187. Talking Tech

Student use of mobile technology can enrich student learning experiences, but can also interfere with the focused attention that is essential for learning. In this episode, Michelle Miller examine how we can talk to students about technology in ways that will help them become more efficient in their learning and professional lives.

Michelle is a Professor of Psychological Sciences and a President’s Distinguished Teaching Fellow at Northern Arizona University. Dr. Miller’s academic background is in cognitive psychology research. Her research interests include memory, attention and student success in the early college career.

Michelle is the author of Minds Online: Teaching Effectively with Technology, and has written about evidence-based pedagogy in scholarly as well as general interest publications. She’s currently working on her newest book, Remembering and Forgetting in the Age of Technology: What the Science of Memory Tells us about Teaching and Learning in a Wired World, scheduled as part of the West Virginia University series on teaching and learning.

Shownotes

Transcript

John: Student use of mobile technology can enrich student learning experiences, but can also interfere with the focused attention that is essential for learning. In this episode, we examine how we can talk to students about technology in ways that will help them become more efficient in their learning and professional lives.

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

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

John: …and Rebecca Mushtare, a graphic designer.

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

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John: Our guest today is Michelle Miller. Michelle is a Professor of Psychological Sciences and a President’s Distinguished Teaching Fellow at Northern Arizona University. Dr. Miller’s academic background is in cognitive psychology research. Her research interests include memory, attention, and student success in the early college career. Michelle is the author of Minds Online: Teaching Effectively with Technology, and has written about evidence-based pedagogy in scholarly as well as general interest publications. She’s currently working on her newest book, Remembering and Forgetting in the Age of Technology: What the Science of Memory Tells us about Teaching and Learning in a Wired World, scheduled as part of the West Virginia University series on teaching and learning. Welcome back, Michelle.

Michelle: Hi, it’s great to be here.

Rebecca: So good to have you back. Today’s teas are…. Michelle, are you drinking any tea?

Michelle: Well, I’m still on coffee. We have a three hour time difference this time of the year. And so I figure I’m entitled.

Rebecca: How about you, John?

John: I am drinking ginger peach green tea.

Rebecca: And I have golden monkey today.

John: …for a change.

Rebecca: It’s expensive. I only drink it on special occasions. I was like, we’re gonna get to talk to Michelle, today. I’m gonna make fancy tea.

Michelle: Well, coffee is the fanciest tea of all.

John: We’ve invited you here to talk a little bit about how to talk to students about technology and why perhaps you might consider talking to students about technology. You teach a course on mind, brain and technology, and you’ve also created the Attention Matters projects that we’ve discussed on an earlier podcast. Could you tell us a little bit about the mind, brain and technology class that you teach?

Michelle: Right. So this has been such an incredible privilege I’ve had, on and off. for several years. Now, back a long time ago, when I first applied for and was competing for the President’s Distinguished Teaching Fellowship honor and award here at Northern Arizona University, one of the things that we got to do as part of our application packet was to envision a dream course. And this was, gosh, around a decade ago that I did this. So the landscape of the research and technology itself was very different. But this is the course that I came up with to say if I could teach one thing, brand new, build it from the ground up, this is what I would do: something that would connect psychology, especially empirical research-oriented psychology, the role of emerging technologies in our lives and the incursions they’ve made into all of our lives, and blend that with some real practical advice and things that would be engaging to college students today at a variety of levels. And so it went in my packet. I was so fortunate to win the award and be chosen for it. And then I came knocking on the doors, and I said, but remember, there was this dream course, I actually was very literal minded. So I said, “Well, I get to teach this now, right?” And my department said “Well, oh, okay, yes, we can work that out.” And it originally was taught as a senior capstone, and it’s been taught in that form, again. Another time it had an incarnation as a freshman seminar, a first-year seminar, and right now I’m teaching it as a fairly large general elective upper division elective, primarily serving our psychology majors and our minors. And so this is a course that I’ve been able to dip in and out of throughout the years. And I actually quote one of the first cohort of students, I got some really choice quotes that I included in my last book, Minds Online: Teaching Effectively with Technology. And this semester, I actually have students reading some early drafts of the book I’m writing right now. And so it’s really been interwoven throughout my professional evolution over the last 10 years.

Rebecca: It’s pretty cool that you got to ultimately teach the class and it’s been going on for so long.

Michelle: Indeed, it is, indeed it is.

John: What do your students think about the role of technology in social media, in their lives, as well as in educational environment?

Michelle: Well, right from the get go, when I got to first design this class, and actually be sitting with a cohort of students every week, and bringing up a new topic, we divided it up into: there’s technologies for learning; there’s the effects of technology on aspects of thinking, like cognition, and so on; there’s several weeks on social media, which we’re right in the middle of right now. So there’s lots of different kind of articulation points where different students can come in with opinions. And so it does really cover that really broad area. So right from the beginning, I was so struck by the thoughtful and sometimes unexpected things that students would say… unexpected meaning kind of counter to what are some real stereotypes about… first of all, that all college students are a traditional age in this kind of lifestyle where you live in a dorm and party on the weekends. And I think most of us know that today’s college students do not fit that mold, and they’re not all that age. But, even students who are in this younger age bracket, to have them really say… like one of the early exercises we do in the course, I asked them to sort themselves on a continuum. We did it on a whiteboard this time via video conference, but in a physical classroom, they’d actually stand on different ends of this… place yourself physically on this continuum: Do you love technology, you want it everywhere, can’t imagine life without it… you hate it, you want to go low tech. And students are really spread across that spectrum. And so many of them have thought… they’ve said, “You know, I noticed I feel a certain way after I’m on Instagram for a certain amount of time,” or “I’ve tried electronic textbooks and I personally prefer paper.” …that’s actually consistent with some of the surveys that have been done with college students as well. So they are varied, they’re rich, and they are very counter to the stereotype that younger people just want technology everywhere in their lives.

Rebecca: What is one of the biggest misconceptions about technology that your students bring up in class that you address?

Michelle: Well, there’s a complex of sort of some interrelated ones that dial into my specialty area, which is cognitive psychology. So naturally, I noticed those really prominently myself. And so those ideas that using technology is going to reduce attention span, it’s reducing even your ability to think. And then there’s a sort of a related set of issues around what has been in the past a very controversial and headline dominating issue, which is the issue of taking notes by hand versus on a laptop computer in class. And that research, in particular, not to go through all of it, but, while the original study that sparked that debate was well designed, the interpretation of it has been just stretched until it screams. That study doesn’t talk about the distraction issue, there’s a lot of things that aren’t addressed in it. But students have come away, they’ve heard this kind of very superficial version of that, by which laptops are bad, and they also have kind of picked up a folk belief that if you handwrite something, it sort of drives it into your memory automatically. And it does not work that way. In fact, if you read the original study, one of the things that they say is that in as much as laptop note taking can be less memorable, whatever you’re taking notes on, It’s because you’re less likely to paraphrase, synthesize, and compress down what you’re hearing. And yet we have other people, they’ve heard these people in the culture say, “Oh, well, if you want to remember something, sit down and copy it, get out that pen and paper,” and that’s not really an effective study strategy. So they’re a little surprised and they say, “Oh, wait a minute, there’s some nuance to that study, and maybe some others that didn’t replicate it.” That study wasn’t talking about distraction on a laptop, it was just strictly speaking about this one aspect of how memory encoding works. Attention span… I probably talked about it on an earlier podcast… This is not a concept that attention scientists usually use. And so right off the bat, that’s a little suspect. And there’s not really good solid evidence that fundamentally, attention is changing. So they’ve absorbed some of those things. And so they’re really delighted to really dig more into those. So I might assign them an editorial or something that ran in a popular magazine or a blog. And then we look at the original research they’re talking about, and we pick up on the discrepancies. It’s not that Mueller and Oppenheimer was badly designed, it’s just they were looking at some effects that don’t always hold up with replication. And that speaks to this idea that the effect size is maybe not that large. Not that, again, anything was wrong with their data, it’s just you have this now you see it, now you don’t quality with some of these effects. And that kind of tells you that maybe this isn’t the hugely overriding consideration. And subsequent studies too have talked about this storage function of notes. It’s neat to think that you remember as a function of note taking without having to go back and study. But in reality, that’s what we do with notes, we go back and we study them. And so here’s this big elephant in the room like, well, are they taking good notes? And if they’re not taking good notes that capture key points, that they are going to want to go back and study actively, then picking up a little bit here or there because it was more memorable during note taking is not as big an issue. So that’s a big like, “Okay, what have you heard? Let’s look at the original research.”

Rebecca: Having the opportunity to talk about these things with students is exciting. And I’m sure the students are really into it, because it connects to their direct lives. And diving into the research makes a lot of sense in the context in which you’re teaching your course within psychology. So it seems like a natural fit there. How might other academic fields adopt some of the ability to talk about these things in their own classes where maybe cognitive science is not or psychology is not, the fundamental underpinning of what they’re doing?

Michelle: That’s, I think, something that I think is really exciting and why I am so excited to be able to share with your Tea for Teaching audience is I’ve really come to believe that that maybe there is something that is more versatile here beyond just the psychology frame and just a senior capstone in psychology. And I think that this is where faculty creativity can come in. I think the fundamental things that I think are so promising… Well, first of all, this is just a topic that is really under discussed, and it’s under discussed in a serious way. It’s not like students have not ever heard anybody critique technology. They’ve heard that. They’ve heard, “Oh, it messes with their sleep that it messes with their social relationships.” They’ve heard a lot of this, but it’s kind of swept under the rug in a way or even treated as “what serious person would ever think about these sorts of things?” So, that said, this is something that, and it’s something that students are doing all the time, even pre-pandemic. Most students do use technology of one form or another and are on one or more social media platforms. And so this is in and out of their lives all day long. So I can only think that there are critical frames and key concepts within a variety of disciplines that could map onto this, even if a faculty member doesn’t have the opportunity, or the interest, to say develop a whole course. Well, perhaps this could be a vehicle for discussing, for example, experimental design. How do you set up a study to really get at things like “What are the impacts of heavy cellphone use?” You do have certain individuals who self select to use technology in a particular way. And that’s something that you see crop up again and again in the research literature. Or if we’re talking about our own personal relationships, classes that have a focus on health can perhaps use one of these sub areas as a springboard for discussion. And so this is just really what I found, is that students who might otherwise be very quiet or, when things are framed in a purely very divorced from reality academic way, they may hang back, but who doesn’t get hooked into a discussion of some of the impacts of technology on our life. So I think it can be a vehicle for those things. And I think that it might be a little bit of a stretch in, say, a physical sciences class where we’re really discussing empirical context. But even there, it can be folded into discussions of effective studying very well, as long as we don’t just have that, again, very superficial tech’s bad, just get rid of it all and do everything on note cards. There’s a lot more to it than that.

John: Students are going to be interacting with technology, not only in their classes, but in their future careers. So having them think about those issues can be a really useful thing to learn, no matter what discipline they’re studying,

Rebecca: It seems like a good hook. It’s something that everyone can relate to, in some context. I was doing an exercise in my own class not too long ago about storytelling, and how brands present stories around what they’re presenting to people. And I use Spotify and Pandora as the examples. I’ve never seen a class so excited, [LAUGHTER] because it was talking about this technology platform that they can connect to. So I can imagine, when you bring up social media or other things that they feel really connected to, it immediately is a hook to talk about anything more complex.

Michelle: Absolutely. And that’s precisely the kind of dynamic that I’ve seen. And if I could throw out a kind of a discipline-specific example, there’s a concept that I really started weaving in more of over the last few iterations of the class. And this is a concept from psychological sciences research and quantitative analysis that really can be very slippery. But it’s a big, big part of contemporary ways that we analyze data. And it’s a concept of mediators and moderators. And so it’s jargony… and essentially mediators, when you have a correlation between two things, and you want to know, does A cause B? Or is there something else in the middle does A cause B causes C, and we have these great techniques for untangling those relationships. And moderators, on the other hand, is the relationship or is the correlation stronger in the presence of a particular variable or for, say, a particular group of people than others? And so yeah, you read that in a textbook and you go, “oh….” and yet, it’s one of the things that we really… I mean, experimental design, and how we can interpret our data is just radically more sophisticated when we can just not say, “Well, these two things happen together, but for whom is this relationship stronger,” and so on? So there are a lot of studies on the effects of technology that have one or more of these involved. And yeah, it just clicks for students when they see it play out in this relatable domain. So, for example, we have a study that I incorporate really early in the course. It’s got a word in the title, “Technoference” in relationships. So it’s a study of your perception that your partner in an intimate relationship uses their phone…. and when you’re talking to them… [LAUGHTER I think, will have a little bit of recognition if we’re in a relationship. That’s part of contemporary relationships, right? And they look at overall well being and how that relates to being in a relationship where your partner’s on the phone all the time. Now, it’s not a perfect study. And that’s part of what we look at. It was only among women who were in opposite sex relationships, and there’s a lot of self report and all that stuff. But you can say that “Okay, now they have a mediator. It’s not that the phone itself is degrading your life’s wellbeing but here’s this chain of causality of when your partner’s using your phone all the time when you’re talking, then you’re not as happy in your relationship. There’s conflict and then your overall wellbeing in your life goes down.” And then, in that context, you go, “Oh, Okay, I get it. Here’s what a mediator is.” And then we can talk about moderators, we can say, “Well, what about individuals who are in same sex relationships? What about men? What about couples who have been together for 25 years versus those who just got together six months ago?” Oh, okay. Now we understand moderators. So yeah, similar to you, Rebecca, I’m just saying, once you bring in some of these things, is not just dropping in sort of pop culture, it’s really taking a substantive look at these things. But yeah, then you springboard into concepts that are otherwise just really abstract.

Rebecca: Do you have some examples of things about learning related to technology that we might be able to slip into any discipline’s classes? …some of the stuff about attention, or good study strategies, or anything that’s maybe mediated through technology, but would relate to anybody.

Michelle: Definitely, the relationship between attention and memory and learning. Now, like I always say, when I’m talking about these topics, memory is not the only important aspect of learning. Learning is not all about memorization. But we now know that when you remember more, we have a broader knowledge base in an area, you’re better able to think critically and think in some sophisticated ways in that area. So that’s all good stuff. So that’s one piece of it. And in order to acquire any new memories, pretty much, for practical purposes, you have to be paying attention. And this is what devices and technologies have been so well engineered at this point to take away from us. So yeah, when you talk about a life skill, you’re going to need this for the rest of your life, no matter what you do. We have to think about, alright, how do we kind of shepherd and be stewards of our own attention. And I think, from a teaching perspective, too, it’s not that we have to constantly entertain students to grab their attention back from whatever it’s wandering off on, or similar that we just have to stand up there and be like, “Well, you have to pay attention… unbroken for an hour and 15 minutes… and all violations will be punished.” There’s different paths between those, but just to share with students that “Yeah, using phones is probably not changing the way our attentional systems work.” They work the way they have for many, many millennia. However, there’s a lot more competition for that now. So having them think about what are their strategies going to be. For some students, they come up with very creative cold turkey types of situations or types of strategies. I had one student say that I put my phone in a dropbox outside at night when I’m studying, and if I want to use it I have to go out there, which may not seem like a big deal, but in Flagstaff, it could easily be three degrees Fahrenheit and ice falling out of the sky, it’s cold out here. So we have students who say, “Well, you know what, I’m gonna be a little bit more subtle. I’m going to use one browser for my classwork and one browser for fun and social media.” And it’s just a little subtle cue that kind of tells you, “okay, we’re in work mode, or we’re not in work mode.” It’s not as much prescribing the answers as getting students themselves involved in saying, “Well, here’s how I’m going to manage this.” So those are some of the things that we would share. And when it comes to learning strategies at work, I’m always going to be evangelizing retrieval practice in one form or another. Lots of ways that that can look… everything from a Kahoot! quiz to sitting and talking with your roommate to try to bat back and forth what you remembered. Lots of different things you can do but, it shows too, there’s a link between you have to put in some active effort for your brain to pick up on that information and store it away in memory if it’s going to. So yeah, there’s sort of a complex of interrelated principles and take homes, there.

Rebecca: The one thing that I was immediately thinking about when you said about phones being really good at taking away your attention. I immediately thought as a designer, what a great example of how to get someone’s attention? [LAUGHTER]

Michelle: Yeah.

Rebecca: …not only to think about how to manage attention and think about what you’re paying attention to, but how do designers actually manipulate that? [LAUGHTER]

Michelle: See… perfect. There’s a cross-disciplinary connection.

John: The importance of attention is a topic that I think all students recognize is a problem. But I don’t think they fully understand quite how much of a problem it can be. Or at least my perception is there’s still a lot of misperceptions about the ability of students to multitask effectively. And I know that’s something that you address a bit in your classes.

Michelle: I do. And a related project that we’ve discussed on some other podcasts is the Attention matters project and I’m happy to report that project is still just perking along like crazy. We still have lots of faculty who are involved with it. So to kind of give a little background on it. Attention Matters was a concept that came out of a great conversation I had with my very smart and dedicated colleague, John Doherty, who’s an instructional designer and a librarian here at Northern Arizona University. And I had been going around and trying to teach a little, almost guest lecture, roadshow for interested faculty to spread these ideas to students of how to study effectively and how to have a plan for not getting distracted in the middle of class and stuff like that. And we talked about it. And we put together an online module that can serve so many more students. This semester, I have several really smart research assistants, undergraduate research assistants, who are in this module, moderating it and helping it run. And for those who know what MOOCs are (massive open online courses), it’s a little bit like that, except it’s specific to our institution. And so, in this, it’s a way of reaching out to students, they oftentimes will earn a little bit of extra credit in their classes for faculty who really want to spread these ideas to their students. They work through these modules that do touch on some of these key ideas about… as far as multitasking, we tend to be very overconfident. You can’t learn by osmosis, you do need that directed attention. Instead of highlighting and passively hoping things soak in, get in there and do retrieval practice. There’s also a little piece of Attention Matters, by the way, that talks about driving safety, which was not really something we set out to do. But I feel like it’s, again, a relatable everyday example that people can say, “Oh, my gosh, I was in a bike accident by a distracted driver,” or “I’m very careful about this.” And students are very adamant, and have strong views that do funnel back to that idea of: if you let it, devices and distraction of all kind can really take over and create some serious consequences. So, that’s yet another way that we’ve been working to bring these ideas to students throughout the years. And yet another thing that’s given us a fascinating window into what students are already doing to cope with these things, and some of their unexpected attitudes and ideas about them.

Rebecca: The thing that a lot of folks are doing is they’re teaching remotely or trying to jazz things up in synchronous online classes is trying to play with the idea of gamification in their classes, which certainly comes from technology, and often from video games and then some experience around that. Can you talk a little bit about how faculty might use gamification in their classes? Or also how that works on students?

Michelle: Yeah, games and gamification has been such a topic for so long in how can we use technology for education? I know it’s funny, when I was doing research for Minds online, I actually went to a Musee Mecanique in San Francisco, as a sort of a background research. It’s this amazing Museum, that’s just whatever the technologies of the time were, and it goes back like 100 years, all these different games, physical games you can play there.

Rebecca: It’s a cool Museum,

Michelle: Oh, you’ve been there.

Rebecca: Yeah.

Michelle: Oh, my gosh.

John: I was too.

Michelle: People have used photography in games and gamification. They’ve used all these different ways of using tech to play. So this is not a modern concept. And so we’ve seen lots of attempts throughout the years to also harness it for learning… some more successful than others. It’s such a deep theme in those connections between mind-brain-learning technology. And so students, here too, they get pretty excited about it. And that’s a good thing for faculty who are looking to use games and gamification. Now it’s another where I think drilling a little bit below the surface is really beneficial. It’s pretty clear to me, from the research and literature so far, that what makes games effective, and what makes them so compelling, you know, elicits the time, effort and attention that you need for learning, it’s not the superficial stuff about the experiences, not the music, and it’s not just calling it a game. It’s not necessarily tacking points onto something, although points and scorekeeping is usually a part of most compelling games, for sure. But there’s deeper things about getting really rapid feedback, there’s the opportunity for friendly competition. And that’s something that I’ve really seen this year, because I’ve also been using quite a few quizzes and polls and things like that in my courses, too, that are remote, is that you don’t have to attach a grade to the game to get some students really into the idea of competition, while other students, there, it’s more anxiety provoking, or it’s just too much because they’re already in so many high-stakes competitive exams, where they can play for fun. And so those are some of the aspects that are important when people are thinking about selecting a game, setting up a game, bringing gamification in some way. It doesn’t have to all be cheesy, let’s make everything look like a video game. But really, that idea too, that mistakes are part of it. While we’re playing a Kahoot and you get an answer wrong, whatever, we’re doing something else in five seconds, and it’s not a big issue like a test question is. So there’s definitely that. And I would say, too, that students here as well, they can be a great source for insight. So talk to your students. Say “What aspects of this game are more appealing? less appealing?” and so on. And games and game culture too, this is something that I really get a sense that they’ve never had a serious, let alone academic, conversation about the role of gaming in their lives. Yet for many students, that’s an important part of their identity. It’s what they do to relax. It’s what they do to socialize now, quite frequently, especially with distancing happening. So, as weird as it might sound, let’s take games seriously. Let’s take games seriously as an important aspect of students’ lives. Let’s take it seriously as a road to learning. And let’s just keep exploring that because the more research that gets done, the more effective and beneficial features we find associated with games.

John: And the most popular games are those that students can work through. And no matter what their prior knowledge with that type of game, as you said, provides them feedback. And that feedback is targeted so that they can use that to improve and the level of the games are set so that it’s neither so challenging that they give up and get discouraged, but not so easy that they don’t have the sense of challenge. And that seems like a really good way of perhaps thinking about how we should design our classes in general, whether we include explicit gamification aspects or not, creating an environment that encourages students to actively want to engage with the material, and where they can see progress and see how they’re advancing. That is, in general, something that I think is a really important thing for us to contemplate at least in course design.

Michelle: Agree 100%, agree 100%. And that’s exactly what makes games compelling. What is about social media that makes people return to it again, and again, and again, hundreds of times in a day? And what features can we extract and adapt in the service of learning?

Rebecca: One of the things we talked about with Ken Bain last week was an example about the arts and how that might change someone’s thinking… an experience with a piece of artwork. So, I used that kind of example, to inspire a little activity with my students this morning. And I asked them, “Can you talk about a piece of artwork that has influenced your thinking?” And I gave them some categories. And I’m teaching an interaction motion design class, but I included visual art, but games were one of my categories. And some of the students put some really interesting examples about how certain games have gotten them to really contemplate interesting ethical questions, relationship questions, really interesting stuff. And they wrote really thoughtful responses. I had them basically write the name of the game and just a sentence about how it impacted their thinking. But there were some really thoughtful responses. And it was really almost surprising to me how deep some of those quick summaries of their experiences had been with games.

Michelle: Yeah, that’s perfect. And without the conversation, you wouldn’t have that window.

John: For many years, we’ve all heard lots of arguments from faculty about whether technology should be or should not be used in classes. The pandemic, to a large extent, has shut those down completely. And that’s been, for many of us, quite a bit of a relief not to have to deal with those arguments all the time. However, as we begin to move back into a more traditional onsite teaching environment where more instruction is taking place in regular classrooms again, what are some of the things that people may have learned about interacting with technology effectively during the pandemic, that may perhaps lead to improvements in how we teach our classes regularly?

Michelle: That is such a meaty question, and I think it’s one we’re going to see so much just rapid development of reactions. it ties into the whole question right now of what does instruction look like post-pandemic or whatever the next stage of the pandemic is? But yeah, what a good time to think about this. And you know, I can look at it too through the lens of faculty experience, I was kind of fortunate to have had my Zoom baptism completely by accident earlier in spring of 2020. Because I had set up this idea of having a lot of guest speakers in one class, and I got a huge response, which is wonderful, but I needed to bring them in. And I had always kind of said, “Well, if I’m going to Zoom, I’m going to kind of sidestep that. I’m going to let somebody else drive.” And I had to get over that really fast. And so I do think that it illustrates the value of some targeted, not totally strategically planned, practice with technology tools. And that’s just the kind of bedrock cognitive processes that, when you have something like being able to just run Zoom, or Collaborate or something like that, or have an online poll, your ability to do that while monitoring a classroom or answering questions, you got to have the practice in first, and our students are the same way. So we can think about, alright, whatever we’re going to have students interacting with or using or if it’s us that are using something, having that practice upfront and expecting that, once we’re on the other side of the learning curve, it looks very, very different. So that is one big part of it. On a much more conceptual or abstract level. I think that, this whole year, we’ve really needed to look at the students and their goals and why they’re there in the class in the first place, wnd why are they taking the course. That’s something I’ve written about in some of the shorter articles I’ve put out this year. I think the pandemic teaching was distinctive for a lot of reasons, but one of them is that you just can’t keep persisting with “Okay, I’m the learning cop here and I’m going to make sure everybody does things because I’m watching you.” At the end of the day. I found if my students… I hope they’re not, but yeah, they are in Zoom, they could be doing other things… they may be minimally attentive, and that is not good for their learning. And I do a lot of things to have a lot of different shifts in gears to bring in gamification. I’ve done a lot of things to do that. But ultimately, if the student wants to check out, they can check out to an extent. And I’m not saying I’m okay with that, but I think that we are going to be meeting students much more in the middle, instead of having a more adversarial relationship to their learning, I’m here to enforce what you have to know. I mean, we have to collaborate to have something like remote teaching the way we’re doing it, to have that work at all, there has to be more of a collaborative approach to it. So I know that that’s a very top-level conceptual type of answer. But I think that in a lot of things, we’re going to be saying, “Well, you know, what, if this is something that helps some students, and if I’ve talked to students about why they’re here, and they’re purpose driven, ‘I am here to actually learn and take something from this class because I need it for the next class.’” Well, that’s a great basis to springboard off of, instead of “how do I write the policy in my syllabus that will prevent any kind of behavior I see as undesirable.” And you know, so many people were already moving away from that, which I think is incredibly fortunate given what we’ve been through in the last year. But this may be, if not a tipping point, something else that pushes us more in that direction of saying, “Well, what are the policies there to do?” Yes, students have to pay attention to learn. And that is very, very clear during remote pandemic teaching, as well as everywhere else. But let’s maybe take some different approaches and have a different philosophy of how we get there.

Rebecca: One of the things that I also hear you hinting at Michelle is that during the pandemic, we’ve all had a lot to manage, we’ve had a lot of cognitive load. And so we have to prioritize, and we have to decide what’s going to win our attention. And so students have the same problem all the time, just like we have the same problem all the time, we’re just more aware of it now. They have multiple classes to balance, they might have family concerns, they might have jobs, and at some point, they’re making choices about what they’re going to attend to, and what they can’t attend to. And I think sometimes we always hope and wish that they’re attending to whatever we’re putting out in front of them. But that might not be the best choice for them at a given moment, based on the other things that are going on in our lives. And we just often don’t think of our students in that kind of holistic point of view.

Michelle: Oh, absolutely. That’s such an eloquent example of this way of thinking, and the things that we have learned and the shift in mindset that we may be on the cusp of. And that’s another thing that really underlies the approach to talking to students about technology that I’ve really come to adopt, which is the same-side instead of opposite-sides stance. Like you said, we do struggle with some common things. I’m caricaturing a little bit, but I think we’re playing off of an older mindset where it’s us, we’re were older, we’re in this position of authority, and here’s how we like to do things. And here’s this young generation, and they think, very alien to us, and they want to do something else, and we’re going to make them come over to our side… saying, look, we all get distracted. In class, I’m frequently saying, “Well, yeah, here’s something unpleasant that happened to me on social media,” even if I don’t tell them all the details. [LAUGHTER] The point is, yeah, I get misunderstandings and hurt feelings on social media, too. I end up in the social comparison that tends to be so toxic on places like Instagram. I get really, really distracted and sidetracked because I’m using the same computer for 20 different things all at once. And so let’s work together to see how we can address those challenges. And yeah, so I think that what you’re describing is, I think, a very healthy way forward.

John: Now that faculty have had a chance to get more insight into students lives, perhaps now faculty will be more understanding of those things in the future, because the classroom environment is somewhat separated from all that it was much easier to ignore those things and maybe faculty will be more likely to treat students as human beings, perhaps in the future.

Rebecca: Are you implying that the classroom is real life?

John: Well, maybe it may more closely resemble that as we move back into more traditional classroom settings.

Michelle: Yes, and I’m all for that.

John: We always end with the question, and it’s particularly relevant now, “What’s next?”

Michelle: As you mentioned at the top of our interview together, I am in the very final stages of completing the Remembering and Forgetting in the Age of Technology book. So I’m really excited to having that book be coming out in the not too distant future. And I’m really throwing myself into a brand new professional role, which is as the Co-editor of the Teaching and Learning Series with West Virginia University Press. Now, this series has just drawn so many dynamic thinkers with so many practical and also evidence-based ideas that we can all use in teaching and learning and so it was a tremendous honor to be invited to take that role on and I’ll be working with the other editor of the series who founded the series and launched it all, Dr. James Lang, who has just been tremendously influential in the area of bringing evidence-based effective pedagogical strategies to so many people in higher education. He’s been this tremendous leader in that area. His writing is also amazing. So what an honor to get to work with him and with West Virginia University Press. Stepping into that role has taken up a lot and it’s been wonderful already. So that is, for the most part, what’s next for me.

John: And I think we could say the same about your writing based on your earlier book, as well as recent comments that Jim Lang made on Twitter about how much he enjoyed the clarity of your writing and your exposition in this new book and how much he’s looking forward to that being released.

Michelle: Oh, thank you, that’s so nice to say and being able to teach students and to talk to students for so many years about these issues was the inspiration that gave me ideas to work with. So, it all comes around.

Rebecca: Well, thanks, as always for joining us, Michelle, and sharing some of your insights and some of the work that you’ve been doing.

Michelle: Oh, my pleasure. Thank you.

John: Thank you, Michelle. And we’re looking forward to talking to you about this book as it gets closer to coming out.

Michelle: Absolutely.

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

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

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139. Pedagogies of Care: Digital Reading

This week we continue a series of interviews with participants in the Pedagogies of Care project. In this episode, Dr. Jenae Cohn joins us to discuss concerns about, and the affordances that are associated with, reading in a digital environment. Jenae is an Academic Technology Specialist at Stanford University and the author of Skim, Dive, Surface: Strategies for Digital Reading in the College Classroom, which will be released by West Virginia University Press as part of the superb series edited by James Lang.

Show Notes

  • Cohn, Jenae (2021, forthcoming). Skim, Dive, Surface: Strategies for Digital Reading in the College Classroom. West Virginia University Press.
  • Carillo, E. C. (2017). A writer’s guide to mindful reading. WAC Clearinghouse.
  • Pedagogies of Care (Sneak Peek) – video trailer –  website
  • Plato (360 BCE). Phaedras
  • Cavanagh, S. R. (2016). The Spark of Learning: Energizing the College Classroom with the Science of Emotion. West Virginia University Press.
  • Mueller, D. N. (2009). Digital underlife in the networked writing classroom. Computers and Composition, 26(4), 240-250.
  • Smale, M. A., & Regaldo, M. (2017). Digital Technology as Affordance and Barrier to Higher Education. Palgrave Macmillan.
  • Smale, M. A. (2020). “It’s a lot to take in”—Undergraduate Experiences with Assigned Reading”. CUNY Academic Works, 1–10.
  • Lang, James (2020, forthcoming). Why Students Can’t Focus and What You Can Do About It. Basic Books.
  • Hypothesis
  • PowerNotes
  • Perusall
  • PowerNotes
  • VoiceThread

Transcript

John: This week we continue a series of interviews with participants in the Pedagogies of Care project. In this episode, we discuss concerns about, and the affordances that are associated with, reading in a digital environment.

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

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

John: …and Rebecca Mushtare, a graphic designer.

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

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Rebecca: Our guest today is Dr. Jenae Cohn. She is an Academic Technology Specialist at Stanford University and the author of Skim, Dive, Surface: Strategies for Digital Reading in the College Classroom, which will be released by West Virginia University Press as part of the superb series edited by James Lang. Welcome, Jenae.

John: Welcome.

Jenae: Thank you for having me.

John: Our teas today are:

Jenae: I have got a white and green tea blend with jasmine today. It’s really delicious.

Rebecca: That sounds good. I have Scottish afternoon tea

John: That’s a little bit stronger, isn’t it?

Rebecca: I like it. It’s good.

John: And I am still drinking English Breakfast tea.

Jenae: A black tea crew. I respect that in the afternoon… a little pick me up.

John: And it’s grading time here so I need the extra caffeine.

Jenae: Yeah, I get that. Makes sense.

John: We’ve invited you here to discuss your book, Skim, Dive, and Surface. Could you tell us what motivated your work on this topic?

Jenae: Absolutely. I have always found great solace and inspiration in reading. I’ve considered myself a reader for my entire life, and I noticed as a reader when I was in college that I largely depended on tried and true techniques for remembering content from reading: from highlighting and note taking in the margins to drawing little doodles and scribbles. And when I transitioned to graduate school, when I was getting my PhD, I was reading longer, more complex texts. And at that point, I really didn’t have the resources to be printing everything out hundreds of pages of reading a week, to do those techniques that had served me so well as a college student. So I think at that point forward, I started thinking a lot about how does our media, how do our spaces for reading, shape what we’re able to glean from a reading and how we’re able to orient ourselves to the really critical task of reading and being readers. And this became even a more acute kind of question for me when I started teaching first-year composition, and I saw my own students struggling in the same way that I was struggling as a graduate student with trying to get through really new and challenging complicated texts that were changing our orientation, not only to reading texts, but just being readers. And so I kept mulling over this for years and years, and my research kept dancing around it. And then by the time I got to my job at Stanford, it really struck me that it was the time to start writing a book that would help people recognize and see these real distinctions, but not from a language of a deficit model, and not from the language that was kind of coming out the 2016 moment that Google made us stupid, or that smartphones are bad for our brain, like those dialogues are still happening, much to my great dismay, but to actually provide sort of a more open and inclusive and, I think, kind of compassionate take on the possibilities of reading across spaces and finding promise and hope for readers to be more flexible in different ways of reading, especially when it comes to academic context.

Rebecca: I find your work really exciting because I was always an avid reader, even when I was young, but when reading academic texts, it’s a really different kind of reading, like reading fiction is really different than reading an academic text. And I remember when I was in sixth grade, I had an intervention because I was struggling with our Global Studies class because I had really poor reading comprehension on the topic. And I was lucky that a family friend happened to be the reading specialist and helped me out. But otherwise, no one had taught me how to read those kinds of texts, and I really struggled.

Jenae: Oh my gosh, I love that story, Rebecca, because it really speaks to how your context can shape your behaviors and how you approach that task. And I love that you’ve even worked with a reading specialist. I think we take for granted that if you can read in one space, you can read in another space. You are an avid reader and able to really dive into fiction, but that doesn’t mean you necessarily could read those more technical texts or texts that were speaking to different audiences and engaging with different purposes and it’s easy to take for granted, especially at the college level, that the students will have sort of equal proficiencies if they’re able to like technically read, but we know when we get to higher ed context, it’s a lot more complicated than that.

Rebecca: So, like me, I think a lot of students don’t get training on how to read academic texts or critical texts when they’re in K-12. So what do you recommend? Or how do we help students transition to college reading?

Jenae: I think there’s a few ways we can begin. First, I think that what college instructors can really do is help demystify the purposes of reading. I think that a lot of instructors, and I’ve done this myself, assume that just if you say, “Okay, read chapter one of this book,” everyone will understand what the purpose is of reading chapter one of the book, but that’s not necessarily so, especially since in different contexts and disciplines those purposes for engaging with a particular chapter article might be really different. And I think as instructors too, we want to think about what we want students to get out of the reading. Do we want students to be reading for content? Are we trying to help them understand a particular concept and how that concept might be in dialogue with something from an in-class discussion or a lecture, or something else, or we want the students to read what we call reading rhetorically, or I want them to read to understand the strategies an author’s using to communicate a claim. So in writing classes in particular, rhetorical reading might happen when we’re trying to understand a particular historical context or moment that might be shaping how an author might be orienting to a topic, to kind of understand the context around that reading, or understand the writer’s writerly moves. So someone who’s also trying to read to understand a written genre might be another thing we need to help students understand when it comes to purpose. So, in the sciences, you might have students read a scientific article to understand: “This is standard format in the scientific article structure: the introduction, methods, description, results.” There’s always sort of a standard pattern to that. That’s all to say, I think just making our purposes clear is Thing number one, Thing number two, that I think instructors could do to help students really develop a stronger sense of being a reader, is to also help them understand different approaches to note take, and to think about how they glean important pieces of information from a context. And different students will do this in different ways. So I certainly wouldn’t recommend a prescriptive, like note-taking model that everyone has to do. I think that it over determines a certain kind of thought process. But there can be a moment, and I think a lot of instructors don’t think of themselves as having to teach academic skills, but it can be really valuable to make explicit: “Here’s the skill you’ll need to develop to do this work.” And to have an open discussion with students: What do you do? Why do you do these kinds of behaviors? How does this help you learn? And to make that really explicit. These are just starting points. The real expert on academic reading proper, I would point you to Ellen Carrillo, she has a great book for college students called Mindful Reading. Ellen Carrillo’s work about really bridging students to academic reading skills is like the best place to start for instructors who want to start at the foundation of what it means to help students read. I cite her a lot in my book because I think her work is really quite foundational to this thinking,

John: As you noted, the type of reading skills vary quite a bit by your discipline. Reading a chemistry article is very different than reading a math paper or reading a novel or reading poetry. Should each discipline include something about teaching students, what’s important in reading in that discipline early in a student’s career?

Jenae: Oh, I think that would be tremendously helpful if, in an intro course, that was a part of the unit. It would help students recognize what it means to be a professional in that discipline too, which can also help students I think, from the level of choosing a major and deciding what academic conversations they want to remain a part of in terms of their career. I think that many students, and I know I was this way in college, don’t tend to see the subjects as communities. We call these discourse communities: mathematicians, chemists, compositions, they’re all part of different discourse, communities that have different goals and functions and ways of communicating and behaving. So the more visible we can make those sorts of tacit understandings of how people communicate, the more we can demystify a bit of a hidden curriculum around how disciplinarity, how intellectual thought, operates. And I think that can be really exciting for students to see “Oh, people who are in math and chemistry, they have a way of talking. It doesn’t mean I’m stupid. [LAUGHTER] It doesn’t mean that I can’t get it. It just means that it’s a community that I don’t know yet, and that I want to understand better through accessing and unpacking what it means to be a reader or a writer in that space.”

John: You need to know the language of the discipline to some extent to be able to participate in the conversation.

Jenae: Exactly. That’s a great way to sum it up. I was like the “too long, didn’t read” version of what I just said.

Rebecca: I think another space where you’re switching contexts is between the physical environment and the virtual environment, which many of us are experiencing maybe more intensely now [LAUGHTER] than we had in the past. I know that while I was on sabbatical, doing research, I found myself doing a lot more reading online in digital format than I ever had before, because our physical library was closed. [LAUGHTER]

Jenae: Yeah, how was that for you?

Rebecca: At first, I was really resistant and I read every single physical book that I had first. So, I could take notes in the margins and things that I was used to and accustomed to doing. But I’ve recently read a couple of texts on my Kindle and really love that I can highlight and take notes there and then end up with a digital file that’s searchable. It’s actually way more useful, but I had never really been forced into trying a new way of reading.

Jenae: Fabulous.

Rebecca: So, I think it’s interesting to start thinking about how do we help students take advantage of some of the affordances that a digital environment actually has, rather than just the resistance. And one of that, for me, is like moving from reading from my computer to a Kindle, which has the e-paper, which is a little better in my eyes and it’s a little more comfortable of a reading environment, but then taking advantage of those tools and techniques that are built into some of the software that’s available.

Jenae: Absolutely. You’ve pointed out several really great affordances to digital reading, where you’re able to archive your notes in a particular space, organize them, create certain kinds of like topical categories for the notes that you’ve got from your Kindle. So, you’re already opening up so many of the wide world of possibilities, especially when it comes to academic reading, in your own experience of having the library closed up for you. So, I really enjoyed hearing your thought process around that.

John: But if students haven’t done much academic work prior to coming to college with e-texts, the skills that they had, as you mentioned in the intro to your book, in terms of dog-earing the pages and using highlighters and so forth, might not translate as easily unless they’ve perhaps learn to adapt with those. Rebecca talked about the ability to take notes and index them, but students don’t always know how to do that. And one thing that complicates it a little bit is they may get their books in different formats, some may be on a Kindle, some may be in Blackboard or Canvas or some other learning management system, and others may be PDFs. So how do we help students with that transition?

Rebecca: And also maybe faculty? Because sometimes I think that’s a barrier, too. [LAUGHTER]

John: I think that’s probably a more common barrier… we’ve had some people give us all sorts of interesting explanations of why books are better, most of them based on neuromyths that have been debunked for decades. But there is this perception that the tangible nature of a book makes it better in some way. Just as, you know, the book was seen as being bad when it was first introduced, because it weakened the need for people to develop their memories. I think people feel the same way about electronic texts. So how do we get past those barriers on the part of faculty and students?

Jenae: Right. Wow. Lots of good questions nested in that one question. And I will say that in the first part of the book, I talk about history, affect, and neuroscience as kind of categories of ways that instructors, in particular, might find their own resistances or anxieties, as I put it, reflected. John, when you mentioned that people once worried that the book was going to destroy memory. And Socrates and Plato had a famous dialogue about this in the Phaedrus. Right, that’s like an anxiety that’s just been really… there’s historical echoes actually all around the world that I detail in the book. That was a really fun section to write because I love history, too. But anyway, I’ll get to your question here, which is how do we help students make this transition? And again, I think we have to unpack that in a few different ways. And one is sort of starting with meeting both students and faculty where they are, engaging, I think, in some dialogue around “Why do you like a paper book? Why do you like to use a physical highlighter? Why do you like to doodle in the margins?” We’ll learn interesting things, and in the book, I do a little bit of a lit review of some major surveys that have been done around faculty and student perceptions of reading on paper and reading on screen and I’ll offer the really like two-minute gloss version of that, which is that the stated reasons these surveys have found is that, for both students and instructors alike, it is familiar. And there’s a perception that it’s better for their memory and attention. And you’re right, John, too, that some of that comes from neuromyths. Some of it just comes from feeling. A lot of the surveys are about, again, to the affect point, “I like the way the book feels in my hand.” “I like the weight of the book.” People, and this is my favorite, would even say things like “I like the smell of the pages.” And that’s all about feeling, that’s about emotions and the cognitive work are tied, of course. And I actually thought really distinctly of Sarah Rose Cavanagh’s work about this, that we can’t unpack the emotions from the learning itself. So all that’s important. So I say you have to start the dialogue there with your own local community and there might be some echoes of that national conversation. And so recognizing why you feel those ways might also help you to see how those feelings or how those perceptions translate into lived experience. A lot of the studies on moving students from print to digital environments are also focused on the memory and retention. And studies have mostly found that students do tend to remember more when they read on paper, but it’s because they don’t actually have strategies for reading in digital spaces. So, something else we might do is, to return to the earlier part of the conversation in some ways, at least, make explicit that there are strategies they’re using in the first place: “Wow, you really like to use the highlighter? What are you doing when you use the highlighter? Oh, you’re pointing out the most important parts of the section? Why is it important to find the most important parts of the section? How are you doing that? What do you do with that information?” Once you find those most important parts, then once you isolate out those skills and what you’re doing with them, we can think about: A. not just how you replicate that in a digital environment, but what a digital environment does differently. So, this is also, I think, part of the conversation needs to include making explicit what the affordances are of a digital environment beyond the fact of it being on a screen, recognizing that paper is a technology. And just as much as that laptops’ are a technology, your Kindle’s a technology. The other technology that I’ll throw in where I think students are doing a bunch of reading these days as their smartphones, I’ve had instructors tell me, “Wow, I’m so horrified that my students are doing all the reading on their phone,” and my response is “Well, especially now on this COVID-19 moment, our students might not have access to laptops that work that are as fast as their 5G network on their phones.” So, I think now more than ever, we have to be really accommodating in thinking about where mobile, and where the affordances of mobile, fit in… What kinds of applications and tools are available across these spaces to, again, both replicate the great labor and thinking around print, but that also take advantage of the easy abilities to link content and connect content across different spaces, the ability to curate and create collections of information across different spaces, and that ability to tag and sort different sets of ideas to see relationships and connections between ideas. This is just sort of the tip of the iceberg in terms of possibilities. I will say I recognize the constraints, I think, of digital environments. We can’t ignore things like screen fatigue. Rebecca, you talked about getting tired, your eyes getting tired reading on a screen, I feel that too. The blue light that emits from screens is really exhausting for our brains. I think probably everyone’s experiencing this even more in our move to living on the internet and our COVID-19 moment. So, I think part of this is also figuring out what are the strategies for avoiding fatigue. And in some ways, this can be good for our learning too. It might inspire us to take more breaks, to work in shorter and more concentrated bursts of time and to recognize and have a clear purpose in mind by working within those shorter bursts of time as well.

John: We’ve just been talking about faculty resistance to reading on mobile devices. But, faculty also often seem to have a resistance, back in the days, a long time ago, when we used to be in the classroom at times. There used to be this resistance to students using mobile devices in the classroom. Would you like to talk a little bit about how students, perhaps, might be using mobile devices in ways that may not be as negative as faculty might expect them to be.

Jenae: Yeah. Isn’t it funny how like mobile bans and laptop bans feel like that was so long ago at this moment of recording? Yeah, there’s a big chapter actually in the book about laptop and mobile device bans, because I think that context might come back again. We’ll see. So anyway, yes, there are number of, I think, productive things students are doing with mobile phones in class. One is that students might be using mobile as really their faster internet connection. I will say that mobile networks tend to be a bit more reliable than even if you are face to face. On-campus Wi Fi networks can be very unreliable. And it can certainly be more reliable than students’ home networks. But in the context of class itself, it might actually give students a more stable connection, which can mean greater access. From a learning and engagement perspective too, what students also might get from mobile that I think is really exciting, is the ability to do really flexible note taking and archiving of work. So mobile apps have the real benefit of being able to use your finger or a stylus to actually draw and annotate and nimbly really respond and react in real time. I actually have an activity in the book where I even suggest that instructors create an assignment where they think of students working through their reading as they might create like an Instagram or Snapchat story, where they can take quick screenshots with like emoji reactions from different parts of the book as a way to engage with it. So I think that our students have found really creative ways to engage. They might not realize that those are creative ways to engage. There’s actually a lot of literature that shows that sometimes students get a little uncomfortable when instructors try to like make their class like “My class is cool, it’s like Facebook for learning.” So I don’t know if I would go that direction. But rather, it’s really saying, “Hey, here are tools you can use to do the things that are really good for your learning,” rather than saying, “Learning is just like Facebook,” which makes some students feel a little bit like their lives are getting too uncomfortably blurred. I’ll say one last thing about the mobile phones in class, which is that for many students who are either working from home or staying connected to the family, it’s important to recognize that students might be needing to connect with people outside the classroom during class. That might seem like a distraction, but for many students, if they are caretakers, for example, they might need to be reading off of their phone, to also be checking to see “Okay, does my parent need me right now? Does my sibling need me right now? Does someone else I’m caring about really need me to stay connected and engaged during class?” Some people refer to these behaviors as being part of the digital underlife. Derek Mueller has a great essay about this concept that I think is really valuable. Maura Smale, I should say, and Mariana Regaldo have done really great work on how students are thinking about mobile as sort of lifelines to the world outside. So, I think that the benefits to mobile happen both at the learning level, but also the access and connection and inclusion level. And I don’t know, man, I don’t think we need policing of how our students are engaging with devices in class, as part of the work of showing compassion, I think, towards our students, is trusting and recognizing good intent. And if students don’t want to engage, they just want to disconnect, even if you ban the devices, maybe they’ll doodle and zone out.[LAUGHTER] So, like there are lots of ways to be distracted and the device is sort of a red herring in a way for that, in my opinion.

John: I found many ways to be distracted as a student long before there were cell phones. So, I fully agree with that. And it can also be a good indicator, if the instructor is walking around and sees a lot of students doing things that aren’t related to the class, that maybe there’s not as much engagement there as you might like.

Jenae: Yeah, exactly.

John: One of the differences between an e-text and a book is that generally the book doesn’t have pop-up messages that might interrupt your focus and attention. Most mobile devices, though, do. What can we do to help students perhaps better manage the distractions that they deal with when they’re reading on a mobile device?

Jenae: So this is tricky, because our brains respond to novelty. And of course, mobile phones have been designed to be addictive. [LAUGHTER] With all those pop-up notifications and things that fire off our endorphins. There’s a concrete tip, right, like encourage students to disable notifications for certain kinds of apps. Not all of our students know how to do that. I think, there is often assumptions too about a traditional college-aged student, or I’ll put traditional scare quotes in the air that our students between 18 and 21 know everything about all digital devices, because they are… and I just love this expression… digital natives… not a real thing… it doesn’t exist. [LAUGHTER] Because even if you’re born when technology’s invented, it doesn’t mean that you are adept at it in every single context and environment. So, I think offering some explicit, just tactical, infrastructure advice around that. The other thing that’s not a technical piece, that’s a cognitive piece, again, to help students recognize their purpose in reading too. So when you veer away to check a notification from your reading, why? Is it because you’re bored? Is it because the text is confusing? Is it because you simply just want to read the notification? Just recognizing and making clear what your intentions are as you’re reading can also be a way of managing attention. The other thing I’ll add around distraction, I think it’s important to recognize that attention does not look the same for every student, either. There are some students who I think actually read really well when they’re multitasking, so to speak. The example I go to is when teaching composition I always have students who work with like 5000, tabs open, approximate number, and they’ll often sort of flip between those tabs, and as an instructor I often asked about students; workflow, cause that’s just of interest to me. And many students will share that they’re looking at Wikipedia for an encyclopedic explanation of something they’ve read, or they’re looking up a word in the dictionary, or they’re looking for an image that illustrates something the book described. So sometimes that ability to kind of flip between different things might look like distraction. It might look like it’s not on task when, in fact, it very much could be tied into the task. Of course, those tabs could also be, you know, the latest TikTok stream, or whatever students are watching right now, which of course, can divert attention and isn’t particularly good for memory. But, I think that mindfulness about why they’re reading and why they might click a notification, just making that explicit, right. And rather than just being some sort of a punishment for the sake of being a punishment, or a better way to put this is rather than just sort of deriding the action as a given… really unpacking the assumption that distractions always bad, and thinking through what does it really mean to be distracted? And I suspect Jim Lang’s newest book on Teaching Distracted Minds is actually going to be a really helpful complement to some of this conversation, too. So I think that’s another text I’m really looking forward to reading as part of this conversation as well.

John: We are too and we’ve actually scheduled an interview with him in a few months when it’s closer to coming out to talk about that book.

Jenae: Oh, fabulous.

John: We’re very much looking forward to it, and I think many faculty will be.

Jenae: Super relevant.

Rebecca: I think related to some of the distraction stuff that you’re talking about to is format, and that digital texts come in different formats. And the idea that students are not digital natives, that they don’t just somehow magically know how to use technology unless we’re showing them how to use it. I found that showing students how to take advantage of accessibility features and alternative formats and the ability to make their text reflow, and things like that, has really opened doors for students because they just didn’t even know that those features were available to them and really changed how they experienced texts or other media on their devices, because they could really change how they could actually consume it or interact with it.

Jenae: Yeah, I’m so glad you brought up accessibility features. Because, you’re right, that text to speech features, screen reading features, even the visual accessibility features that are part of digital technologies… even just understanding where the alt text is… and where, like, image descriptions might be, makes a difference for all learners. This is of course part of a universal design for learning philosophy, that when students are aware, to your point, Rebecca, of the technologies available to them, it’s all students who benefit from that because it gives them multiple models for engaging with those ideas. It gives them multiple models for potentially representing ideas themselves. And so the book really actually deals with UDL philosophies, at its core. I almost had an entire chapter dedicated to UDL. And then as I was revising it, it’s like, I can’t even have just one chapter. This has to be strung into every chapter in this book. And to me, that’s the most compelling reason to encourage students to read in digital spaces, the most compelling reason to encourage faculty to overcome, I think, sometimes resistant perspectives about what digital reading doesn’t offer is, think about the range of students you’re seeing, their ranges of circumstances, their ranges of thinking about the world. And when you open up all these new possibilities for reading in digital spaces, you get to include so many more people who maybe never thought of themselves as readers, right? Who weren’t those avid readers reading their paperback books in the bathtub at three in the morning. That was me. It might be just a different group that you get to bring into the fold and who get to maybe experience reading as they might have never thought of reading before. I found like a million think pieces that were like “Are audio books real books?” Does it mean something to read an audio book, and I did a little bit of like a forehead slap. “Of course, reading an audio book is reading a book. It’s still reading.” But when we disparage based on media, we just exclude so many potential people we could just bring into the fold of being readers and finding people who want to be excited about reading.

John: So besides the accessibility and the UDL nature of this, there’s also some advantages, I think in terms of perhaps the cost of digital readings. College textbooks have grown in price fairly dramatically over the last 30 or 40 years to become a much larger share of college costs. So, by encouraging that, aren’t we also perhaps making education at least a little bit more affordable?

Jenae: I hope so. And certainly the OER movement is really tied to these conversations about accessibility. So, yes, I think that the more we can point students to digital resources that might reduce those kinds of costs, we respond to a major faculty concern. Surveys from EDUCAUSE and the Babson survey group actually suggest that one of faculty members’ major concerns is this very question of affordability. So, if we could be more open minded about the ways that we teach certain academic skills, we kind of kill two birds with one stone, so to speak. We manage to kind of help solve the affordability piece, while also expanding out accessibility options. And I think OERs could be even more powerful as a resource, if we help students understand how to leverage them beyond the ways that they might just read a website, which if you look to research and usability studies and user experience, a lot of people read websites in what’s been called like an L-formation, like the eyes sort of scan only a portion of the page. It’s not really reading in depth. And that’s because people have certain behaviors or attitudes about what they’re trying to find on a website. And you can spend hours and hours thinking about the user experience of website and where you place the pieces to draw attention to the most important pieces of information. And so that’s a matter of training, right? We know that website genres invite certain kinds of reading. So, if we open it up to students, we say, “Hey, you’re going to be doing all your reading online in this OER, that’s a more affordable option. How will you identify the important pieces? What’s going to be your behavior through this text? This isn’t just like reading the website for the news. It isn’t just like going on your Twitter feed. This operates in a very different way. Here’s how we can leverage that and not just sort of feel like we’re following the same patterns we do with other pieces of kind of flattened out web content. So, I deviated a little from your affordability question, but it got me thinking about the UX side as well.

Rebecca: I think one of the exciting things that you discuss in your book, but also capture in the infographic that you are including in the Pedagogies of Care project are some really interesting ways that students can read in a digital environment that allows us to make connections and interact with other people and other texts. Can you talk about some of the ways that we can use digital texts that people don’t always think about.

Jenae: Sure. So, I have a framework that’s at the core of the book. I don’t call it the five C’s for digital read, I call this the digital reading framework, but it is the five C words. So, some of the strategies include connection, curation, contextualization, creation, and what I call contemplation. And so some things people might not think about is when I think especially with connection and curation. We’ll start with curation, that’s actually the first item in the framework. Reading is always an act of curation in many ways. When you take a text, unless it’s just something you’re reading for fun. I should say reading is always an act of curation in an academic or a learning context, because you’re trying to sort of parse out what pieces of information or what examples are the best examples to help me make a claim, remember an idea, draw a conclusion, whatever the case might be. And so with a digital text, what you can do is you can make that curation process visible by… and this is simple… this isn’t even high tech: copying and pasting parts of your text into a taxonomy of your own design that helps you to see “Oh, right, this collection of quotes is really about this topic that I’m learning about in my class.” “Oh, wow, this text A and text B are both speaking to content area one.” You can really bridge that much more easily than on paper when you might have to, you know, an old school technique would be to make like note cards, where you write down the quotes and their different paper books that correspond to these topics. It’s a great strategy, but pretty cumbersome and time consuming, and difficult to manage if you don’t have access to print books, like the moment we’re in right now. So, that might be one strategy that is exciting, I think, for a digital environment, especially. I’ll point to creation as another example. So one of the benefits of being in a digital environment is you can really manipulate text easily. And that goes to everything from modifying fonts, especially if you’re just reading something off of like, an HTML regular old website. You could copy and paste that text into any word processor, you could change the font colors, shapes, sizes, to create different kinds of taxonomies. and customize that more, even in text like a PDF document that you can’t customize the design of text itself, you can still lift parts of that text, you can convert it into different file forms to modify the appearance as well and create something new for you a different kind of map, that’s not just limited to highlighting and doodles, but is actually dealing with and manipulating the words themselves. You can’t lift words out of a print book. So it’s kind of cool to think about what could you do if you could take these words. In the creation chapter I give an example of an activity where you could even create like a visualization of the text itself or create like an audio guide through your text, or maybe you lift those words and create word clouds or mind maps to see relationships between ideas that way. I’m sort of riffing abstractly here because I think you would do this differently depending on different concrete disciplines and contexts. But I think that the framework itself offers lots of different options that I point out the creation and creation categories in particular because in many ways it is the most unique for the digital context and might be the most surprising to people who might think of reading as just a process of underlining, and maybe leaving notes in the margin. There’s a lot more ways to think about and play with the ideas you get from text than just like “This idea is cool” or like “I have a question here.” You could expand a lot more and do a lot more and do a lot more to make text dynamic, I think.

John: One of the things I’ve been using in a couple of my classes for the last couple years is Hypothesis, where I have digital versions of some readings, generally working papers and studies, within the LMS. And then students go through and annotate it and tag it, which kind of forces them, I think, to analyze things a little bit more deeply. And they can comment on each other’s and so forth. And it’s been a really useful tool, which wouldn’t work very well with a physical text.

Jenae: Yes, I love the collaborative component of a tool like Hypothesis, too. It makes reading social, which is something we also lose out on sometimes, unless you go to a used bookstore and you find like the treasure of a book that has someone else’s old annotations. That’s like one of my favorite things of all time. I miss used bookstores in our COVID-19 moment, I have to say. But, Hypothesis, it’s like getting to uncover that treasure of seeing how someone else thought of something, to make it clear that no one text exists in isolation, that you always necessarily need to have text together. I always feel reluctant to cite myself, but I’ll do it since I’m talking about my book in this podcast, anyway. I actually wrote a book chapter all about social annotation in an edited collection about marginalia, that I think speaks to exactly what tools like Hypothesis do. There’s actually a ton of great tools on the market now that do similar things. Perusall is also really good for doing what Hypothesis does. It’s a bit more of a closed system than Hypothesis. It doesn’t exist on the open web, it kind of locks it into a class community. I think there are pros and cons to that. PowerNotes is also a really cool tool that’s new on the market, where students can also collaboratively comment on each other’s. It’s not annotations tied directly to the text, but you comment on annotations in an outline view. So, it kind of privileges how students are rearranging ideas and building them into a topically formed outline. In the book, I have an appendix of tools that will be current as of the writing. Unfortunately, in any book about technology, the instant you publish it, some of it’s obsolete. So I tried really hard in the book not to get too tied to particular tools, because I wanted the concepts to be sort of translatable, because the sort of secret to this book is it’s about digital reading. But really, it’s more about having an expansive attitude to what it means to be a reader in the first place. And it happens to be responding to digital media as the technology that is most prevalent and most centrally part of our lives right now. But I think it’s really valuable to talk about particular tools to make this more concrete. That’s why there are tools in that appendix. And John, I love that you’re using Hypothesis. Have you tried out that too, Rebecca, or other kinds of annotation tools like that?

Rebecca: I haven’t, but I’m looking for an option that will allow us to also comment on images and layout.

Jenae: Yes.

Rebecca: So there’s some limitations to Hypothesis in the ways that I would want my students to use it. So, I haven’t quite found the best solution yet for what I’m hoping I can get in place for the fall?

Jenae: Yeah, I really would like to see a tool that does better image annotation too.

John: That might be an interesting application of VoiceThread, for example, where students can put the image on the screen and either put text notes to it or annotate the image directly, or just talk over it.

Rebecca: Yeah, it’s really like Hypothesis and VoiceThread need to like talk to each other and make a tool that combines some of the features of both, [LAUGHTER] because I like the fact that you can go to an actual web page and interact with something in that space where it was designed, because the design piece of it is actually important to me, and it’s dynamic nature, rather than just taking screenshots. So, that’s where I’m finding limitations in the tools currently.

Jenae: VoiceThread is a great recommendation though, John for engaging with multimedia. I love that students too can comment with either text or audio or video. And this conversation’s really speaking to the importance of space and making options and opportunities available. And to Rebecca’s point about limitations, it’s also important from the instructor side to know… Rebecca, it sounds like you have a really clear sense of purpose, what you want your students to do. It sounds like you have that too, John, and that’s where we really want people to begin… this is my technologist side speaking… we want people to begin with their own pedagogical purpose, with their goals, before they start selecting tools. That’s the danger in this conversation about digital reading is that we start first with foregrounding the tool and don’t think about the why. So I always like to begin with that purpose piece. It’s important to go down the features rabbit hole, because part of how we shape the environment. But, we also don’t want ta decision to adopt novel things for the sake of adopting novel things.

Rebecca: I think the foundation of compassion in the work that you’re doing is really important too, because it really is a very inclusive perspective in who’s involved in reading, why we’re reading, and it’s against the deficit model. I really appreciate the idea that there’s like a future of reading that’s exciting and new, and we can all be a part of it, that really supports this moment today. And I’d like to hear a little bit more about some of the compassion pieces of your work if you would be willing to share them.

Jenae: Sure. So, I’d say put up like the UDL piece that kind of gets strung throughout. This compassion piece to me gets threaded throughout the book in the same way that I think my work on UDL, or grappling with UDL, gets threaded across the book, because I think a student-centered philosophy is inherently compassionate. If you’re thinking about who’s going to be a part of your learning experience on the other end, and recognize that students are really bringing good intent into the classroom… when you start from that space and saying, students are the ones experiencing this learning. And for the most part, we have to trust our students to want to come and and have agency in their learning experience. I think something that’s important when you center compassion is recognizing, too, that not every student is like you. I know for me as a really enthusiastic reader, it’s easy occasionally to feel disheartened when students don’t like to read, or don’t want to read, or don’t do the reading. At the end of my book, in my conclusion, I talked about hearing lots of hallway conversations as an instructor about “Oh, I’m so upset. My students never do the reading. They don’t like to do the readings.” and that can feel sad because we want people to feel as excited about what we assigned to them as we feel about it. A third thread in the book then is sort of saying, “Hey, when you can open up your practices, you also help students come at reading where they are.” a student-centered design philosophy says, “You’re going to find your own enthusiastic pathway in here.” And we also need to recognize as part of the compassionate philosophy, also a forgiveness side of like, “If you don’t like this, this isn’t what you like, that’s cool, too.” I was never a strong STEM student. And so I remember in college, I never put very much time… I took like the dinosaurs class for my science class, which I thought be like the easy science option. It was not. I’ll just say that. That was like one of the hardest classes I took in college was the class on dinosaurs. We had to identify dinosaur bone structures. [LAUGHTER] That was really tough, but I can still tell you the different kinds of dinosaur hips, just saying, if you ever want to know, that the dinosaurs have two different kinds of hips. So, I learned things but that’s not to say that like I did the bare minimum in the dinosaurs class to learn the dinosaur bone structures. And I think that we have to accept that our students like that our classes might not be the class, this might not be their major, this might not be what they’re passionate about. So, the more options that we give, to helping them kind of get into this, the more we can again, recognize, see, appreciate, where they are at different moments. One last thing I’ll say about compassionate courses in our current moment, where we’re all sort of forced to be remote, this compassion is even more important. So, I see understanding the possibilities of digital reading as yet another way to include students who might not have preferred to read on screen, but who find they’re forced to because they don’t have access to printers to make paper copies of their readings, they don’t have access to the library, because every library everywhere is closed. And so, a part of this is saying, “Hey, you can still get what you need. Do what is motivating you right now, even if you don’t have access to these materials, rather than kind of falling back to this model of ‘being online is deficient.’ ‘Reading digitally is deficient,’” and saying “Look, it doesn’t have to be, and it might not still be your preference.” I mean, I think lots of students at this moment are going to appreciate face-to-face instruction even more. Many might find a lot to love about remote learning, it’s going to be a range. But again, the more options we can give, the more we show compassion to the different circumstances and needs that might be shaping our student experiences. So, kind of a long answer to that question, but there’s a lot to unpack there too. I think.

John: We always end with the question, what’s next?

Jenae: So a few things are next, given that the book will not be out until sometime in early 2021, I am designing right now as workshops and webinars around components of the book that I’m hoping will make certain pieces sort of portable and accessible in the meantime, since as at the time of recording, a lot of colleges are deciding about remote learning options, hybrid learning options, HyFlex learning options, so I’m hoping to tie in some conversation about digital reading with designing in different course models and how we could design learning activities around reading and writing that might be aligned with some online course design work. So I’m really, really excited about thinking through those possibilities. Another component, and I don’t know if this is a piece of writing yet, or something else. But a big piece of the book that I had to cut was about how digital reading operates in the service of developing digital literacy. I’m really interested in thinking about how, in our moment of being more connected and more remote, how colleges can better support students in acquiring digital literacies of various kinds, whether this is using different kinds of software applications for learning, or whether this is just becoming sort of more aware and critical of the infrastructures and tools that shape our reading experiences. I have a chapter in the book that’s all about kind of the dark underbelly of EdTech and the ways in which, even with adopting new tools, we need to be mindful of the lifespan of digital archives as in things that are on the web live forever. [LAUGHTER] And there’s still a lot more awareness raising we need to do and questioning we need to do of people who design EdTech solutions to make sure that we’re remaining cognizant of student safety and privacy. And as instructors, we need to know how to ask good questions about data collection, even around work like reading that might feel like it’s sort of innocuous and not terribly invasive. It still could be, depending on what students are reading or what they’re commenting on. So, I do think that there’s more work, I would like to do that interrogates how we help students become more aware and more critical of the infrastructures in which texts are available to them. And on the instructor end, I’d like to help think about how instructors themselves might develop the literacies to also be able to question and adopt ethical solutions for reading as well.

John: I’m really looking forward to reading your book, and I’ll put it on pre-order as soon as it’s listed somewhere. And we will share a link to your infographic and any other things you referred to in our show notes.

Rebecca: Yeah, I’m looking forward to reading your work and also your new work that you’re thinking about and ruminating over and also the workshops and things that you might do related to your book prior to your book coming out. Thanks so much for joining us.

Jenae: Oh, thank you so much for having me. I really appreciate it.

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

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

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