So I think that these results speak to that, that those students maybe aren’t prepared for an online class,
John: What happened to your results in terms of student success, when you corrected for the sample selection?
Becky: This is so fascinating. After controlling for that balance, we had originally had, in our baseline data, better scores, better course grades in online classes, and after controlling for those characteristics, there was no significant difference in course grades between online and face-to-face courses, which is awesome, it’s really exciting to know that maybe we’re doing something right. And so that was really exciting. But, at the same time, our baseline data had said that there was a non-significant difference in withdrawal rates. But after controlling, we found that there was a significant increase in withdrawal rates, and online classes had higher withdrawal rates, by about 2%, than face-to-face classes.
John: I think that’s a fairly common result, that online students often have much higher withdrawal rates than face-to-face classes.
Becky: Right. The grades are really promising. And I’m glad to know that those course outcomes are doing well. But when we start looking at withdrawal rates, it brings up some really interesting questions about how are we engaging students and why do we have bigger withdrawal rates in those online classes.
Rebecca: I was just going to ask if your research led you to believe anything about those results? If it was this particular characteristic or a teaching method? Or are those just new questions that we need to continue asking? [LAUGHTER]
Becky: I think they are mostly new questions that we need to continue asking. But there are some implications in the literature that I think lead us to some possibilities here. One of the big ones is that sense of community and connection in online classes, students really want to feel that, and if they don’t, they’re more likely to drop out from those classes. And so it’s definitely a consideration as we’re looking at more online classes is how are we building community? And how are we engaging with our students in that online space to make sure that they’re able to connect with their instructor and connect with other students in the class? I think that another factor that we see is who are taking these online classes: so students who are more engaged with families, they’re older, they’re working full time, therefore taking fewer classes. I think that those factors can contribute to their persistence or not in these online spaces. So, definitely some of those issues are there and we know what some of those reasons are. And I would love to do some future follow up research on what really is happening at this particular institution.
Rebecca: I know you had also mentioned high-impact practices and trying to incorporate more of those, like inviting students to do research and things. I’m wondering if we have any data on how prevalent that might actually be in online learning compared to face-to-face learning. How often are those opportunities actually there?
Becky: I totally agree. It would be so interesting to look at what are those impacts? And what is the prevalence of those high-impact practices? I think there’s a lot of research about what we can do to do better. And I think that even from this research that for my dissertation was almost obsolete by the time I defended my dissertation, because COVID happened, but one of the things that we can be doing better, and I think we have started is providing greater access to student services in those online spaces that students maybe before didn’t have access to advising, registration… they didn’t have a good way to connect with people who are on campus. And I think so many of our institutions have had to move towards a much better practice with that. When we went online for months, they had to figure out how to do that. And I think that we’ll keep that around and providing better services to students. And that will definitely help keep them enrolled in classes and keep them from stopping out and persisting at the institution.
Rebecca: Nothing like a pandemic to really force some innovation, right? [LAUGHTER]
Becky: It’s true, but it’s been so much fun. I love seeing that innovation and how we’re benefiting our students. I also love seeing a little more attention towards online teaching, We were the ugly stepchild before and now everyone is excited to learn about this new thing and how they can do it better.
John: It’s gone from being an ugly stepchild to a savior in some way.
Becky: Yeah, absolutely. Think about the last pandemic with the Spanish flu. What happened to their education at that point? We didn’t have online learning. Did they have distance education? What even happened with that?
John: If this has happened 20 years ago, it would have been a completely different experience with a lot of colleges just completely shutting down or moving to some type of correspondence class instruction.
Rebecca: Which I don’t think would have gone well. [LAUGHTER]
John: Which would not have gone very well.
Becky: No, definitely 20 years ago, I think that right now we can say we have similar course outcomes in online and face-to-face classes. But 20 years ago, I would have been one of those students who was protesting at Harvard about paying tuition for a substandard educational experience, [LAUGHTER]
John: What are some of the things that you would recommend doing to help build class community?
Becky: I’m so glad that you asked about this, because this is one of the other personal interests that I have. I’ve been working with a faculty learning community for the last two and a half years around developing instructor presence in an online class. And so I love talking about this, I think that there are a lot of ways that we can really develop connections among instructors and students, and also among students. So one of the best practices that I’ve seen is making sure that teachers have an opportunity to connect one-on-one with their students, whether that’s sending out an email a time or two during the semester, or requiring students to meet with them, at the beginning of the semester or at midterms, throughout the semester, to be able to develop that one-on-one Zoom connection to just be able to have a little bit of face time with students. But I think that works really well. So making sure that there is an opportunity to connect on a human level. When we teach online, we tend to be really text heavy and dry. And taking that human element that we love in a face-to-face class and pulling it out in an online space is so valuable for students, and really helps them to connect with each other and with their instructor. It’s one of those inclusive teaching practices that we do really well face-to-face, but is a little bit harder to do online, and if we’re intentional about it, it can happen. In terms of developing community among students, I think that as much as there’s resistance towards group work, I think that you can intentionally use it to develop community in your classes. And this isn’t just a “Hey, you should write a paper together and divide up the work,” it’s intentionally using that as a community building opportunity. And letting students know that that’s your intention is you want that to be community building. So one of the things I’ve always done in my Spanish classes is have students meet in small conversation groups once a week to have conversation practice with each other. And there’s always a little bit of resistance, and students aren’t so sure that they want to do it. But I have them fill out a survey to let me know what time they’re available. And it’s just a group of three students. They meet every week, and they have a great time talking with each other and get that oral communication practice they need. It also ends up being one of their favorite parts of the class. They develop connections with other students. And I hear all the time about students who actually meet in person and go out for coffee. I had one student who was taking a class from Florida and another student who was in Denver, and the Denver student had to go to Florida for something and stopped and went to go visit the Florida student in person, they went and hung out together. So I think there are just really interesting human personal connections that can be made. And leaving space for that to happen is so important. I think we get too focused on academics and lose those moments at the beginning or the end of a class where we spend a few minutes talking about nothing or the weather or the football game last weekend. And leaving that space in an online class and making sure that you have some space for that, really helps to develop those connections.
Rebecca: I definitely have experienced that this semester with my students who have had persistent groups all semester. They have said multiple times how helpful that has been for them, and they just did a reflection activity and almost every single student said “Oh, being in those groups was the best part…” which we never hear about group work, right? [LAUGHTER]. But they got to know each other and they had support through the class and used that as a way to help each other out with the course material.
Becky: Absolutely. I love that. It’s so amazing when students can get that connection and really work together.
John: I had a similar experience in my online class where I had students work on podcasts. And the first time they met, generally, is when they met in small groups to have these conversations and recorded them using Zoom. And they were supposed to be 5- to 10-minute podcasts, but many of them ended up being dramatically longer because, essentially, they were getting to know each other. It was kind of nice to see that sort of engagement and that interaction where they were getting to form this community. It would have been nice if they had recorded just a shorter segment of it. But I did get to listen in on some of those initial meetings. And it was an interesting experience.
Becky: And I agree, I signed my students to only speak for 30 minutes, and they only had to record 15 minutes of that. But the timer would tell me how long they’d been in and many of them would be in there for 45 minutes to an hour, sometimes an hour and a half… that they would just spend that time together, practicing and talking. And it was great. It was just fun to see that connection, that they went above and beyond what we’d asked them to do.
Rebecca: So drop out rates for something that you mentioned that your research pointed to this was one of the biggest issues that we needed to be thinking about in terms of online education. So in addition to instructor presence and helping students formulate community, do you have any other recommendations for faculty or instructors to help mitigate that or get students to stay? …to retain students?
Becky: Absolutely. So we’ve talked about access to student support services, building a community, some of those high-impact practices that we don’t always think about in online spaces is making sure that students have the ability to collaborate with faculty, like on a research project, especially at a Hispanic serving institution. It’s a culture where those connections are really important. And making sure to provide those to students so that there’s an opportunity to connect with faculty on working on something meaningful is really important. So as faculty, we can make sure that we’re selecting students, when we’re thinking about TAs, research assistants, make sure that we’re thinking about some of our online students as well and see if that might be a good fit for them. And one of the things that I also think about in terms of improving retention is this connection and relationship between the faculty and the student is so important. But in order to do that, we know our faculty are overworked and underpaid, and to make sure that there’s institutional support for faculty, is really important. And so making sure that there’s access to instructional design and pedagogical training through some of the resources available at the institution is a big deal, making sure that there is a collaborative opportunity for faculty to work together and share best practices and generally just supporting faculty. As we hold on to faculty, it gives them more bandwidth to hold on to their students. So institutional support is a really big deal to benefit our students as well.
Rebecca: And one that we can’t underscore enough when faculty are feeling really strained. [LAUGHTER]
Becky: No, absolutely not, not in 2020. And here we are. I don’t know about other institutions, but we’re being furloughed. And so we’re asked to do more and have fewer resources.
John: …while being at further risk in terms of employment risk, as well as all the health risks out there.
Becky: Oh, there’s so much going on.
John: You mentioned forming connections between faculty and students, and one way of certainly selecting students to be TAs, and so forth. But, what are some of the things instructors can do in their courses to help form those connections within online classes,
Becky: One of the things that we’ve really found that is helpful is moving away from a really static discussion board. We see a lot of classes where instructors say, ‘Tell me three things that you learned from this reading,” or “What are three of the five methods that are used to do whatever it is”. And those are really boring discussion boards and do not foster community, but asking questions that really encourage students to engage in a debate, in a conversation, and teaching them how to engage with each other appropriately and respectfully in an online space is really important. So asking them to solve problems together, asking them to work together, not shying away from difficult conversations. This election year has had a lot of challenges, and engaging with those in a student class in a way that allows them to bring in their own unique perspectives helps them to connect. Some of that might be through a discussion board. Some of it might be through a tool like Flipgrid that allows you to have students have a video discussion where they get to record a short video and then reply to each other. That really fosters that sense of connection and community in an online space. So allowing for that to happen is really important. We can move away from a boring discussion board to either a better discussion board or some of these other tools that foster community.
John: Flipgrid or VoiceThread or other similar tools offer a lot more possibilities for connection and hearing each other’s voices and hearing their instructor’s voice I think should help to create that sense of community more so than just reading text on a screen.
Becky: …and videos also. That, if we are recording videos, we can see the instructor, we can see the other students… having a face to put to a name. And having just a little bit of personal information… knowing that I smile and laugh, and I am an engaging person, I think, helps to connect with the course.
John: Humanizing the instructor is a phrase that’s often used, letting them hear you, hear your voice and your sense of humor, letting people know you as a person rather than just as the author of these words that show up on the screen all over the place is helpful.
Rebecca: …and humanizing the other students in the class. If it’s just a name, it’s really easy to not really think of that name as a person, the more you see and hear, not only as an instructor, but also fellow students, I think, can be really beneficial. So I think that students eat up the media when it’s available to them.
John: And helping them make connections to their own life in their discussion. If they’re going to have discussion boards, one way of doing it effectively might be to have them make connections, where they draw on what they’re learning and make connections from their own life and experiences and share them, which also is a nice way of forming that sense of human presence in the classroom.
Becky: Absolutely. With a PhD in curriculum, I feel like I hold in my two hands two different things. So on the one hand, I have the curriculum and the course objectives and the aligned assessments and all of those things, and I think they’re so important. In my other hand, I’m holding on to the importance of people like bell hooks and Paulo Freire, and that reminder that we need to be transgressing some of these lines of our existing education and decolonizing our educational experience and humanizing it to make sure that we’re making real personal connections with the content, with the instructor. And so those are the two things that I carry with me as I’m working in my own classes in this and I’m helping faculty develop their courses is, “How do you balance those two things?” That is so hard, and I think in online classes, we do really well with the alignment and the course objectives and the assessments. And sometimes that humanizing part feels like it falls by the wayside.
John: But they’re not necessarily substitutes, they could be complementary. If you design assignments well, where they’re engaging in these authentic interactions, while achieving the learning objectives, it’s more work trying to design that, but there are some things you can do that can work fairly well.
Becky: I think there are wonderful faculty out there who are doing really great things, those are just the two things I try to always carry with me to make sure that I don’t leave one of them behind.
Rebecca: I think it’s really important to think about those two. So, it’s a nice reminder. And I think actually a nice way to wrap up the conversation, because it’s the two things to keep in mind as you move forward. Having those little takeaways at the end is always helpful. So we always wrap up by asking what’s next?
Becky: For me, I am really excited to dig into some of this qualitative side of things that we’ve talked about today. As I said, I love that hard quantitative research, but I’m also really interested in the humanizing element of it and that instructor presence. So I’ve been working with this faculty learning community for the last two and a half years, and we have developed an online instructor presence self-evaluation tool that we are presenting at OLC in the spring. So we’re really excited to be able to share that with some other people about how you connect with people and how we engage in our classes. So we’re excited to move forward with some of that. And just see what is happening with COVID? How has that changed things? And how might we rethink how we’re teaching online?
John: It’s just something that people would be using on a longitudinal basis to track how their classes evolved? Or is it just used in general as an instrument to share with faculty?
Becky: What we’ve intended it as is a way for people to self assess. So we didn’t want it to be a rubric. We don’t want it to be point based. We wanted it to be conversational, and a way to go in and reflect on your own teaching and consider ways that you could improve. And so absolutely, the way that we’ve designed the tool is it has a “What are my strengths? and ”What could be improved?” area on each of it. And so it would be really interesting to come back and say, you know, I did this last semester, what does that look like this semester? What am I changing? How am I improving? S o I think it absolutely could be used longitudinally.
Rebecca: That tool that you’re talking about sounds really great. So I hope we can have you back so we can talk about that in the future.
Becky: I would love to… only if I can invite a part of our faculty learning community
Rebecca: Of course.
Becky: It was a group effort. It’s one of those things that we couldn’t have done it without each other. We’ve just been in each other’s support system. And when we first found out that our institution was going online, we had a meeting scheduled for that Friday, and we talked about canceling and everyone’s like, “No, these are the people that I need.” And so we all met that Friday that we were moving online, and we haven’t seen each other since in person, but we were just that group. We’re like, “No, I need my support group.” So, I would come back and talk about it, but only if I can bring my FLC with me.
Rebecca: [LAUGHTER] It sounds important to do so. Well, thank you so much for joining us today. It’s been a great conversation and we look forward to hearing more research from you, Becky.
Becky: Well, awesome. Thanks so much. It’s been a pleasure to visit with both of you.
John: Thanks for joining us. We’re looking forward to talking to you again.
A college degree, especially in one of the STEM fields, can provide students with higher incomes, more stable employment prospects, and more pleasant working conditions. Many students who could benefit from a college degree face a variety of barriers that prevent them from successfully completing their degree. In this episode, Jill Lansing joins us to discuss what colleges and universities can do to help smooth the educational journey from Pre-K to college and to careers for all of our students. Jill is an Assistant Vice Chancellor and Director of Education Pipeline Initiatives at the State University of New York. Before moving to this position in 2009, she had been the Coordinator of P-16 Strategic Planning for the New York State Department of Education.
- National Center for Education Statistics (NCES)
- NCES Data Institute
- Education Trust
- Community College Resource Center
- Jobs for the Future
- Bailey, Thomas (2017). Guided Pathways at Community Colleges. Association of American Colleges and Universities.
- AACC Pathways Project
- Strong Start to Finish
- Smart Scholars – NYSED
- SUNY Faculty Council of Community Colleges
- National Science Foundation
- Battelle Institute
- Empire State STEM Learning Network
- Educational Opportunity Program (EOP)
- Liberty Partnership Program
- Science and Technology Entry Program (STEP)
- Collegiate Science and Technology Entry Program (CSTEP)
- Boards of Cooperative Educational Services (BOCES)
- Engineering Students offer a Helping Hand by Designing 3D-Printed Prosthetics. SUNY Buffalo Campus News. September 9, 2020.
- The Journal of Higher Education
- Army Education Opportunity Program
- Education Trust
John: A college degree, especially in one of the STEM fields, can provide students with higher incomes, more stable employment prospects, and more pleasant working conditions. Many students who could benefit from a college degree face a variety of barriers that prevent them from successfully completing their degree. In this episode, we discuss what colleges and universities can do to help smooth the educational journey from Pre-K to college and to careers for all of our students.
Rebecca: This podcast series is hosted by John Kane, an economist…
John: …and Rebecca Mushtare, a graphic designer.
Rebecca: Our guest today is Jill Lansing. She is an Assistant Vice Chancellor and Director of Education Pipeline Initiatives at the State University of New York. Before moving to this position in 2009, Jill had been the Coordinator of P-16 Strategic Planning for the New York State Department of Education. Welcome, Jill.
John: Welcome, Jill.
Jill: Thanks so much for having me today. It’s really truly an honor and a privilege to be here. And
John: Today’s teas are:
Jill: I’m drinking iced tea because of the podcast, and some water.
Rebecca: It’s a little cold outside for me to have iced tea today, but I have Big Red Sun again. And as you can see, I am drinking my way through one whole canister of the same tea. [LAUGHTER]
John: I am drinking Tea Forte’s Earl Grey today.
Rebecca: So Jill, we’ve invited you here today to talk a little bit about your work on educational pathways. Can you tell us a little bit about your role?
Jill: About 10 years ago, almost 11 years ago now, I started at the State University of New York in this role to really try to help to strengthen the alignment between K through 12 education and higher education and adult education, also encouraging adults to return to college. And it has been such an amazing opportunity, I have to say. It’s amazing, It’s been 10 years already, 11 years to think about this pathway. But, I think the idea was, many of the faculty that are listening today have been doing it forever. So they know what works and what doesn’t work. What we did when we started this work about 10 years ago was to really try to create more opportunities to bring resources to the table for faculty at our colleges. So the idea was really, and I’ve been lucky in this regard, was really to figure out what grant opportunities we could apply for, what pathways were available that we could actually say: “This works. This doesn’t” …to try to avoid places where people have had difficulties in the past. So, I spend a lot of my time actually learning from the faculty at SUNY about what does work, and then also try to bring resources to those things that are successful. Before my role at SUNY, I was working as the coordinator of P-16 strategic planning for the State Education Department. And I worked in many different capacities there, one of the places that I worked, that I loved the most, was working in the Office of the Professions and Higher Education. And in the professions, I was so new, I was a graduate student when I started and I got the opportunity to be in the role of the public management internship program at the time, which was to really try to create opportunities for new people to have the opportunity to learn about the government and learn about public administration. And so the idea was to create a public information campaign around career opportunities in the professions like architecture, dentistry, engineering, nursing. And so I was able to learn about so many opportunities there, there are nearly 45 licensed professionals in New York State, all opportunities for students to have career opportunities in. And also from there, I was able to work in the Office of Higher Education, and also the Office of at the time, it was Elementary, Secondary and Continuing Education. And so I really did get to see all of the amazing work that goes on in the State Education Department to support students, and also the pathways that are available for student success. So it really gave me an idea of what we could do at SUNY to really support students beginning at the very early age of pre-kindergarten all the way through elementary school, secondary school, and then into college. So lots of good experience that led to, hopefully, better outcomes for students,
John: What are some of the barriers or the challenges that students face as they move along their educational pathways in the state.
Jill: So I always like to start with opportunities. [LAUGHTER] But I think that barriers are real. In fact, they very much are real. So last year, I had the great opportunity to work with the National Center for Education Statistics as part of the Data Institute team to kind of look at the data and to find out some of those barriers. So, we did some regression analyses, and one of the things that we knew were true, but it really became evident in the numbers, is that economics and race matter. My dissertation was around college choice. And it’s amazing to me that, when the odds are stacked against you when you’re looking for college, that puts you in an unbelievable place where you’re really trying to figure out how to go about college choice, how to go about succeeding in college. So we really do try to look at that in the beginning. But barriers are, you know, your a risk for college. The Education Trust has been an enormous resource for us. They were looking at things like student suspensions in high school. It’s a demoralizer, it also really places students behind where they could be if they didn’t have to experience those kinds of challenges in their high school. So, I would say that the barriers are real, and we’re trying, through our programming, to really address those barriers. I also think another barrier is, and I know a lot of our faculty are interested in this, it has to do with the growth mindset and to what extent is students believe they have the ability to succeed and I think that pervades all economic lines and it’s really an important thing to keep in mind because, as faculty are thinking about how do we work with new students, and they’ve given me so much advice, as we look for money and programming, how do you really try to build a student up and help to empower them as they try to be successful in college? So, I think the barriers are real. And we really need to think about that. And it’s good to have this opportunity to talk about what we can do to really make a difference.
John: What does the data suggest is effective in helping students overcome some of these challenges?
Jill: That’s a great question. And there are so many data points that help to think about what the challenges are, and how to create change around the barriers. So one of the things we’ve been working on right now in collaboration with the Community College Resource Consortium, and also Jobs for the Future is the idea of Guided Pathways. For a long time, students would come into college, particularly in community colleges, and take courses that they were interested in, but didn’t necessarily count toward their major. So, they would take some courses, they weren’t sure what major they were interested in studying, and then they would take some courses, and then they may or may not add up to the total number of credits they need to graduate. So, we’ve been trying to really focus in on college completion and graduation. And that consortium has led us to become part of something called Strong Start to Finish, which is a national initiative to try to get students to complete gateway courses in their first year of college. So, really try to focus in on what matters, also try to avoid remediation through co-requisite coursework, and also opportunities where students don’t have to kind of get behind in their classes and can really kind of get up to speed on what they need to complete their gateway courses. So, that’s been very helpful. And also the Guided Pathways Initiative. If you talk to college presidents across the state, they are head over heels about Guided Pathways. So students enroll in college, they enroll in a meta major, instead of necessarily a particular major, and really try to take the courses in the very beginning of their curriculum that would lead to success in the health sciences professions, Hospitality and Culinary Institute, business professions. So, it’s not we’re asking high school students to make a decision right away about their major, but kind of “tell us what you’re interested in, and then we can connect you with the courses that would actually add up to success.” Because, I think, where the Community College Research Consortium has found many students fall away from college is when it’s not adding up to their degree program or to their area of interest. So, that’s been very powerful. Another area is our P-Tech and Smart Scholars programs that have been guided by faculty, and I’ll say the Faculty Council of Community Colleges, in the very beginning of any early High School initiatives, put in place standards for what quality looks like. And one of the things I was going to talk about later, but I’ll say it now, because it’s so critical, is that rigor matters. So, when faculty put rigorous standards in place, it inspires students to succeed. And I think that they feel a different benchmark about where they’re supposed to be in their collegiate life. So I think rigor matters, and I applaud all those faculty who do this day in and day out, because it’s hard. It is hard in times of COVID-19, it’s hard every day, but just to keep the rigorous standards in place, and then support students on that pathway really matters. So, those are some opportunities, many more. We were able to, a couple of years ago, win a grant from the National Science Foundation, and also from Battelle Institute to help our graduate students work with middle school students to be, in their words, deputized as scientists beginning fourth, fifth and sixth grade in high need school districts. And having the connection between the graduate students and the middle school students was powerful, and all this was under the direction of faculty in our colleges. So, we had our scientists, across SUNY, overseeing this effort. And their ability to really create opportunities for these middle school students, who otherwise would never have had the chance to become scientists in laboratories at our SUNY Colleges, was huge. So I think that there are so many examples that I could share with you, but the ones where I think faculty, graduate students, aspiring faculty, put their passion and their heart into it, as well as their intellect and rigor, those are the ones that really matter for our students.
Rebecca: I wanted to follow up on the picking a major piece a little bit, because I think that is a real struggle for students when they head into colleges with an expectation of like, “Well, what are you going to do when you grow up? What are you going to study?” And the names of majors are so abstract to students, and there’s many careers that students have no idea even exist, and if you’re already in academia, you might have a clearer vision of what those things can lead to, but our students just don’t, and there’s no reason for them to know that
Jill: Exactly. When I was an undergraduate student, physical therapy and occupational therapy were big majors in my school and I didn’t know what they were at all. So the idea of helping students to come into a major in health sciences really will allow them to understand what opportunities are available to them. Another resource I should talk about is a resource called the Empire State STEM Learning Network. And in my career, one of the things that I’ve learned is that often when grants are distributed to an organization, the project period ends when the grant period ends. And one of the lucky things that I’ve been a part of, thanks to the regional leadership across the state, is something called the Empire State STEM Learning Network. And the idea for the STEM Learning Network was to bring together educators and business leaders in regions across the state to really focus on the educational pathway that leads to jobs in healthcare, in manufacturing, in Information Sciences, and architecture, and so many other fields. And I will say that one of the things that made the Empire State STEM Learning Network successful was the commitment regionally to develop partnerships to help lead students into careers. Because, you’re right, students don’t really know what they want, necessarily, in the very beginning of their life. But once they have the experience to be exposed to these opportunities, then all of a sudden, that could open the door for them and really spark an interest in them that we hadn’t thought about before. And even if they don’t go into architecture, maybe they would be interested in something related in engineering, or in teaching architecture. So I think the spark matters. And you’re absolutely right, Rebecca, it’s a really good question, because how would you know what the opportunities are for you? But really trying to create a level of interest with the students and also a level of “I can do it, this is real for me,” that really does matter. And I think our faculty, I mean, I’m talking to our faculty, and I’m so honored, because our faculty are often the drivers of everything that we do, and you know what drives students, what motivates them, and how to really think about what their needs are. And I think young high school students, I am always amazed at what they can do when they see exemplars of success, and also when they understand rigor. But also, I would say, in the way of how to be successful, I think we need to meet students where they are. One of the things that we learned from our colleagues at the Community College Research Consortium was that remediation can be very detrimental to students… the word remediation, the idea behind “I need to still catch up.” But, instead, trying to help to develop the skills that the student is interested in. So astrophysics is a big dream. But really, if you start, piece by piece, level by level, it can be a possibility, or another career option in that same field or discipline could also be possible for students. So really trying to motivate the students to success, I would say, but you’re right, students figure out what they want right off the bat when they’re coming to college is really a challenge.
John: What types of approaches have been effective in overcoming gaps in prior education? Because one of the main issues is that there’s quite a bit of disparity in the amount of training that students receive in their high schools, and that’s tied to a whole host of issues related to funding and housing segregation and other issues. While remedial work can be discouraging, or just even the term “remediation” is discouraging, what strategies have you seen that have been effective in helping students bridge any gaps in their background, to help them get to speed more quickly without being faced with a whole sequence of courses needed to enter, say, the STEM fields?
Jill: Precisely. So, good question. I would say to look at the following programs for good benchmarks and good outcomes data, Educational Opportunity Program (EOP), the EOC, the Liberty Partnerships Program, also very powerful. STEP and CSTEP have been incredible about meeting students where they are and getting the students where they need to be P-Tech has been amazing. And I think the best P-Tech programs and the best early college programs, the best programs that we have across the board, are those that are led by faculty who are determined to help students succeed. For example, in our community colleges, which are open access, and many students come to as the first opportunity they have to enroll in higher education, where there are collaborative opportunities for the students to participate in STEM research opportunities, that is so powerful, it almost closes the gap in the way of letting students have the opportunity to become scientists. I was talking earlier about programs where we worked in our middle schools to help our graduate students come to the middle school students and talk about “Here are opportunities for you to become a deputized scientist.” So, then when that student actually comes to community college, and they’re saying, “Oh, I’m gonna research climate change with my faculty member,” or whatever the research opportunity may be, it becomes a way for the student to see themselves in that career. And then they understand the pathway to the career. So I can’t say enough about the hard work of faculty in this effort, because (and this is my own experience as well), is that faculty in my life have taught me how to think. And I often tell students in high school that college is a place where they can learn to think. And they think that they’re behind the eight ball in some ways, and that they feel like they have to tell the professor about how much they know. And, instead, if you listen to faculty, and I’ve worked with both of you, and you’ve been teaching me about, like, how to think about this, how to think about talking to people, how to think about getting a message out, and I think often new college students feel that they have to prove themselves versus they can learn something, and you’re actually willing to help them. [LAUGHTER] So, I wanted to share an example. A couple years ago, I was interested in the process of statistical process controls as a way of thinking about, “Well, if we are trying to achieve student success at scale, how can we look at numbers and data to help us do that?” So, I was thinking that statistical process control could be helpful in higher education, about seeing trends over time, seeing when there are differences, and why there are differences. Maybe, perhaps, that the spring semester wasn’t working out for students because of X, Y and Z. And the faculty, again, provide such leadership, maybe we could learn from one another. So anyway, I went to this course on statistical process control that was offered by SUNY Polytechnic Institute. And there with me, were three Community College faculty. And they were interested in statistical process control, because they wanted to be able to integrate that curriculum into their coursework. They said, “So many students are coming to us, and they’re interested in manufacturing and machining. And they keep talking about statistical process control.” So they were seeing how can we integrate those into our work, so that the learning opportunities are more aligned with their goals, professionally and personally. And so I thought it was really amazing that these faculties sought out these professional development opportunities to really try to make learning matter for the students and make it something that they were interested in that they could actually apply to their jobs. And I think we talk a lot about workforce, we also are talking about educating a citizenry, and especially with the political climate change, I think we really have an opportunity. We’ve learned a lot in 2020, about COVID-19, about our responsibilities to citizens in this country, African-American citizens in particular. We focus a lot about Black Lives Matter. And after the passing of George Floyd and so many other unfortunate events this year, we’ve learned a lot about why we really have to be focused in on those liberal arts opportunities, and also about governance, and religion. And we need to have active citizens in this country. And I think that is equally important. Often, we talk a lot about STEM and job opportunities, but we have to think about the big picture. And I think that our faculty are leaders in that work. And so, to the extent that we can learn from them, and, again, create opportunities that help to advance our agenda. is really powerful.
John: A couple of times you mentioned P-Tech, for those listeners who may not be familiar with that, could you describe that program and how it works.
Jill: So the P-Tech program has been a program that is being led by IBM, and they’ve been really a front runner in this work. And they’ve put a lot of thought into how to connect high school faculty, high school programs with our colleges, and then also with workforce opportunities in high need fields. And I think that it’s been an awesome opportunity for our students. They are able to enroll in the P-Tech program as high school students, free of charge to students and their families. And I would also add, at this point too, that one of the big assets of SUNY is affordability. And so there are often times where students can actually earn SUNY degrees free of charge. And that is really incredible to graduate debt free. That also reduces a lot of the burdens that we talked about in the very beginning, around economic burdens, challenges around race, all of these opportunities are now readily available to students. So that’s been very powerful through the P-Tech program. And I think the P-Tech program is something that we can model across the board. And we have tried to do that in collaboration with regional BOCES, regional K-12 leaders, to actually develop a scope and sequence of courses beginning in grade 12, that continues on to higher education and then into the workforce. So, what happens is K-12 leaders, community college faculty (also many of our technical colleges also have P-Tech programs), and our business leaders come around the table together. And they think about what would a student need in order to be successful in life and in business in the long term. And I think what it develops is a real true camaraderie that allows successful programming development to happen. What is fortunate about the P-Tech is that it is enabled by grants from the State Education Department. So it does provide opportunities for faculty at K-12, faculty at higher education, business leaders to come together. But that seems to be very powerful when college faculty can also work with K-12 faculty to find out what the needs are, where the gaps are, and how they can work together to try to mitigate those gaps. So, often what I heard when I interview faculty in our community colleges in our technical colleges is that often they are unaware of some of the challenges that K-12 faculty face and then K-12 faculty are so eager to learn more about all of the expertise that community college and our technical colleges and also even graduate programs have to offer. So, when they have the opportunity to speak to one another, then all of a sudden, they’re all on board on changing curriculum and helping students to succeed. So I think the magic in the P-Tech is about this collaborative experience. I often find that regional collaborations are really also very powerful in that our faculty in our regions know what kind of high school students are coming from. And then when they talk to faculty and they can identify, you know, maybe the student didn’t have a fourth year math course in high school, or maybe there are some skills that for some reason the student wasn’t able to develop, and especially this important in COVID-19, because we’re hearing students that are struggling. So I think the connection between high school and college and then regional workforce leaders are very important. And we talk a lot, too, in our work, about regional economic development, and helping to really strengthen New York as a whole through our regional workforce capital. So we’re looking at that. And again, I would say, to create and develop good citizens of the state and of the nation, I think it’s very important. So, I feel like the opportunity for faculty at the K-12 level to connect with our faculty at SUNY, and then also with our workforce and industry leaders (many of whom are SUNY alumni), is a very powerful connection.
John: What are some examples of good collaborations between colleges and P-12 programs? What has worked in terms of helping to bridge the gap in terms of creating an environment of good communication? You mentioned P-tech. Are there any other models that have worked well?
Jill: I can name so many examples of what has been successful. I’m thinking about also the gaps between community colleges and our baccalaureate degree granting programs and our graduate programs. I was thinking offhand about Binghamton University and its collaboration with Broome Community College, really trying to help students who perhaps in the beginning didn’t meet the admission requirements for Binghamton, but had a lot of promise and a lot of opportunity for skill development in STEM. And so they entered into a collaboration with SUNY Broome to help those students to develop the skills at SUNY Broome that would make them eligible for upper-level credits at Binghamton University. So there’s so many examples like that. Our early college high school programs, in addition to our P-Techs are also powerful for making the connection between high school and college. We’ve also done a lot of work with our teacher education programs. We’re really very fortunate to have the opportunity to work with the deans of all of our SUNY teacher education programs, to help them to develop more practical experiences for their teachers to work with the students and try to bridge the gap between high school and college. And I think that that has been so successful, our teacher education programs. And the faculty there have really led the way in terms of helping us to better understand K-12 experiences and create clinical opportunities for prospective teachers. So that has been huge because educator preparation is so essential to really helping to bridge the gap between K-12 and college and they’ve come back to us with so many ideas and opportunities, things that we’ve been able to win grants for and bring resources into the classroom about. So I’ve mentioned the Empire State STEM network before and they have just been amazing. So our colleges will frequently partner with our K-12 leaders to do things like in Buffalo, there’s something called the hands-in-hand program where the students were able to use 3D printing to develop hands for other students internationally, who actually need hands or limbs for some reason in their life. And they’ve been able to actually generate that through 3D printing. The other thing is computer science, cyber security. Our students right now in the P-Tech program are working with SUNY-Orange to develop skills in cybersecurity. So P-Tech is one example. But there are so many, and again, the graduate students that are working across the state with our K-12 students in STEM is also pretty awesome.
Rebecca: The ingredients of successful programs seem to include some collaboration between faculty at different levels to develop curriculum and mentorship, with either faculty at the college level with students, or college students with high school students. Are there other ingredients that we should focus on or highlight as being important to the success of these kinds of programs?
Jill: I think you said it so well, that it’s mostly customized opportunities for students and the places where we find success. And I was just reading the Journal of Higher Education this month, and it was talking about STEM student success and STEM student success at the community college level. And it was really focused around this idea of faculty in the very first year creating an experience for students that gets them engaged in their learning experience across the curriculum… and I think that idea of faculty engagement at the very beginning of learning experiences that are aligned to the student’s personal and professional goals. And again, it comes back to rigor. The students are so inspired by rigor, the students are so inspired by the benchmark is high, and these are the things that I can learn to be successful and to be like faculty. And so I just think faculty role modeling, faculty advising, academic success is so important. We also have the great benefit of SUNY of so many amazing student affairs professionals who also provide coaching and leadership and just a really well rounded approach to student development. Like I’ve mentioned before, the EOP programs are so successful because of this. So I think you’re right, Rebecca, the magic ingredient is collaboration. It’s also about rigor. It’s also about looking at the research and data and talking about what programs can actually generate data to improve success. I also think I’ve learned a lot from faculty about the idea of sort of an interdisciplinary approach to learning I often find that for me in education, if I go and look at that economics literature or the anthropology literature, or the political science literature, I can also learn a lot about how to help to bring these other resources to the table to really think about what success looks like. I recently had the opportunity to work with some medical professionals around the development of guidelines and the rigor to which they looked at guidelines and looked at evidence in the field to make judgments about what they should do, and the way of supporting medical advancements was so powerful that I thought we need to benchmark this in education. So I think looking at what the data tells us, and we’ve had our colleagues, like I mentioned before, at the Community College Research Consortium, at Jobs for the Future, at Achieving the Dream, and so many more places looked at the data for us. But I think that we need to be focused on the long term. And we need to think about what is the data telling us and how that can continue to improve our practice. And then I often think about the importance of qualitative data, what the faculty are telling us in the different disciplines. So that’s why it’s such a great opportunity in this position, because I’m working with faculty, often from economics, from English literature, from science, from political science, from public administration, so many different perspectives. But they all really come to bear when we talk about student success. So that’s been really tremendous for us here at SUNY,
John: Many of the programs you talked about have been at the community college level. And these don’t seem to be quite as common yet at comprehensive institutions. What can traditional liberal arts colleges do to reach out in the ways that community college have been doing for decades? What else should four-year colleges do to emulate the success that many community colleges have had in bridging some of these gaps?
Jill: I really think that you do it well. And I think this is where the SUNY advantage comes in. Because the quality and the dedication of faculty at the four-year colleges and the comprehensive colleges and the University Centers are amazing.
John: What can faculty at four year institutions or University Centers do to reach out to students in high schools to help them see the potential that’s available to them.
Jill: When they have an opportunity to listen to podcasts from faculty or actually engage in their research, it becomes really powerful to these students. And I think part of the challenge with faculty is really in finding a way to kind of create an inroad with these students. And so that’s why I was talking earlier about research opportunities, or really introducing students. I think you also have to help the students learn more about your expertise and try to again meet them where they are, trying to contextualize learning so that the expertise that you have at the comprehensive level and the university center level really can be matched to something that they might see an interest in long term. I’ve worked with an organization called the Army Education Opportunity Program. And this was through an opportunity that we had with Battelle. And the army is trying to recruit the future researchers, scientists, engineers. And what they encourage students to do was to work in groups with a faculty member and a science mentor to address challenges in their own local community. So, what kind of STEM challenges would they need to accomplish in their community? So, they look at things like recycling or safety and parks or child safety. But when the student can see how your expertise at the faculty level applies to their lives, then they are so engaged and faculty will tell me that they’re often outperforming them… that we have students in Long Island, for example, that are applying for patents on downloading data from their computer to a flash drive in instantaneous time, because they actually were listening to a faculty saying, “Ah, this takes so long to download that I actually need some help with this.” So they figured out the magnetic structure behind the thumb drive, and they actually created something that would help them to expedite the time in which they could download data. It was a big win-win, because the faculty was overjoyed. And also the student was able to learn the fundamentals from the faculty member to actually create innovation and to create change. So I think you have it, I was going to talk a little bit about the college choice process, which is so interesting to me, because students in high school have so many options, so many choices, there are 270 plus colleges and universities in New York State alone. And so when you think about the whole universe, and how students go about selecting a place where they can see their baccalaureate success dreams come true or their associate dreams come true. And think about graduate studies, what are they looking for? And based on the literature, after they go through the first predisposition phase, and then the search phase, they actually always talk about student culture in terms of why they make a decision about one college over another. And I also have seen literature that suggests that retention rates are impacted by the choice process around how much the student believes that they fit in. And so it’s hard for faculty at that point to connect with students. But I think that, to the extent that they could appreciate students’ development process and understand that their professional and personal goals and really try to connect them with their own research interests or their own academic interest, I think that can be very powerful in and of itself to really connect the student with the college culture, and with the rigor and academic excellence expectations that faculty have. I think it’s powerful. The other thing I think, is that Chancellor Malatras has been very committed to faculty diversity, because I also really believe that students need to see themselves in their faculty and see themselves in their mentoring experiences. So faculty diversity is also very critical. Our graduate students have been helpful with that as well, to try to make the connection between the faculty ranks and also with our colleges. The Education Trust has some amazing data around faculty diversity at the college level and also at the K-12 level. Because I really do think we need to do more in both arenas to really achieve change for our students, because our students are changing. And the other thing that drives success, and the main thing that drives success is student voices, because we have to hear from our students. And the more that I work with students and work within the framework of student success, I keep going back to the literature to find out what it is that motivates students of various backgrounds, how to really hear their voices, and how to integrate their voices into our activities to really strengthen the outcomes of students in our colleges. So student voices are fundamental to this work.
Rebecca: I think you’ve given a good view of how much has already been done, but also how much there is still to do. So. we usually wrap up by asking what’s next? [LAUGHTER]
Jill: So, so much exciting things are next, I think. In our office, we have an opportunity that was made available to us through the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation around trying to strengthen communications, advocacy and success tools for students. So the idea would be: how do we really make students understand the value added of SUNY, the value added of the work that we’re doing to try to improve college completion rates, and student success Initiatives. So I would welcome faculty feedback on this. As I said before, faculty have always driven the work that we’ve been leading in our office. And so ideas around how we can better communicate these opportunities that are available to our students and to our parents, also to our guidance counselors, and then policymakers and government leaders about what is the SUNY advantage and about how they can have a part in this, I will say that if you look at SUNY, affordability matters, affordability is huge. The student debt crisis is alarming. And that’s where SUNY has the value and the added advantage. Also, the graduation rates of SUNY often surpass the national average, and are very amazing in terms of what the experience is that post grad and into careers that we’ve been able to achieve for students. And the alumni networks are so strong. And so someone asked me the other day that the SUNY Community College Trustees have been very powerful, great advocates, and they asked, “Can you provide an example of what it looks like to be student of Guided Pathways? So, what is the outcome? And how is it different than it was before? So I guess if faculty could share with us their ideas on first of all, how to continue to improve outcomes around student success, and also how to improve communications, because often faculty are doing this in our classrooms, but they’re saying how do we get the word out that this is so good, that we’re really making a difference, like this student came to us not knowing all the opportunities, and now is head of the class or now is really making huge changes in their field? What are those things that we can highlight, also transfer opportunities, students that might come to community college and then go to our baccalaureate degree institution, or I’m always interested in those that go on to graduate studies, our business and industry partners have been trying to create programs that meet students at the high school or community college level, and then drive them all the way to be our future engineers and scientists and researchers and physicians and faculty and all of the great career opportunities are available students. So what are those pathways look like from your perspective? And I think with this funding, and with this opportunity to really try to communicate these outcomes, we could really have some power that would drive us into the future. So I appreciate the question. And we certainly welcome your input and opportunities.
Rebecca: Well, thank you so much, Jill, for sharing your experiences with us.
Jill: Well, thank you for the opportunity. And I would just say again, our faculty at SUNY are top notch, number one, and really have driven student success as we’ve started this work where we really put an anchor into the ground to try to help to strengthen the alignment between K-12, higher education and workforce, and citizenry. And I would just keep encouraging your great ideas, and we hope to continue to work with you into the future. So thanks for the opportunity to talk to you today. And it’s really an open door. So please keep your ideas coming.
John: Thank you. And we will share your contact information if anyone has any ideas that they’d like to sharee. Thank you very much.
Jill: Thank you so much.
Many students enter our colleges and universities with hopes for a better future, but depart, often with a large burden of debt, before achieving their goals. In this episode, Peter Felton and Leo Lambert join us to discuss the importance of human connections in supporting students on their educational journey.
Peter is the Executive Director of the Center for Engaged Learning, the Assistant Provost for Teaching and Learning, and a Professor of History at Elon University. Leo is a Professor of Education and President Emeritus, also at Elon University. Peter and Leo are co-authors of Relationship-Rich Education: How Human Connections Drive Success in College, which was just released in late October of this year. They also were co-authors of The Undergraduate Experience: Focusing Institutions on What Matters Most.
- Felten, P., & Lambert, L. M. (2020). Relationship-rich education: How Human Connections Drive Success in College. Johns Hopkins University Press.
- Felten, P., Gardner, J. N., Schroeder, C. C., Lambert, L. M., Barefoot, B. O., & Hrabowski, F. A. (2016). The Undergraduate Experience: Focusing Institutions on What Matters Most. John Wiley & Sons.
- Rudy’s Lakeside Drive-in
- Jack, A. A. (2019). The Privileged Poor: How Elite Colleges are Failing Disadvantaged Students. Harvard University Press.
- Barnett, Elisabeth (2018). Faculty Leadership and Student Persistence – A Story from Oakton Community College. Community College Research Center. May 9.
John: Many students enter our colleges and universities with hopes for a better future, but depart, often with a large burden of debt, before achieving their goals. In this episode, we examine the importance of human connections in supporting students on their educational journey.
Rebecca: This podcast series is hosted by John Kane, an economist…
John: …and Rebecca Mushtare , a graphic designer.
John: Our guests today are Peter Felton and Leo Lambert. Peter is the Executive Director of the Center for Engaged Learning, the Assistant Provost for Teaching and Learning, and a Professor of History at Elon University. Leo is a Professor of Education and President Emeritus, also at Elon University. Peter and Leo are co-authors of Relationship-Rich Education: How Human Connections Drive Success in College, which was just released in late October of this year. They also were co-authors of The Undergraduate Experience: Focusing Institutions on What Matters Most.
Peter: Thanks, John. Thanks, Rebecca.
Leo: Thank you. Great to be here.
Rebecca: Today’s teas are: …Leo, are you drinking any tea
Leo: I am having a cup of coffee. But, I was explaining to John that what I wish I were drinking was a chocolate milkshake from Rudy’s Drive-In in Oswego, New York, one of my favorite places to go and watch a sunset. People who have never been to Oswego don’t know that Oswego is one of the most beautiful places in the world to see a sunset. And I’ve had the privilege of doing that many times. So, you’re very lucky to be situated where you are.
Rebecca: Definitely. It’s beautiful. And it’s beautiful at this time of year for sure.
Peter: Right on the Great Lake
Rebecca: Just cold,
Rebecca: …especially by Rudy’s Drive-in. [LAUGHTER].
John: But it’s less crowded, which makes it a little bit nicer. It’s been a little less crowded this summer with COVID, from what I understand. I haven’t been there, but they were doing takeout as soon as they could bre-open again.
Rebecca: It was. It was my daughter’s favorite thing to do. How about you, Peter, are you drinking tea?
Peter: I have a big glass of water. But, now I want a chocolate milkshake.
John: And I’m drinking Lady Grey tea today.
Rebecca: Oh, that’s a switch up. I have Big Red Sun, Big Red Sun tea, and a big cup of it.
John: And what is Red Sun Tea?
Rebecca: It is a black tea blend from Harney and Sons.
John: Very good.
Rebecca: I’m switching it up, John.
John: So, we’ve invited you here to talk about your new book, Relationship-Rich Education. Could you tell us a bit about the origin of this project?
Leo: Sure, John, I’m happy to do that. In 2016, Peter and I published another book with three friends, John Gardner and Betsy Barefoot, who have long been involved in the freshman year experience program. John really gave birth to that 40 years ago at the University of South Carolina. And they’re prolific scholars and have written so many great things about undergraduate education, as you know, and also with Charles Schroeder, who’s one of the deans of student affairs in this country. And the book was called The Undergraduate Experience: Focusing Institutions on What Matters Most. We tried to drill down to what really counts in undergraduate education. And we came up with six things, learning matters, relationships matter, expectations matter, having high expectations of students, alignment matters, bringing all the parts and pieces of the university together in alignment, improvement matters, kind of a spirit or a culture of continuous improvement, and leadership matters. And we had an unusual amount of resonance and commentary on this idea of how important relationships were, in the undergraduate experience… something we’ve known through research for more than four decades. And it inspired us to drill down more deeply and write a book on relationships. And that’s what we have spent the last two years doing.
John: As part of this process, you interviewed 385 students, faculty, and staff at 29 campuses. How did you pull this together? What was the process of finding the subjects of the interviews, and then the focus of the interviews?
Peter: John, we started by surveying a fairly large number of higher ed leaders, administrators, faculty, staff around the country, and also foundations and people like that, asking them, where are their really good things happening in undergraduate education? And from that we built this sort of set of programs and institutions that we thought were particularly interesting, and we wanted a diverse set, because American higher education is about 40% Community College students, that we wanted to make sure we had strong community college representation, a lot of the regional comprehensives, a few small liberal arts, and a little bit of everything. So we identified all of those. And then it turns out, people are nice, and you write to them and say, “We’d like to come to your campus for a couple days and talk to your students and colleagues about their experiences.” They say “yes,” and so, back when you could actually travel, we spent a lot of time traveling, a couple days on each campus, and talking with small groups or individuals, asking them often about stories by starting to say, “Tell us about a relationship that’s mattered a lot in your education or in your teaching or in your work here.” And then using that to sort of spin out into broader conversations about identity and education, in all sorts of different directions. So, it was the most fun research I’ve ever done.
John: And you weave those in In throughout the book to illustrate it. And I think that makes a book much more effective by building on that narrative.
Peter: As we have said, John, we know the research is really clear: that relationships matter. They matter for all sorts of things from learning to belonging to motivation, and they matter even more for first-gen students and students of color. And so we knew that. We knew we didn’t have to prove that. What we thought is the stories would help us all understand what that actually means in lived experience… maybe motivate, challenge, inspire, all of us to do better.
Rebecca: I think stories are such a powerful way to learn anything. It’s the nice hook to get us all interested and reading the stories, I think, brings all this data to life, which is really exciting, and, I think, incredibly helpful for faculty and the wider higher ed community.
Peter: Well, thanks. I agree, I got to say, the stories from students and the conversations with students about what’s mattered in their education. If you’ve never done that, sit down with some students and ask them who has mattered in your education and why and just listen, and you’ll be impressed and inspired about professors they talk about, but also the people who work in coffee shops and the campus cop, and moms and dads and just all sorts of people who do small and large things that really support and challenge students in powerful ways.
Rebecca: In the introduction, you describe the changing composition of the student population and describe some of the challenges that are faced by many first-generation students today. What are some of those challenges that have been rising in significance?
Leo: Well, I think when you think about who the American college student is, in the general public consciousness, they probably think of someone who is 18 to 22 years old, going to school full time on an ivy covered campus, sitting on a lawn somewhere, and having the best four years of their lives, right? But, that is increasingly not who the American college student is at all. First of all, 39% of American college students are at two-year colleges. And increasingly, they are people of color, they are working. They are balancing family responsibilities, taking care of children or aging parents. And increasingly, they’re first-generation and new Americans as well. So, we really tried to focus on institutions and people in this book that represent this, what we call an emerging new American majority college student. So, some of the challenges are that these students obviously don’t benefit, oftentimes, by this multi-generational mentoring that occurs almost by osmosis in a lot of families. And so you go off to college, expecting that you might have an experience in study abroad, or expecting that you might do research with professors that, you know, the Academy… Anthony Jack has written a lot about the privileged poor and this hidden code in the academy that is not hidden. It’s quite obvious for people that know the rules of the road for higher education with families that have had generations of experience with colleges and universities. So, that’s a challenge. And I think we also saw very clearly that many of these students, I think, really feel pressured into careers, into needing to do well by their families. This is an incredible opportunity that I have, but I need to get a job. I need to make money. One of the women that we talked to, a Professor at Rutgers University, Newark, Sadia Abbas, speaks about how many of these students almost need permission to be intellectual. They’re interested in philosophy and art history and English, and are passionate, in many cases want to pursue these subjects. But, oftentimes, I think, feel some pressure from families to pursue a degree in accounting or nursing because, not that there’s anything wrong with accounting or nursing, quite far from it, but simply because the pressure for the career dominates. One of the things that Peter and I wanted to be really clear about is that we also think it’s important to recognize that these students bring a lot of assets and agency to college with them. They don’t often recognize all the agency and all the assets, all that they have, but they have accomplished important things in their lives. I mean, they have raised children, they have held down a job, they have sometimes overcome barrier after barrier after barrier to arrive at the gates of higher education. And so we were so inspired by talking to so many faculty who build those assets and build that agency into their curriculum and into their courses and help their students learn to tap into everything that they’ve accomplished. And to be proud of that and to build on that. Many of these students speak multiple languages, are multicultural. And so I think it’s important that we not think of them as disadvantaged students… they have significant advantages and bring a lot to their institutions and to their courses and to the curriculum, if we can be creative about thinking about ways that we can tap into that, as teachers.
John: Following up on that, one of the things you suggest in your book is that we help students develop a sense of meaning and purpose to move beyond this careerist focus that an increasingly large share of students come in with. Why is that important? And what can we do to help students shift their focus to develop these other goals?
Leo: It’s a great question. And I think one of the things I’m most frustrated about with regard to the higher education enterprise at large these days is how often we talk to our students about college in very transactional terms: the number of credits that you need to get this major, what criteria you have to meet to get into this sorority? What hoops you have to get through? What do I have to do, John or Rebecca, to get a B in your class? Students are too often talked to about higher education in this transactional context. And what Peter and I are passionate about is that all of us need to develop a vocabulary and a mindset to help students think about their experiences from a relational approach. And that includes, especially, addressing these big questions of meaning and purpose. We want students in college to be asking questions about: Who am I? What is my identity? What is my purpose? What talents do I have? And I love this big question that our friend, Randy Bass, at Georgetown, who we reference several times in the book, he asks this question about: Who are you becoming for other people, not just yourself? That’s a big question to put before students, and questions like that are best asked and answered and reconsidered in conversations with people that we care about and that care about us. Our mentors, our friends. That’s one of the most important aspects of college. And, so often, it is given short shrift. Think about this time of year how we’re using advising appointments with students, getting them ready to register for classes next semester. And what are we too often focus on? Not the big questions, but the nitty gritty, the hurdles, the degree requirements, we need to be more mindful of making the shift to the relational, away from the transactional?
Peter: And can I add two things to Leo’s really wise response? One is: this doesn’t have to be super complicated. And it doesn’t have to require us all to become philosophers or counselors in some ways. I mean, there’s simple questions. One of the best questions, or best prompts that we heard in this was someone who says to her students, “Tell me your story.” It’s an open invitation to the student to talk about what’s important to them. We heard a lot of students say the most powerful question they get asked is “How are you?” …with someone really just follows it. And then the second thing that I want to say is that we need to recognize that what we do with students… we help them ask each other good questions, too. So when I’m not sure my students always say the most profound things on their mind when they’re talking to me. But what I’m hoping is sometimes the questions I ask get them talking to their friends to say, “You know, professors kept asking me like, “What’s my story? and I’m trying to figure that out? What is my story?” or “Who am I for other people?” …and so they don’t need to tell me, but we need to help seed these conversations and these questions about meaning and purpose.
Leo: We interviewed a fellow by the name of Steve Grande, who’s a Director of Service Learning at James Madison University in Virginia. And he said something very profound. And that is that every day when he goes into work, he tries to raise his consciousness about how much his words matter to students. And the value of five and 10 minute conversations with students that to him might seem, not all that profound and important, but in the life of an undergraduate student, are enormously important. You know that from your own experience. And it could be a conversation in the hallway or the stairwell or in your office or in a coffee shop, where a student sees a gift that they might have that’s been revealed to them in some new and different ways. They’ve discovered something new about themselves as a result of that conversation. We were speaking earlier, before the podcast began, about all the stress that faculty are under right now. And oh, my goodness, you know, it just seems like we’re just barreling through, trying to pull body and soul together during this COVID crisis. But, all the more important during these times, to raise our consciousness about how even those short periods of time we are spending with students is the mortar that is holding the college experience together for our undergraduates. And I wish we could all adopt Steve’s mantra about raising our consciousness with regard to the importance of this work really matters.
Rebecca: I think those relationships and that power goes both ways. Right now, it’s not just what’s holding the undergraduates together things, what’s holding the faculty together? [LAUGHTER]
Peter: Yeah, definitely, my students are the best part of most of my days.
Rebecca: Yeah, I’ve had some really great conversations with students this semester. I tend to have classes where I get to know students really well, because I teach in a studio setting. But, even more so now, even though I have less interaction, I feel like I know them in a really interesting and profound way, which is really exciting. And as you’re talking about relationships, I’m thinking back to my own experience as a first-generation college student. And the things that I do remember are those relationships, I remember very little about individual classes or facts, or whatever, right? [LAUGHTER] But, I remember certain exchanges that I had with a very limited number of people, but those limited number of people is what made me even think about pursuing a higher degree. I wouldn’t have considered it at all. That’s not something that happened in my family. So, I think it’s really interesting. It’s sounding true to me too, those relationships is what I remember.
Peter: And Rebecca, we heard versions of that, and when we could have told those stories ourselves, too. But we heard that from students all over the country, with all sorts of different backgrounds. And one of the big lessons I’ve taken from this is helping students see the capacities they have within them, that they might not believe, they might not trust, they might not know. And so one of the gifts this book has given me and I’m loving it this semester is just every time I’m talking to my students, I try to say something good that they’re doing. This part of your work was really strong, you have other things you need to work on, but this part was powerful. And just the reminder to point out those capacities and help students see that, you know, this is part of a developmental thing. So often students come to higher ed thinking it’s about grades and performance. And it’s not about learning and growth, right? And so they find something hard and they’re embarrassed by it. It’s like “No, the hard stuff is the good stuff.” Let’s focus there and say, “You don’t know how to do this now. But I bet you will be able to know how to do it, maybe not this fall, maybe next spring, maybe next year. But, let’s get there.”
Rebecca: I really like where the conversation is going in terms of thinking about really practical things that faculty can do to help build these relationships. I know you have a whole chapter on just the classroom and the relationships that we build as faculty. Can we talk a little bit about some of the practices that you discovered in your interviews that really worked and had a big impact on students?
Peter: Yeah, just a couple ideas, to begin. And I want to reinforce Leo’s point from Steve Grande that what we do matters a lot, but that everything doesn’t have to come through us. And everything doesn’t have to be one-on-one because it is not scalable. It is not possible for a faculty member to have a powerful, long-term relationship with every one of their students. So recognizing just two different things. One is how we can say the same thing to all our students at once. One of the great stories we heard was from a writing center tutor at LaGuardia Community College, who said when she was in her first semester of writing course, the professor about halfway through the semester came into the class and said, “You know, this is the time in the semester, where one of my best students always just disappears, and I don’t know what it is, if they feel like they’re getting behind, or they feel like they didn’t do as well as they should have this last time. But I need to say to you, ‘Don’t disappear. Come see me. You can get through this.’” And this student thought the professor was speaking to her and went and talked to the professor, ended up being successful, was a writing center tutor. And she said, “The thing that’s stunned her is how many students came in and said, “This professor said this story, and he was talking right to me.” And so there’s ways where we can speak in general to all of our students to help them feel validated, feel that capacity, feel their struggles are common. And then second thing is how do we help students see each other as allies and assets in this work. And the good news is a lot of what we do with active learning is really constructive in that way. It puts students together solving problems and everything. I found one thing in our research that suggests this, students turn out to be like other humans. And so encouraging them to do things like first, introduce yourself to the people in the small group and say each other’s names, because they’ll spend the whole semester working together on projects and sometimes go “What’s his name again?” …and so, don’t let that happen. But put them into purposeful groups and encourage them to see each other as allies in this work.
Leo: We were reminded constantly in the book that some of the interventions are very simple and very powerful. And the power to institute these practices can be in the hands of departments or small groups of faculty. They don’t have to wait for an initiative from the Provost. Sometimes I think, when Peter and I’ve been invited to speak to entire groups of faculty, and I think the faculty are thinking, “Oh Lord, this is going to result in the Provost wanting to create six new formalized mentoring programs at the institution.” And that’s not what we’re trying to see happen, at all. Quite the contrary. I want to give you an example of something simple and powerful to illustrate what I’m talking about here at Oakton Community College, they have the Faculty Project for Student Persistence. It’s a commitment on the part of faculty to get to know their students as well as they can, given that faculty have very heavy teaching loads. These are not small classes. But, they’re trying to create an institutional culture at open, that is relational, where students are going to feel that there is at least one person on campus that knows who I am, and has shown an interest in me. So, there are four things about the persistence project: faculty that are in it commit to know their students’ names. Secondly, they commit, in the first couple of weeks of class, to have a 15-minute private conversation with a student. Now, that’s time consuming. If you’ve got 30 students in your class, that’s quite a bit of time. They commit some time in the early, maybe, say first three weeks of the course, to give students some graded feedback. And fourthly, they promise to uphold high expectations in the class, not impossibly high expectations, but they want there to be a degree of challenge associated with these courses as well. And they’ve had enormous success with this program. And the institution is trying to arrange things such that every student would have at least one of these classes during their first year, so that one of these faculty members is going to be an anchor person in their lives. We tell the story in a book about a former Marine who was in Professor Holly Graff’s philosophy course. And he was concerned that she was going to stereotype him because he had been a marine in his prior career and that she would think certain things about him. He wanted her to know, for instance, that he was a Bernie Sanders supporter. And in their conversation, she learned that, in all of the independent reading he had been doing in the Marines, he had read more philosophy than anyone else in the class. And he left her office after that brief conversation with an honors contract for the course. I mean, think about how that relationship between that learner and that Professor changed as a result of one 15-minute conversation. He’s known, he’s inspired, the professor’s inspired by this incredible student that she has in her class, and the learning dynamic has changed. Because of a really simple faculty-led, faculty-inspired, faculty-developed program.
John: You encourage the development of these networks. But you note that one barrier to that is the incentive systems that faculty face, that the rewards are not very well aligned to creating these types of networks with these types of interactions, what can be done to alter that?
Peter: That’s the easiest question you’re gonna ask us. So, we wish we had a simple solution. But I think there’s at least two parts that we need to think about individually, and we need to think about collectively. So, one thing is this has to be on the agenda of faculty senates, and Deans and things like this. But what we should be asking is what is getting evaluated. Because, often on many campuses, there’s an immense amount of invisible labor, that faculty and others do too. But, since this is primarily about teaching, let’s talk about faculty… where some of our faculty, often let’s say, faculty of color, LGBTQ faculty, do a lot of mentoring that is identity based, that students come to them in particular, and they carry this heavy load apart and on top of everything else. And if that is invisible labor, but that is keeping students at the institution, that is helping students succeed. Sometimes it’s helping students wrestle with the most important questions in their lives. So, there’s invisible labor, and even if it’s not identity based work, we know, you know, some people teach first year students and have those students come back every semester just to say, “Hi.” There’s all this kind of relational stuff that happens. So, how do we find ways to actually capture what’s happening that matters? And then how do we evaluate this? One of the questions that we’ve heard from a number of faculty is that institutions that are trying to reward faculty for doing, let’s say, good mentoring at institutions. We often know how to reward faculty and recognize faculty who have students who go on to graduate school, right? Students who go present at conferences, we can see that. So, honor students, you know, check. It’s really hard, often, to recognize the mentoring that’s happening that helps someone graduate with a C average, and accept that student’s experience at the institution and their education is as important. Perhaps that mentoring is more important and helping the C student graduate than it was to help that honor student… and I mentor honor students, I love them. But the honor student who always knew she wanted to study history, and is coming and working with me, and look, she’s doing great things. So we need to have evaluation systems that both capture the important work. And let us recognize that success might look different for different people in different roles in this work ,and recognize that there’s not one path forward on success.
Leo: I would think also that there needs to be a formalization and a recognition of what constitutes faculty work. Early in my tenure as president of Elon, we took two years to develop a statement, the entire faculty worked on this, called the faculty-teacher-scholar-mentor model at Elon. And it’s something that’s kind of our guide, we were at a point of institutional change where the professional schools were undergoing accreditations and the role of scholarship was rising, to have the business school be AACSB accredited, and so forth. We’re adding lots of faculty, the faculty was growing and changing. And it was one of these moments where we really had to stop and think… we need to move very carefully here and think about what we value as an institution, and how the model of faculty work at a place like Elon needs to be well defined, so that we’re serving our students. Well, we’re meeting our accreditation requirements, our faculty ambitions. And we were very clear that teaching mattered the most, that this was going to be 50% of what constituted the most important work in promotion and tenure criteria. But we differentiated mentoring from classroom teaching and other aspects of teaching to formalize the roles that faculty spend outside of the classroom in so many important ways: helping our students to develop, advising undergraduate research projects, and supervising internships, and traveling with our students all over the world, and leading experiential learning programs of very high quality. And they’re doing their scholarship on top of that, but I think this requires great intentionality. And without the intentionality, I think the relationships, the mentoring, is never going to get factored into the work. Our buckets are so clear in most promotion and tenure processes at institutions I’ve been in in the past: there’s a teaching bucket, and there’s a scholarship bucket, and there’s a service bucket. Where do relationships and mentoring fit in that model. They really don’t. And so I think we have to be more creative and more intentional about redefining the nature of those buckets, if we really want relationships to matter. And we argue in this book, they really do. So I think these are formal conversations that institutions, faculty, deans, provosts, boards of trustees need to have to fundamentally re-examine the importance of faculty spending time on these kinds of activities and being appropriately rewarded for it.
Rebecca: I think along those same lines, there’s a group of faculty, like part-time faculty, adjunct faculty, who play a really critical role here in relationships and maintaining those relationships that are widely overlooked even more so than maybe tenure-track faculty.
Leo: Oh, my goodness, we talked with the Vice President for Academic Affairs at Patrick Henry Community College and, at a lot of our institutions, a lot of community colleges, especially, you’ll find 50% of the teaching load is shouldered by adjuncts. And they went through a tremendously important process there to re-examine the ways… and again, in their words, this was not rocket science, but it was very intentional… the ways they could support their faculty in achieving greater levels of success with their students. And it was the simplest of things like having spaces for them to meet with students before and after class and perhaps have a cup of coffee, access to a copying machine, and the basics. What the faculty wanted most was information. Full-time faculty had lots of information about all the support services that students could tap into if they were food insecure, or needed clothing, those services were available at the school. But, oftentimes, the adjunct professors were in the dark about where to turn to help their students in this regard. They intentionally paired full-time faculty with adjunct faculty, so that there was a greater dialogue and a sense of cohesion between the two groups of faculty. So much can be done. There’s so many adjunct faculty that Peter and I met as a part of this process, who are so committed to our students and our students’ success. And they’re doing this work with the scantest of support systems behind them. And with a little bit of intentionality and creativity on institutions’ part, we can do a lot more to undergird the student and faculty relationship that exists with adjuncts.
Peter: And just to add one thing to what Leo said, when we talk to students, they told us powerful stories about what adjunct faculty had done to transform their lives. So, students don’t think “Well, I’m just with Professor Felton, who’s an adjunct, so it doesn’t really matter.” This is their professor, this is the person who’s giving them feedback. This is the person who’s inspiring and challenging them. And so we at institutions and we on faculty really need to support our adjunct colleagues, because they are so powerful in students’ educations.
Rebecca: I think along those lines, right now, when students are facing a lot of remote learning still, online learning, online synchronous learning, and having less face-to-face communication in the classroom, those interactions with faculty may be even more important than they were before because they may not be interacting with some of the other folks on campus who may have been important when they were in a physical space. So, what advice do you have during this time to help faculty facilitate some of the relationship building between students, because they’re so isolated right now?
Peter: Yeah, Rebecca, this is really important. This is really hard. We don’t have any simple solutions. One of the places we did visit, though, was Southern New Hampshire University in their online setting. And one of the people we interviewed there said something that just really has resonated with Leo and I, which is, this person said: “My role for these students is to be the human in these courses, that so much is just remote and distant and asynchronous, and there needs to be a human presence in this. And that has to be me.” So, how can we be present for our students? Even if it’s asynchronous, right? How can we check in with them? How can we create opportunities for meaningful formal and informal interaction. So, two small examples for you: one, and you’ve probably seen this with your colleagues. But I’ve been so impressed with some of my colleagues, who are teaching classes in Zoom when they have synchronous moments. And the first few minutes of class, what always happens is when students come in, the professor says, “Hello,” when sends them into small groups with questions that the students have to talk with each other about. These are purposeful questions connected to the work of the class. But, they’re the kinds of questions that are meant to engage conversation. And so students don’t come into class and start by being silent and staring. They start by saying hello to the professor, and then talking with a couple peers. And a second thing is just finding ways to emphasize with our students, that their well being is connected to their learning, and their learning is connected to their well being. And so if they can’t, if they can’t do something right now, if their world is falling apart, we need to be able to be flexible enough and clear enough about what’s most important in this. That doesn’t mean we don’t have standards. It doesn’t mean we don’t challenge our students to work through really difficult things. But recognizing that sometimes your class isn’t the most important thing or the most urgent thing in a student’s life right now. Often they do have challenges they don’t want to talk to us about and just offering a little grace and saying, “Okay, so you can’t get this draft to me today. How’s Monday?”
Leo: One thing I’m hoping that all of us are doing during these very challenging times is, at least in informal ways, being chroniclers of this experience, to have these moments of consciousness about what we are doing, what we are doing well during these times. And I’m of the strong opinion that the world is never going to go back to 2019. Higher Education is never going to go back to 2019. And I think in the early days of the pandemic, we were under this illusion that “Well, things will get back to normal.” We’re not going back to precisely the way things were before. Look at this conversation we’re having here this afternoon and all the ways our teaching has shifted. The ways that I think higher ed is going to think about what constitutes the higher education experience differently, this blending of face-to-face and residential and experiential and online, that could look quite different than the patterns that have always existed. Why do classes have to be 16 weeks long? I think there’s going to be a lot of deconstruction ahead and reconstruction. What I’m hoping is that as we turn our attention to building something newer and better as we emerge from this, that we’ll put relationships at the very center of what we intend to create. That’s, I think, the big challenge before us, that’s what really matters. I think Peter and I both believe that, when students look back on their undergraduate experience, when the two of you, john and Rebecca, look back on your undergraduate experiences, probably what means the most to you are a set of people that helped you become who you are today, professors and peers and advisors, and people that tapped you on the shoulder and helped you discover something about yourself, or gave you confidence that you didn’t know that you had. This is what needs to be prioritized. And I hope that whatever we build will be built around this idea.
John: We always end with the question, what’s next? Which is a very good question at this time.
Peter: So two things I would like to say. One is that, again, the interviews we did, especially with students all over the country, are so inspiring that I’ve just really personally committed to asking these kinds of questions of the students I encounter and asking them about their education and just making that part of my work. And then a second thing Leo and I have been talking about, and we’re eagerly brainstorming about, is it recognizing that students need to be the primary actors in this… creating their own relationship-rich environment, right? Institutions can do a lot, but just like we can’t learn for them, we can’t build webs of relationships for them. We can put them in these environments that are rich, but they need to act. So we’re trying to think about ways that we can create resources and encouragement and support for all students to see themselves as actors in this kind of educational experience. So, whether that’s some sort of book or online resources, or what, we don’t know. But we’re going to partner with some folks, including students around the country, and say: “What can we do to really help students, especially first-gen students who don’t understand the ways and the whyfors of higher ed, come in and not learn by the time they’re seniors that I should have paid attention When my professor said, “Do you want to have a cup of coffee?”
Leo: I would add to that by saying there were times where Peter and I were struck, whether it was students at Brown, or the University of Michigan, or the University of Washington, or LaGuardia Community College, or Nevada State College, we were struck over and over again, about the power of the question: “How are you?” I remember a phone conversation probably in an airport where we were talking back and forth to one another, in our respective places in the country, and having this dialogue about should we call the book: “How are you?” …and then decided that’s probably [LAUGHTER] not a smart idea. But that is such an important question. And students, and especially today, during this COVID crisis, want to be heard. Students want to be heard. They’re not necessarily looking for us to solve all their problems for them, but they want to be seen, and they want to be heard, and they want to be recognized. So I think a part of what’s next for all of us is going back to this very basic idea of not losing sight of this enormous privilege that we have to be on college campuses and to take five or 10 minutes with students to listen generously, after asking the question: “How are you?” It makes all the difference in the world, everywhere. And, in our busyness, and in the craziness of COVID, it’s really easy to forget that. But, some days, it’s the critical question that keeps a student in school, we were struck about how many students acknowledged that at one time or another in their career, again, including at the most prestigious institutions in the country, were one conversation away from leaving school, and “How are you?” …can be the gateway to keeping a student in school and successful, and motivated and inspired… very simple stuff.
Rebecca: Thank you both for such a great conversation and a really powerful book. If you want some positive moments in your life, you can read some of the great stories in this book.[LAUGHTER]
Peter: Our goal was to do justice to the stories people told us, because if we could do that, we knew the book was going to be helpful. And it was going to be powerful, because the stories were just an amazing gift.
Leo: There’s great work going on in higher education in this country. It is rich and deep and powerful and lively. And faculty are working so hard, and students are working so hard. And so much of the Chronicle coverage and the broader media coverage of higher education is so not on point in terms of… you know that… and describing what’s really going on in the halls and corridors and classrooms of our institutions. And we were inspired by how many wonderful, wonderful things are happening all over the country. We have a great system of higher education in this country. It’s something to be proud of. And it’s changing lives every day, and we shouldn’t take our eye off that fact either.
John: Your book does a wonderful job refocusing your attention away from educational technology and back on the things that are most important, the relationships among the participants in the process.
Leo: Thank you