325. Looking Forward to 2024

As we enter this spring semester, we take a break from our usual format to discuss what we are looking forward to in 2024.

Show Notes

Transcript

Rebecca: As we enter this spring semester, we thought we’d take a break from our usual format to discuss what we’re looking forward to in 2024.

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

[MUSIC]

John: So what tea are you drinking now, Rebecca?

Rebecca: I’m drinking Ceylon tea.

John: And I have ginger peach black tea from the Republic of Tea.

Rebecca: So it’s a new year, John, and we’re gonna have a nice positive episode. So what are you grateful for?

John: I’m grateful that we survived another year. I’m grateful for the continued return to face-to-face instruction and a continuing return to a more normal classroom environment and college environment after all the disruptions from COVID that lasted for a while. And I’m also grateful for the initiatives that we’re using on our campus, and most campuses, to provide more focus on equity and trying to reduce some of the equity gaps that we’ve been seeing. And I’m seeing a general interest in that across a wide range of faculty and the administration. And we’re just in the process of running some workshops, and we’re getting some really good attendance at workshops that focus on techniques that faculty can use to improve equity and reduce some of those gaps. And I’m looking forward to seeing continued expansion of more equitable practices. And also, we’ve had quite a few people trying to implement the TILT approach that Mary-Ann Winklemes has talked about on a past podcast episode, and we’re hoping that that, combined with the increased structure that many people are trying to use in their classes, will help provide all students with more equitable outcomes.

Rebecca: I’m really glad that you have brought up equity, John, because I was just reflecting on a couple meetings that I was in just this week, and thinking about how equity oriented many of our colleagues are. And it’s really exciting to see them really advocating for policies, instructional practices, and many other things that are really equity oriented, and thinking about inclusion, and access, and all the things that you and I have talked about for a long time and have cared about and tried to implement in our classes. I’m also really grateful for, and I know you are too, for the many guests that we’ve had who’ve shared their expertise with us and with our audience. When we do these weekly episodes, it’s so great to have the opportunity to talk to such experts, to learn from them, to stay fresh with what’s going on, and to be able to share it with everyone else. It’s an experience that I didn’t know that I wanted, and I’m glad that we get to continue doing it.

John: And one other thing I’m grateful for from last fall is I attended my first POD conference, and I got to meet dozens of guests that we’ve talked to before. And we’ve talked to them, we’ve seen them on camera, but it was so nice to meet them and talk to them in more detail and in more depth in person.

Rebecca: I felt that way when I went to EDUCAUSE for the first time this year and connected with a number of colleagues focused on accessibility and growing that network and really connecting beyond just names and emails and other ways that we’ve communicated.

John: What are some of the major things you’re watching in the higher ed landscape? We’ve seen a lot of changes going on in the last few years, what are things that you’re going to be focusing more of your attention on in the next year?

Rebecca: I know that some of the things that we’re working on in grad studies and that I’m personally really involved in are kind of some increased accessibility resources for our colleagues at Oswego as well as SUNY. I’m looking forward to building out some of those resources, sharing those resources, and wrapping up a couple of research projects related to accessibility and getting to share those out. And I’m really excited that the higher ed landscape generally is having a lot more focus in this space because students with disabilities have been often overlooked in our diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives. And there definitely is a push to be a little more inclusive, and to have that population represented in these efforts and initiatives. We’re also really focused on ideas of belonging for a wide range of students, thinking about how do we get our online students connected to each other and to the larger population of students and to see them as members of our community, extending some of those features and opportunities for international students and really thinking about what some of their needs are to be successful at our institution, especially with our kind of rural location, and what can make things really excited. So I’m really looking forward to finding ways to support our students not just in the courses that I’m teaching or in my instructional role, but also in policies and procedures that we’re implementing at the institution,in grad studies, but more broadly as well. How about you?

John: One of the things that I’m really following closely is the development of AI. This came about a little over a year ago and it’s been a really disruptive influence. It offers a lot of tremendous possibilities, but it also provides some challenges to traditional assessment, particularly in asynchronous online courses. So I’m looking forward to continued development, it seems like there’s new tools coming out almost every week. And it offers some really nice capabilities to narrow some of the equity gaps that we have by providing low-cost assistance for students who may not have come into our institutions quite as well prepared. It offers a possibility of students doing a little bit more retrieval practice for those classes where instructors are not providing those opportunities. It offers students who, again have a somewhat weaker background, to take more complex readings that they may have been assigned and simplifying it and creating a more accessible format to help students get up to the level they need in their classes. And so it provides tools that can help students improve their writing, and so forth. The challenge, of course, is that it can also be used as a substitute for learning in some classes unless assignments are designed in a way, and assessment techniques are designed in a way, that reduces the likelihood of that and that’s one of the things we’ll be working on a lot this year, ways of coming up with more authentic assessment and ways of providing more intrinsic motivation for the work that students are doing, so that students can see the value of the learning rather than focusing entirely on grades. And one of the things we’re doing is we have a reading group coming up early this semester on Grading for Growth by Robert Talbert and David Clark. And we’re, in general, encouraging faculty to at least consider the adoption of alternative grading systems, which shift the focus away from students trying to maximize grades to maximizing their learning. And there’s a wide variety of tools that could be used for that, ranging from mastery learning quizzing systems, which many faculty have already been doing through specifications grading, contract grading, labor-based grading, and also ungrading.

Rebecca: Yeah, it’s really exciting that we’re going to focus on that semester, something that I’ve been interested in for a long time and have been using in my classes as well. I’m glad you mentioned AI, there’s certainly a lot of promise, and I’ve been really excited by how many faculty, staff, administrators who’ve actually really been engaged in the conversation around AI. I think sometimes there are new innovations and things and people kind of brush it aside and don’t always think it applies to them or isn’t relevant to them. But I think this is something that’s relevant to everybody. And most people are seeing that and engaging in the conversation, struggling in the conversation, but at least we’re doing that in community. And I think there’s some power in that as we think through policy, in assignments and all the things that we need to think about to provide an enriching experience for our students, but also engage and use the tools and the power that they offer.

John: One other thing I’m following is the development of a wide variety of new edtech tools. We saw an explosive growth in the development of tools and expansion of their capabilities in response to the COVID pandemic, but that growth and expansion hasn’t dropped. And we’re seeing more and more tools that have often been designed based on research about how students learn. And I think we’re going to see expanded use of many of these tools in the coming year.

Rebecca: And I think a lot of faculty got used to experimenting with these tools during remote education and are continuing to use them in physical and virtual classrooms, which I think is really exciting, maybe even more exciting to me was attending big conferences like Middle States and actually having a presenter use some of these edtech tools as part of a plenary. So rather than having more of a lecture style session, it was more of an interactive session, which doesn’t always happen at conferences of such scale, or these more leadership conferences. So it’s exciting to see that we’re modeling some of these practices at the highest level so that the wide variety of individuals involved in higher ed are experiencing learning and engaging with these kinds of tools. Along the same lines, I’m also excited that many of these tools are starting to actually attend to accessibility, in part because higher ed institutions are really pushing back to third-party providers and requesting them provide information about accessibility, and even refusing to adopt tools if they aren’t meeting basic accessibility principles, which I think is really excited and really important.

John: And I saw something very similar both at the POD conference where you might expect to see people creating more interactive workshops, but I’ve also been seeing it in the workshops that we’ve had in the last couple of weeks here. We have a record number of faculty presenting in workshops, they’re using polling, they’re using tools like Mentimeter and they’re doing many more interactive activities than in past years. If we go back a few years, many of the sessions that were presented were essentially straight walkthroughs through PowerPoint slideshows with not a lot of interaction with the participants. And our workshops here have been both in person and remote over zoom. And people have been working really effectively to bring all the participants into the discussion and into the activities, regardless of whether they are in person in the room or remote. And it’s been nice to see that. Much of that I think did grow out of the experiences of COVID, and people just getting more comfortable trying new tools.

Rebecca: Come to find out, practice helps us learn things.

John: Also, our campus enabled the AI Companion in Zoom, which will provide meeting summaries for people who arrive late or people who come in at the end of a discussion. And I think that’s going to offer some nice opportunities for people who may have missed part of the discussion early on in a session, or in a workshop, or in a meeting, because so many of our meetings now take place over Zoom.

Rebecca: And there’s lots to be watching that are also highly concerning, but John and I resolved that we weren’t going to focus on those today.

John: So this will be a relatively short episode. [LAUGHTER]

Rebecca: So continuing on this theme of gratefulness and positivity, John, what are you looking forward to trying this year, or focusing on in your own work this year, or committing to this year?

John: One thing, and this partly follows up a couple of podcasts we’ve had in the last year or so. In our campus, many departments are working to build in some of the NACE competencies into their classroom. And there’s some really significant advantages for that. If it’s done well, it will help students recognize the intrinsic value of the things they’re learning in class and recognize that these are skills that they’re going to need later, which again, helps provide much more motivation for students to learn than if they just see a series of activities that instructors ask them to do, and they don’t see the value of that. So by making the connections between what we’re doing in the classroom in terms of the development of critical thinking skills, teamwork, and all those other NACE competencies, it offers some really serious benefits for students and for faculty. Because if students are more engaged in the activities and understand the purpose of them, I think they’re going to be much more likely to focus on the learning rather than again, trying just to get the highest grade. And that’s also very consistent with the TILT approach that we mentioned earlier. If students understand why you’re doing things, they’re going to receive the techniques and engage in them more productively than if they didn’t see the value of those tasks.

Rebecca: Yeah, I’m glad that you mentioned TILT as well. We mentioned it earlier, but I was just remembering that one of the things I wanted to mention while we were talking today is a commitment to thinking about TILT, not just in a classroom context, but all the other places that touch a student experience. So thinking about policies and procedures and ways that we can use a TILT approach to really improve transparency and clarity for our students and provide some equity and access by doing so. The other thing that I’m committed to trying to do is get back to more play, we’ve had some episodes on Tea for Teaching focused on play. And they always get me really excited about some of the things that I’ve done in the past in some of my classes and that I’ve done with some of my colleagues… and that the burden of transitioning during COVID to remote learning, some of these things have taken time and maybe attention away from play. And I’m hoping to take some time in 2024 to put some more attention back on being a little more playful.

John: So, you think education could be fun?

Rebecca: Maybe.

John: Okay. [LAUGHTER]

Rebecca: I’ve moved to doing some exercises and activities again a little more recently that get to some of these more playful ways of creating and making and thinking through complex problems. And every time I do that the students appreciate it. I have more fun, they have more fun, and I think a lot more learning gets done.

John: Since we want to focus on the positive, we’ll leave challenges for future episodes.

Rebecca: We’ve got all of 2024 to do that, John.

John: And we really appreciate, as Rebecca said, all of the wonderful guests that we’ve had since the beginning of this podcast, and we appreciate our audience too. So thank you for hanging in there with us.

Rebecca: Have a great 2024.

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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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324. Unmaking the Grade

A growing number of faculty have been experimenting with ungrading. In this episode, Emily Pitts Donahoe joins us to discuss her ungrading approach and the documentation of this process on her blog. Emily is the Associate Director of Instructional Support at the Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning and Lecturer in the Department of Writing and Rhetoric at the University of Mississippi.

Show Notes

Transcript

John: A growing number of faculty have been experimenting with ungrading. In this episode, we discuss one instructor’s ungrading approach and her documentation of the process.

[MUSIC]

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

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

John: …and Rebecca Mushtare, a graphic designer…

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

[MUSIC]

Rebecca: Our guest today is Emily Pitts Donahoe. Emily is the Associate Director of Instructional Support at the Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning and Lecturer in the Department of Writing and Rhetoric at the University of Mississippi. She experimented with ungrading and chronicled her experiences in her Unmaking the Grade blog. Welcome, Emily.

Emily: Thanks. I’m really excited to be here.

John: We’re very pleased to be talking to you. We talked recently at the POD conference, and I’m looking forward to this additional conversation.

Emily: Yes, where I got this lovely tea for teaching mug from John, which I’m so excited about and drinking from right now.

John: And since this is only audio, Emily was holding the mug [LAUGHTER]…

Emily: I’m showing it off.

John: So our teas today are:… Emily, are you drinking tea in that mug?

Emily: I am. [LAUGHTER] I am drinking tea out of my tea for teaching mug. I’m a big tea drinker. And so today I’m drinking my favorite tea, which is a strong black tea called Scottish morn. And I got this tea from a tea shop called Apothica in Niles, Michigan, which I used to go to when I lived in South Bend, so highly recommended if you’re in that area.

Rebecca: Sounds wonderful. I was ready for you to say that you had coffee or something in the tea for teaching mug so it’d be completely blasphemous… [LAUGHTER]

Emily: Never.

Rebecca: …because coffee is one of the most frequent flavors. [LAUGHTER] Emily, you’re doing it right. [LAUGHTER] I have blue sapphire tea today.

John: And I have Irish Breakfast tea today.

Rebecca: So, we invited you here today, Emily, to discuss your experiences with ungrading. Your blog is based on your spring 2023 course experiences but your ungrading experience predates this course. Can you tell us a little bit about your initial experience with ungrading?

Emily: Sure. So I have a background in Writing and Rhetoric and English literature, and so a lot of what we do in Writing and Rhetoric, I think, is already pretty aligned with some ungrading goals and practices. So in my courses, students have always had the opportunity to revise their work based on feedback, and include it in a final portfolio, and most of their grade is based on their revised work. So it’s not just that they get graded and then that’s the end of it, they always have a chance to improve based on feedback. The first time that I stopped putting letter grades and percentages on student work was in spring of 2022, when I was teaching a general education literature course at Notre Dame, and so the course was on pre-modern and early modern literature, but with a focus on how the texts that we were studying might help us examine or wrangle with some of the questions that we’re preoccupied with as a culture and society today, and thinking about how those texts might relate to student lives. So it was a course for kind of all levels and all majors, which I think made it a good course to experiment with. So I had first-year students all the way up through senior-level students from engineering and business and English and psychology and all kinds of different majors. So like all teaching experiments, I think there were definitely some kinks to work out after that first course; they never go exactly right the first time. [LAUGHTER] But I would say that, overall, it was a huge success. And that’s not because I did it perfectly, or even because I did it particularly well, but because I think ungrading really helped some of my students move beyond this idea of the school as a points game, to help find their interest and their motivations to study the material that we were studying for their own purposes, and to focus on developing the skills and knowledge that they wanted to develop rather than on attaining a specific grade.

John: And the second time you did this, you created a blog describing the process. What prompted you to create the blog?

Emily: So, I was inspired by a post written by Robert Talbert, who’s the co-author of a recent book, Grading for Growth, which I really highly recommend on alternative grading, and he and David Clark, his co author, also had a blog and substack newsletter on Grading for Growth. And so in December of 2022, Robert posted a stop, start, continue for the ungrading community. And if you’re not familiar with stop, start, continue, it’s an evaluation exercise used for mid-semester reflection, very often in classrooms where the instructor or another facilitator will ask students: “What kinds of teaching practices or classroom practices would you like to stop, start, or continue in the class?” And so Robert’s post was a stop, start, continue for the ungrading community. And one of the things that he recommended that the ungrading community start doing was getting into the weeds and writing in detail about the daily experiences and specifics of upgrading, so: what we’re doing, what kind of successes we’re having, what challenges we’re encountering, how we’re adjusting in real time, and he recommended keeping this as the kind of blog or like a captain’s log of weekly reflections. So when I read his post, I thought, “Well, I could do that. It didn’t sound that hard, and it sounded like a lot of fun.” So that was what prompted me to start writing weekly reflections to share some of the methods that I was using, successes and challenges that I had, and even some of my doubts or misgivings about some of the things that I was doing in the class.

John: And just as an aside, we were so impressed by Grading for Growth, that we’ll be using it in the spring reading group here, both at SUNY Oswego and at Plattsburgh with Jessmyn Neuhaus. So we’re very much looking forward to that. And Robert and David will be giving a keynote address at the start of our workshop series in just a few weeks in early January. So we’re very interested in doing more of this on our campus as well.

Rebecca: Can you talk a little bit about your decision to delay posting the blog until after the semester ended?

Emily: Sure. So the selfish reason is that it’s supposed to be an unfiltered look at the ungraded classroom. And part of me thought, what if I messed this up so badly that I’ll be embarrassed to talk about it. So it was partly that, but I would say the more important reason is that I thought it might be weird for students if I was talking in public about what was happening in the classroom in real time. And I was concerned that it would damage the relationship of trust that I wanted to build with my students if they knew that I was reporting on our conversations to a larger audience about the class. So I offered to hold things for that reason. But the other thing that I wanted to do was make it clear to students that I was writing these reflections that might later be published, and then to get their input on them. So some of what I shared on the blog, I didn’t really want to share without getting students consent to do that. But I also wanted to get their input on some of the things that I was talking about. So I believe really strongly in taking a students as partners approach to higher education and learning experiences. And I try to employ that in my educational development work in the classroom. So that means bringing students into conversations about teaching and learning and asking for their experiences and their expertise as students really and then using that to inform our practice. So delaying the posting allowed me also to get some input from students and to be able to share some of their thoughts and opinions on the blog whenever I could.

John: In reading through your blog, your spring 2023 class seemed really interesting. Could you describe that for our listeners?

Emily: Yeah. So this is the second course in our sequence of first-year writing courses here at the University of Mississippi, but it’s a little bit different. So for the second course in the sequence, students have the opportunity to take either Writing 102 or Liberal Arts 102, and I was teaching Liberal Arts 102. And so the goals of each course are really the same. But Liberal 102, as we call it, is conducted within the context of a research area in a specific discipline. So that means that it can have a very specific theme. So some of my really excellent colleagues in the department and in other departments have taught courses like writing about true crime, or the rhetoric of sports, or I believe there’s a course on fashion. So because one of my areas of expertise is teaching and learning, the course that I taught was called Examining Higher Ed Teaching and Learning in a College Classroom. And so I think this is a great course for first-year students as they’re entering this next phase of their education to reflect on where they’ve been and where they want to go. And so what we did was looked at questions like: What’s the purpose of a college education? Why are we all here? What kind of benefits does it provide to individuals or to society? What kind of collective benefits does it provide? And then how are those benefits enacted or engendered in the classroom. And so we explored a lot of debates around higher ed in the US and students have an opportunity to reflect on and draw on their own experiences as students and their expertise as students, and then integrate that with larger areas of research on education or current events in education. And then they communicated their ideas about education to audiences outside of our classroom. And so it was really, I think, an ideal course for ungrading because we could talk about grades, not only as a matter of course policy, but also as a core subject matter. So in the beginning of the semester, we read Alfie Kohn’s piece “The Case Against Grades” and talked about it both as a way to introduce the course grading system and as a kind of larger prompt for reflection about grades as an issue of concern in higher education right now.

John: And it sounds like a great opportunity to have students reflect on what you’re doing as you’re doing it. How did students respond to this?

Emily: So I think every time I’ve ungraded a class now, and I’m currently on my third ungraded class, students have responded a little bit differently every time and of course, every individual student is also different. I think there are three broad categories of response that I see. One is just enthusiasm; some students are really excited about ungrading, and usually that’s students who feel that, for one reason or another, their grades in the past haven’t been representative of their learning or who feel that some of their creativity or their risk taking has been stifled by their desire to get a good grade. So I wouldn’t say this is a lot of students, this is probably a smaller group of students, but some students are really excited about it. I would say another group of students are really hesitant because ungrading is a big unknown for them, especially for students who are dead set on getting that “A” grade. It can be really nerve racking not to know kind of where you’re at in the middle of the semester. When I get negative feedback on ungrading, it’s almost always students who say,”This is really interesting, but I never know where I’m at.” And so they’re really concerned about how they’re going to measure their progress. But they’re not thinking about their progress in learning, they’re thinking about their progress toward a specific grade, which is really understandable because grades are important. And so that’s also a smaller group of students. But I would say, by far, the biggest reaction I get from students is something like cautious optimism. So I always start ungraded courses with a conversation about grades and learning, and I ask students to share with me their experiences of grades and share with each other. And very often, they have a lot of negative experiences to share, and sometimes positive experiences as well. But we talk about the relationship between grades and motivation and grades and learning and they have a chance to reflect on that. And so I use these conversations as a jumping off point to explain why I use the system that I do and how I think it will benefit them as learners. And I think students find it really helpful to be able to talk about their experiences with grading openly and to be heard by a teacher. And I think that that alone makes them more willing to buy into the system. So once it’s explained fully, and once students start to see the potential benefits, I would say that most of them are cautiously optimistic.

Rebecca: I think that largely aligns with my experiences and explorations when ungrading as well. In your class, you included five different assessments and opportunities for revision. Can you talk about and describe these assessments?

Emily: Sure. So the first thing that students had the opportunity to do were weekly writing practice assignments. So these are what you might think of as formative assessments, they’re preparation for class discussion and major assignments that mostly involve reading or short writing prompts. And these students weren’t able to revise, they either kind of did it or they didn’t. But then students had an opportunity to do more longer major assignments, which are more typical assessments for the writing class, a series of papers and a multimodal kind of project or two, with an imagined audience kind of outside our classroom. And so these students could revise up to three times if they wanted to do that. And so I had to, for this class, adjust a little bit and do slightly fewer assignments than I might have done in a traditionally graded class, because the expectation is that students would be doing more intense work on each assignment in their revision. I also asked students to do self assessments periodically throughout the semester. So students would answer a series of questions about their progress toward the learning goals, about their goals for the remainder of the semester. And they would also propose a current grade for themselves based on evidence that they provided. And this is a similar activity to what we did at the end of the semester to determine their course grades. They were also assessed on their final portfolio, which had revised versions of their major assignments. So their work… basically as good as they could make it… their best version of their major assignments, plus another final self assessment of their work in the class. And then they were also assessed on class engagement, so their class attendance, their preparation for and participation in class discussion, the timeliness of their work, their support for the learning community and fellow students and things like that.

Rebecca: Can you talk a little bit about how you provided your feedback on those assessments?

Emily: Sure. So for the writing practice assignments, usually I just wrote a sentence or two in response to students work to let them know if they were on the right track, or they may be needed to adjust slightly as they prepare for their major assignments. For the major assignments, I did do a lot of longer written feedback, and a lot of this looked like feedback that I would give in a traditionally graded class. But I think it was a little bit more oriented toward future growth, rather than reflecting on past work. It was giving them a lot of direction on how they might want to revise to make their work better in the future, not just for future papers, but for this particular paper. And with that feedback, I also gave them a rubric, where I marked kind of where I thought they were at along the specific assessment categories and criteria that we were using for that assignment. So for example, we might have a category for audience and purpose. Students could see whether I think their work on that category was still developing, whether it was at the level of proficient or whether it reached the level of excellent, so I had these different categories and these different kind of progress metrics, where I would indicate this is a skill that I think you’re still working on, or this is a skill that you’re doing really well in. And I also provided feedback to students through our individual conferences. So we met once at midterm, I met with each individual student, and then once at the end of the semester, to have a face-to-face conversation about how students were doing and if they needed to make any adjustments to reach their goals for the rest of the semester. And I didn’t give any feedback through letter grades or points. Those are not really great forms of feedback. They don’t actually give us a lot of information about our progress. So most of the feedback that I provided was kind of qualitative feedback.

Rebecca: You just talked a little bit about rubrics as part of a feedback that we were providing students, can you talk a little bit about how those rubrics were developed?

Emily: Yeah, so I’ve tried several different methods of creating rubrics. And one of the things that I like to do is co-create them with students or get students input on rubrics. And I attempted to co-create rubrics with students in two different classes and have done it a few times. And sometimes it’s a huge success, and sometimes it really does not work very well at all. And in my spring class, it didn’t work very well at all. [LAUGHTER] So basically, what I’ve done previously is ask students what they think makes a good argument or a good piece of public writing, or whatever it is that we’re working on. Or I ask them what kinds of things they believe their writing should be assessed on, and how we would determine whether or not their writing is successful. And then we have a conversation about that. I make notes on the board as we’re talking. And then I go away and distill those notes down into a rubric with about five categories in which student work is assessed. And then there’s the three metrics, so developing, proficient, and excellent. And sometimes this works really well. But in my spring class, I think the students were really at a loss when I asked them about assessment, and even when I asked them what good writing looks like. And I think that’s because that no one has ever asked them to think about that before. They’re used to being told what their work should look like by someone else, and then trying to conform their work to those expectations, or to someone else’s standards. And obviously, we need to have standards and expectations for student work. But one of the things that that does is get the students only thinking about what the teacher wants and not what they want. They’re not thinking about what they want their work to look like, or what their standards are or what they’re trying to accomplish. And so I think, ultimately, if we’re preparing students for the real world, whatever that is, this is what we want them to be able to do, not just to blindly follow somebody else’s standards, but to create and work independently in a self motivated way, and then assess their work independently. So I think we have to kind of start with baby steps in that process. So in the spring course, the rubric activity really turned into a conversation about how students have been assessed in the past and why they’ve been assessed that way. So when I ask them about their experiences, how their writing had been assessed, they would say things like, we were graded on the word count, or we were graded on whether or not we included two sources in every paragraph. And then we use that as a jumping off point to talk about the principle behind those what they viewed as arbitrary rules. And so if your teacher is concerned about word count, it’s because they want you to make a substantive argument. And what does a substantive argument look like? If your teacher is concerned about including sources, it’s because they want you to make an argument based on strong evidence. And so what would strong evidence look like? And so we use that conversation to think about the assessment criteria for their college level work, and how that might be similar or different from what they experienced in the past. So in that way, I do think that conversation was helpful. And I do think based on my few experiences, that it helps to have students extrapolate criteria from some examples, rather than from thin air, kind of as I was asking them to do, but either way, having a transparent conversation about what students are being assessed on and why and a purpose behind the criteria is key to their success.

John: In one of your blog posts, you describe some of the writing assignments that you used in your class, and they seem quite interesting. Could you describe some of the writing prompts that you gave to students?

Emily: Yes, I was really excited about some of the assignments that I developed for this class. And I think I’m going to keep using them or versions of them in future classes. So for this class, I had a menu of assignment options. So the students could, for each major assignment, choose the kinds of projects that they found most compelling, or they would really draw on your strengths. And I thought this was important, partially because we were working some with generative AI in the class. And I’m sure everyone is aware by now some very serious data privacy concerns, ethical concerns around the use of generative AI. So I didn’t want to mandate that students work with AI if they didn’t want to, and some really didn’t want to. So I tried to offer them several options. And I was really happy about some of the options that I came up with. So obviously, one of the things that I was thinking about going into this semester was how to deal with generative AI and I have a lot of thoughts about that. But one big way to think about how to discourage inappropriate use of AI or encourage appropriate use of it is to think really carefully about assignment design. So one of the things that I did to help students navigate AI was lean into some multimodal work, think about argumentation in media other than writing or that kind of worked alongside writing. So we didn’t abandon writing entirely, but I did include a photo essay as one possible assignment in a menu of options. And for this course, I asked students to take a look at a book of photographs by Cassandra Horii and Martin Springborg that’s called What Teaching Looks Like. It’s a really, really cool book with candid photos of college teaching. And so we use this book to talk about visual rhetoric and also to use the photos as a launchpad for this discussion about college teaching practices and students’ experiences in the classroom. And so the assignment that students did based on their work with this book was to create their own photo essay called “What Learning Looks Like.” So instead of what teaching looks like, what learning looks like, with a specific audience and purpose in mind. So that was one of the assignments that I liked. Another one that I thought was really promising was something called “share your story,” which asks students to tell a personal narrative about their educational experience, and then connect that to a larger issue of concern or a body of research in higher education. So of course, this is not totally AI proof. ChatGPT can make up a story, but it can’t tell my students’ own stories. And I think most of us really like to tell our stories to other people. So I think that provided a little more motivation for students to do their own work. And then the last assignment that I really liked was an assignment that actually asked students to work with ChatGPT. So they created a prompt based on a template that I provided for an argumentative piece that they then fed to ChatGPT, so they gave ChatGBT the prompt. And then they took the ChatGPT output and critiqued it. So they annotated it, noting what pieces they thought were strong, whether or not the piece had weaknesses, and what those weaknesses were, where it might need revision or overhaul. And then they had to totally rewrite the piece that ChatGPT produced and make it their own. So they had to do a substantial revision. And then they had to annotate their own work and tell me why they made the revision decisions that they did. And so I want to clarify that I do think it’s important that students learn to generate first drafts on their own, because drafting is an essential part of the writing process, and it’s where a lot of the thinking happens. But I like this assignment as just one assignment in the sequence, because it does help students learn about generative AI and develop some AI literacy. And it also helps students get over that terror of the blank page. So a lot of students procrastinate because they don’t know how to get started. They’ll open their laptop to begin a paper and stare at the blank screen. And I find it really difficult to get over that first hump of starting work, and just close their laptop and go away and try it again later, usually the night before it’s due. So I think starting in this way, with a ChatGPT prompt and an essay gives them a jumping off point, and it’s an easy way to help them start building the confidence they need to do their own first draft.

John: We should mention that we did talk to the authors of What Teaching Looks Like, and we’ll include a link to that discussion in the show notes. One of the things you described in your blog is that having this ungraded environment encourages students to be perhaps a little more open and honest with their instructors, but that could lead to some challenges in terms of additional emotional labor. Could you describe the challenges that you faced in this class with that?

Emily: I think one of the big themes in the spring class in particular was that I asked students to share with the class and for audiences beyond the class about their previous experiences in school, or their current experiences, and I think this also happens in a lot of ungraded classes. One common method of introducing an unfamiliar grading system is getting students to think about their previous experiences with grades. And so one thing that happened in this particular class is that students’ related a lot of past educational trauma to me, and usually that involves bad experiences with previous teachers. And I’m really glad that they were able to speak honestly about that sort of thing. And I think it helped them to have a teacher take them seriously when they related those stories. At the same time, it was pretty difficult to navigate those conversations, because I was managing their emotions, my emotions, and also doing that when sometimes I only knew one side of the story. And so that was a little bit difficult. Another thing is that students in this class didn’t seem to feel that their grade depended on telling me what I wanted to hear. So I think they were a lot more honest about their views than in other courses that I’ve taught. So in my traditionally graded classes, or I think, in any class where students are discussing hot button issues, they tend to think that they’ll be graded more harshly if they express views that the instructor disagrees with. So very often, I think, they try to say what they think you want to hear rather than what they really think. And that didn’t seem to happen as much in my spring course. I had several students endorse viewpoints that I definitely disagreed with whether they knew that or not. And I think that’s good, because students have to sort through their own views and values. But it also required me to do a lot of thinking about how I would approach and address students not just whose views I disagreed with, but whose expression of those views might be damaging to others or to themselves. And so, we need to do some work around community building and relationship building in the class. And then of course, when you build relationships with trust with students, they’re more likely to tell you about the personal problems that they’re facing, whether that’s their mental or physical health or their personal relationships or family emergencies or grieving. And it’s really just a lot. And I do sometimes lay awake at night worried about my students. And there’s a lot of care work happens, I think, in all classes and also especially ungraded classes. And so there’s a lot of work in referring students to other resources and helping them navigate campus resources, and also just a lot of kind of management of your own emotional state [LAUGHTER] that has to happen. So I did want to be honest on the blog about some of the emotional toll of the work of teaching in general and of ungrading too.

Rebecca: You’ve described the care work, you’ve described individual conferences with students, you’ve described students’ anxiety over not knowing where they are sometimes and allowing substantial revision. Can you talk a little bit about how all of those things play into workload and how you’ve managed things?

Emily: Yes, this is a good question. And I feel like I have a very complicated answer to whether or not ungrading has increased my workload, because I get asked this question a lot. In my traditionally graded classes, giving all that feedback felt like a waste of time for a few reasons. First, because I had the sense that students weren’t really reading the feedback. So we know from research that when students receive a letter grade and also feedback on their work, they tend to see the grade and then ignore the feedback, or at least receive the feedback as a justification for a grade, rather than something that’s going to help them improve their work in the future. So I also spend a lot of time in traditionally graded classes worrying about how students would receive my feedback if they got a low grade on their paper. So how could I write feedback that would be appropriately honest, but also appropriately encouraging, so that students didn’t just see a C-minus or a D on their paper, and then give up and throw it in the trash. So I don’t really worry about those things since I’ve adopted ungrading. I provide feedback honestly, and with the mindset of a coach rather than a judge. And I provide it with at least some confidence that students will read it and use it. So they have plenty of opportunity to revise. And in fact, their ultimate achievement of the course is measured by their growth in specific areas and their demonstration of learning that arises from taking a piece of writing from not so good to much better. And so the expectation is that what they turn in the first time is not their best work and they’ll only get to their best work after they incorporate feedback. So I do spend a lot of time responding to student work now that I’m ungrading. But the process is more efficient because it accomplishes my goals rather than wasting my time. And it’s more enjoyable, because it causes me less angst. So I guess it is more work to provide feedback, but it’s also more efficient and enjoyable work. I think I feel kind of the same way about individual conferences with students, that it does take quite a bit of time to do those and it would be, I want to acknowledge, so much more difficult, it may be impossible to do if I was teaching more classes and more students. I’m very lucky that I teach small class sizes. And because I work in educational developments and work in a teaching center for most of the time, I only teach one course at a time. So I think there are ways to do this with larger courses, but I’m very fortunate in my course to be able to conference individually with each student twice in the semester. And those conferences are incredibly time consuming, and they can be really draining, but they are also really joyful. And I think it’s really important that students are able to have those one-on-one conversations with me. And they are much more, I think, effective in accomplishing a lot of the goals that I have for student learning than just simply doing written feedback or peer review or things like that. Having that face-to-face time to give students some individual attention is a really both enjoyable and effective part of the learning process.

John: A question that often comes up from people who have not tried ungrading is how well do students’ perceptions of their learning align with your perceptions of the learning when you do have to assign those midterm or final grades in the class?

Emily: Yeah, this is a really good question. And I would say I’ve had to do a little bit of work on my process to make sure that our expectations are aligning well. Sometimes, there are cases where students don’t automatically start off knowing what I expect from their work and what good work looks like, even when I thought that I was clear about that. So that is an issue that I’m working on. I would say for the majority of students, they do understand what good work looks like. And when they’re asked to provide evidence for their course grade, most of the time they know what good evidence looks like and are able to demonstrate to me in really, sometimes ways that I hadn’t anticipated, that they really had learned in the class and progressed and improved their work. For those students who struggle, and I think it’s more frequent for first-year students to struggle with this than more advanced students, for students who do struggle, I think it is important to be able to show them models of student work early in the semester so that they can get a sense of what a successful assignment looks like or what’s kind of level of expectations we have for what student work counts as really excellent work. So that’s been really helpful. And I’ve also made some changes to my class this semester to help clarify for students a little bit what kind of evidence might be good evidence for specific grade proposals in the course. So if they are really shooting for an A or B in the course, what kinds of actions or behaviors or demonstrations of quality work do they need to be able to show in order to attain that grade?

Rebecca: I know one of the things that I struggled with in some of the classes where I’ve done ungrading is that sometimes the midterm conference feels like it comes too late. So I experimented, I think once with like a one-third, two-thirds, three thirds approach, but then that was so much more conferencing.

Emily: Yeah.

Rebecca: So I’m curious about your timing and how the midterm time works in the classes that you’ve been teaching.

Emily: Yeah, I think that’s where the self-assessment assignments come in. So I do think midterm is quite late for students to be getting the first level of feedback. And so I have students do a self-assessment form, I guess, a quarter way into the semester. So we start that process really early of having them look back at the work that they’ve done, and propose a grade for themselves based on that work. And when they do those self assessments, I don’t conference with students every time they do a self assessment, but I do look at where their grade proposals are. And I’m able to say if our expectations are very, very different, or assessments of that students work is very, very different, I’m able to reach out and say, “Hey, I don’t think we’re aligned here, and here’s why.” And being able to intervene early on that I think is really important.

John: We’re recording this near the end of the fall semester of 2023. And you’re currently teaching another ungraded class, could you tell us a little bit about what types of changes you made from the spring class to the fall class?

Emily: Sure, there are a few changes that I’ve made, because there were some things that I think did not go very well in the spring and I wanted to try to improve that. So what didn’t go well was that I had a real problem with attendance, there were quite a few students who struggled with their attendance, especially in the latter half of the semester, and quite a few students who struggled to submit their work on time kind of throughout the semester. And that made it difficult for me, but I think more importantly, it made it really difficult for the students who once they missed an assignment, they found it really difficult to get back on track. So my challenge is really to figure out how to motivate students to attend class regularly and submit work on time without penalizing them for absences or late work or without a kind of point system to encourage them to show up to class and to submit their work on time. So that was one thing I wanted to address. And then the other thing is that students’ anxiety about not knowing where they stand in the midst of the semester at any given point. So what I developed to address all of those challenges was a course progress tracker. And so this is a document, a pretty comprehensive document, inspired by David Clark’s Grading for Growth post about grade trackers that I read during the summer while I was designing this course. And so the document is really a series of tracking worksheets in three different categories. So the first category is readings and assignments, students can see each week at a glance what work they have to complete, and then they can check off boxes as they complete that work, and then note, if there are assignments they’re submitting late, they can record those late submissions. There’s a category for attendance and engagement where students can check off the classes that they attend, and then make notes about their in or out of class engagement during each week of the semester. And then there’s a section… the most important section… for learning and growth where students can remind themselves of what the course goals are, and then track their progress along those goals, so they can see and make notes about where they’re still developing, where they’re doing excellent work, and how they’re improving their writing as the semester goes along. So, so far, it’s been going really well. And I’ve had fewer challenges with attendance and late work this semester than last semester, though, I can’t say to what extent that’s just a result of a different population of students or the fact that it’s fall instead of spring. So I will add that caveat, but I have surveyed students about their use of the progress tracker last week, and I’m really looking forward to diving into that next week. So the last thing that I think the progress tracker does, which I didn’t totally intend, but which has been really excellent, is that I think it helps students a lot with their self-assessment work, which they also struggled with, to some extent last semester, or I should say, maybe I struggled to teach really well. So I had a realization at the end of last semester, that when I sat down to think about a student’s work over the course of this semester, I was really thinking about three things. And so the first thing is quantity. How much work did students do? How much labor did they put in? How many assignments did they submit at a satisfactory level? How many class days did they attend? How much time did they spend on their major assignments? So that was one category. The second was quality. So how good was the work that they were doing according to the standards that we laid out? Was it still kind of developing work? Or was it excellent work? And then the third thing was growth. So how and how much did student work improve over the course of this semester? And can they demonstrate that they’ve gained knowledge and skills that they didn’t have before? Or can they demonstrate that they’re better off from having taken the course. And so while we’ve had conversations about those things in the spring, I never articulated to myself or to my students, that particular model; I never kind of said it in quite this way. So the last section of the progress tracker includes a guide to determining final letter grades for students. And it gives them space to think about quantity, quality and growth, and how that might contribute to the grade that they propose for themselves, if they’re interested in the specific letter grade. And it gives them a sense of what kinds of evidence they could provide if they want to show good evidence for a specific letter grade. So you can provide good evidence for an A if your work rises to the level of excellent on multiple assessment categories. Or if you attended class every time that you were able and submitted the vast majority of your writing practice assignments. So all of these things are good pieces of evidence if you want to propose an A grade for yourself. So there’s some flexibility there, I don’t prescribe exactly what students have to do for a specific grade, but I do make suggestions and say, here’s a guideline for you. If you’re confused about what kinds of work you need to be doing, or what you need to do to demonstrate that you’ve attained a certain letter grade, you can take a look at this guide, and learn a little bit more about what the expectations are. Currently, it’s just something for the students to use for themselves. I have provided time in class for students to fill out sections of it, because I think that if I did not ask them to do it in class, they might struggle to keep up with it outside of class. But I think maybe in the future, I will consider asking them to keep up with it. And then periodically checking in on those progress trackers throughout the semester so that I can intervene early, if there are any issues and maybe leave comments on the documents to let students know if I think they’re struggling in a specific area, or if they’re doing really well in a specific area. I am playing around with that idea for my next version of the class.

John: So we always end with the question: “What’s next?”

Emily: So this spring, I won’t be teaching an undergraduate course, but I will be working with graduate students who are preparing to teach their own Writing and Rhetoric courses. And I’m really looking forward to talking with them about teaching. And I’ll also be continuing to write about ungrading on the blog. So specifically, I’m hoping to share a bit more about what I learned from my experiences this semester. And I’ve been collecting data from my current students about their use of the progress tracker, about their use of AI in their writing this semester, and about their feelings and impressions of ungrading. And what I’m planning to do throughout the spring is share some of those student thoughts with the readers of the blog, and I’m really excited to be able to share students’ ideas about ungrading and other topics as well.

Rebecca: Sounds great. We’ll look forward to reading that for sure.

John: Thank you, Emily. It’s great talking to you and we look forward to future conversations.

Emily: Thanks, this has been fantastic.

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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.

Ganesh: Editing assistance by Ganesh.

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323. Explore First Study Abroad Program

Compared to continuing-generation students, first-gen students experience a higher risk of not completing a college degree. In this episode, Sue Roberts, Marianne Young, and Beth Hanneman join us discuss a study-abroad program for first-gen students that is designed to build their confidence, sense of belonging, and help them understand the connection between their education and their career goals. Sue is the Associate Provost for Internationalization at the University of Kentucky. Marianne is the Assistant Vice President for Smart Campus Initiatives at the University of Kentucky. And Beth Hanneman is the Associate Director of Career Advising and Career Education, also at the University of Kentucky.

Show Notes

Transcript

John: Compared to continuing-generation students, first-gen students experience a higher risk of not completing a college degree. In this episode, we discuss a study abroad program for first-gen students that is designed to build their confidence, sense of belonging, and help them understand the connection between their education and their career goals.

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

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John: Our guests today are Sue Roberts, Marianne Young, and Beth Hanneman. Sue is the Associate Provost for Internationalization at the University of Kentucky. Marianne is the Assistant Vice President for Smart Campus Initiatives at the University of Kentucky. And Beth Hanneman is the Associate Director of Career Advising and Career Education, also at the University of Kentucky. Welcome, Sue, Marianne, and Beth.

Sue: Thank you, we’re glad to be here.

Rebecca: Today’s teas are:… Sue, are you drinking any tea?

Sue: I am not drinking tea right now. But if I were in my normal space, I would be drinking tea. Yes.

Rebecca: Do you have a favorite kind?

Sue: I do. It’s a rooibos tea, a red bush tea.

Rebecca: Wonderful. Marianme, how about you?

Marianne: I’m not currently drinking too, but I have one on the ready. It is a lovely wild sweet orange.

Rebecca: Nice. What about you Beth?

Beth: So I went to Montana this past summer for a yoga retreat and fell in love with Huckleberry. So I now drink a wild Huckleberry tea at least once a week. And that’s what I’m having this morning.

Rebecca: I have never had that. I think it’s a first on the podcast.

John: It is. I am drinking an Irish Breakfast tea.

Rebecca: And I have a Jasmine Dragon Pearl this morning.

John: Dragon pearls?

Rebecca: Dragon pearls. [LAUGHTER]

John: Ok, so we have a mythical tea. [LAUGHTER] We read about the Explore First Study Abroad program in an article in the Chronicle recently. And so we invited you here to talk about that. Could you give us an overview of this program?

Sue: Sure. It’s a new program for the University of Kentucky, run for the first time in summer 2023. We took 60 students, 60 undergraduate students, all of them first-generation students to either London or Dublin for a three- week Education Abroad program focused on career readiness.

Rebecca: Can you talk a little bit about this program came about?

Sue: It came about in many different ways, actually. There were conversations happening on our campus for probably two or three years before COVID, even, among different colleagues, some in the Career Center wondering how they could produce really good career readiness, education abroad programming. So I’m in the office of first-generation student success thinking about how we could do a better job in introducing first-generation students to education abroad. And then in the International Center, in the Education Abroad office itself, there were lots of conversations about how we could partner with colleagues across campus to develop programs that would reach this demographic.

John: One of the things we were really intrigued about was a program that was designed to benefit first-gen students as well as providing those career readiness skills. Could you describe a little bit how this program integrates that career focus?

Beth: Yeah, I’ll take that one. So over in the Career Center, we have the national association called NACE and they have NACE Competencies. And so when you start thinking about any major that a student has, you want them to make sure that they have those skill sets. So when they actually get into the workforce, they’re able to be analytical, they’re able to have communication skills. And what I love about the first-gen program and Explore fFrst within that, is the idea of how do you do that in a global setting. And so when you start thinking about designing this curriculum, and me and Marianne had the privilege of helping to work on that. It was this idea of, we had at least find out what the foundation is that the students had. And so sort of thinking about block scheduling, where a lot of times professors may say we’re going to do one topic and then go to another, I did more of what we call spiral curriculum, where you introduce a topic, and we brought it in here in the United States before we left, so maybe it was resumes where they had to create a resume and work on a resume ahead of time. And then when we’re overseas, we re-introduced resumes to say, “How would you put this Explore First experience on your actual resume? …kind of the same when it came to networking. What does it look like to navigate, to connect with people? Okay, great. We do that here in the United States. But then how do you do that in a global setting. So it was one of those things where you can actually see that reinforced. I also thought that was really cool when it came to interviewing as well, of having that prep for the students within that area.

Rebecca: We have a couple of other episodes of tea for teaching that also talk about the NACE competencies that we’ll link in our show notes for folks that are interested in that particular detail. So we just talked about NACE. Can you talk a little bit about the benefits that students get from it being a study abroad experience?

Beth: Yeah, at least for myself, the world is definitely interconnected. And so what I loved about how we interacted with employers is that we first looked at those that were connected here to Kentucky, and then we reached out with those that would be overseas. So for example, we have a company named Alltech that’s located here in Lexington. And so our students on the Dublin trip was able to actually go see their location. So it wasn’t one of those things that “Oh, hey, we’re just randomly seeing a company.” We’re very methodical about how that connection is. Another company, Compass, for example, does food services for our University of Kentucky health care system. So it wasn’t one of those things of just like, “Oh, we’re just gonna go see a company.” It was one of those elements of not only is making this connection abroad, but how does this actually impact me back home. And we would actually talk about that. Students would be like, “Alright, yes, you see this in another country, how does cultural awareness make a difference? How does being able to navigate and learn about yourself influence who you’re going to be back at UK?” And one of my favorite questions we asked in the interviews that they had to do for one of the assignments was: “If you’re back on the college campus, and you run into the university president, what are two things you tell them about the program?” And it was really cool to hear from the students that like, “I didn’t think I could learn so much about myself in three weeks, let alone three months about a career,” and others have never been on a plane before to navigate what that looks like. So even if you go into the job market, most likely somewhere along the line, you’re probably going to have to travel somewhere and do connections, but to have that support to have other people with them, when they did it for the first time was really impactful.

Rebecca: I love that reflection question. [LAUGHTER] So many benefits to that.

Marianne: I think the global stage also provides a really unique opportunity to just boost confidence with these students, as Beth was talking about, some of our students had never been on a plane. And not only did they navigate getting on a plane, they navigated getting into and past customs and immigration and all of that. And then the most surprising piece to me, in terms of what this looked like in terms of that confidence boost is at the beginning of our core sessions with the students, they put together kind of a: “these are what my goals are currently.” And by the end of the program, not only physically the confidence that you saw as they stood in front of the class, and they were presenting what their new goals were, for some of the students it expanded the opportunities that they were considering. They had never considered what it might be like to be in a leadership position in a global organization, or for the other students, it solidified what it was that they were wanting to do. And that confidence that they had of “Yes, I’m on the right path,” I think came from them navigating situations that they hadn’t been in before. And then being able to connect with different companies and different leadership individuals within the company, who they could see like, “Oh, my gosh, they were first generation as well, and now they’ve moved abroad, and they have this position in the company,” and the confidence that came from being able to navigate an international city as well as “I have confidence in how I’m going to navigate my career pathway,” that was so amazing to see in the sestudents.

Sue: I will agree with that. I visited, I think, three of the four programs. The program was split into four different groups, two went to Dublin two to London. So there were 15 students in each and I think I’ve visited three of them over the course of the summer, and to see that confidence grow, almost hourly, was incredible. And I will say that I think it translates, we’re hoping anyway, that it will translate, into greater understanding and kind of sense of purpose as a student. So you can see the point of your degree, you can see the point of why you’re struggling through this or that course to make it through to graduation. And of course, we want to see good results in terms of retention rates and graduation rates.

Rebecca: I’ve had the opportunity to teach a couple of travel courses where I’ve had students who had never traveled before, some within the US and some travel abroad. And I agree that seeing the confidence growth in students is such a rewarding experience for the instructors as well as for the students. It’s a really powerful experience. But one of the things that I really love that you’re describing is this connection to alumni, and those really specific intentional connections between the businesses locally as well as abroad. That’s a really beautiful component of your program.

John: And one of the challenges that all colleges face is the relatively high DFW rates generally experienced by first-gen students. And by making clear to the students the salience and the relevance of the material that they’re learning, and how this can open up these possibilities to them in a very obvious manner that they may not naturally see, I can imagine this could be really transformative.

Marianne: I think one of the great moments we had as we were visiting one of our employer partners, as Beth was talking about the spiral curriculum, he had talked about LinkedIn profiles and been helping them and then we get to this employer visit. And they start talking about LinkedIn profiles. And it is almost the exact lecture we had given that morning. And students are turning around and saying, “Oh, my gosh, you told us that this morning, and here’s this employer saying this exact same stuff. You were right.” And so we revisited again, and then the next employer, and so it was the aha moment of “Oh my gosh, this is actually something that I’m going to need and I’m going to use as I navigate my career.”

Rebecca: Can you talk a little bit about what a typical day for a student looks like in this program.

Marianne: There was no typical day, but this will kind of give you some activities they may have been shuffled around a bit. We’d start off with maybe some class time reviewing the visit. Maybe we’d have the day before talking about the experiences that the students had, answering any questions they may have had, how they navigated a challenge, just really taking time to connect and then help them build on the information that we were presenting. Once we kind of move through class time, we might have visited an employer in the afternoon and done a site visit where we not only learned about the company but also some of our employers took us through exercises like design thinking at some of our tech companies, or walking us through interviews and resume reviews in terms of a mock opportunity if you’re applying to their company. And then we may also have a cultural visit in the afternoon, visiting a significant landmark in the area or learning about the history and the culture of the particular space that the students were in. And then in the evenings, our students would maybe get together and cook in the residence hall, or they might go out to dinner together. And so generally we had class time and some cultural visits or an employer visit.

Beth: Yeah, exactly what Marianne said, and when you think about over the three weeks, because we were there for three weeks with these students, the beginning part of the classes were more kind of prep and foundation to get them to know what to expect. And so we broke teams of three, and so we would have one person would be the person who was in charge of introducing the group, we had one person that was the photographer, one person that was in charge of the “Thank you” at the end for each site visit. And that was really cool to see him learn collaboration, but also kind of change up and like, “Oh, well, this person is really interested in architecture, so we’re gonna have him be the speaker for this one, and then I’ll do the photography. And this one over here, we as a group, we actually wrote the thank you note together of what that means to follow up within it, kind of expectations within it.” So that was really cool in terms of curriculum, and kind of how we set that beginning. And then closer to the end like Marianne said, was more like review: “What did you learn from it and reflection?”

John: Do students travel with faculty or staff from the University of Kentucky?

Sue: We structured this program so that each group of students was accompanied and led by two professional staff members from the campus. Typically, it was a person from the Career Center, and a person from the Office of First-Generation Student Support. So it gave the students oftentimes very familiar people who understood where they’re coming from, and the skills they brought to the table, but also a person with the career advice ready for them kind of as needed. So it worked really well, I think, to have those program leaders on the ground with the students. And we weren’t hosted by a university, although we did visit universities in both locations. But we worked with a education abroad partner provider called AIFS. And they have provided the classrooms, they assisted us find student accommodation, and they worked on us with the cultural visits.

Rebecca: I think I remember also reading that you did some work prior to going abroad and some coursework there. Can you talk a little bit about what that looked like?

Marianne: We had an opportunity and clusters with the students, we broke them into smaller groups to help prepare them for what to expect as they were preparing for their education abroad experience. And so we covered a variety of topics of what about your luggage? What is a carry on? What is it checked bag? How do you move through security? What can you expect in an airport? What can you expect in terms of customs and immigration? We talked about how to prepare for the weather, how to think about budgeting, and being prepared for different costs of things, or how you might be able to consider all of the different pieces and parts of preparing for souvenirs that you want to get… all those different things, a variety of cluster topics to make sure that our students not only had a connection with the person that they were going to be traveling with, but also the other students. And then it gave us space for any of the questions that students may have had, as they were preparing for this experience.

Beth: It’s just a great way, because a lot of times when I’ve done education abroad, you might meet at the airport for the first time. But what I loved about this program is that we literally got to know each other prior, to at least kind of understand maybe some of the things that they were concerned about as a student. And so then as a staff member, we can be like, “Okay, let me give you some extra resources.” I remember one particular student, I ended up calling her mom and her was on the phone, because she’s like, “Okay, Beth, I know you went through the whole situation of what we need to do for the airport, but my mom has questions.” And I was like, “Sure, no problem. Let’s talk.” And so her mom was like, “Oh, nice to meet you Beth. Her mom dropped her off at the airport, gave me the biggest hug. When her mom picked us up. She was like giving everybody in the group a hug, because we were extended family for them for three weeks.

Rebecca: Can you talk a little bit about the timing of the program?

Sue: So last year, it was the first time through, so I think we had to do things very quickly. We had to assemble a team, we had to get these clusters stood up. We had to recruit students, we had to find the scholarships for them and all the rest of it in kind of a hurry. So this year, we’re spacing it out a bit more. So we’re recruiting for summer 24 right now. And we’re going to repeat the program, we’re going to take 30 students in two groups to London and 30 to Dublin in two groups. So we’re excited about that. And then their travel occurs during the summer vacation, early in the summer vacation, so May and June this year.

Marianne: The interesting piece of the timing as well was I was on the first group that went to Dublin, and we were actually able to connect with the group that was coming after us in the airport as they were preparing to go out, so my students were able to pass along some words of wisdom and some thoughts to the group that was coming after them. And so that was a really fun piece with the timing to be able to catch up with each other in the airport.

Beth: In terms of curriculum, the way it was set up, there was one class that everybody was part of. So we actually met as a group virtually, with all 60 students ahead time. So everyone had that basic foundation. And then when we’re actually over there, that was when we did the actual classes for the individual pieces. So I did Dublin two and London one. And so at the same time, we’re having curriculum in terms of giving feedback for the next group coming over.

John: Now, you mentioned that there was some time spent acquiring funding, could you talk a little bit about the funding that was used for this program?

Sue: Sure. And this is a little unusual, I think. It was a surprise to us when the Kentucky State legislature or general assembly awarded some funding to all Kentucky institutions of higher education to support displaced students, so refugee students primarily. As part of that program, they allocated a certain amount of funding also to support education abroad and exchanges. So when we realized that, which was only in the summer before, so summer 22, we thought, “Aha, we could finally make this happen. This thing we’ve all been talking about in different ways about connecting careers, connecting first-generation students with education abroad, and making a real difference for those students, and we could do it at a actually a quite a big scale for education abroad, 60 students is quite significant.” So we seized the opportunity. The trick, then, of course, was to find matching money, because it didn’t cover everything. So we found some money internally at the university, we used education abroad scholarships, our administration at the very highest levels awarded us some funding to kind of back us up if we needed it. So it was a team effort. And this upcoming year, we don’t have the state money. That was a one time deal, so we’re funding it all from our university funds.

Rebecca: So cost is always a concern, I think, for first-gen students, and may be one of the reasons why they don’t even think they might ever go abroad. I know that was the case for me, as a student. I didn’t think I was ever going to get a chance to go abroad, but I got to when I was in graduate school. So can you talk a little bit about what this meant to the first-gen students or if you had trouble initially even getting them to think that they could really actually participate in this program?

Beth: Yes, one of our students on Dublin two got the email about applying and that the program was going to be there when we started doing the recruitment. And he was like, “Is this a scam? Is this true?” We went over to the first-gen office to verify because he’s like, “it sounded too good to be true.” And so once we got the word out that it was, of course, students applied and said, “Okay, let’s do this.”

Sue: You’re absolutely right that it’s the number one barrier of first-generation students is finances. And I think it was the majority of our students on this program are Pell recipients. So first-gen is a very big category. But we did try and make a difference, particularly for students whose financial means were limited. So it was a tremendous opportunity for them. And as Beth said, some of them were very disbelieving at first of the opportunity, they couldn’t understand how this was happening, because they hadn’t thought that this was something that they could ever achieve. And that was another reason why we kept it to three weeks, because many of these students… well, in fact, I would say all of them… were working during the summer. So three weeks away from your summer job and earning is a big deal, and others had family obligations as caregivers, and so on. So that’s the reason why we ended up with a three-week timeframe was partly to be sensitive to those needs. And then in terms of the financing, London is an expensive city, and Dublin is an expensive city. And these are young people, these are primarily first- and second-year university undergraduates. So budgeting to shop, to eat, to go out is difficult, and especially when it’s a different currency and options are different, and the prices are different. So that was a big element that we’ve reflected on since this first time through, and I think we’ll be maybe just a little bit more supportive. We were supportive, but maybe just a little bit more supportive of how to budget when overseas because they were responsible for their own spending money on this program.

Rebecca: What about things like food or other personal costs for travel, was that included in the program?

Sue: So there were a few meals included. There were a few like welcome dinners and things like that included, but by and large students were responsible for their own catering as it were for their own food. And it turned out that was kind of an issue because it takes a bit of knowledge of the stores and what’s available and what’s affordable. It takes a bit of knowledge of how to cook in a budget conscious way and not just grab the processed thing. And of course these supermarkets are unfamiliar and I would say one thing we did think a lot about upon return and when we debriefed this was giving the students a bit more time to adjust to that situation and to learn their options and to cook because sometimes we were so busy with all these things we were doing every day that they didn’t have much time to plan their suppers, or to go shopping and cook so I’ll let Beth and Marianne chime in because they were on the ground, they know more, but that was the kind of impression I got.

Marianne: So, we had some bargain shoppers in my group that found meal deals at like close Tescos, things like that. And so it was always kind of a competition of “Did you know that the sandwich was included in the meal deal?” And so it was a pretty inexpensive breakfast and lunch and sometimes dinner opportunity for students that became somewhat of a game, to figure out, like, what are you going to put in your meal deal this time? And so a lot of our students were supportive in terms of sharing different deals that restaurants were doing. Did you know that on Tuesday, they have a student special where you can get this, this, and this. And so they were really great about sharing some of the tips and tricks and things that they picked up along the way. And then also sharing meals. So going to the grocery, and he brought me to purchase something, while I may not eat this whole thing, but if you split it with me, then I’ll get the next one. And so they were really great, that was really fun to see them kind of helping and sharing deals that they found along the way.

Beth: And one of the things that we did is we actually offered a time if someone wanted to come with me to the grocery store. We did a local one so they could see how close something was if they by chance needed something quick to eat. But then we actually went with them, which was one was a little bit farther away have more of the discount kind of larger what they would think of a supermarket type of thing here in the United States, just because, over there, you kind of buy more what you need, versus “I’m going to have lots in the refrigerator and freezer within it.” And we actually had a couple of times where we had meals together because it was someone’s birthday and we wanted to celebrate. And very similar to what Marianne said that they would be like, “here’s a deal,” or “hey, I’m going to make soup anybody else want?” And we had one student who loved to cook, and others are like, hey, awesome, I will help clean up, or pitch in for some money if you would be willing to be the person that actually wanted to make the meal, and they actually collaborated teamwork that way too. So it was really cool to see.

Beth: One thing I wanted to share is the fact I think people think that education abroad is three weeks, and then you’re done. For us, this is a lifetime connection for these students. So we actually had dinner with both groups separately, so they could get together and meet each other and see each other, I’ll get messages being like “Guess who I saw on campus?” and they have a competition of how many times they see a certain student, be like “I saw them three times this week, Beth, I saw this one four,” but even moreso is this confidence coming back to have to go after the dreams that they want. We had a student who, I’ll be very honest, had a really rough home life and had a lot of confidence issues and got over there had a chance to start talking, had a really good conversation with a couple employers. And we did a networking night where we invited all the employers back and they could come and network with the students. And she had a really good conversation with some of our staff that we actually had come over from UK to kind of see the program as well. And she followed up, wrote a note back to say thank you for this conversation, I appreciate it. This is what I’m looking for in terms of career or job, and that person connected her with to somebody back here in Lexington, she then goes and reached out to that person, met with them, interviewed, and now has an IT position that she never thought possible a year ago. So that’s really cool to actually see them do this steps, it’s one thing for us to say go do, it’s another for them to actually gain the confidence to go and actually obtain it.

Rebecca: What a great story.

John: One of the things that I think you’ve all mentioned is that this creates a really tight bond among the students as well as the connections to the staff members they traveled with. And that sense of belonging has been shown in a lot of studies to be a major factor in student retention. And I think programs like this can create really strong bonds that can help students be more likely to succeed.

Sue: I will agree with that. There were two young women on one of the programs who became fast friends. And I assumed they had been friends forever, and I just was chatting with them, and I said, “You know, you must have known each other a long time.” They said “no, we just met.” And one of them said that she was so excited to come back to UK in the fall… so this semester… and I said “well, weren’t you excited anyway?” And she said, No, she wasn’t, that her freshman year had been a little lonely, and she had not made a good connection with her roommate and was struggling a little bit to fit in. And she said “Now I have a best friend on campus, and we’re gonna have fun the next few years together. And I thought that was awesome.

Marianne: And I’ll brag on our students. They were phenomenal. I mean, when I told people that I was going to go to a foreign country with 15 college students, and we were going to travel the city and we were going to do all of the things they looked at me like, “Why would you take college students to an international city?” They were fantastic. They were supportive. They were curious. They were beyond what you could even imagine in terms of the questions that they were asking and the way that they engaged with the curriculum. We have phenomenal students here at the University of Kentucky and I was lucky to get to take 15 and I have them running across campus yelling my name saying “Oh my gosh, this is the first time that I’ve seen you since you’ve been back on campus” or seeing each other on campus is such an honor to be a part of just that family that we now have. And, like I said, they were the best students you could ever imagine traveling with. I do it again in a heartbeat.

Sue: So one thing that really impressed me about these students, actually taught me a lot about this category “first-generation” which is kind of thrown around is that these students are really amazing. I mean to get to the University of Kentucky, to be studying their majors, to be making good academic progress is an accomplishment for these students and they have the resilience, they have the resourcefulness, they have the curiosity, as Marianne said, to make the most out of education abroad. So these are not students who took this for granted. When they were in London or Dublin, their eyes and ears were open all the time. And they were busy taking it all in, reflecting on it, and they absolutely were some of the very best students I’ve ever seen on an education abroad program.

Rebecca: So do you have plans to evaluate the success of this program?

Sue: So yes, we built assessment into this program from the beginning. So we had a researcher from the College of Education who helped us and administered pre- and then during, and then post-surveys of each student. So she collected information about their responses and reflections to the assignments and to their learning, and also something about their intercultural learning as it were. So we’re going to also track these students and see how they do compared to the peers who didn’t get the opportunity to study abroad in terms of their academic progress and their graduation.

John: Excellent. We look forward to hearing more about how well this program works. We always end by asking, what’s next?

Sue: Well, we want to do this again. [LAUGHTER] So we think it’s working. We’ve got good results so far, assuming that the next summer is also successful. We hope to just keep tweaking it, making it better and better for the students and maybe building it in as kind of a signature program for first-generation students here at the University of Kentucky.

Rebecca: An incredible thing to invest in and offer first-gen students. Thanks so much for sharing the details of your program.

Sue: Thank you for having us. And thanks for your interest in this endeavor.

John: It sounds like a wonderful program.

Sue: Yeah, it’s been a blast to develop and to be part of I must say. It’s been fantastic. And I don’t think we mentioned but perhaps we should that over one quarter of our undergraduate students identify as first generation. So this is a significant population at our university which serves students of all sorts from the state of Kentucky and outside.

John: Excellent.

Sue: Thank you both.

Marianne: Thank you all

John: Thank you for taking the time to join us and to share this wonderful program.

Sue: Yeah, 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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322. Accessibility Challenge

Digital accessibility can be intimidating for faculty and staff. In this episode, Michele Thornton, Laura Harris, and Kate DeForest join us to examine one example of a gamified approach to professional development. Michele is an Associate Professor of Management at SUNY Oswego, Laura is the Web Services and Distance Learning Librarian at SUNY Oswego. and Kate is the Digital Content Coordinator at SUNY Oswego.

Show Notes

Transcript

John: Digital accessibility can be intimidating for faculty and staff. In this episode, we examine one example of a gamified approach to professional development.

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

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Rebecca: Our guests today are Michele Thornton, Laura Harris, and Kate DeForest. Michele is an Associate Professor of Management at SUNY Oswego, Laura is the Web Services and Distance Learning Librarian at SUNY Oswego. and Kate is the Digital Content Coordinator at SUNY Oswego. Welcome Michele, Laura, and Kate.

Kate: Hello. Thank you.

Michele: Thanks for having us.

Laura: Thank you.

John: Our teas today are:… Michele, are you drinking tea?

Michele: I am. I’m having a London fog. It felt like a good choice given the kind of rainy day.

John: … and Laura?

Laura: I am drinking the Comfort and Joy tea by Republic of Tea.

Rebecca: Sounds nice for a chilly day.

John: …and Kate?

Kate: I’m enjoying a nice chai tea.

Rebecca: Look at the variety in this group. [LAUGHTER] I have Harsha today, which is a black tea.

John: That sounds rather harsh and a bit different than the comfort and joy. [LAUGHTER] And I have, in the spirit of the season, a Christmas tea today.

Rebecca: So we invited you here today to talk about the article that we co-authored, titled “10-Day Campus aAccessibility Challenge” in a recent special issue of the Journal for Post Secondary Education and Disability. The accessibility challenge was an initiative developed by the workgroup on accessibility practices at SUNY, which you’ve all been an active member of. So first, Can each of you briefly describe how you got involved with accessibility work at SUNY Oswego and some of the specific projects that you’ve worked on? And we’ll start with Michele.

Michele: Thanks, Rebecca. My first introduction was by being part of our initial cohort of faculty accessibility fellows in 2019. So that was a year-long fellowship, where myself and a handful of other faculty members from across the campus were able to learn the importance of things like Universal Design for Learning, build skills and capacity around principles of digital accessibility, and become part of the growing community on campus that was really advocating for a more accessible and inclusive campus.

John: And we do have an earlier podcast episode on the origins of that project, and we’ll share a link to that in the show notes.

Rebecca: Kate?

Kate: Okay, I was hired as the digital accessibility analyst and remediation specialist in 2018. I was primarily focused on assessing and remediating online course materials at that time. When I was hired, I was invited to be in the work group, and quickly became one of the main resources for remediation and accessibility at that time. I’ve been involved with creating our digital accessibility website, many of the written and video tutorials, launching the 10-day accessibility pilot program and other subsequent programs, and currently involved with creating accessibility course modules.

Rebecca: Laura?

Laura: One aspect of my job is to support online learning and teaching. And in that role, Rebecca and a former colleague invited me to be part of the workgroup focused on facilitating the creation of accessible materials for online courses. Over the years, the scope of that workgroup has broadened, and now we focus on accessible practices in general. One of the projects I’ve really enjoyed is providing training on different models of disability.

John: Rebecca, you’re one of the people who put together the accessibility challenge. So could you explain your role in it?

Rebecca: Sure. I am one of the two founding members of our workgroup on accessibility practices at SUNY Oswego, and was the first facilitator of our Faculty Accessibility Fellows Program that Michele was in. So Kate, before we jump in too far with our accessibility challenge discussion, can you first help our audience understand what we mean on our campus by accessibility?

Kate: Sure. So the bare bones basic definition, as paraphrased, would be allowing a person with a disability and a person without a disability, the same or similar experience in the same or similar manner. And we are speaking of it in the digital capacity, so using websites and digital content, digital documents, and allowing people to basically experience them in a very similar way.

John: And before we go any further, could someone tell us what the accessibility challenge is? Michele, can you set the stage for us by providing an overview of the accessibility landscape at SUNY Oswego and the circumstances that led to the development of the accessibility challenge, and also, what exactly that accessibility challenge was?

Michele: For me, it’s hard to separate out the genesis of the accessibility challenge from two other important existing factors. The idea came to us in fall of 2020. And so if we can all put ourselves back there, we had just come out of the first spring of the onset of the COVID19 pandemic. That took our campus, like many others out there, into this rapid switch to online learning, and one that really brought the harsh light on many accessibility barriers that parts of our campus had previously not really observed or had much experience with. We’ve already talked about and highlighted a couple of different ways that our campus has been thinking about accessibility with the workgroup, our Fellows Program, and so we have this long tradition of campus leadership and support around promoting accessibility. But the unprecedented need that the pandemic really illuminated revealed that we needed to move even quicker to build a more robust, more skilled, more engaged community that would be prepared to meet the challenges that our students and faculty were facing. We had historically been offering a lot of different trainings and one-on-one faculty support, but we felt like we needed something much more concentrated, quick, that would be fun and enjoyable for folks to participate in. The pandemic was just in its first 12 months, and people were stressed and feeling isolated, nervous or afraid. We wanted to create an opportunity to connect as well as learn from each other. So we’ve talked about this as a 10-day challenge. It was essentially two weeks of an online community engaged learning experience, where folks signed up and took different asynchronous and sometimes synchronous online courses to build their skills and capacity around accessibility.

Rebecca: So Laura, can you talk a little bit about some of the design considerations that went into the challenge?

Laura: Sure, Rebecca. The workgroup often discusses training and professional development opportunities we can provide to faculty, staff, and students. And as Michele indicated, when we had those discussions in late 2020, we knew that many people were feeling overburdened, disconnected, and disenfranchised. And we didn’t want to add to people’s mental loads, we wanted to craft something that was fun and supportive. So one of the theories underlying our thinking is self-determination theory, which suggests that experiences that support individuals’ experiences of autonomy, competence, and relatedness, or connectedness, will provide the best kinds of motivation. I want to talk about competence first. I think promoting competence around accessibility practices has always been at the core of what we do. However, the increase in online instruction caused by the pandemic made fostering this competence a necessity. We just didn’t have, and we do not have now, the staffing to remediate every course. Moving on to relatedness, I feel that offering a challenge instead of regular professional development opportunities really allowed us to foster that sense of connection. With challenges, there’s a shared goal, and when it comes to pulling people together, a shared goal can be more powerful than a shared interest. I also think that, with challenges, there’s often a more intentional effort at providing support and encouragement to participants. For example, the organizers behind National Novel Writing Month host live Q&As and have collected pep talk letters addressed to their participants written by well-known authors. So while competence and relatedness were things we considered early in the process at the macro level, the ability to foster autonomy and agency came through when we were planning the details. One of the other theories we incorporated into the design of the challenge is Universal Design for Learning (or UDL). I would argue that agency and choice are at the core of UDL, which focuses on providing learners with multiple ways of achieving a learning objective. So we made a point to offer multiple ways for Challenge participants to learn about and apply various accessibility concepts.

Rebecca: So Kate, can you describe the challenge and how it worked?

Kate: Sure, we wanted to basically simplify accessibility and allow all content creators to understand basic accessibility principles. So this challenge was centered around creating accessible Word documents through Microsoft Word and Google Docs. We broke it down, broke down accessibility into bite-sized pieces, and we focused on one topic each day. So we started off by introducing accessibility, we covered what it is, why it’s important, and who it benefits, because that’s sometimes lost in translation, depending on the definition that people think of accessibility. Then we went in and we focused on specific skills. So some of the topics included properly structuring content such as how to semantically make headings and lists. We covered writing alternative text for images, captioning videos, effectively using color, and providing descriptive hyperlinks as some of the basic principles. And then the last couple of days of the challenge ended with some self reflections, sort of what did the participants learn? Did the program help boost their competence around accessibility? …that type of feeling. So we send daily emails to the participants, and these emails give a brief background of today’s topic, again, who it benefits and why it’s important. We provided written and video tutorials that explained how to do the task, and then asked the participants to incorporate that principle into the documents of their choice. We also provided other related articles and sources of information, as well as links to live zoom sessions that were being offered that same day around that particular topic.

John: Laura, can you talk a little bit about the timing of the challenge and how participants were recruited to participate in it?

Laura: So for many years, the Center for Excellence in Learning and Teaching has provided a series of professional development opportunities that are offered for faculty and staff, and are usually led by faculty and staff. These usually are about two weeks before and after the spring semester. The ones that we have in January we refer to as the winter breakout sessions, we have been offering professional development on accessibility practices during the winter and spring breakout sessions for the last few years. So it really just made sense for us to offer the sessions related to the challenge at the same time. As far as recruitment goes, we worked with the Office of Communications and Marketing, they did a news story that was shared with the entire campus, they emailed all faculty, staff, and students. And we also communicated through some smaller communication channels, like the email list for the Center for Excellence in Learning and Teaching.

Michele: If I could just build on a couple of things that Laura said, I think that we really credit the success of our first challenge to the timing of it and the relationship with the Winter Breakout sessions. I think there’s two important reasons for that, is that this period of time is between semesters. So we know that while faculty certainly are anticipating professional development at that time, they also tend to have kind of allocated some time and space to work on it. Secondly, I do think that if we had tried to replicate this at another time during the year, and rebuilt the structure and rebuilt the marketing around it all separately, that would have been just an even heavier lift for our committee that was working on it. So that connection to our existing structure mattered for sure.

Rebecca: We also had students participating. So, previous professional development had focused primarily on faculty and staff. And this particular initiative really invited students into the scope as well. And most students aren’t taking classes at that time. So there was a little more flexibility for students to take on the challenge as well.

John: One of the things we should note is that the timing of doing this in the early stages of COVID probably helped because faculty were using much more digital content, and were aware of how much they didn’t know, in some cases, about using digital content effectively. So I think all those things came together to help make the program remarkably successful. Laura mentioned that we had been doing workshops for a while, but we should probably credit Rebecca with that, because that was one of the first tasks she took on, actually even before she became associate director of the teaching center. We asked her to do a number of workshops, I think, in your very first year here actually on accessibility.

Rebecca: Yeah.

John: …and that hasn’t stopped since then.

Rebecca: No, it hasn’t. [LAUGHTER] I think one of the other things that we might want to also point out about the success is not just the timing in terms of the January sessions, but also that our involvement in accessibility on campus was starting to mature. We already had campus-wide initiatives leading up to this particular one. And the first cohort of faculty accessibility fellows had completed in 2019. So we also had those fellows to support this initiative during COVID. So Michele, you spearheaded the evaluation of the challenge, can you talk a little bit about the methods used and the results of the challenge?

Michele: I think when we first came up with this idea, the first thing we did was tried to see if there were other models out there that we could pull from. And while I think there’s other examples of challenges, we knew early on, we had a hunch, that what we were doing was kind of novel and unique. And because of that, it was important for us not just to document what we were doing, but to have some attempt to gauge the impact that it was having, I think this would be helpful for us for a couple of reasons. One, just our ability to improve on future iterations or efforts that we would do in this space. But also, I think that you might start getting a sense that all of us feel really passionate and strongly about this. And so the ability for us to advocate beyond our own campus and share what we were doing and help others understand the impacts of it was important for us in terms of documenting and gathering data. So we took all sorts of approaches to gathering data, everything from monitoring the open rates on the emails that went out across campus, to looking at our website traffic through Google Analytics, but the majority of the data came from a pre- and post-set of survey questions. So we did everything from ask folks when they first started to reflect a little bit around their motivation. This gets at some of the things that Laura was sharing about our initial design, about why people were participating and what they were looking for from the challenge, all the way up to then in the post-survey asking folks, as Kate mentioned, to reflect on their experiences. From those surveys, we were really able to pull out key qualitative and quantitative data to get a sense of what motivated folks to join, really understand how their confidence changed and increased in their ability to do things like define accessibility, to be able to make a Word document digitally accessible, but also just understand what they enjoyed most. And over and over again, I think the thing that we learned that probably was maybe most surprising and really nice kind of unexpected benefit was folks reporting that they really enjoyed being part of the learning community together. and the sense of being part of something that was bigger than just “Hey, I’m learning some new skills to teach my class or to send out more accessible emails,” but understanding that they were sort of joining and connecting into this broader movement that was happening on campus was, I think, one of our most surprising and also exciting takeaways.

Rebecca: I think one thing that we didn’t mention that might be worth noting here, especially after you were talking about the surveys is that we did prime our audience at the academic affairs retreat in August, leading up to the fall 2020 semester, by having a few minutes on the agenda to talk about accessibility and to get the academic community aware of digital accessibility. And then the challenge followed up only a few months later.

John: Kate, can you talk briefly about some of the iterations of the project that follow that initial 10-Day Challenge.

Kate: So the initial challenge was held in January of 2021, as we mentioned, and March of 21, we held a presentations challenge, which focused on creating accessible presentations using PowerPoint and Google Slides. This was a weekly challenge, meaning that participants received one email each week for four weeks that focused on one topic. We also provided them with background information, written and video tutorials, and additional resources in the same manner that we did for the initial 10-Day Challenge. And then in January of 22, we ran a five-day accessibility challenge. This was formatted in a very similar manner to the 10-Day Challenge, but we basically split the content into two and created two tracks: we had a beginner level and an intermediate level. Each day, again, highlighted one topic, we provided participants with background information, the tutorials, and additional resources. But this time, participants could choose what content to work on for each day, whether they wanted to stick with the beginner track or go to the more advanced track or do a combination of both.

Rebecca: So Michele, can you talk a little bit about the newest iteration of the project that’s currently in progress?

Michele: I am so excited [LAUGHTER] to talk about the newest iteration of it, because really, this new version has given us a way to massively scale up what we started as kind of this idea of doing a 10-day challenge. Last fall, the entire SUNY system migrated to a new common learning management system. And when that happened, members of our team started imagining a way that we could use that common system to develop an asynchronous customizable version of our challenge that could be deployed across the 60+ universities, schools, campuses across SUNY. We applied for and got a nice grant to support the development of this idea. And there is a really fantastic team, committed faculty, staff, and even students here at Oswego now working to bring this to fruition. And our goal is to pilot it broadly this coming spring, but here at Oswego, we’re going to come back to our roots with the winter breakout session, and we’ll launch the first iteration of it and be able to get some feedback in the next couple of weeks here.

John: And the grant that funded it was a SUNY Innovative Instructional Technology Grant. We should credit SUNY for providing this competitive grant program. Could each of you provide a bit of advice for anyone thinking of doing this at their own institution?

Michele: I’ll start, and I think that we used a pretty big variety of resources. So we didn’t just kind of create material from scratch, we also linked out to things like existing resources from Deque, we pulled in literature and other articles that folks have read. So I think that the biggest takeaway, I would suggest, is that you can do this as big of a scale or as small, you could have a three-day challenge, it doesn’t need to be 10. But starting anywhere, and recognizing your capacity and reaching out to use other existing resources is a good way to supplement if you perhaps don’t have as big of a pool to draw from in terms of internally on your own campus.

Laura: I would add to that just starting wherever you are with whatever resources or personnel you have, it doesn’t have to be a fancy initiative. It can be sort of a grassroots within your own department or as small as you want it to be. But just getting started and sharing out whatever information you have is something, it’s movement in the right direction.

John: Following up on Kate’s comment, this is very consistent with Tom Tobin’s plus one strategy, start with some small changes, and then build on those every semester as you move forward.

Rebecca: In the show notes, we’ll link out to an overview of our challenge as well as the article that we wrote on the challenge.

Michele: You know, the only other thing that I would say is that it’s important to find support and partners and maybe places that you might not expect on campus. So thinking about how to connect this with your campus DEI efforts more broadly, or working with your accessibility resources. Again, we talked about so many different areas where we got support, even the communications and marketing team really helped us, but our CTS team, I think finding those collaborators is a big part of how to ensure something like this can be successful.

John: And CTS is Campus Technology Services.

Rebecca: So we always wrap up by asking: “What’s next?”

Laura: So something that I’m working on right now is creating a guide that talks about the accessibility features that are available from each of our major database vendors like EBSCO, and ProQuest, just to make those features a little bit more discoverable… accessible… [LAUGHTER] to our users. We try to talk about those in our instruction that we do, but they’re not always obvious.

Kate: So I’ve presented at a number of different conferences, and I’ve talked about the accessibility initiative at Oswego, and this particular challenge and some of our iterations. So I hope to continue that and just kind of share the good word about what Oswego is doing and some of our projects that we’ve been working on and how we can help other campuses or help other departments or people implement similar types of projects.

Rebecca: And how about you, Michele?

Michele: Well, I think I gave it a little bit away, that most of my accessibility work right now is focused on making sure that our new iteration of the Challenge gets off the ground, and we’ve got everybody all hands on deck with that. Beyond that, though, Rebecca, you and I are working on a fun project when we find ourselves with time to take a similar approach in terms of documenting the impacts of accessibility work on our campus. And we interviewed all of the first few cohorts of our campus accessibility fellows, and we’re in the process of trying to figure out what we’ve got there and how that I think shares the story about how Oswego is maturing in its process of working to achieve accessibility, and a more inclusive environment.

Rebecca: Well, thank you all for your work in accessibility, and for sharing that today.

Michele: Thanks for having us.

Kate: Thanks for having us.

Laura: Thank you for having us.

John: Thank you. It’s great talking to all of you and we’ll be seeing you during the winter breakouts very shortly.

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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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321. College Students with Disabilities

Sharing student narratives about their experiences can help us to understand how our instructional and policy decisions impact the student experience. In this episode, Amy Fisk joins us discuss to discuss her research project with Rebecca on the perceptions that students with disabilities have of their learning experiences.

Amy is the Assistant Dean for Accessibility at the State University of New York at Geneseo. Amy oversees the Office of Accessibility Services, which coordinates accommodations and support services for students with disabilities. Prior to her role at Geneseo, Amy coordinated a support program for students on the autism spectrum at SUNY Purchase.

Show Notes

Transcript

John: Sharing student narratives about their experiences can help us to understand how our instructional and policy decisions impact the student experience. In this episode, we discuss the perceptions students with disabilities have of their learning experiences.

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

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John: Our guest today is Amy Fisk. Amy is the Assistant Dean for Accessibility at the State University of New York at Geneseo. Amy oversees the Office of Accessibility Services, which coordinates accommodations and support services for students with disabilities. Prior to her role at Geneseo, Amy coordinated a support program for students on the autism spectrum at SUNY Purchase. Welcome, Amy.

Amy: Thank you. Thank you so much for having me.

Rebecca: Today’s teas are:… Amy, are you drinking any tea?

Amy: I drink tea every morning. So I have Bigelow French Vanilla black tea.

Rebecca: It’s a good way to start the day. How about you, John?

John: In honor of the holiday season, I have Christmas tea today.

Rebecca: I’m drinking Blue Sapphire from my favorite tea shop in Canandaigua.

Amy: Where’s that?

Rebecca: It’s right on Main Street. You should go there.

Amy: I should.

John: We’ve invited you to talk about the article: “Perspectives among college students with disabilities on access and inclusion,” which you co-authored with someone else… Rebecca, I think it was.

Amy: That name sounds familiar.

John: …which was published in College Teaching earlier this year. Before we talk about the article, could you tell us a little bit about your role at SUNY Geneseo.

Amy: So I oversee our Office of Accessibility Services, or OAS. I meet with students to coordinate accommodations and other kinds of support services for our students with disabilities. I monitor policies and procedures within our office. And I often work with faculty and staff on issues related to accessibility and inclusion. So for example, I might do trainings across campus, work with administrators on various committees, and having a voice on issues related to disability, education, awareness, and accessibility.

Rebecca: So prior to this project, Amy, and I didn’t actually know each other. Do you want to share the origin story?

Amy: I started my position here a month before COVID became a thing. So I was kind of thrown into some challenges I did not anticipate. But one of the things I had been thinking about, many of my colleagues were thinking about, was: How are we going to support our students with disabilities? We’re really kind of concerned about their trajectory during this challenging time. We wanted to just get some more information about students’ experiences during COVID. I started talking to Nazely about this, and she says, “You know, I know someone who does research who also might be interested in a potential collaboration.” So that’s how I got connected to Rebecca. And ultimately, we shared an interest in learning more about the impact of COVID on our students within our respective roles on our campuses. We knew that this was a really challenging time for all of us, but especially for our students with disabilities who had already been experiencing barriers pre pandemic. And so we really wanted to hear from our students about their experiences, and what can we learn about access and inclusion moving forward, even when the dust settles and we talk about things post COVID?

John: A lot of the studies that have been done have been quantitative studies. And your study is a qualitative study. Could you talk a little bit about how this qualitative research complements the quantitative research that’s been done?

Amy: Sure. So ultimately, we wanted to gather students’ stories, and many of our findings from our studies are reflective of findings from past studies on challenges and barriers students with disabilities face compared to students without disabilities. But we wanted to identify these specifically within the context of remote learning. And also within the context of navigating this challenging time just in life, we really wanted that student narrative. And we also wanted to assess the positive things that were happening, the practices that were helping our students feel successful, to really help inform tangible takeaways and recommendations to our readers. And we hoped for this information to be relevant, like I said, when the dust settles and regardless of teaching modality. And I think it’s important to highlight that despite the obvious challenges that COVID brought, it has highlighted the importance of accessibility in higher education and really gave us an opportunity to reassess what we’ve been doing, our everyday policies and practices, and we really wanted to highlight that from the student perspective. Beyond that, we also wanted to talk about the needs of our students with disabilities within the context of access and inclusion. So, often disabilities and identities, that tends to be left out of conversations related to diversity, equity, and inclusion. So it wasn’t just about how we need to provide appropriate classroom accommodations, but what are the ways that we can be more inclusive, promote a sense of belonging, proactively provide equal access? So those were the things that we had in mind as we were designing our study.

Rebecca: One of the things that comes up in a lot of conversations, at least more recently in higher ed., is this growing number of students who are registering for accommodations and also the mental health crisis. Can you talk a little bit about that to provide some context for our discussion today?

Amy: Sure. So the mental health needs of college students with disabilities was becoming really apparent before COVID hit, really significant needs related to depression, anxiety, other severe psychiatric impairments. And the studies that had been done around the time of COVID really highlighted those issues of more and more students connecting to their disability services offices, self-identifying as a student with a disability where they have a clinical levels of depression, anxiety, other debilitating mental health needs. And that theme came out in our study as well.

John: Did all the discussions of the challenges of COVID help encourage students to become more willing to declare their mental health challenges or their other needs that perhaps they might have been more reluctant to state prior to this time?

Amy: I think so. I think there is a shift in our culture, and it being okay to talk about mental health and mental illness, for students to say, “I’m having a really hard time, I’m struggling,” because mental health is a spectrum. We all experience a variety of emotions throughout the day, throughout an hour, and throughout our lifetime. And I think it’s becoming slowly de-stigmatized in talking about mental illness and the importance of promoting mental health, especially among our college-age population. A lot of college campuses are really taking seriously the wellness of their students on campus just because of the rise in numbers of students needing that extra support, because colleges across our country are noticing a pretty significant increase. And I do think COVID has propelled that de-stigmatization of talking about mental health.

Rebecca: We’ve talked in the past on this podcast with Kat MacFarlane about some of the barriers that students face in just even approaching and asking for accommodations, having to register with an office of disability services, or whatever the equivalent is on the campus, and having to self identify. And then a lot of students don’t actually choose to do that for a wide variety of reasons, some associated with stigma, but we are seeing increased registrations. So does that mean that there’s increased disability?

Amy: Yes, I think there are a variety of factors and more students connecting with disability services offices. One, I think high schools are better preparing students with disabilities to enter the post-secondary environment. Two, I think our offices are becoming more visible on campus. Again, I think there’s also a de-stigmatization of disability and accessibility services offices, and we’re becoming more visible and relevant on college campuses. And third, I think colleges are starting to talk about disability as an important facet of diversity more and more, I think there’s certainly room for improvement, but I think that conversation is starting to happen. So more students are finding their way into our offices.

Rebecca: So three key themes emerged in our research about the perceptions of students with disabilities, of our institutions, and their experience, and of belonging. And so those three themes are accommodations and accessibility, building relationships, and community, and then course structure and design. Perhaps we can take them one at a time here. Let’s start with accommodations and accessibility. Can you first start with what’s the difference between accommodations and accessibility? Because we know that this is often something that’s confusing to folks.

Amy: Sure. So an a ccommodation, by definition, is designed to remove some sort of barrier that an individual with a disability is experiencing. So an academic accommodation, for example, might be having extra time to take an exam, because timed tests can be a barrier for some students. Maybe it’s a notetaking accommodation because they need assistance accessing that lecture material. Sometimes it’s ensuring that the course materials themselves are accessible, that they can be read through a screen reader. Sometimes the accommodation is related to a course policy such as attendance for a student with a more severe chronic medical condition. So it is an individualized process to assess what an appropriate accommodation would look like. But the purpose of it is to remove some sort of barrier so that this person has equal access to their environment. And so accommodations, though necessary, is something that we’re legally required to provide for the ADA. It’s really a reactive way of ensuring equal access. It’s a floor, it’s a minimum. Accessibility, on the other hand, is about inclusion from the start, so that individual accommodation may not even be needed. And something I like to highlight is that accessibility is not about lowering standards. It’s sending a message that everyone belongs in this space and that inclusion matters.

John: What were some of the most common barriers that students reported facing related to accommodations and accessibility in your study.

Amy: Some of those barriers for students just not receiving their approved accommodations during remote learning, including extended time on tests, for example, or online course materials just not being accessible, or having to continually remind instructors about their accommodations, explain why they needed the accommodation in the first place, negotiating terms of pre-approved accommodations. And this was particularly true among students with what we might call an invisible or non-appearance disabilities such as learning disabilities, ADHD, mental health disabilities, these students are less likely to be believed and questioned about the validity of their disability or their need for accommodation. So those were some pretty significant barriers for students and just not receiving the accommodations that they were approved for.

Rebecca: I think one of the things that was also highlighted as a result of our study taking place, whilst COVID was in full force is how many campus resources students with disabilities and other students depend upon every day. So we had students reporting things like” I didn’t have access to a printer to pull up text when it was more of an image instead of an accessible text that could have been expanded digitally, or having access to a quiet space, like the library.”

Amy: Yeah, that was really significant. And then that is where you also saw some other equity disparities. So there were some students who live down near New York City in very populated areas, there was a lot going down there at the time. COVID, if we recall, some students did not have quiet spaces at home, whereas other students had quiet home offices and their parents may have been at home with them, helping to support them. And then other students who didn’t have a quiet space whatsoever took on more caretaking responsibilities, didn’t have access to WiFi. So those equity disparities continued to widen during COVID beyond the disability barrier, so that was something significant, I think that needed to be highlighted,

Rebecca: What are some of the factors related to accessibility and accommodations that actually resulted in positive perceptions?

Amy: So our students actually reported some very positive interactions with their instructors. So when receiving a student’s letter of accommodation, or like an accommodation notification that would come through our office, some would reach out and ask the student “How can I support you? How can I help provide this accommodation?” One student even noted how they appreciated that the instructor didn’t call them out in class, because that had happened before. So I think just preserving the students’ dignity, reaching out to the student, those were the kinds of things that our students reported as making a significant difference.

John: I know you’re study focused on the status of students during COVID, but in your role addressing these issues now, have the changes in faculty behavior persisted? Have faculty continued to become more sensitive to some of the accessibility and accommodation needs of students as we move back to more classroom instruction?

Amy: So in conversation with colleagues, other disability service providers across SUNY, but also across the country, I think we’ve seen a mix. I think there are some who just wanted to go back to normal, and didn’t we all. I think COVID, again, was a very challenging time and faculty too didn’t have a ton of support, and also really struggled with having that emergency shift to a remote learning modality and some didn’t have the skills or support to really deliver courses in the way that would have facilitated student success. So they were really looking forward to getting back to that in-person modality, back to the pedagogy that we’re used to, and that may have posed some new barriers for students coming back to college campuses. Conversely, we also saw instructors taking some of those learned lessons from the remote learning period and applying them when we did come back to campus. So I do know a number of instructors who, for example, are still utilizing the lecture videos they created during COVID and post them on their learning management system for students who may not have been able to attend class that day, for example, so they can still get the lecture material or recreating their course materials and documents so that they are accessible, creating videos, captioning their videos, modifying some course policies to be a bit more inclusive for students. So I think there has been a change in realizing we can still have students be successful and meet the learning objectives, but in a different and more inclusive way.

Rebecca: I think one of the things that we can highlight that also came out in the student experience, and students reported this in our study, is that some of them actually experienced better access during COVID. Not all but some, in part because some of the technology caught up. And when we first went remote, Zoom didn’t have captions available by default and now it does. And so a lot of these things have become norms that people with disabilities have fought for for a long time and never got.

Amy: And I would say that’s true as well with regard to course policies that may have been amended as well, introducing more self paced work, which is also something that students really appreciated during the remote learning period.

John: I just recently returned from the POD conference where there were many, many discussions of this very issue. And in general, the results there were pretty much the same as what you’ve described, that a lot of the changes that faculty made to better accommodate students needs persisted, but some faculty have moved back to old practices and the results are a little bit mixed. But on average, there seemed to be, in a number of studies, some substantial improvement in faculty responses to student needs.

Rebecca: Based on what students have reported, what recommendations do you have for faculty related to accommodations and accessibility to continue the forward movement as opposed to regressing?

Amy: So, actually I did a talk with faculty of one of our academic departments at the start of the semester, reviewing our office, some of the logistical pieces of implementing accommodations, that sort of thing. But before I started really getting into that, we had a discussion about how accommodations, and the dialogue about accommodations with students are approached, how it’s discussed, how it’s communicated, something as simple as taking time to actually review the portion in your course syllabus related to an accommodation, so maybe an accessibility statement. That tells students that this is important, making sure that your online materials are accessible from the start, that tells students that accessibility and inclusion is important. And students are more likely to engage in a reciprocal dialogue with you about their needs when they feel like they’re heard, when they feel like they’re a valued member of the class, that their accommodations are important and not burdensome. That’s a term we heard a lot in our study, that they’re not a burden, or it’s some sort of requirement that the faculty has to fulfill. And so I think this is probably true for most students, regardless of disability. But students in our study specifically noted how they appreciated when the instructor showed empathy and understanding and flexibility, recognizing that students have significant issues outside of the classroom. We all do, between family, finances, things that are happening in our world today. And I think this is important to acknowledge as well, given that we’re seeing an increase in students from various diverse backgrounds coming into the college environment.

Rebecca: And as we’ve talked about many times on the podcast, flexible doesn’t mean not having standards. [LAUGHTER] And it doesn’t mean a free for all. In fact, a lot of our students benefit from structure, which we’ll talk about, I think, in a few minutes, because that ties to one of our other themes. You talked a little bit about faculty workload related to this, and sometimes the perception that faculty put off is that it’s a burden to provide these accommodations. And the reality is that a lot of our students need very similar things. And so if we think about the common requests for accommodations, or digital accessibility strategies, from the start, we often don’t have a lot of one off things that we do need to accommodate, because we’ve already built it into our courses. That’s not to say that there aren’t accommodations that we need to provide additionally, but it may result in less work, ultimately, to really think about these accessibility principles upfront.

Amy: Right. And I think something as simple as making your course lecture materials available on the learning management system available to students. That can help reduce a lot of barriers for many students who might struggle with keeping up with the pace of the lecture and they end up missing material. A student who may have missed class that one day and just needs that material, other students who need to kind of re-teach themselves the material because, perhaps, they had challenges with staying focused during class. I think there’s a variety of reasons why students would benefit from that, but something as simple as that. Often, when students come to see me, there are maybe students who hadn’t needed accommodations previously, but they encountered a particular course where the policies were such that there were new barriers that arose and if the policy was different, perhaps they wouldn’t need that accommodation. That’s a concrete example of the difference between accommodation and accessibility. Some of our course policies and course design may be inadvertently barriers to students with or without disability. So this might include use of pop quizzes, not making lecture materials available to students, not permitting use of technology, not allowing students to even take breaks in class. And so although the purpose of these policies is probably to make students engaged and have accountability in the course, which these are things, of course, we want… again, we’re not lowering standards… students still need to go to class and do the work. But I think some of these policies actually might be having the opposite effect, and it does for students who request accommodations, rather than focus on learning in the course.

John: I think that many faculty who had only taught in a face-to-face modality before COVID, were able to avoid issues of accessibility by not creating digital content. When they moved to remote teaching, though, they were forced to begin developing digital materials and often received some training in creating accessible digital content. Do you think that that training received during COVID helped encourage more accessible practices by faculty in general?

Amy: I think so again, I think some of these practices have shifted over time, and I think COVID has shed light on the benefits of accessibility, not just for people with disabilities, but for all people. I mean, again, use of captions and subtitles can be beneficial for a lot of folks, whether you’re sitting in a busy Starbucks, whether you have a lot going on in the background, maybe you’re trying to juggle work and family, maybe, again, you’re hard of hearing, and so you need access to those captions. Again, accessibility is for all, not just about or for people with disabilities.

Rebecca: The second theme that kind of emerged in our research was building relationships and community, can you share some insights with faculty about the role that they can play in helping students with disabilities feel connected and included? And you highlighted some of those already: providing accommodations and showing students some dignity and respecting their dignity.

Amy: So again, I think engaging with a student and even something as simple as taking the student aside and asking, “How can I make this course more accessible to you?” speaks volumes to the student, that they are valued, they belong, that their needs aren’t burdensome, and they’re more likely to engage in a reciprocal dialogue with the faculty member when they feel like “Oh, they care about me and my success in this course.” I actually knew about a professor who did an anonymous Google form, asking students “How can I make this course more accessible to you? Are there barriers? In reviewing the syllabus, do you have concerns about something within the course?” One of my students actually told me about this, and said how it really made them feel seen and valued. And they were more likely to reach out to the instructor when they needed help, because some students fail to do so out of shame. They’re in a very vulnerable position to talk about their disability related needs to a faculty member, to an authority figure. And so when you do something as simple as asking a student, “How can I make this accessible to you? Are you experiencing barriers right now?” really opens that line of communication with the student and helps them build a positive relationship with that instructor and for maybe other instructors. It also helps to build a sense of community so that other students know that this is really important, and that inclusion matters. And that’s also sending a message to all their students within the classroom that we appreciate and respect diverse learners here in this classroom. I think that’s a teachable moment for our students as well.

Rebecca: So one of the other things that I think emerged is a desire to be connected with peers, but that faculty can play a really important role in facilitating that connection. So I think oftentimes, we just assume in a classroom that at the beginning of class students are socializing and getting to know other folks and have those contacts, but students really reported that having more structured ways of connecting with peers was really beneficial to them outside of class. And that’s something that I think we might take for granted as instructors in the classroom, that it would just kind of organically happen. But that structure, that scaffolding around that really bubbled up as being pretty important to our students,

Amy: Yeah, that peer-to-peer interaction for an even if it was virtual. One of our students said, “Our instructor had a virtual whiteboard that we could all do group work even when it was asynchronous, which is pretty neat.” So that helps set the stage for positive peer interactions, for peers to ask peers for help and mentorship, which is important. Often, students just feel that going to office hours is the only way that they can receive help. And when you provide opportunities to work together, learn together, that really helps, again, open up a line of communication among peers as well, which is a skill that we’re trying to teach our students.

John: And that was especially severe during COVID. But also, when we returned to the classroom, and students were asked to sit at least six feet away from any other student, it certainly reduced the amount of interaction and it has made it a little more challenging for all students to interact with others. That’s been improving, but I think, perhaps, that experience may remind faculty of the importance of building those types of connections. Because even before COVID, there were always some students who may not have felt as much a part of the class community. But I think we’ve all learned the importance of community during that time.

Rebecca: I think that’s just another example of something that students with disabilities have pointed out as being really important to them. But it’s also important to many other students, too.

John: The third theme that emerged from your research was course structure and design. And most of your findings in that particular category align with many other studies involving inclusive pedagogy and Universal Design for Learning. Can you highlight some of the common barriers that students with disabilities faced in terms of course structure and design.

Amy: So one of our students in the study commonly referred to one of their course LMS pages as a scavenger hunt, where they spent more time trying to find the materials and the information on the course rather than on the assignments themselves. So students in general benefit from an organized LMS and an organized syllabus for deadlines, instructions, policies are very clear and concise, but for students with disabilities, this is particularly important. Many of my students with ADHD, health or chronic medical conditions, or a learning disability, they need to plan ahead, because it might take the students double or triple the time to finish a task. So if students don’t know when their next test is, or if instructions aren’t posted a few days before something is due, we’re really not setting them up for success. And I also talked about some of those other policies and course design that might be inadvertent barriers to our students. And so some of our students reported that they did benefit from self-paced tasks, or on untimed learning assessments, having some autonomy and options for completing assignments in a different format, such as doing a presentation or a podcast, instead of a paper, working in groups or choosing to work individually on a project. Those are some of the specific practices our students highlighted as being really helpful. And again, we’re not lowering standards, they have to meet the same standards and learning objectives, as every other student, just perhaps meeting those same standards in a different way. And that’s what Universal Design for learning is all about.

John: One time in a workshop, a faculty member mentioned that they have students do a scavenger hunt in the LMS, to find various course policies, or to find materials. And I cringed at that and I suggested that it might be better to design your course in a way where the students don’t have to struggle to find things so they can focus their cognitive efforts on learning materials, rather than engaging in scavenger hunts, trying to navigate the course. Has that improved recently?

Amy: I think it has, again, in conversations with some of my colleagues who do this work and talking with faculty, I think it’s a mixed bag as it relates to how instructors are approaching course design in their policies. But other faculty are seeing that changing their pedagogy, changing their policies, changing the way they interact and see students and helping to meet those student needs have evolved, because perhaps they themselves have experienced accessibility barriers during COVID as well. And so it’s become more relevant, because they have that lived experience. And they’re seeing that adopting some of these inclusive practices are actually helping to keep their students engaged, that the students, even if they’re struggling, are more likely to tell their faculty member “I’m struggling and I need help, but I want to stay in this course, what kind of flexibility could be provided?”… rather than, we’ll use a college student term, ghosting [LAUGHTER] the class. So I think things are changing in a direction that speaks to some degree of flexibility and helping students meet those same standards, where the focus is more on learning, rather than adherence to an arbitrary policy.

Rebecca: I think the students really underscored maybe without realizing things like the transparency and learning and teaching or TILT, where being really clear and explicit about what the expectation is and how to get there and how you’re going to be assessed really helps and supports students… that structure and those guardrails is what all of us need. How many times have we worked on a paper the second before a deadline? We work on deadlines, and so if we help students with intermediary deadlines, we’re actually helping them and that doesn’t mean that we’re not flexible,and flexibility doesn’t mean not having those.

Amy: It’s about scaffolding. It’s about recognizing that not all students are coming from the same background and experiences and privilege. They’re not on the same playing field, and so providing those scaffolded learning opportunities… that can really help even the playing field, just providing those scaffolded learning opportunities.

Rebecca: And it’s really some of this scaffolded accountability, so it’s not all due at once, It’s helpful to faculty to remind them that there’s feedback throughout a process on a larger assignment, but also it’s helpful for students to hit individual deadlines to evolve their work as well.

John: And that’s something that is found, as you noted earlier, by Mary-Ann Winklemes in her research on Transparency in Learning and Teaching, and also by Viji Sathy and Kelly Hogan in their research on the importance of structure in reducing equity gaps. While transparency and structure benefits all students, it especially benefits the students who have equity gaps of some form, and it sounds as if that’s also true for students with disabilities.

Rebecca: Yeah, I think none of this is really new, but oftentimes students with disabilities aren’t necessarily included in those studies about equity always, it’s not always one of the groups that’s pulled out separately.

Amy: Part of what’s next is also hearing about the experiences of students with disabilities from other diverse backgrounds, including students of color, students from lower SES backgrounds, students in the LGBTQ+ community, that those experiences are different and that intersectionality is really key in understanding students’ experiences in the classroom and how we can be more accessible and inclusive because, again, accessibility is not just related to are we providing a legally required accommodation, but are we creating a sense of belonging in that space, and giving students an equal opportunity to demonstrate their knowledge and be successful, which is ultimately why we’re all here, I would hope.

Rebecca: So we always wrap up by asking what’s next?

Amy: I think it’s important to not just put a focus on what individual faculty can be doing in their classrooms to support students with disabilities. But how are we promoting access and inclusion at the institutional level, supporting students with disabilities and students from other diverse backgrounds is a whole campus responsibility and faculty needs support in doing that work as well. So I’m hoping what’s next is working with administration, other campus leaders and identifying ways we can really help move that needle in a meaningful way. Making accessibility into larger DEIB (or diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging) campus initiatives, our campus-wide policy, strategic planning, campus-wide faculty and staff training, and other professional development opportunities, hiring diverse faculty and staff on our campus. So not just about talking the talk, but walking the walk when it comes to access and inclusion in higher education.

Rebecca: I think that’s definitely a theme that we’ll see throughout all of higher ed. I hope that we’ll all go home and arm and move in this direction collaboratively.

John: Well, thank you for joining us. It’s been great talking to you and we’re looking forward to hearing more of your future work on this topic.

Amy: Well, thank you so much for having me today. I 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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318. Reducing Equity Gaps

Gender and racial equity gaps exist in economics and other STEM fields. In this episode, Tisha Emerson joins us to discuss research on strategies to reduce these inequities. Tisha is the chair of the economics department and the James E. and Constance Paul Distinguished Professor at East Carolina University and is the incoming Chair of the American Economic Association’s Committee on Economic Education.

Show Notes

Transcript

John: Gender and racial equity gaps exist in economics and other STEM fields. In this episode, we discuss research on strategies to reduce these inequities.

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

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Rebecca: Our guest today is Tisha Emerson. Tisha is the chair of the economics department and the James E. and Constance Paul Distinguished Professor at East Carolina University and is the incoming Chair of the American Economic Association’s Committee on Economic Education. Welcome, Tisha.

Tisha: Thanks for having me. I’m so glad to be here.

John: I’m very happy to be talking to you. And our teas today are:… Tisha, are you drinking any tea?

Tisha: Yes, my favorite tea, I found a couple years ago, it’s a Golden Moon brand of Tippy Earl Grey.

Rebecca: That sounds nice.

Tisha: It’s delicious.

Rebecca:I have Harvest Memories today.

John: I don’t remember that one.

Rebecca: Well, it is from my little favorite tea shop in Canandaigua, New York, and it’s autumn flavors.

John: Autumn flavor?

Rebecca: Autumn flavors.

John: Do they have leaves dumped in there?

Rebecca: I mean, it almost looks like that. [LAUGHTER]

John: Ok. [LAUGHTER] Well, that’s one way of getting rid of all the leaves that have been falling. And I have English breakfast tea today. So we’ve invited you here today to talk about some of the research you’ve done, and also your new role and your past role with the AEA’s Committee on Economic Education. One of the things that we’ve observed is that there’s some significant equity gaps in economics and in STEM disciplines in general in terms of race and gender. And in one of the studies that you’ve done with this, in a 2023 paper in the Southern Economic Journal, you and KimMarie McGoldrick examined retake behavior for students who are not successful in their initial attempt at completing an introductory microeconomics class. Could you give us just a general overview of this study?

Tisha: First, let me say that this started a long time ago. And we got access to this great data, the MIDFIELD dataset, that was actually originally funded by the NSF to study the gap in engineering education, but it’s student transcript data. So we said, well, you could use that for economics too. And we have. And so this particular study looked at almost 180,000 students who take Principles of Microeconomics for the first time. And what we ultimately wanted to do is to think about the likelihood of success, and actually more so, failure, because a lot of papers already look at success and they stop there, because you have too small of a sample, fortunately, of the failures to continue on to look at them. But when you start with 180,000, you have enough to continue. So we find, as many others do, that, of course, aptitude matters, but that, unfortunately, females tend to be much more likely to be unsuccessful in their Principles of Microeconomics class, as are underrepresented minorities, or URM. And then we follow those students and we say, okay, so if you were, in fact, unsuccessful, and we define that as a grade of a D or an F, so grades that wouldn’t really let you continue in your study of economics, or you withdraw. And we say, if you’re in that category, what do students tend to do?… or first of all, for those students that are unsuccessful, what helps predict that? So given that you are in the unsuccessful category, what is more likely to cause that? And we saw that students who were carrying more concurrent credit hours were more likely to withdraw. Which makes sense, because if you have constraints that lead you to want to be full time, if you start with 12 hours, and the course is not going well… any of them… and you were to drop, then you would not be full time anymore. And so it gives them sort of this flexibility, they have more concurrent credit hours. But we found that students who got D or Fs, given that they were unsuccessful, they tended to have taken more related courses. So things like accounting (financial accounting in particular), calculus, and macro principles. And so we didn’t actually see a lot of gender or racial differences there. But then those students who were unsuccessful (D, F, or W), on retake decisions, we found that women were much less likely to retake if they were unsuccessful. But we did find that women who were of higher aptitude, who were unsuccessful initially, they were more likely to retake. So that was a positive. And we did find that underrepresented minorities were more likely to retake the course, but then more likely to be unsuccessful again, on their second attempt. So there’s some good news, but also, a lot of not so good news.

John: So you were able to follow students over time, how long a time period was there in the data set that you were analyzing?

Tisha: We had over 20 year period of data, but that doesn’t mean we followed any particular student for that length of time. Once we saw that they were unsuccessful, we made sure that they had at least one more semester at the institution so they did in fact have a chance to choose to retake the course or not and then we gave them three years post their initial unsuccessful attempt. And if they didn’t retake it in that period, then we said they chose not to retake.

Rebecca: In a 2019 study in the Journal of Economic Education, you and KimMarie McGoldrick use the same dataset to examine the decision to switch into an out of the economic major. In this study, you find that very few students selected economics as a major when entering college and that 83% of economics majors actually selected the major after taking their first economics course. What did you find in terms of the gender and racial composition of those that selected the economic major?

Tisha: So what we found was that, for the few students who started out as economics majors, so going into their principles class they already had said they were majoring in economics, we found that females were as likely to persist or not. That’s good. And we found something similar for underrepresented minorities, that is the females and URM students who went into the principles class planning to major in economics, they were as likely to persist as not.

John: What happened to those students who were not majoring in economics.

Tisha: Well, unfortunately, females were not as likely to persist and decide to major in economics. There was a larger proportion of females who opted to remain in their original major. So, they come into the principles class, they have some major other than economics, they were much more likely to stay in their other major and not switch to economics. Men were considerably more likely to switch, on average, than females were. But on a more positive note, we did find that students from traditionally underrepresented racial and ethnic minorities and Asian students were more likely to switch to economics.

John: And one thing we should note, and you mentioned this in your study, is that because this datset was focused on engineering, the schools in this sample have relatively large engineering programs and some students switched to economics because economics was perceived as being easier than their original major. So some of this may not apply as broadly to liberal arts institutions that do not have engineering programs.

Tisha: That’s possibly true. And in fact, business majors were even more likely to switch to econ. So it was about 10% of those switching in were switching from engineering and 27% were switching from business. So at the liberal arts schools, to the extent that they don’t have business or engineering, there wouldn’t be that source of majors coming in.

Rebecca: Both of these studies are really interesting. But, how do we think about some strategies to create a more inclusive environment in economics and STEM classes? So what did these studies tell us? What should we be doing?

Tisha: Well, I don’t know that they tell us what we should be doing. They tell us that what we’re doing is not really working.

Rebecca: Fair.

Tisha: …which is unfortunate, because that’s what we’ve been doing for a really long time and we’ve been really unsuccessful at attracting women and underrepresented minorities. So there’s a new sort of strain in the literature that’s really trying to address some of this. And there’s a study, for example, by Porter and Serra, and that was published in 2020. They did a randomized control trial at Southern Methodist University, where they, just by happenstance, picked a couple of very charismatic female alums and they randomly selected which principles classes they would speak to. And this was just like a 15- or 20-minute exposure, where they talked about majoring in economics, and how that helped them in their career. And they found that this significantly increased the number of women from those courses who decided to major in economics and additionally, not necessarily just major, but take more economics courses. And I thought it was really fascinating that there was no effect on men in those treated classes, it was just the women. So that suggests possibly that there’s some room for role models. Other work that looks at role models from other directions, like some of my own work with KimMarie and John Siegfried, didn’t find any evidence that supports the idea of role models. So I think, still mixed, and the exact sort of interaction that students may or may not have with these people I think is going to be important.

John: You’ve done a number of studies on these types of issues, and one of them was looking at the effect of classroom experiments. Could you talk a little bit about what types of classroom experiments have you looked at and what’s the impact of those on students?

Tisha: Sure, I talk about that a lot, because I really love the classroom experiments. I think that they’re a great pedagogical technique. And so since your audience is more general, maybe I’ll explain just what we mean by classroom experiments. And that’s basically the idea that we’re going, in some cases, simulate markets or other decision environments for the students that will mirror the types of environments that we’re talking about in class. So for example, if we’re talking about a market, then we will have students participate in an experiment where some are buyers and some are sellers and they negotiate and trade. In my classes, we always do the experiment first, I don’t talk about any of the concepts. And then we collect the data as we’re going through the experiment on the decisions that they’re making: prices, quantities that are traded, then I’m able to talk to the students about “Well, look, this is what actually happened, this is your actual data that you generated, and now let’s talk about the theory.” And this is what the theory would predict the outcome to be. And they can see how well they match up. And they are able to discuss in class, this is why I chose to behave in this way. And they see how it fits in to the economic theory. And I did a study back in 2001, which was published in ‘04 in the Southern Economic Journal, where we were looking just at the effect of experiments and we looked to see if there was a differential gender effect. And in fact, there was. So you often see that women underperform men in these principles classes. But what the experiment did is it closed that gender performance gap. So it raised sort of everybody’s performance, but it raised the females disproportionately, so that they were closer to the same outcome as the men if they were in a classroom with experiments. So I do think that there is definitely room through pedagogy to improve women’s outcomes, and make them more attracted to economics, but also make economics more attractive to them. There’s a large literature that suggests that women are much more grade sensitive than are men, various people have gone about showing this in different ways. And if you can bring up their performance so that it’s on par with men. And it’s not really even that comparison, but you’re bringing up the females’ performance, then they’re getting better grades, and they’re going to be less likely to want to leave the study of economics.

John: And we’ll throw in a reference to an earlier podcast we did with Peter Arcidiacono, who had looked at that very impact in STEM fields in terms of the decisions of people to move from one major to another. And in particular, in that study, they found that women did better on many of the tests but still left because the grades were relatively lower than in other classes. So one issue I think might be worth addressing is the issue of grade differentials, that if we’re going to continue to assign grades that are lower than most other departments, there’s a good chance we’re going to lose majors in general, but disproportionately more female majors, based on what the research literature tells us.

Tisha: There’s this really cool study, McEwan, Rogers, and Weerapana, 2021. They’re at Wellesley, and so it’s all females, but they were trying to address grade inflation. And what that meant was, of course, there are some disciplines that have higher grades, they had to bring their average grades down, and economics is treated in the opposite direction, and that it actually drew more students into these harder grading disciplines, like economics and the other STEM fields. And so yeah, that’s certainly an issue. I don’t think we’re gonna across the board be trying to treat grade inflation. I don’t think this is published yet. But I was reading another study out of Wellesley, where they were allowing students… I think it was maybe for their gen ed classes… to take them all pass fail. And again, you saw students flowing into these harder grading disciplines.

John: I know a number of schools during a pandemic made all of their first-year classes pass fail, which is a good way of letting students get into a discipline without worrying so much about the grades so they can explore things without worrying about the impact on their GPAs. That might be another useful strategy.

Tisha: Yes, I agree, and then this is really anecdotal, but I’ve heard other people observe the same thing, that women, they’ll be in your principles class, and they’re doing well, but maybe they’re going to get a B plus. And they say, “Oh, either I’m not gonna take another economics class,” or I’ve even had students withdraw at that point, and I’m like, “but you’re getting a B plus, I don’t understand,” but they’re so sensitive to grades. And then there will be male students who are getting a C, barely, and they’ll say, “I’m going to major in economics.” and I say, “Okay, are you sure?” It’s hard to understand sometimes.

Rebecca: It’s interesting to think about withdrawal policies that have really kind of loosened up due to COVID. So our institution changed the policy more recently so that students can withdraw through the last day of classes without documentation. And so students who are doing really poorly might take that option, but as you’re discussing students with higher grades withdrawing, that sounds really concerning that policies like that could be kind of counterintuitive, or really have some other negative impacts. Classes all cost money, [LAUGHTER] and there’s financial impacts to withdrawing.

Tisha: It’s hard to really predict how this is all going to play out. And I have to say, I’ve never heard of such a generous withdrawal policy. At my previous institution, I think they could withdraw up to sort of two weeks out and not even have a W necessarily on their transcript. So this all seems like a lot. There’s a lot of moving parts. But on the positive side, so let me just say, first of all, part of me feels like it’s a little bit too generous. But part of me also thinks back to the work that KimMarie and I did. And if you don’t have that D or F, that you have to overcome, it’s a lot easier to persist, not just in your major, but towards graduation, whether you switch majors or stay. And part of me feels like that’s helpful to the student. So in some ways, I like a generous withdrawal policy, I definitely want students to know what the withdrawal policy is, what the deadlines are, so that they can make a good decision.

John: Yeah, the only concern I have with the policy is that it can lead to students making slow progress towards a degree and they could run out of funding before they complete their degrees. But on the other hand, it does provide a bit of a safety net for students who are adjusting. And as our student body has become more diverse, and we have more first-gen students, and we have more students coming from schools that did not prepare people particularly well for a college environment, it provides a safety net, which has allowed students to take some chances early on and not be harmed. And I’ve seen some students struggle in their first year or so, drop classes, and come back and be very successful, when before they might have been deterred from further study in the discipline.

Tisha: I agree, I can see that.

Rebecca: So, definitely one of the things that I’m always thinking about when students are talking about withdrawing is making sure that they know all of the ramifications. So what does it do to your GPA? What does it look like on a transcript? What are the financial implications? …so they can make a well informed decision. And depending on who they’re talking to, they are not necessarily always getting all of the information, and that can be problematic, too.

Tisha: Yes. So I think that points us to the issue of how important advising is, so that there are well informed advisors and that students have access to them, not just at the end when it’s time to register for next semester, but they have a relationship with their advisor, and feel that they can go in and ask those questions, because as John said, a lot of those students can’t go to their parents, they’re first gen, their parents don’t have advice for them. And even if your parents went to college, they don’t necessarily know all of the rules and regulations of the institution that you’re at. It’s really hard, I think, for students to have all the information that’s necessary.

John: I’ve had trouble keeping up to all the changing information [LAUGHTER] over the last few years. In terms of those requirements. You’ve done some work with cooperative learning. Could you talk a little bit about that?

Tisha: Sure. So that really came out of the fact that I had done a lot of efficacy work around classroom experiments. And KimMarie and I are really good friends. She is a cooperative learning expert. So I should say that she is the expert on CL. And she wanted to do an efficacy study, so we decided to team up and do that. So what we did is unlike a lot of some of the other work in efficacy, is that a lot of the work is comparing lecture. So you don’t do anything to this active learning technique. And with cooperative learning, the students are working on exercises. And when we talked about it, we said you know, it’s really not fair, and not even interesting to compare a student who is in a lecture-based class where they don’t get to see any of these problems to students in a cooperative learning class that are working on these problems in class in teams. So we thought a lot about the collaborative learning approach. And we’re trying to isolate what we thought could be the mechanism that might be driving different outcomes. And what we decided was we were going to compare the active team-based learning to individual learning, working on problems. So in our control, the students were exposed to the same problems, they had the same amount of time in class to work the problems as in the treatment, which was the collaborative learning. It’s just that in the treatment, they were working in teams in this think-pair-share share framework, and we didn’t find a significant difference. So at the end, we said that the cooperative component didn’t seem to be driving any difference. Although there are other people who’ve done work comparing collaborative learning to lecture based and they did find significant positive effects from cooperative learning.

John: One type of thing that I’ve done that seems to have been fairly successful is using clicker questions. Following the methodology of Eric Mazur, students are given a challenging question where typically half or so them will get it right the first time when they’re asked individually. But then they get to talk it over with the people around them, preferably someone with a different answer, they get to debate and argue it and I normally see between a 10 and 20 percentage point increase in the correct answer. And the really absurd answers tend to disappear down to about nothing. So that’s not a very formal study, but that second stage of that process where students are engaged in some peer instruction seems to have had a pretty significant impact. And I point that out to students, that when they talk to each other about it and explain it to each other, they do much better than when they’re working on their own. And I encourage them to try doing that outside of class, to work with other students, because there are a variety of studies… I haven’t seen too many in economics, but there are quite a few studies that find that that type of peer instruction, either in the classroom or outside, can be fairly effective.

Tisha: Yeah, so I’ve observed that too. I haven’t used clicker questions, but just going in and observing my colleagues when they teach, and they are using clicker questions. And I have to say, I’m stunned, because I don’t know how the right answer bubbles up as opposed to the person who had the wrong answer convincing the other of the wrong answer. I don’t know how that doesn’t happen. It’s like magic to me, almost. So part of me wants to think a bit more about what is the mechanism and how is that working? That’d be really cool to do a study on that.

Rebecca: One of the things that’s always curious to me about that particular dynamic is sometimes students discover, as they try to explain something to someone else, [LAUGHTER] that they really don’t know what they’re talking about. [LAUGHTER] They realize, huh, I can’t actually explain this concept, so maybe I’m the one that’s not correct. [LAUGHTER]

Tisha: Maybe that is what’s happening. Because everyone always says, “You have to really know your stuff to teach it,” and so if you are trying to explain it to your partner, you do have to know the material.

John: And when they’re raising objections and you don’t have a counter argument, that can help break down your misconceptions, because getting rid of those incorrect perceptions can be as important as trying to build new ones.

Tisha: Yeah, I could see that and maybe the people who are initially giving the wrong answe are just guessing. So maybe they’re not trying to explain and convince their partner of their answer, I guess. I don’t know. So maybe it’s not magic.

Rebecca: [LAUGHTER] Feels like magic.

John: It does. And it works.

Tisha: When I see it happen, it does seem like magic. In general, I think that active learning is helpful, because I think that women are going to be more interested when you show them the applications, and that when you have active learning, there’s some community building that happens. So you’re illustrating relevance, you’re building this community, giving them a sense of belonging in the classroom, which is a lot of what I think actually happens with the experiments. And then actually also with the experiments, they’re kind of discovering some of the theory for themselves, which is a growth mindset. And there is research that shows that if you can show relevance, belonging, and growth mindset, and develop these in your classroom, that students are going to do better, but that it also is more appealing to females and underrepresented minorities.

Rebecca: There’s lots of things for all of us to think about, even if we’re not necessarily in economics classrooms. Definitely good food for thought. Switching gears a little bit. Can you tell us a little bit about your work on the Committee on Economic Education?

Tisha: So I’m not officially on it at the moment, I’m the incoming chair. But I have served on it in the past. And I’ve been shadowing KimMarie McGoldrick, who is the current chair for the last year. So the committee is doing a lot of really great work. I think. When I first served on the committee, we basically just organized sessions for the American Economic Association meetings. And when I say “just” I don’t mean “just…” Compared to now, it’s just but we have, I think, seven sessions that we organize for the meetings every January. But while I was first on the committee, then chair Mike Watts, who was at Purdue, he said,”I have an idea. We should have a conference, so an all economic education conference,” and we started it while he was chair, and it’s CTREE, so the Conference on Teaching and Research in Economic Education. So the committee is in charge of that. It’s every end of May, beginning of June, depending how the calendar falls. So our next CTREE will be in Atlanta, not that far. It’s on the East Coast, maybe you can join us. And it will be May 29 through the 31st of 2024. We have many other things that we also are overseeing: an educate program, which is professional development for college faculty, and that includes two-year college faculty, in course design, different active learning pedagogies, and we talk about how to bring diversity and inclusion into the classroom. KimMarie actually started this this year, we have a newsletter called EconEdNews. And that features different pedagogies, it features the winner of the AEA Distinguished Economic Educator Award, which the committee also oversees, and some centers that we have for Econ Ed across the country… just a lot of information that’s in there, we have two issues a year. So we’ve had our first two, and our next one will come out in March of ‘24. So just a lot of great work, I think, that the committee is doing and I think really thanks to Mike who started us with our own conference. And then Sam Allgood succeeded Mike and added and then KimMarie is an overachiever. And she added a lot more in her six years as the chair.

John: And going back earlier, early surveys of economic instruction suggested that economists were using much more chalk and talk than many other disciplines were using. So these efforts have been fairly important in shifting people away from that. It’s a somewhat overdue change, but it’s nice to see that happening. And I would love to go to CTREE. But there’s two barriers that I’ve run into one is we run a series of workshops here, right around the same time, and the other is I teach at Duke in the summers. So I either am doing workshops here, or I am in North Carolina teaching econometrics now down there, so I haven’t been able to get there. I would love to go to a CTREE meeting.

Rebecca: I think I would have no clue what’s going on if I went. [LAUGHTER]

John: Oh I think you would.

Tisha: I think you would, I think you’d have a nice time. Everyone there is just so lovely and very engaged in teaching, and just really cares about the enterprise.

Rebecca: It’s nice to see education groups out of these professional organizations to really formulate communities of practice around teaching.

Tisha: Yes, I agree. I think economics, unfortunately, was late to the game. But we’re increasingly appreciating the importance and the importance not just of focusing on four-year colleges, but two-year colleges. So going back to the point of diversity, and the lack thereof in the discipline, the students in four-year colleges that I’ve worked with have predominantly still been very much what economists already looked like. And if we really want to improve the diversity in economics, I think we need to reach down to the high schools to the two-year colleges, and make economics more interesting and accessible.

Rebecca: We always wrap up by asking: “What’s next?”

Tisha: There’s lots of things. I guess, with regard to the committee, I’m hoping to just kind of not start anything new in my first term, and keep everything running as well as KimMarie has it now. But then for my own research, I am really interested now in looking at comparing pedagogies. So it’s been a lot of efficacy work looking at a particular pedagogy compared to sort of the standard chalk and talk. But now, how do they compare to each other? Is there a better pedagogy for students? And my first study, and I have the data, so I just have to start working on it will compare experiments to cooperative learning. And I told KimMarie, if experiments lose, then she won’t hear any more about this. I won’t write it up. I won’t talk about it. Because I don’t want to say that experiments lose, but no, I mean, seriously, that’s the next thing that’s first on the agenda. But also, I have a deep interest in diversity questions. KimMarie and I with Scott Simkins have a paper looking at HBCUs compared to PWIs and the study of economics there. And that was inspired by some work that showed that HBCUs contributed disproportionately to the STEM pipeline. And since economics is part of STEM, we thought, “Well, that should be true for economics as well.” So we did some work in that area. And we show that there are some positive contributions from HBCUs to the economic pipeline. But I think there’s a lot more to do there. So I would like to dig down in that. I’ve heard a lot of people at HBCUs talk about secret sauce, and I want to learn what that is. And not just at HBCUs but look at MSIs as well, more generally. And I do want to look at some questions at two-year colleges, so that’s for the next five to 10 years…

Rebecca: You’re going to be busy. [LAUGHTER]

John: For those who aren’t familiar with the terms PWI are predominantly white institutions and MSI are minority serving institutions.

Tisha: That’s correct.

John: Those terms are becoming more and more common, but just to make sure all of our listeners are familiar. Okay, well, thank you. It’s great talking to you, and it’s nice meeting you. And we will keep trying to get KimMarie McGoldrick on the podcast. I’ve been asking her for about four years. She’s been a little resistant, but we’ll see if we can get her here in the future. Well, thank you.

Tisha: Thank you so much. I hope you have a good afternoon.

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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.

Ganesh: Editing assistance by Ganesh.

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315. Unessays

An unessay assignment provides students an opportunity to demonstrate their learning in innovative and creative ways. In this episode, Jessamyn Neuhaus and Maggie Schmuhl join us to discuss how they have employed unessay assignments in their courses.

Jessamyn is the Director of the SUNY Plattsburgh Center for Teaching Excellence and a Professor in the History Department at SUNY Plattsburgh. She is the author of Geeky Pedagogy: a Guide for Intellectuals, Introverts, and Nerds Who Want to be Effective Teachers. She is the editor of Picture a Professor: Interrupting Biases about Faculty and Increasing Student Learning. Maggie is an Associate Professor of Criminal Justice and the Associate Director of the Center for Excellence in Learning and Teaching at SUNY-Oswego.

Show Notes

  • Neuhaus, J. (2019). Geeky Pedagogy: A guide for intellectuals, introverts, and nerds who want to be effective teachers. Morgantown, WV, USA: West Virginia University Press.
  • Neuhaus, J. (2022). Picture a Professor: Interrupting Biases about Faculty and Increasing Student Learning. West Virginia University Press.
  • Neuhaus, J. (editor) (2022). Using the Unessay to Teach History. Teaching History: A Journal of Methods. Vol. 47. No. 1.
  • Cavanagh, S. R. (2023). Mind over Monsters: Supporting Youth Mental Health with Compassionate Challenge. Beacon Press.
  • Jessamyn’s American Promise Unessay Assignment
  • Pittman, Chavella (2022). “Strategizing for Success: Women Faculty of Color Navigating Teaching Inequities in Higher Ed” in Picture a Professor: Interrupting Biases about Faculty and Increasing Student Learning. Ed. by Jessamyn Neuhaus. West Virginia University Press.
  • Pittman, Chavella (2023). Navigating Teaching Inequities. Tea for Teaching Podcast. Episode 291. May 31.
  • POD Network Conference
  • Teaching, Engaging, and Thriving in Higher Education Series. University of Oklahoma Press.
  • American Historical Association Annual Meetings

Transcript

John: An unessay assignment provides students an opportunity to demonstrate their learning in innovative and creative ways. In this episode, we explore ways in which different faculty have employed unessay assignments in their courses

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

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Rebecca: Our guests today are Jessamyn Neuhaus and Maggie Schmuhl. Jessamyn is the Director of the SUNY Plattsburgh Center for Teaching Excellence and a Professor in the History Department at SUNY Plattsburgh. She is the author of Geeky Pedagogy: a Guide for Intellectuals, Introverts, and Nerds Who Want to be Effective Teachers. She is the editor of Picture a Professor: Interrupting Biases about Faculty and Increasing Student Learning. Maggie is an Associate Professor of Criminal Justice and the Associate Director of the Center for Excellence in Learning and Teaching at SUNY-Oswego. Welcome back, Jessamyn and Maggie.

Maggie: Hello.

Jessamyn: Hi. Thanks for having me.

Maggie: Good to be here.

John: Our teas today are:… Jessamyn, are you drinking any tea?

Jessamyn: I am. In preparation for this very question, I’m drinking a wild sweet orange.

Maggie: Oooh.

Rebecca: Sounds nice.

Maggie: That sounds very fall. I am drinking a bread pudding tea. It’s a black tea from a little tea shop in Sacketts Harbor.

Rebecca: That’s a first on our podcast for sure.

Maggie: I think it’s called Tea Thyme, the little shop. It’s quite lovely.

Rebecca: Nice. I have Irish breakfast this morning. So we’ve invited you both here today to discuss unessay assignments. Could you tell us a bit about what an essay is?

Maggie: I guess I’ll say an unessay is anything but an essay. Jessamyn probably has some more nuance? [LAUGHTER]

Jessamyn: Not really, that is the basic premise. In classes where you might traditionally ask students to show their learning via a standard essay, either like the five-paragraph essay or a research paper, an unessay project asks students to demonstrate their learning, increased understanding, via any other kind of format.

Rebecca: Jessamyn, can you tell us a little bit about why you decided to use unessays in your class?

Jessamyn: Sure. And this also relates to… I know, we were maybe going to talk about what was appealing for historians, in particular, about the unessay. And some points for history professors generally and me, what attracted us to considering using the unessay. A couple of things about our discipline: first, that the unessay, it’s a good way for students to explore some key historical thinking skills in different new ways for them, so things like citation, research, and historiography. So trying to understand what other historians have written and argued about the past. There’s also been a pretty significant sort of public history turn in the world at large, like trying to better understand different audiences for historical research. Some other more general reasons were issues of equity and inclusion, especially around Universal Design for Learning, trying to offer students some options as a way to increase their learning, increase engagement. And the final thing I’ll say, just for me personally, is that I wanted to make assessment and grading a more joyful and happy part of my teaching life. It had really started to drag me down. And I didn’t want to approach assessing student learning as a soul sucking slog, not just for personal reasons, but also that it was interfering with my ability to accurately assess. If I was absolutely dreading reading a stack of essays, then something was amiss, and I wasn’t going to be able to, in my view, really accurately assess what has this student achieved.

Rebecca: About you, Maggie?

Maggie: I think really a lot of what Jessamyn said echoes in the reasons I decided to incorporate the unessay in my classroom. I was actually inspired by a talk that Jessamyn gave to our faculty, I guess it was over a year ago now, about the unessay and I immediately thought of my senior seminar class. So in criminal justice, in our department particularly, it was common for students to write a 20- or 30-page long research paper, and they dreaded it. It was a source of anxiety for students. It was something in the end that I’m not entirely certain they felt proud of. They just were trying really hard to get the A in the class, to make it perfect, to spend lots of late nights trying to perfect this project and I don’t think it brought about the kind of learning gains that I was hoping to see with my students, it seemed like there was a lot of going through the motions. And the unessay just gave us an opportunity to really turn that on its head and give some of that autonomy back to students and some of that creativity back to learning.

Rebecca: I’m loving these themes of joy, creativity…

John: …which are not terms we often associate with either writing papers as students or with grading them as faculty, and Jessamyn, you were the editor of a fall 2022 issue of Teaching History that focused on unessays. Could you tell us a little bit about ways in which you and other historians have been using them in your classes… some examples of ways in which students have demonstrated their knowledge?

Jessamyn: Sure, and I’ll just give a little promo here, Teaching History: A Journal of Methods is an open access journal. So you can just Google Teaching History: A Journal of Methods, and it’ll take you to the open access platform. It’s hosted by Ball State University. And so that issue is still totally available for anyone interested in reading it. I would say, like some specific projects that were explored in that issue, there was an article about using maps as historical documents, there were a number of projects that were exploring how to present history and historical thinking in a public history setting. So along the lines of museum exhibits, and especially in a digital format, the upsurge in digital humanities is something several of the authors were looking at. And then there’s a whole range of examples that were discussed in the two interviews I did for everything from board games, to graphic novels, to quilt, to the annotated recipes. All those were discussed in that issue.

Rebecca: What are some specific projects, Jessamyn, that you’ve done in your classes,

Jessamyn: A couple that have come up that I used… it’s interesting… Maggie used the unessay with her senior students. And I have helped students in the history department here, they also have to do a major research project. And I’ve been the advisor on a number of non-traditional projects is what I called them at the time, and now would say unessay. So at the senior levels, students did major research projects, like a fictional interview with a historical figure, historical fiction would be another example. I’ve had a couple of students do online exhibits and one person do an in-person exhibit. But I also use the unessay assignment in my intro level class, which is a basic history survey class. And those projects ranged from again, the board game, I had a number of posters, I had one student who was a trained professional baker do a set of cookies with icing, comparing different protest movements, the Bonus Army March in the 1930s with the more recent climate change activism. And one of my very favorites was a video recording that a student did, showing step by step how she made a family recipe. And since the theme of the class was the American Promise, and the way that throughout our history, as a nation, we’ve struggled to achieve the ideals of equality and liberty for all. And we get closer and we fall short. And her recipe was from her family’s background from India. And she took us step by step through it. She had music playing and was describing the importance of this particular dish in her own family history. The unessay was encouraging them to see their location in the American Promise. And it really struck me, in my previous life as a historian of food and food waste. So that was interesting. But most striking to me was, this was a student who had been very, very quiet in class. I felt like I didn’t know her very well. She was doing great work, but she was sort of on the edge of things it seemed like, and with this unessay, it completely changed my perception of her. I felt like I got to know her so much better and so did the other students as well. Having students share their unessays is an important part of the work and It really changed just the whole classroom dynamic in that way. So that was really notable.

Maggie: Nice.

John: Maggie, what are some of the projects that your students have done as unessay assignments?

Maggie: Yeah, so I mentioned before that I assigned the unessay for my senior seminar class. So it’s a sort of capstone project. And there were some really awesome projects that came out of this and I probably don’t have time to talk about all of them. So cut me off at some point when I’ve been going on for too long. But I had a student who wanted to be a elementary school teacher, and had gone through our program and decided that being a practitioner in the field of criminal justice was not exactly where they wanted to be. And so his project was to create lesson plans for second graders to communicate some of the harms of incarceration and how it affects youth when their parents or caregivers are incarcerated. And so it was a really wonderful project, all the students had worksheets, kind of like you can think about having when you were in second grade, and little matching puzzles and games, and it was a really cool experience. And for him getting interested in a master’s of education program, it was a way that he could then take that project and show to his grad school applications and advisors, like, “Hey, this is something that I’m really passionate about. I’ve been working towards this. And yeah, it was a lot of fun.” We had a good time, even some spelling words thrown in there. [LAUGHTER] It was great. Another student project was a choose your own adventure story. There’s various examples of this. But in my youth, it was the Goosebumps choose your own adventure where you read to a certain part in the story, and then it gives you the option of what you want your protagonist to choose. And then you have to flip to a different area of the book and see the fate of that character. And so the students started a really great project, unfortunately, didn’t get to finish it for various reasons, but started a really great project about reentry. And so the main character was someone who was being released from prison and had to navigate all of the barriers and circumstances around reentry that made it difficult for him to assimilate back into society. So that was a big fan favorite amongst the class. They really enjoyed that. Of course, we also had some board games, one in particular, was a monopoly game that examines varying socioeconomic status, and how that influences someone’s path through the criminal justice system. So the players started off with different amounts of money. And as they would pull community cards and have to purchase property and such, they would be challenged to need to pay a particular court fine, and how that would set them back from being able to find a job. It was a very well thought out game of Monopoly. But the goal to show and highlight the inequalities related to income and how that affects criminal justice processing. I could probably keep going, but it really gave a lot of opportunities for students to combine what they were interested in. There was a student who had run their own podcast for a period of time. So she conducted a podcast series on Amber Alerts and their effectiveness. And it was something that when she had been traveling down to Texas, and had received a number of Amber Alerts in the short time that she was there, she was like, “Are these things really working? And how can I explore that through a medium that she was already quite drawn to?”

Rebecca: Unessays always sound like so much fun?

Maggie: Yeah. And they’re fun for us. I know Jessamyn touched on that, too. It’s a whole different experience as someone assessing the work that they’re doing when you know that they’re passionate about it. And it gets me excited about assessment, which I don’t think is something we can typically say.

Rebecca: There’s not a big line of faculty raising flags saying assessment is fun.

Maggie: Right. [LAUGHTER]

Jessamyn: I also wanted to follow up on a point Maggie’s touched on a couple times about student autonomy and agency. I think for both our student populations, this is a really key academic, professional, and personal skill that many of our students need to build, that they arrive to college with a sense of themselves as very passive recipients of education and have not had the opportunity to really see themselves as producers of knowledge. as having agency in academic settings. So for me, one of the great glories of the unessay, is that it’s starting point really is, what do you want to do? What do you want to do to demonstrate that you understand this topic, and for a lot of students, it’s scary at first. A few might think that you’re trying to trick them. And I know this was something we did want to talk about. It does require, on our part, a fair amount of structuring and transparency and communication with students, maybe even especially the highest achieving students. One of my favorite students of all time went on to become a high school social studies teacher. And she did a fantastic job in the intro class with the unessay and then told me like a year later, “You know, I hated that assignment when I did it.” And it was because she was very, very nervous. She was a straight A student who was really nervous about doing something different. But she said, “Now, it’s my favorite, looking back.” So providing that structure and support and transparency, a lot of careful thought on the front end.

John: And one of the things we’ve been talking about in one of our reading groups, Mind over Monsters this semester, at both of our institutions, is the importance of autonomy, in terms of increasing student motivation and giving them more sense of control. It sounds like it’s really helpful in motivating students.

Jessamyn: Yeah, I think so. In both of our disciplines, criminal justice and history, there is a major learning curve to helping students see themselves as having agency in this particular discipline, especially the way they may have interacted with it before. And for me, coming from a lot of their previous experiences with history has been learning what happened and not actually doing history or thinking about those processes and the unessay could really help them move towards that particular desirable learning outcome.

Rebecca: I think one of the challenges that faculty who have been engaged in unessays before see before they enter in is the complexity of having students doing many different kinds of things at one time and managing those projects and also assessing those projects. Can you talk a little bit about how you help provide that structure for yourselves and for students?

Maggie: Yeah, so for my criminal justice class, I spent a lot of time the summer before I implemented this project, creating very detailed instructions and expectations. Jessamyn, I went to your website, and I use some of the self assessment tools, and I adapted them for my class as well. It was a very mindful process to think about how to give students the structure they need to feel confident in their ability to carry out this project, but also give them enough flexibility and creativity to take this project where they want it to be. I also spend a lot of time reading about different alternative grading practices to also incorporate in this, so I use kind of a combination of ungrading and specifications grading as well to help students assess their work. And I met with students quite often throughout the semester, particularly we had a midterm and a final exam meeting where we talked about the strengths of their projects, where they needed to go and what areas they needed to work on, whether it was engaging more deeply in the research and how to communicate that effectively in their projects. It was a lot of work for the faculty, but it was worth it in my opinion. It wasn’t so onerous and it wasn’t boring. It was exciting to meet with students, even if it meant spending my entire midterm week in the office with the students. It was almost every minute of my day for an entire week doing this, but it was, I think, a unique opportunity for making those connections with my students.

Jessamyn: I have been lucky. I have a relatively light teaching load and small classes. So that did make a difference in how I thought about structuring and implementing the unessay. There would be challenges on a larger scale. I would also say that there’s components of the unessay, that it’s not just do anything you want, and then nothing, and then in the end they turn in something. No, there’s stages and components like usually a proposal process and I also was able to meet with students. You could meet with students in small groups as well, if it’s a larger size class to go over the proposals, and many unessay assignments also do have a written component like a bibliography, an intro. At the midterm and end there could be a reflective assignment or sort of summary of work achieved. I did co-create with students the assessment guidelines for their projects. So taking the autonomy and agency a step further, I didn’t leave it totally up to them, we worked together on it, but asked them, “So this is your idea, this is the project you have in mind. How will it show these important skills? How will it show that you’ve met these course learning objectives?” And we work together on it. And that part is always great for me, I just really enjoy trying to de-center myself a little bit as the instructor which again, is something I can do from a place of certain privileges. I have tenure, I’m white, I’m cisgendered. But trying to enlist students as partners more, decentering myself a little bit, and asking them to reflect on what would show that you have achieved this learning outcome with this unessay assignment. A nice bonus is always students, at least one student, will say this is so hard, teaching must be really, really hard. [LAUGHTER] So bringing them in on that assessment process can help them even reflect on what does grading and assessment mean? What would show me that you’ve successfully achieved this learning, this desirable outcome?

John: Do either of you use rubrics for the unessay assignments?

Jessamyn: Well, when I co-created assessment guidelines with students, some of them used a rubric form. A lot of my students found rubrics helpful for things like deadlines. And I did set deadlines for certain benchmarks. And that was something that was easy to map out and help them structure their work time and stay on track as well.

Maggie: Yeah, I created a checklist with that self assessment that was on Jessamyn’s website, geekypedagogy.com. I did have students go through that and rate themselves, and then we got together in a meeting to discuss where we felt the accuracy of each of those points. But I think it gave them some comfort in saying, “Okay, I know I did multiple revisions of this, and I incorporated all of the feedback I was given. And here’s the changes I’ve made, or here’s the areas that I think I probably could have done better, or I could have focused my time a little bit better in this way.” And it just gave them, I think, a nice guideline to be able to talk about the strengths and areas of improvement for their project.

Jessamyn: I’ve used rubrics before, when I was co-creating the assessments. That’s fine with me, if that’s what they want to use. I will say that this part of it, while being very cognizant, like I said, of my own privileges and positionality and aware of that, your teaching context can really shape what kinds of assessments you can implement, for sure. But I also think that it’s at least worth considering the idea of our academic egos and our investment in our discipline and expertise. And what the unessay may challenge us to do is let go of the thing we know how to do absolutely better than anything in the world. So as a historian, a trained historian, I know how to assess student writing better than any other task I do as a teacher. I know so much about it. And it’s easy for me to do, not joyful, [LAUGHTER] but not difficult. It doesn’t push me to think about anything outside my comfort zone. And when I assign an unessay, I have to let go of that and think about things differently. And again, keeping in mind that I know bandwidth is limited, the incredible pressure on a lot of people in the pandemic pivot and for all various reasons, our limited energy, it might be too big an ask, too big a lift. But I would encourage listeners, if it’s possible, to consider maybe it’s not about me. [LAUGHTER] It’s not about us, and what makes us most comfortable as the person with the PhD in the room. That being a little uncertain. how can I assess did students meet this learning outcome with a quilt, with a board game, with a podcast, that it’s okay for us to feel a little bit discomforted. That’s about maybe getting out of the students way a little bit.

Rebecca: When I hear folks talk about unessays, both of you as well as others that I’ve heard talk about unessays, I see a big emphasis on process and the behaviors of a discipline, rather than necessarily the outcomes of something. So often in a research paper, we might assess on some of the polish of something like that, rather than really seeing always the process that goes into the thinking. But I feel like a lot of times with these projects, you end up knowing a lot more about a student’s thinking, because you’re talking with them about their projects in an ongoing way. Can you talk a little bit about that process piece with unessays?

Jessamyn: Well, one thing that jumped into my mind, Rebecca, when you were asking your question is writing a thesis statement for a research paper. Now, this happens to be something I’m incredibly good at helping students do, crafting their thesis statement. But, just like you described, it’s often so much about the academic writing skill that I’m helping them with, and when they have to write a thesis statement for the research paper they’re working on, that’s a great skill to have, if you’re going to be an academic. If you are engaging in scholarly writing, you have to know how to do that. And for a few students, that’s important. And that’s not like written communication skill. I’m talking about the highly academic scholarly skill of summarizing the argument you’re about to make in a paper. So for students who want to go on to be graduate students, I’m all in. We’re going to sit and we’re gonna go through this word by ever loving word to figure out the best way to state your argument. For a lot of my students, though, is that the best investment of their time, and the best way I can help them? There might be other ways to, just like you said, have them articulate and demonstrate their thinking, which, and I’ll just throw it out here in the age of generative AI and ChatGPT, this is at the heart of how we help students navigate is their original ideas really matter, their ideas, and their thinking matters. So if I can support a student being able to demonstrate their thinking and ideas in a way that matters to them, that they feel articulate doing, then, mission accomplished. That’s what I want. That’s what I want for students.

Maggie: Yeah, and I would say that, in my class, the 20- to 30-page research paper does serve students who are going to go on to graduate school. But like said, I don’t know if that is the best way to help them make the connection between what we’re doing in the classroom to what they are going to be doing on a regular basis in their various careers that they find themselves in. I wanted to make this project less about a means to an end for them, I wanted them to really think about how they start with an idea and how if they spend enough time thinking about that idea, and really focusing on how to communicate that expertise that they gained throughout the research on this idea, that they can create something that they’re proud of and they are hopefully less focused on the grade at the end of the semester and more focused on “Okay, I was actually able to start in one place, develop that project, develop this in a way that I can now go to my future employer or in an interview and say that I’ve developed these skills along the way that are mine and mine alone. They’re not ones that have been imposed on me by an instructor.”

John: We have increasingly diverse student bodies in terms of their prior preparation. Some have come through and had lots of practice writing throughout their high school careers and have developed those skills, others haven’t had as much preparation in writing. And we have lots of courses, though, that give them that but writing skills are not always one of the most important learning objectives for many of our classes. And it seems to me that perhaps using unessays can help provide a more equal playing field for students who may not have as strong of writing skills, but might be fairly comfortable creating videos or might be able to engage in some other creative activity that can demonstrate what they learned much more effectively than if they were constrained to having to do it in a written format.

Maggie: Well, I would say that was my experience for sure. I had a group of students make a series of TikTok videos and so they were quite excited about their ability to use something that they are on almost every day, if not every hour of their day, to use that as a platform to communicate the time topics that they were most interested in. And so it did mean that I had to learn a little bit about TikTok, I had to create a profile so I could follow my students and be able to see the videos that they had created. There’s an up voting system, too, I had to navigate [LAUGHTER] but yeah, in terms of equity, it does give students the ability to make decisions about how to present information in ways that they’re comfortable, but still challenging. I think that no matter what mediums students picked, it was challenging regardless. So it didn’t feel like students were just picking something that “Oh, well, I do this all the time.” It really was a strong motivator. And I think in a lot of the conversations we’ve been having in our reading groups about how to channel anxiety about something into a more direct way to accomplish a challenging task. I think it gave even students who are perhaps underprepared for academic writing, or find a lot of anxiety around that to shift their focus away from what they envision that they struggle with to then start in a place of, “Oh, I know I can do this, and I can communicate it in this way.” So I think it gave them some of that confidence back, that perhaps they find disappears when we impose a pretty lengthy paper or academic medium on them.

Jessamyn: There’s two aspects of the unessay and equity minded teaching I’ve been thinking of. One is the universal design for learning concept of providing some choice. It doesn’t have to be unlimited, it doesn’t have to be infinite choice. But providing some choice does increase accessibility. The second kind of key equity minded principle I have in mind with the unessay is that we should not be grading and assessing people’s life circumstances, we are grading and assessing their learning and their ability to show that they have reached certain benchmarks and outcomes. Just to put it in here as a caveat, I do think all kinds of writing is very, very important. Writing skills are very, very important. And a lot of the unessay assignment as I use it does include some clear written communication, because that is a skill we need in this world of ours. So the equity piece comes in though, that if I’m going to be assigning a grade assessing student writing, then it’s on me as the instructor to teach that and create the conditions in the classroom, the practice and the feedback, and more practice and making mistakes, and more feedback to do that writing piece. And if I’m taking into account the wide variety of academic backgrounds, what needs to happen in the course, for students to be able to demonstrate their learning accurately via a written essay, that’s a lot of writing work that I’m going to be doing to provide that equitable classroom. So the unessay as an option, that’s something a lot of people do offer the unessay as an option alongside a traditional essay option, the unessay as an option could increase equity in that way. I think it does convey the idea that our diversity is an academic asset. That all said, it’s interesting that the unessay could also exacerbate inequities without structure, without support. Students who have had very rich and varied past educational experiences may leap at the opportunity and see it just solely in terms of its benefits. Other students with less of that in their background might be extremely nervous about it as a whole new frontier for them. So without some structure, transparency, without all that prep work, Maggie, that you were describing, it could actually exacerbate some of those inequities.

John: And I think the scaffolding that you both described is really important in relieving some of that uncertainty, because I know some students when I’ve given similar types of assignments are really anxious about it and letting them do it a little step at a time and master that step seems to help relieve the pressure on them by just reducing the uncertainty.

Maggie: I know one of the things I incorporated in the project, and I think Jessamyn did this as well, that I gave students unlimited rewrites on any of the written work. So I did have a bibliography and I did have a proposal and a sort of artist’s statement reflection at the end of it. I think, again, I took that from geerkypedagogy[.com] and I gave students the opportunity to just keep rewriting and rewriting. And yes, it was a bit more work on my end. But it was so refreshing that students were actually taking my feedback into their work and they were making improvements. I think that whenever I’ve done drafts in the past, they might go through and make just the easy corrections and leave some of the harder things aside. But in this project, because we started a lot of those elements very early in the semester, we spend weeks and weeks just revising. And it really did give students, I think, a opportunity to make sure they fully were understanding and achieving those outcomes.

Jessamyn: Yeah, that point Maggie about your feedback actually being read and applied is so important for students and for faculty. It’s discouraging and disheartening to provide students a ton of feedback and then feel like it hasn’t been read. It’s up to us, though, to provide the opportunity for students to apply the feedback. If it can’t be applied, it’s very difficult to take it seriously [LAUGHTER] and to see it as meaningful and relevant. And I think another aspect of what you are describing that listeners might be interested in… if we haven’t totally convinced you yet [LAUGHTER] to use the unessay… is that it does get students’ attention, it cuts through the static. We get into a routine we’re just trying to get through, check that box for students who are overworked, overloaded, for whatever reason. I really feel like it kind of cuts through a fog that many of us, students and faculty, are in just by asking us to do something a little bit different.

Rebecca: Sometimes in those cases, and you guys have alluded to this before, that doing something different if they’ve not done it before, is risky and scary. And so all that scaffolding that you’ve built described as so important for students to be able to take that first risk and maybe take other academic risks in the future.

Jessamyn: Yeah, we can’t underestimate the impact of our traditional grading systems and traditional school systems where the stakes are sky high. You can’t overestimate them, financial aid, everything, is so tied to a student’s GPA, their families support, staying in school is often tied to GPA, their own sense of their selves as students, who they are, is defined by the grade they get. So asking them to, Rebecca, like you said, consider the process, not the end point. It is a big ask. So we can’t expect instant student buy-in, that they will immediately jump on board and with ease and joy, even if we are feeling that way about it.

John: So it sounds like it’s been a lot more fun, even though it may sometimes take more work for both of you. How have students responded? You’ve mentioned a little bit about student responses. But how do students generally respond at the end of the semester? Is it something that they find to be equally joyful?

Maggie: Jessamyn touched on this, but there was a bit of student buy-in that I had to get. And there were a couple of students who still wanted to write a traditional research paper. But in the end, they did a podcast element as well with it. So it was the sort of combination of the two, but it was the first time I had ever implemented an unessay in my classes. So I didn’t have a lot of student examples to show them. But I did spend a lot of time creating my own examples of what an unessay would look like. And I think for each of those scaffolded assignments I created a bibliography and a presentation and I tried to create an unessay myself so that they could see what it would look like. I think that gave them a little more confidence in knowing what was expected of them. But really, it took a lot of conversations with students on why I was doing this, what I thought the importance of shifting away from a traditional research paper, what gains they were going to have from that, and every student, at least to my knowledge, really enjoyed the process and much preferred the unessay over their 20- to 30-page research papers.

Jessamyn: The student resistance you just mentioned, Maggie, reminds me that I mentioned teaching context before, but it is important to underscore that any non-traditional teaching and learning practice and assessment, you can expect greater student resistance or reluctance when you quote unquote don’t look like a professor. So when you don’t fulfill the stereotype of what a professor looks like, if you’re navigating any kinds of intersectional biases, you may have to take into account the student resistance component and student biases. It’s a point that Chavella Pittman has emphasized for like an ungraded practice, that it’s very important to take those considerations into account. I will add that the biggest benefit besides my own grading joy is what I see… it’s extremely hard to measure… I couldn’t put it on my end-of-the-year file assessments of my own teaching, but students gain confidence, students gain some agency, some autonomy. I can see it in how they talk about it. If you can have a showcase or a gallery walk, you can see that they are proud of what they have achieved. When we’re doing senior presentations, that’s always very clear, like students’ sense of accomplishment is very notable. And it’s not that that doesn’t happen with the research papers. Well, it can, but the range of students who express and demonstrate to me that they’ve gained some confidence in themselves as students, as thinkers, as knowledge generators, as producers, it’s really heartening.

Rebecca: So we always wrap up by asking what’s next? Jessamyn, you want to go first?

Jessamyn: I’m headed to the POD Network Conference. I’m gonna do a session, with Chavella Pittman and Thomas Tobin, on faculty development that acknowledges teaching inequities. And I am working on a book on teaching and learning when things go wrong in the college classroom, and I just recently signed a contract for that book with the new series at University of Oklahoma press called Teaching, Engaging, and Thriving in Higher Education.

John: Maggie and I will both be at POD and will try to get to your session. And we’re looking forward to that book.

Maggie: I suppose what’s next for me feels like such a loaded question right now because I’m anticipating applying for a sabbatical. And so I’ve been really ruminating on this question of what is next for me. I’m entering into a mid-career stage, and so I feel like my answer is “I’m not quite sure yet.” But as far as the unessay goes, I do plan on bringing the unessay to my courses next semester. I’m teaching two elective courses on death penalty, and women and crime. And I think really any course, but particularly these courses, would be well suited for an unessay project.

Jessamyn: That reminds me, I am lucky enough, I’m going to be going to the American Historical Association Conference this spring and doing a workshop on the unessay, so any historians listening, I hope I see you there.

John: And we will include links to Teaching History, to that specific volume, as well as to the other resources that have been mentioned here. So check the show notes to find more of those resources. And thank you both for joining us again.

Maggie: Thank you so much.

Jessamyn: Thank you.

Rebecca: It’s always wonderful to talk to both of you

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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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314. Handbook of Online Higher Ed

Since its start in the late 1990s, asynchronous online instruction has spread throughout the world and has been the subject of extensive experimentation and study. In this episode, Safary Wa-Mbaleka, Kelvin Thompson, and Leni Casimiro join us to discuss their new handbook that examines effective practices in online learning from a global perspective.

Safary is an Associate Professor of Leadership in Higher Education at Bethel University in St. Paul, Minnesota. He has authored and co-authored more than 40 scholarly journal articles and more than 20 books and book chapters. Kelvin is the Vice Provost for Online Strategy and Teaching Innovation at the University of Louisville. Kelvin developed the BlendKit Course open courseware as part of the Blended Learning Toolkit, and he co-hosts TOPcast: The Teaching Online Podcast. Leni is a Professor of Education, the Associate Dean of the AIIAS Graduate School and Chair of its Education Department and the Director of AIIAS Online, the virtual campus of the Adventist International Institute of Advanced Studies (AIIAS) in the Philippines. Kelvin, and Leni are frequent invited speakers on topics related to online instruction. They are the co-editors of The Sage Handbook of Online Higher Education.

Show Notes

Transcript

John: Since its start in the late 1990s, asynchronous online instruction has spread throughout the world and has been the subject of extensive experimentation and study. In this episode, we discuss a new handbook that examines effective practices in online learning from a global perspective.

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

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John: Our guests today are Safary Wa-Mbaleka, Kelvin Thompson, and Leni Casimiro. Safary is an Associate Professor of Leadership in Higher Education at Bethel University in St. Paul, Minnesota. He has authored and co-authored more than 40 scholarly journal articles and more than 20 books and book chapters. Kelvin is the Vice Provost for Online Strategy and Teaching Innovation at the University of Louisville. Kelvin developed the BlendKit Course open courseware as part of the Blended Learning Toolkit, and he co-hosts TOPcast: The Teaching Online Podcast. Leni is a Professor of Education, the Associate Dean of the AIIAS Graduate School and Chair of its Education Department and the Director of AIIAS Online, the virtual campus of the Adventist International Institute of Advanced Studies (AIIAS) in the Philippines. Kelvin, and Leni are frequent invited speakers on topics related to online instruction. They are the co-editors of The Sage Handbook of Online Higher Education, which we’ll be talking about today. Welcome Safary and Leni and welcome back, Kelvin.

Safary: Thank you.

Leni: Thank you.

Kelvin: Good to be here.

Safary: A pleasure to be here.

Rebecca: Today’s teas are? Safary, are you drinking tea?

Safary: I’m having water this morning.

Rebecca: A key ingredient to tea it might add. [LAUGHTER]

Rebecca: How about you, Leni?

Leni: I used green tea, particularly this Japanese matcha. [LAUGHTER]

Rebecca: Nice. How about you, Kelvin?

Kelvin: I have deconstructed tea. That’s also called water.

Rebecca: [LAUGHTER] Popular globally.

John: And speaking of globally, Rebecca and I are both drinking Moon Bird tea, which is a gift from one of our listeners in France who sent this to us a few weeks ago. So again…

Safary: Wow.

John: …thank you, Myriam.

Rebecca: Yeah, it has a nice hint of pear and elderflower.

John: …which is also a green tea.

Rebecca: Yeah.

John: We’ve invited you here today to discuss the SAGE Handbook of Online Higher Education. Could you tell us a bit about the origin of this book project?

Safary: The origin of this project is actually something that has to do with me having worked with Kelvin several years ago at the University of Central Florida. And right after that, I decided to work in the Philippines and that’s where I met with Leni Casimiro and we worked together. And at both institutions, we were working with online education. And eventually I was transferred to work for two years in Kenya. During the COVID-19. I happened to be in Kenya, and I quickly saw the great need of people wanting to have online education. The resources went up in the place. The things were scattered all over the place. And immediately the idea came that we needed a project that captured the whole world because now this was a worldwide phenomenon, it was no longer something peculiar to Kenya or Philippines or U.S., the whole world was in need of a tool like this. And that’s how I reached out to Kelvin and to Leni.. Thankfully, they both agreed to be part of the project. And I think, from my perspective, that’s where it came from. I don’t know about them… how they think about this? [LAUGHTER]

Leni: Well, for me, it’s really a big project that we did, combining the different parts of the world. You see where Kelvin comes from, representing the West, I represent the opposite, the East. And although Safary comes from the East as well, but he can represent the African continent. And so this really makes the book a global project, really a blend of different perspectives. And so I can say that online learning is represented all over the world in this particular book. And this is indeed, a big surprise to all the readers and a big discovery for everyone.

John: Speaking of readers, what is the intended audience of this book?

Kelvin: Well, I mean, honestly, I would say anyone, anywhere, around the whole planet, who in any way touches online or digital education, should access this book. It’s great for libraries and institutions to acquire and be in their communities. It’s a big book. There’s stuff in there for everybody. So I think it’s a great resource.

Rebecca: Speaking of the size of the book, the handbook contains 50 chapters. Can you talk about how you selected those chapters?

Kelvin: I think the scope and the sequence and the layout of the chapters and the sections sources originally to Safary’s proposal with the publisher, but it was intended to be rather comprehensive with sections like fundamentals and student support and administration and instructional design, instructional delivery, regional specifics, particular regions around the world, and how online education might differ a little bit in, say, the African context versus the European context. But over time, as we were recruiting authors, and as the writing process started, you get a little bit of evolution, the sections might morph a little bit, the distinctives of a given chapter might adjust based on interest and specializations of the authors. So that’s a little bit of the insight into the evolution. But I credit Safary for the vision, which I would say, is probably about 80 plus percent of what he originally had envisioned in the layout. That’s my guess. Safary, would you agree with that?

Safary: Yeah, the thing is that, when you work on a huge book like this, especially a handbook for Sage, they want to have the complete plan when you submit your proposal. Before I can get my co-editors to agree with me, they need to have kind of ideas, okay, this is what I have in mind. So usually, when I work on a handbook like this, I come up with a rough draft. And Kelvin and Leni were very good in catching certain things that I wouldn’t have caught because of their expertise, their experience, and their regions that they represent. And so in the end, what we have here is a product of the Table of Contents was really the product of these three brains that are speaking today.

Leni: I really liked the way Safary has chosen the chapters of this book. Well, we can say that he really originated the choice of these chapters. As you can see, from the perspective of a reader, when you look at the content, you can look in the sequencing, and you will find that you are actually looking into the step-by-step development, or the step-by-step process of engaging in online education. I will say it’s almost like a manual, almost every step that you will go through in undertaking online education in your institution is covered in this book. That’s why it’s really a very important book for every school to have.

John: We had some challenges coming up with a brief intro for each of you, because each of you has done so much with online education in many different roles in many different places. But you also have an editorial board for this book, which is a little bit different than many other books that we’ve seen in terms of handbooks. What was the role of the editorial board in putting this handbook together?

Safary: Yes, we had an editorial board. When you have a project of this magnitude, it is really important to have experts from different parts, especially at the global perspective of experts, and of course, experts on the different topics that are represented in the handbook. As much as we have experience with online education, we cannot assume to know it all… areas where we definitely need help. And so we selected very well known, very well recognized experts from different parts of the world. As far as online education is concerned, all the names that are there are people who are very well respected in the field of online education within their respective countries. The role they played was, for them to be our experts in checking the accuracy and the quality and the completeness of the chapters that were submitted to us. So basically, each chapter went to two to three reviewers and the editorial board members were the primary reviewers to help us really catch everything… and the work they did, I know that some chapters had more feedback than others, but I can say that contribution they gave through their feedback was very substantive in improving this handbook. I don’t know, Leni, how you found that when you’re working with the editorial members who are assigned to you?

Leni: Yeah, actually the editors we chose, I can say they are truly excellent and helpful. During the early parts of the writing of the chapters we lead editors are having like a tug of war with the chapter authors. They tend to bargain their thoughts with us, but when the editorial board came into the picture, it gave a more balanced outlook into writing the chapters. And so we really appreciate their services. The other thing is that this editorial board members are experts in the area and so we can truly depend on them. Their feedback were truly much valued and contributed much to the excellence of the contents of this book.

Rebecca: So the handbook is divided into seven sections. Can you provide a brief overview of each of those sections to give us the lay of the land?

Leni: Oh Yeah, seven sections, it’s nice to give an overview for people to know what the book contains. First section, of course, is the fundamentals of online education. It contains the introduction to the topic of the book, online learning, and some variations in online delivery, like blended, MOOC and ERT, emergency remote teaching, we just really call it ERT, and that became popular during the pandemic. The second section, online education around the world. This section is the most colorful part of the book, at least for me. Because it tours us around the world and gives us a view of how online education grew in varied contexts like US, Canada, Europe, Asia, Latin America, Africa, Australia, and the Middle East. The third section, Online Instructional Design, this section now brings us to the T-cell of online learning, the design of online instruction with focus on how learning happens online. This is now the more serious part of the book. While we came from the most colorful, we now go to the serious part of the book. And then the fourth one, Online Instructional Delivery, this section focuses on the hammer and nail of online learning, the actual online teaching, and this is the most exciting part. Because this is now the delivery, the previous one was the most serious part, this one is the most exciting part. And then perhaps, Kelvin, can you say about the fifth section [LAUGHTER] Instructional Technology for Online Education?

Kelvin: Here’s what I would say about that, if you’ve got the most serious, you talked about the most exciting that you talked about, maybe the fifth instructional technology for online education is the most invisible, maybe that’s what it is. Nobody thinks about plumbing until it doesn’t work. [LAUGHTER]

Leni: Thank you. So that’s technology, I would say this section is essential, because you cannot teach without knowing how to use technology [LAUGHTER]. And the sixth section, Online Education Administration and Management, I would say this is the driver’s seat of online bandwagon [LAUGHTER]. Online education can never prosper without the support of the school administration. So, leading school reforms, like entering the field of online education requires certain strategies to be certain of success. Therefore, I would say this section will indeed equip the readers with those skills, perhaps Safary, can tell us what section seven is?

Safary: I would say the last section is the Customer Service, given that the students are the customers. So the customer service, how to make sure we deliver the best customer service to the online students. And so it discusses all those different aspects of how to really prepare, plan effective service to the students, because many times when people are migrating from face-to-face to online or integrating online education, they forget that online students actually need serious support. And this support definitely needs to be defined. And people who are dealing with the students need to be trained. And so the last chapter actually deals exactly with that.

Leni: For me, because I was looking at the table of contents, and I was smiling in my mind, wow, this is really neatly done. And so this works came to my mind, and I said, Oh, the seventh section, this section focuses on the heart of every online classroom, the students. And so because the students are the reason why we offer online learning, thus we ought to know how we should support them.

Rebecca: One of the things that I love about working on collaborative projects that are really big, and then you have these opportunities to reflect together, is how you summarize what you did. It’s probably really different than while you were right in the middle of it. And it’s fun watching the facial expressions and things as you guys are describing the different sections.

John: With 50 chapters, there’s a great deal of breadth and depth on these topics. In section one, though, you address two topics which are not always considered as part of traditional, at least, online education, which is the use of MOOCs and ERT, emergency remote teaching. But these have played fairly important roles. Could you talk a little bit about the role of MOOCs and Emergency Remote Teaching in the larger environment of online higher education?

Leni: As I see it, MOOC and ERT are connected to the overall theme of the book, because technically they are both delivered online. Online learning can be synchronous or asynchronous. And it’s mostly taken asynchronously while ERT is done synchronously, because it is generally a replication of the face-to-face classroom through the web. However, there are certain arguments in the field as to whether can we classify these two under online learning, because they are believed to not use the principles of effective online teaching. And they say, is their instructional design in ERT? There are more questions to raise to the point that some people believe they should not be called online learning. But for me, we have a common denominator, course delivery through the web. Maybe we can hear from my co-editors here, Kelvin and Safary, what they think about it?

Kelvin: I was thinking, John, when you asked that question, I think the combination of Emergency Remote Teaching and Massive Open Online Courses, it’s part of the popular conception of what online education is, it’s sort of like what a layperson might think, is, it’s just one big thing. So if you didn’t address Emergency Remote Teaching, Massive Open Online Courses, maybe even Blended or Hybrid learning, those mutations, it might not provide quite the same way in for the broadest possible audience. But then, once we’ve ushered you into the house, through the front door, I hope we do a good job of taking you on a more detailed guided tour through the nuances and everything that online education can be, without just being stuck at that surface level.

Safary: If I may add something to the ERT. Personally, the reason why I wanted to see this chapter there was that outside of the United States and maybe Canada, and a little bit of Latin America, when ERT came, Emergency Remote Teaching came, many people call it online education. And as we know, online education, the way we know it traditionally, is much more than translating your face-to-face class to a Zoom class or Google meet class. And let’s face it, that the word there is emergency. This was an emergency modality, which obviously emergency is never the best option, it means better than the chaos that you’re going through. And so many people who didn’t know online education, they came to believe that Emergency Remote Teaching means online education. And many people who were against online education to start with, it was like, “Okay, we have already said that this thing is really bad because it was an emergency.” So it was very important to distinguish what Emergency Remote Teaching is. And in the future, if somebody wants to use that for another calamity that happens, then they know what steps to take, but it does not replace what is known, what we define as quality online education.

Rebecca: One of the parts of your book, The second section is about online education around the world. And getting that tour around the world is not something we typically get the opportunity to have. So can you talk a little bit about what some of the global differences in how online higher education is structured and practiced across continents and regions?

Safary: This section came up as we were trying to make the book global. We really wanted to hear the voices of the people from around the world and not just the United States… the United States being the lead on online education, no question about that. We wanted to know where things are in different regions that were represented. We had to even go online to try to track people down from different countries. It was not easy finding people from certain regions where we didn’t have a network. So as a result, we’re able to bring on board chapters from different parts of the world. We had a chapter from the United States, we had a chapter from Europe, from Canada, from Asia, from Latin America, from Africa, from Australia, and from Middle East. So we were able to see what was happening in each one of them. And these chapters we had, they were kind of similar in a way where we wanted to know what is happening, what are the challenges, what are the achievements that people have in those regions, so that people from those regions who decided to do more work on online education, they have a place where they can learn of what is happening in the whole region from this book. They can have this as a reference to understand what was happening in their region. It is true that when you have one chapter, for example, I co-authored a chapter on Africa, because I was still in Africa at that time. It’s a chapter that’s covering 52 countries, you cannot really cover 52 countries, we just had to have illustration from some of African countries, because there’s no way we have data on all the 52 countries, but at least, there were some common themes that were coming up from a different African countries if I can speak from that specific region.

Leni: I can speak from the perspective of an Asian because I come from Asia. And I would say, we cannot deny that online education started in the West. But because we live in a connected world, it spread easily. Basically, I can see a lot of similarities around the world. The only differences I noticed, because your question says what are some of the global differences in how online education is structured and practiced? Now, I would say the only differences I noticed are the approaches to online learning, depending on the level of their maturity, in using this modality, and the resonance of the context they serve. Institutions that have been engaged in online learning for a long time definitely deal with issues that are different from those of newcomers, the needs of the context they serve also differ, so the strategies utilized also differ. One thing I would highlight, though, is that you can clearly see the creativity and continuity of people in different parts of the world in running online education. And we still can learn from each other. That’s why I said a while ago, the section on the global online education is really colorful.

Rebecca: One of the things that I think is really interesting about that section, is that it can also give us insight as instructors that teach a global audience about what the contexts are that students might be coming from. And that’s something that we often don’t have a little bit of insight into.

Safary: I think that is a very good point. Now that we have online education, people are teaching in many different countries. I remember just a couple of weeks ago, I was approached by one of my former students who wanted me to teach a class in the Caribbean. If things worked out for me, for that class, I would have just glanced at that chapter that covers a little bit of the Caribbean and see what I need to watch out for. So that is definitely a good point for the section on the different regions. In this handbook.

John: When online education first started, there wasn’t really that much known about what would work effectively. And as online education evolved, we saw the role of instructional design become an important part of the practice of online education. And section three deals with online instructional design. And that’s helped facilitate and inform online education, along with a lot of research that’s been done since the early stages. How have instructional design practices evolved since the early stages of online education in the latter part of last century?

Kelvin: That’s a good question. And I guess I’ve been in this field watching this first hand and touching it for about 25 years now. So I sometimes say not exactly the first floor of the building, but just one step above. And what I would say is that when I started in the late 90s, what we saw a lot was adaptation of traditional instructional systems design models and practices, that is constructs that were used quite often in corporate education. See if this takes you back to the past: CD ROM development, military learners. Those kinds of methods, practices, and models were adapted to this online context. And some of that’s constrained, like you’re making a system, like it’s a bounded system that was, quite often the context, like a CD ROM. And now you’re talking about the internet, a network open system. And I remember some of those early days, like, “Okay, what can we learn from these models? How can we adapt those?” Over time though, we learned that this is a unique context, which then began to have its own models and practices and processes and research and iterations and development. And I think of even things like much newer developments, like alongside of constructs like inclusive pedagogy, we see practices and thrusts, like inclusive design, as being a very specialized subset. So we’ve got a very robust research and professional practice literature that has grown up and these, arguably, two and a half decades of online education experience to draw upon. And I guess I’ll just say this, about that. Throughout my time in this field, what I’ve seen is that online tends to make the formerly invisible, visible; formerly implicit, explicit. And I think that evolution of instructional design and development field, it has learned from that. Online education has drawn us along in what does it mean to bring learners in from really anywhere and bring them together in a learning community, and how do we excel in that. That’s been a really rich progression over these last two and a half decades.

Safary: If I may add to that, the reason why we had this section was that many people who are new to online education, they think that online education is about uploading all the files that you have been using face to face, and then let the students read that, and that’s online education. It leads to a lot of frustration from the students because there was no instructional design for online learning. And so we needed to have a section that would guide people into that. And also for instructional designers in college and universities where they already have instructional designers. Some of them have not gotten a degree in instructional design. So they have limited knowledge. They just happen to know a little bit more than everybody else, but they don’t really have a solid foundation. And so that section helps to kind of guide people in the proper instructional design for online learning.

Rebecca: So sections four and five focus on online instructional delivery and instructional technology. These are topics that we love to talk about and have episodes of this podcast on. But given the time constraints, we probably can’t dig in fully here. But can you help us identify some of the most important changes that have occurred in how well designed online courses are taught?

Leni: That’s a nice question. Kelvin also said a while ago, he was mentioning about the early years of online instructional design, I would say, perhaps 1998 to 2000, those are the early years I’ve been involved, still in the planning stages of online delivery. Most of the online courses we developed were primarily text based, and are delivered asynchronously. That was after the military, Kelvin used, online learning, it was already in the university. Why text based? Because even our students, in the context we are serving also did not have the capability or the capacity to access videos or higher level technology tools. That’s why we designed the way they can access us. And so, yes, it was primarily text based and asynchronous. However, through the years, I would say two forces caused the major changes in the way we design online courses, first, technological developments, particularly in instructional technology. And second, changes in the needs or nature of our stakeholders, the students. Well, technological developments without a doubt have increased the repertoire of instructional media that we can use in designing truly engaging online courses. But as I’ve said earlier, technology is not the heart of online learning… it’s our students. And we saw how the nature of our online students change over time as well. While many of them were happy with plain text based asynchronous online courses during the early days, now they want more real-time meetings. And the flexibility they want is indeed tremendous, I tell you. We notice that there is a greater demand now for more flexible and personalized learning approaches. And these topics are dealt with in this handbook. I know Kelvin has written on this. And some other chapters also addressed this flexible learning, personalized learning approaches. These are now the needs and demands of the new generation of online students.

John: This is bringing me back to a time when I started back in 1997 teaching online when many of the students had 300 baud… [LAUGHTER] …or 1200 baud modems, and you couldn’t do much more than text. And I remember putting in some flash-based videos, and many students couldn’t access those because they didn’t have the download speed, especially students in more rural areas. So there was a lot of resistance to online education when it was first introduced, which is one of the reasons why I think instructional design practices became a part of early online education to help ensure the quality of that. And we do have, in most institutions a fairly elaborate process of instructional design assistance and instructional design review for online courses, which is something that’s never really happened in the same way for most face-to-face courses. Might it be time to start applying some of the techniques and practices of design that’s being used for online course delivery to in-person course delivery?

Safary: I remember about 15 years ago, I was training faculty on online teaching in the Caribbean. And I remember many of them, at the end of the training, saying, “I have improved my face-to-face teaching because of the training that I have been going through for online teaching.” So I definitely believe that if people get the proper training in online teaching, they can use that knowledge to improve face-to-face teaching. Because let’s face it, many people are teaching not because they have a degree in education, but because they have a degree in whatever field they come from, they have never learned how to teach. And so when they go through the training for online teaching, they discover a lot of principles that they should have even been using face to face. So I definitely agree with you on that one.

Kelvin: Yeah, it’s true. I say it all the time online makes the formerly implicit, explicit; formerly invisible, visible. And I think that’s why online has been a vehicle for applying thoughtful design and teaching practices and the improvement thereof. Once you sort of concretize the elements that make up an online education experience, then you can see well, how are they arrayed? Are they lined up properly? Does this cause lead to the desired effect, and you can work on improvement, no offense to anyone in this, but when we just are dealing in the ephemeral, we will walk into a space, four walls and a door, and we say words into the air, it’s much harder to see how those parts fit together or don’t. And it’s harder to be reflective. So, I think that’s the reason that online education has brought more emphasis to potential improvements, continuous improvements, and so I welcome it as a vehicle for a more thoughtful process in general. I love this elegant turn of phrase Caroline Boswell says she frames teaching as a student success intervention. Or as I put it, I’m one of those odd people who sees a connection between teaching and learning. And not everybody does.

Rebecca: You’re kind of queuing up our next question perfectly Kelvin. The final section of your book is really about student support. And our students are often distributed when we’re teaching online. So what are some of the biggest challenges in terms of supporting students that are in these online programs or online courses?

Kelvin: Yeah, I would welcome Leni’s and Safary’s viewpoint on this as well. But to me, I’ll keep it simple and say that the biggest challenge is the diversity of student profiles. The different backgrounds, the multifaceted demographics, and resource or not resource, or technological connection or not technological connection, that diversity makes it awfully hard to assure kind of an equitable experience for everyone. So that’s the gap that emerges, that student support is trying to offer… not to mention the diversity of approaches to design and development in the actual experience. But I’m curious what Leni and Safary would say to that.

Leni: I would go for the opposite, on the side of the teachers, I would say the greatest challenge in student support is personalizing your support. It’s related to your diversity. Almost every online student has her unique needs and contexts. So considering different personalities and backgrounds as well, you may be able to personalize your support. But in the name of efficiency, you’ll find yourself dehumanizing the process. What do I mean by this? Well, machines can never replace human touch. And human touch is what every online student needs.

Safary: If I may speak a little bit from experience I had in Kenya during the COVID-19, we migrated our classes to the online delivery. And I quickly realized that… and this was something that was going on in all of Africa, I know this because I was involved in different international association for online education all over the continent…. and so we were meeting and discussing some of these issues. The major challenges that were going on at that time, I don’t know about today, were dealing with infrastructure, because most universities that didn’t have online education platforms, or online education structural systems, so the technology was not in place. Many students there were not access because the internet was extremely slow, some were using loads of data to access the materials and they would run out. Some had issues with electricity. These are things we take for granted in the West. These are the not issues that we will discuss even in textbooks of online education, but they are real issues that cannot be ignored. And so that was a major challenge in supporting online students, because the infrastructure was not in place. And I think the issue is still the same. But more and more work is being done. I remember, for example, in Kenya, what the government did, they gave the free data access to all the faculty in the whole country, as long as it was used only for instructional purposes [LAUGHTER]. If you want to use it for something else, it wouldn’t work. I mean, that was quite creative, to try to help people to help education move forward, because everything was just stuck because of COVID-19.

John: Over the past year, we’ve seen a fairly explosive growth and use of generative AI large language models, including chat GPT, Claude, and a few others that have come out very recently. And that opens up a lot of interesting opportunities, but also some challenges for online education, particularly concerning the assessment of asynchronous learning. How do you see online education adapting in response to the widespread availability of tools like this, which will only become more powerful over the next few years?

Kelvin: It’s sort of the very definition and epitome of disruptive innovation or disruptive technology. And just to be clear about this, I don’t think it’s limited or focused on asynchronous online education, I think it’s everything. For me, it’s really an opportunity to address learning and assessment of learning much more meaningfully, and I’ll use one of Leni’s words, more personalized and relational. I think one of the things we’re seeing with the injection of these various forms of artificial intelligence into the learning setting is the value proposition of the human. And I think it was Cathy Davidson, years ago, from HASTAC said something like, “If we faculty can be replaced by a computer we should be.” That is, if all you’re offering is something that is easily rendered more efficient and scalable by a machine then, well, what are you doing it for? I think that the opportunity to really gauge learning, which is a very personal and a meaningful thing, we act like it’s something that’s kind of homogenized and industrialized, but learning… I don’t know what learning is, frankly, I can’t crack open a human and see what all is happening with the connections and making of meaning in all the background experiences. All I can do is get insight, but in dialogue, in the creation of artifacts I get a glimpse. If we’re product oriented, to the exclusion of the process, and to the exclusion of the human context, well, that can be certainly disrupted, maybe stolen by artificial intelligence in machines. But if we keep the emphasis on humans, on “Well, John, tell me about this…” that’s more meaningful. I learned a practice a long time ago from a faculty member that I studied under, where she adopted a practice of a learning summary. And in any course, again, that’s just one artifact, but it gives a glimpse into the articulation of what learning is really about. So I think we need to push the envelope in “What does authentic assessment mean? What does meaningful learning look like?” Now, that’s hard to do at scale. Are you going to have a personal oral defense with every student for every assignment, probably not. But if we see artifacts, and products, as breadcrumb trails leading to a destination of a more substantive dialogical process, well, then maybe that’s something. So I don’t think we know yet how this is going to play out. And I think your listeners are gonna find cold comfort from me in getting to an easy solution. But I think the future of responding to generative AI is to lean more into the human and the relational than less.

Rebecca: So we always end by asking what’s next?

Safary: Well, as far as this project is concerned, what is next really, we want to continue building a community of online higher education scholars, practitioners, so that this momentum that has been created by this book can continue, because this is one of the few maybe rare books that really have so much global contribution to online education. Many of the books that are written, they’re usually kind of regional to a specific region of the world. And so this is the first time we have a network of, I think, around 100 people who contributed to this, coming from many different countries. And I feel this has created synergy on the discussion of online education in a way that we should not let that go. So one of the things that we have been talking about is the possibility of holding a summit on online higher education in the next few months, once everybody has gotten a chance to hold a copy of this book, and to bring different experts together from different parts of the world, and try to address online education from different parts of the world, while addressing common issues such as assessment, which is one of the major controversial issues anywhere have been, everybody talks about the challenges of online assessments. So that’s things like this, and probably this artificial intelligence, which is a new thing, we may want to go deeper into that… we’re not able to dig too deep with that, although we addressed it in the book. But we didn’t go too deeply because it was still kind of new ChatGPT was just coming out when we were finishing the handbook. And so that is one of the things that we are looking into, there is another handbook in the making with SAGE that will focus specifically on instructional design in higher education. So that would be like an extension of this project. So we want to continue building on this work, because we consider it’s very important.

Leni: I’m really optimistic about the next steps on this because it’s like a seminal book that really got there’s a global perspective, as Safary says it’s not the same as the other online learning books. So we can also see a lot of developments coming up. And so I will say, this book is just step one, the next steps will really be coming up definitely, because the field is always growing. We have seen its growth, and it will still grow. And so there’s more to follow, I believe.

Rebecca: Well, thank you all for joining us. I know that our listeners will really enjoy the handbook and all that it has to offer.

John: Well, thank you, and it’s great talking to all of you and we’re looking forward to reading the book.

Safary: Thank you so much for the opportunity. Really appreciate that and wish everybody a wonderful reading experience.

Kelvin: Thanks for having us, Rebecca and John.

Leni: Thank you very much.

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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.

Ganesh: Editing assistance by Ganesh.

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313. Supporting Neurodiverse Students and Faculty

Many discussions of inclusive teaching practices ignore the role of neurodiversity in higher ed. In this episode, Liz Norell joins us to discuss strategies that faculty and institutions can use to create a welcoming environment for neurodivergent students and faculty. Liz is a political scientist and the Associate Director of Instructional Support at the University of Mississippi’s Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning.

Show Notes

Transcript

John: Many discussions of inclusive teaching practices ignore the role of neurodiversity in higher ed. In this episode, we discuss strategies that faculty and institutions can use to create a welcoming environment for neurodivergent students and faculty.

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

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John: Our guest today is Liz Norell. Liz is a political scientist and the Associate Director of Instructional Support at the University of Mississippi’s Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning. Welcome back, Liz.

Liz: Thank you. I’m happy to be here.

Rebecca: Today’s teas are:… Liz, are you drinking tea?

Liz: I am not. I am drinking some vitamin water, tropical mango flavor.

Rebecca: So there’s some stuff mixed with water. That’s tea, right?

Liz: Yes, sure.

John: And I am drinking Prince of Wales tea today.

Rebecca: Oh, I like that one. John. Haven’t had that in a while. And I have Awake today. It’s Monday… [LAUGHTER] when we’re recording.

Liz: That feels fair.

John: But it’s getting really boring. [LAUGHTER]

Rebecca: I know. [LAUGHTER]

John: We’ve invited you here today to discuss issues related to neurodiversity in higher education. Before we start, though, could you define neurodiversity? And how is this different from neurodivergence?

Liz: Sure. So I think these two terms get kind of conflated with one another a lot. And so I tried to be really explicit in talking about neurodiversity versus neurodivergence. And there are a lot of different perspectives on these two terms, and some of the baggage that they carry with them. But when I think about neurodiversity, I just think about a diversity of brains. And so any group that has more than one person is going to be neurodiverse. We all have different brains. But neurodivergence is a brain that works differently than how we typically think of brains working. And there are lots of diagnoses that get put under the umbrella of neurodivergent. Some of the most common ones are autism, ADHD, there’s Tourette’s. There’s lots of other ones, dyslexia, dyspraxia, OCD sometimes gets lumped in there, bipolar disorder will get lumped in there. So neurodivergence is just a brain that works differently than the way we typically think of brains working.

Rebecca: If we’re thinking about college student populations, and I know that this is partially a guess, because we don’t actually know, but how many do we think are neurodivergent?

Liz: The estimates that I’ve seen have been around like one in six, maybe, but I think that it’s probably closer to 30, or 35%, honestly. I think a third is probably a reasonably good estimate. It’s a large number. And I will say that a lot of those students either may not know that they have some sort of neurodivergence, or they may not ever tell us that they have a neurodivergence and we’ll talk more about that a little bit later, I think.

John: What proportion of neurodivergent students have accommodations through campus disability services?

Liz: Who knows? If we don’t know the denominator, it’s hard to know what proportion of people would be registering with accommodations. But I think there are certainly a lot more students who are registering with disability services with an official diagnosis, but there are some barriers to that. And the first one is that it’s really expensive and time consuming to get a diagnosis. So I should say, and I should start pretty early in our conversation by saying that I recently went through the diagnosis process to get a diagnosis of autism at age 45. And it took me a year from reaching out until I had the diagnosis. And I was able to navigate that, because I have some experience interacting with medical teams. I had good insurance, but it still took me a year to get an appointment, and to get the diagnosis. And so there are a lot of students who may not have the tools or the time or the resources to go through that, even if they suspect it. And I went 44 years of my life without even suspecting that I might be neurodivergent. I think there are a lot of barriers to that. And then once you have the diagnosis, it can be very intimidating to disclose that, to go through the campus accommodation process takes so much time and advocacy. And that comes from a population that’s already taxed in terms of their bandwidth and their resources and their just ability to get these things done. So I don’t think that thinking about the numbers of people who seek accommodations is even close to representing the population of students who might have these conditions.

John: It would seem that there’s a bit of an equity issue here in that students from wealthier households, students from continuing generation households, are much more likely to have the resources to go through the process of having the need for accommodations being documented.

Liz: That’s right. And I think this gets into some of the language around neurodivergent versus the neurotypical. A lot of people who are neurodivergent, who have some sort of condition or way of thinking or way of operating have been socialized to think that there’s something wrong with them, this kind of medical model of disability, instead of the more like social model of this is a socially constructed difference. And so to seek out a diagnosis requires a kind of self containment, I think, to recognize that this is not something wrong with me. A lot of people who have a neurodivergent brain probably feel like they should be able to act like a neurotypical person. So they don’t want accommodations because they feel like that is somehow making them less than their neurotypical students. And it’s this medical model that has infused so much of our talk about disability, and especially pernicious here where we know that there are real struggles that students have when they have these neurodivergent brains, that we are just not accommodating well in the classroom.

Rebecca: I do want to mention at this juncture, that we do have an Episode 221 – Disability in Higher Education with Kat Macfarlane that really talks in detail about the accommodation process. And so that’s a really great place to learn more about that process in high detail that was kind of the subject of most of that episode. Most of our college faculty generally haven’t been trained to address issues of neurodiversity. Can you talk about some of the common challenges our neurodivergent students face in classrooms?

Liz: Yes. And it’s absolutely the case that we have not been trained in this. And I think also many of my faculty colleagues, past and present, have this idea that an accommodation is somehow like special treatment that’s making a class easier for students, when we should, John, as you mentioned, be thinking about this as an equity issue. So accommodations are meant to provide equal opportunity for success. And if you’re bringing some of these conditions into the classroom, you’re already operating at a deficit. So what are those? Well, it can be things like being really easily overloaded by sensory information. So we see this a lot with autism and ADHD, where, as someone who now understands herself to be autistic, I think about this phrase, “the lights are too loud,” like, it just feels very harsh. And when people are talking over each other, I get very flooded very quickly. This has been the case my whole life. If there are unfamiliar foods or drinks, that can be really overloading and so background noise, people who are close to each other, uncomfortable seating, these are all things that can show up in our classrooms that can cause someone with a neurodivergent brain to go into a kind of overload. And that, of course, reduces their ability to pay attention and to learn and to retain information. Unclear communication is a huge challenge for people with neurodivergent brains, because it’s often the case that there’s some sort of like inability to recognize sarcasm, or the ability to get some nonverbal communication. Oftentimes, people with neurodivergent brains will interpret everything very literally. And so they miss out on some of the nuance. And for me, it’s been this like obsession with choosing the just right word, because I need it to be precise. And I can get really fixated on that sometimes, in a way that feels very pedantic. But that is really just me very much trying to communicate clearly. When there’s unclear terminology–write professionally, or be collegial, or work well with others–like I don’t know what any of that means. I have no idea. And there’s an assumption that there’s some shared social norms that may not be as visible to people with a neurodivergent brain. There’s a lot of, of course, well documented social aspects to neurodivergence. So just like not really knowing how to work with others in an effective way, or feeling like that sense of, I’m different. I’m broken, I’m not as good as… that I mentioned earlier, can carry over into social dynamics. And then the last one that I think is really important for us to think about in terms of higher ed is executive function. So executive function is that ability to kind of be a taskmaster of your own attention and brain. And so things like prioritizing work, time management, how to take notes, how to make decisions, how to cope with the ups and downs of life, due dates, all of those things like managing systems is really hard when you have a neurodivergent brain. And we often assume that our students have those skills. And so we don’t scaffold them. We don’t help them. We don’t point them to resources, and that can be really hard. So those are just like four big clusters: sensory overload, communication, social interaction, and executive function.

John: How can faculty anticipate or design with neurodivergence in mind, particularly when many students with disabilities choose not to self identify?

Liz: Just being aware of these things that I’ve just mentioned, is hugely helpful. And I think the hard work is really just awareness. So for example, I have heard lots of my colleagues and myself at earlier points in my career, lament about students who are distracted by their cell phones or their laptops, who seemed to need to go to the bathroom three times during a 50-minute class, or who otherwise seemed to be just kind of like disconnected from class. We see that as a sign of disrespect and as of not paying attention. But a neurodivergent brain often really struggles to sit still and make visual contact with another person or object. And so it’s often the case that our neurodivergent students can learn better if they are doing something, the more physical, the better. So for some of my students, it’s things like knitting in class or coloring or doodling. This is actually not them disengaging or not paying attention. It’s them doing something that allows them to focus their attention on what you’re saying. So I like to think about performance of attention, what we often think of as paying attention. So if a neurodivergent student is going to perform attention, they’re probably not actually listening to anything you’re saying, because they’re using all of their brainpower to do the things that you think mean they’re paying attention. With that said, this sort of notion that we have to reorient our thinking about what students are doing and what that means in terms of their engagement with us, I think being really clear about scaffolding what tasks are needed, providing clear deadlines. So Karen Costa, who is just brilliant, talks a lot about ADHD, and she is a person with ADHD. And she talks about the need for more structure, not less, that flexibility can be useful, but you need a lot of structure. And for people with neurodivergent brains, it can be really helpful to have lots of small deadlines that are low stakes with some grace around them, but like clear structure is really important… messaging to students, like, here’s how you do this class. So if that’s working in a group that’s giving specific roles, and asking the students to decide who’s going to be the note taker, and who’s going to be the recorder, and who’s going to be the crazy idea person, and who’s going to be the let’s bring it back to the text person. So just kind of delineating some specific roles, communicating clearly and in multiple modalities. So especially if you’re doing a lot of audio lecturing, or giving up directions, making sure that those are also available in writing. So students can come back to them later when they know that you said something, but they don’t remember what. And then just being really aware of that sensory environment in which you’re learning. So if that’s in a physical classroom, thinking about ways to give students permission to make themselves comfortable, if that’s getting up and walking around a little bit, and just sort of saying, like, I know that that helps some of you concentrate, fine with me if you do that. Telling them that they can get up and leave the room for a couple of minutes if they need a break. If they want to bring in things to play with, color or fidget, create whatever, that’s fine too. A lot of my students like to just sit on the floor. I mean, that sounds like a disaster for me and my middle-aged body, but when you’re 18, it’s like easy to get up off the floor, and so if you want to sit on the floor, sit on the floor, it’s cool, if that helps you be more comfortable. So I think it’s awareness and then just messaging to students that they can do what they need to do. And I just want to say one more thing about this. And that is, even if you are not neurodivergent, even if you are what people define as neurotypical, you can talk about students you’ve had, people you know, friends, family members, colleagues, you know people who are neurodivergent, talk about some of the ways that they have given themselves permission to make their environments work for them. So that you’re messaging to students that you understand and that you support those kinds of self-advocacy efforts. So you don’t have to do all of that on the first day of school, [LAUGHTER], first day of class. It’s a lot, but I often include something on my syllabus that says you may have accommodations or you may not, but if there’s something that I can do to make this class easier for you to participate in meaningfully and be successful in, according to your own goals, then I will do it, as long as it’s something within my power to do. So. You don’t need formal accommodations to ask me to do something to help you.

Rebecca: One of the things that I heard you mention and often come up a lot in inclusive pedagogy and other spaces is the idea of scaffolding. Here, again, we have this assumption that everybody knows exactly what that is all the time. But part of that is really about helping students understand their priorities, perhaps within a class, and also how to manage their time related to certain kinds of tasks. Can you talk a little bit about that component of scaffolding and what that might actually look like in practice?

Liz: Yeah, it’s hard for me to tease that out without thinking about lots of other things too. Because, we, as faculty, are coming into the classroom with certain ideas about what should be important, and what students should want to do in order to be successful, whatever that means. And I have really had to learn over my teaching career to check myself on that, because my priorities are not the same as my students. I remember once I was grading a student’s final exam they had done, it was very, very early in my teaching career, I’m embarrassed to even say what they had done for their final, but it was it was multiple choice and I was grading it by hand, and I told them, they could just stick around. I would grade it real quick, and then give them their final grade, because I had done everything else before then. And I looked at the student who had come to class every day and had really meaningfully participated and said, “Your final grade as a C,” and I was so apologetic, like, “Oh my gosh, I’m sorry. “And this student was like, “YES! I PASSED!” And it was a real moment for me of just like saying, “Okay, you cannot put your own values and goals onto students, because that was literally the student’s dream–was to get a C and not have to take the class again,” I think when we’re talking about students, it’s really having that very frank conversation, like, some of you are here because you are being required to take this class, and I know it wasn’t your choice, and I’m going to try to make it as the least awful it can be for you. And I’m going to ask you to try to invest at least enough time to give it a fair shot. But I don’t expect that everybody has the same goals and so let’s take a moment and reflect on what success for you looks like. And then what do you need to do over the course of the next 15 weeks, or whatever it might be, in order to make that goal. And so we sort of assume that our students’ goals are to get a good grade and to move on to whatever the next thing is. But maybe it’s not, maybe they’re just taking the class for fun, maybe they don’t care about the grade. Maybe they’re an adult learner who has a curiosity about something. After I graduated undergrad, I took an ethics class online–this was like 2001 or 2002 maybe, so it was very early days of online teaching and learning. And I took it through the community college just because I had never taken it, and I thought it might be interesting. It really wasn’t interesting for me. So I just like stopped paying attention. But I did not consider that a failure. Like I got a little bit of information. I also took a macroeconomics class, because I had never taken a macro class; I had taken micro. And it was all online, and I did all the work, but I didn’t turn in any assignments because I just didn’t care about those. I just wanted to learn it. So, I think having these conversations can be really helpful in students figuring out what it is that they want to get out of a class

John: Going to that point you made about structure. This is something we’re seeing an awful lot… certainly in the work on inclusive teaching, in Viji Sathy and Kelly Hogan’s book, as well as the work of Mary-Ann Winkelmes on transparency and learning and teaching. There seems to be a convergence that by providing students with structure and support, it can do a lot, it can benefit pretty much all students. In past discussions, when we spoke to those authors, much of the focus was on the benefits to first-gen students and to students who were historically minoritized. But it’s kind of nice to know that the same inclusive teaching strategies also addresses issues of neurodivergence.

Liz: I had an experience at my last job, where I just kept asking my dean, “Give me a set of rules and I will follow them.” And she would say, “Well, just use your best professional judgment.” And I don’t know what that means. I think people with certain kinds of neurodivergence just want you to tell them what to do and they will do it. Give me a set of very clear expectations, and I will meet them and this can work for everyone… just like clarity. And it doesn’t have to be punitive. I’m very fond of Cate Denial’s Pedagogy of Kindness. And this notion that like it should be kind, which can be as Sarah Rose Cavanagh says like a warm demander. I want you to have expectations of me, I want to know that you care about me. But just be really clear, because clarity is kind. And yes, it helps with all of those things. So the first generation students, the historically minoritized, the neurodivergent, lots of different kinds of people are benefited by this. And even the third generation middle class neurotypical student, also [LAUGHTER] benefits from clarity.

Rebecca: Imagine that, not spending all of our cognitive energy trying to figure out what people want.

Liz: Exactly. {LAUGHTER]

Rebecca: What are some of the challenges that neurodivergent faculty face in their careers? We’ve talked a lot about students, but we also know that faculty also exist.

Liz: We do. And we’re not all like cut from the same cookie cutter. I can tell you, just from my own experiences, that higher ed can be really hostile to those who are neurodivergent. I’ve had really great experiences, and I’ve had some really challenging ones. I think that it’s helpful when we’re aware of these things for students, because we often have the most power over their educational experience. But we also share power with our colleagues. And so knowing what some of these things are can help us understand the behaviors of our colleagues that we might have been inclined to read as subversive, or unprofessional, or lacking in collegiality. Those words get used a lot, for a lot of different kinds of identities and traits. Neurodivergence is certainly one of them. So as a woman who’s neurodivergent, that intersectionality means that I’m always on the lookout for that kind of language of like unprofessional and not collegial and you’re being difficult in some way. Well, or maybe I just don’t understand what it is that you’re asking of me. I also think we need to be really careful when we think about this idea of fit. So especially in hiring, we are looking for someone who will fit. But fit often means like me. And it can be very exclusionary to people who have some sort of neurodivergence, because they may not act the way that you do. But that’s actually a strength, I think. When you look at the different kinds of neurodivergent conditions, ADHD brains are so good at hyperfocus. They just don’t always do a good job of like, understanding time, right, there’s a kind of time blindness. But they’re so good at that. And autistic brains are so excited about the things that they’re excited about. And that energy is so captivating. And so these are not weaknesses, these are strengths that can really help us appreciate things in our work that we wouldn’t if we didn’t have those around. So when thinking about working with colleagues, all of the things that I said before, sensory overwhelm, communication, social interactions, and kind of executive function, we should be thinking about those things with our colleagues as well. So when I design a workshop, for example, in our Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning, I’m thinking about, “Okay, how do I create a space where the chairs could be moved away from the rest of the group so that people can have a little bit of space and kind of get away from that? Can I dim the lights a little? Can I ask, make sure everybody’s using a microphone, but also let people know that if they want to put in their loop earplugs, as I do, you can do that to kind of limit some background noise. Can I make sure that everything I say is also written down somewhere so that people have something to refer to later? Can I talk about my own experiences in a way that normalizes other people doing the same?” All of those things can be used to make the environment more inviting for our colleagues. The last thing I want to say is that it is so exhausting, as a person with a disability of any kind to constantly having to advocating for yourself. So the more that non-disabled people can lend their support and their voices to advocating for easier pathways to accessibility, the less you’re taxing your disabled colleagues. So thinking about what can I do, that if I did it, would make it easier for a disabled colleague to come behind me and ask for the same?

John: Near the end of the summer you posted on the social media site formerly known as Twitter, something about a podcast and puzzles set of workshops. Have you started that? And could you talk a little bit about that?

Liz: Yes, so I’m really excited about this. And a lot of people who are not at the University of Mississippi are also excited about it. And I’m just trying to get the people on campus excited about it. So the idea here is that, and this was specifically created as a neurodivergent-friendly space. So faculty and staff can come to our center for an hour every other week. So this Wednesday will be our next one. And we play a pedagogy podcast. So we played an episode of this podcast, and we do a puzzle or some other kind of individual or parallel play is what it’s called. So I’m working on a puzzle. It’s in the next room, and I’m not done with it. And it’s driving me crazy, because I don’t like unfinished puzzles. But I have committed to not working on it, except when everybody else is here. But it’s a Funko Pop puzzle of Ted Lasso, so it’s really fun. And we’ve had two of these now, and it’s a small but mighty group who are into this, but the lights are low, it’s indirect, diffuse lighting, there’s lots of different kinds of seating, and one person comes and colors, a couple of people have come and done puzzles. But the idea is that it’s just a way to get together in a social space without the social expectation of small talk. So you can just come and show up and listen to a podcast and leave. If you want to stay and talk you can, you don’t have to, I am hoping that this becomes a movement of podcasts and puzzles. And I’m going to stick with it as long as it takes for me to make it so here, but we have probably like five or six people who have come to one of them. And I hope many more who will as it continues to spread. It’s kind of hard to describe in a website or an email, but I think once people come they see the brilliance of this… I say with all possible modesty. [LAUGHTER]

John: Have people actually finished a puzzle during the course of one of these meetings?

Liz: This Wednesday will be our third meeting. So I think the Funko Pop Ted Lasso crossover puzzle will finish this week, I hope. It’s going to drive me absolutely batty if it doesn’t, and then we’ll move on to another one.

Rebecca: That sounds like a lot of fun.

Liz: It is. And it’s a good way to kind of model why I think so many of our neurodivergent students would really thrive at a kind of way of learning that’s very different than what we’re used to in higher ed. And that’s probably why it’s hard for people to imagine why we’re doing this or what it looks like. But we have writing groups where people come into our room and do their own writing. And just that body doubling of having someone else there, while I’m trying to do something is enormously helpful. And so in this case, like I took two things that I love, that I never make time for because I feel guilty about all the other things I should be doing. So puzzles and listening to podcasts about teaching, and I just put them together. And I hope that more people will see ways to create these spaces that are perhaps a bit unconventional to higher ed. But that can open our imagination to the ways that we can model learning in different ways than the more traditional models that we’re used to seeing.

Rebecca: I like the analogy with the writing group, in that it’s really holding people accountable to do a particular thing, which is to attend to teaching in a different way, by listening to a podcast as opposed to a different kind of workshop or something and allowing them to do something with their hands.

Liz: I also have this very large bucket of fidget toys that I take to every workshop. And I say just borrow a fidget and just play with it and see how that changes your experience of the workshop. And if you find it to be soothing, imagine what normalizing this in your classes might do for your students. So my colleague who’s just a couple of doors down I have one of these little like pop balls that make like these really satisfying noises. And the first time I brought this to a workshop, she said, “Is that the sound I’ve been hearing?” I just play with it all the time.

John: Do you have any other advice for faculty and campuses who wish to better address neurodiversity?

Liz: There’s this phrase in the autism world and the disability world and I’ve been hearing it more and more and it is, “Nothing for us, without us.” And so I can tell you my perspective as someone who is neurodivergent, there’s so much expertise on your campus, and you should talk to those people. So that might be in the disabilities support services area. It might be students in your class, but just like have these conversations and find out, what can I do from my position, whatever it might be, that can make this place more welcoming to people who are neurodivergent? And I think when you’re asking that question, just like with anything else that we might be doing, then people are going to assume good intent. And they’re also going to be much more forgiving, if you make a stumble of some kind, whatever that might be. I don’t know. And so just talk to people, ask them. I feel like this is the most obvious advice that we give as faculty developers, but it’s ask your students, just ask them, they just want to be asked. And so if I was to give any advice that would be that just ask your students: “What can I do that would make this easier for you?”

Rebecca: I know, one thing that we talk a lot about on our campus is that access is really the doorway to belonging. If you don’t have access…

Liz: Yes.

Rebecca: …you’re not going to feel like you belong.

Liz: Just to know that someone is thinking about what you might need is enough to make them feel like they’re included, and that you’re listening when they tell you what they need, would be helpful.

Rebecca: So we always wrap up by asking: “What’s next?”

Liz: I have so many writing projects that I’m just sort of getting started with. So I just recently finished a manuscript on my book, The Present Professor, that I mentioned the last time we talked. And so that’s going through the publishing process and will eventually go out in the world, I assume, knock on wood. So I’m filling my time while I wait for progress there on, it seems like, about a dozen other writing projects, all of which are just kind of me thinking. I’ve been really interested lately in talking about the role of learning outcomes, and what we decide rises to the importance of a learning outcome. And if I may say this one controversial thing that I just keep saying to everyone I know, I don’t think you as a student should be able to fail a class for doing something or failing to do something that is not a learning outcome of the course. So if turning in something two days late means that I fail the assignment, then shouldn’t that be a learning outcome, timeliness? I don’t know. It just feels to me like, if we’re going to assess learning, then we should be assessing learning, and not all the other things that are performance of learning. So I’ve been thinking a lot about that and a whole bunch of other things. That’s what’s next, something, many things.

John: We had a similar conversation with Kevin Gannon, not too long ago who talked about…

Liz: …performative hardassery…

John: That was the technical term…

Rebecca: [LAUGHING]

John: …but it was…

Liz: Yes

John: …in terms of rigor, who distinguished between cognitive rigor and logistical rigor.

John: Well, thank you. It’s great talking to you and we look forward to more conversations in the future. And when your book gets closer to coming out, we’d be very happy to have you back on to talk about that as well as any other topic that comes up in between now and then.

Liz: Absolutely. I so appreciate the work you guys do, and I’m grateful and honored to be a part of it.

Rebecca: It was great talking to you. Thank you

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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.

Ganesh: Editing assistance by Ganesh.

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312. Alice: Finding Wonderland

Many of our disciplines are unfamiliar to students until their first encounter in an introductory course. In this episode, Rameen Mohammadi joins us to discuss his first-year course that introduces students to computer science using an approachable hands-on experience.

Show Notes

Transcript

John: Many of our disciplines are unfamiliar to students until their first encounter in an introductory course. In this episode, we look at a first-year course that introduces students to computer science using an approachable hands-on experience.

[MUSIC]

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

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

John: …and Rebecca Mushtare, a graphic designer…

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

[MUSIC]

Rebecca: Our guest today is Rameen Mohammadi. Rameen is the Associate Provost at SUNY Oswego and an Associate Professor of Computer Science. Welcome, Rameen.

Rameen: Thank you. Thank you both.

John: It’s good to have you here. Today, for the first time ever, we’re all drinking the same tea, which is Chimps tea, a black tea with honey flavor, fig, and thyme. And this is a gift from one of our listeners. Miriam in France. Thank you, Myriam.

Rebecca: Yeah, so far. It’s really tasty.

Rameen: Yeah, really excellent tea. We love it.

Rebecca: So we invited you here today, Rameen, to discuss your First-Year Seminar course that combines animation and storytelling using the Alice 3 programming environment. Before we discuss that, though, could you provide an overview of the goal of first-year seminar courses at Oswego?

Rameen: This is not a standard first-year seminar. First-year seminar courses are designed to extend orientation, familiarize students with resources, and things like that. Our perspective about this type of course, which we call signature courses at SUNY Oswego, is that you are welcoming students to the intellectual community that we have. So as first-year students we desire a number of outcomes to be met by these courses, one of them is critical thinking, they have to have a significant critical thinking component. Also, these courses need to have both writing and oral communication embedded in them. And one of my favorites is that they have to enhance the cultural competency of our students, we’re a very diverse student body, there’s quite a bit of opportunity to make sure students experience other perspectives. And I think courses of this type really need to address that. Our provost, Scott Furlong, brought the idea to us even during his interview at SUNY Oswego, about what they had called, at his previous institution, passion courses. Now, as I said, we call them signature courses here. But those of us who love our discipline certainly can understand when somebody uses the term passion. So what makes you excited about your discipline? That’s what the course should help students experience.

John: So, you’re using the Alice 3 programming environment. Could you talk a little bit about the types of things that students are going to be doing in the class?

Rameen: So Alice 3 is a VR programming environment. So what you do is you build a scene, you can bring avatars of various types, could be people, could be aliens, could be dogs, into a scene, and you have props, trees, mountains, buildings, that you could bring into a scene, and then you learn to program something. So they can talk to each other, they can move from point A to point B. And it actually turns out, they’re able to, and they will be, writing reactive programming, which typically is what we do when we design games. So the user acts in some way, and then you program the reaction in the VR world in that context, or things run into each other. And obviously, when you’re designing games cars, or other things may run into each other, and you have the ability to detect that and actually act on that. But at this point, they are already running about a month ahead of where I thought they could be in just about a month of the semester. So I’m really hoping we can get that far.

Rebecca: Can you talk a little bit about why you chose the Alice platform, and what you were really hoping to foster with students.

Rameen: So, just a bit of background about Alice, Alice is supported by researchers in Carnegie Mellon. I think Randy Paudsch, when he was at University of Virginia, is really the person that began the innovation with Alice. And he thern moved to Carnegie Mellon. Many people in computer science would know who he is because of his work in VR, but what he should universally be known for is The Last Lecture, which is a pretty amazing hour plus lecture he gave before he died from cancer. But that group has been working on Alice for a very, very long time, and of course, has had new actors along the way. Don Slater is one of the people that has been part of that group for a long time, and he’s very much involved and was at the time when I met him very much involved in advanced placement. And that’s something I’ve been involved in for a long time, advanced placement for computer science. So one of the things we do in AP readings, we have people do professional development activities, and he gave a talk about Alice and this is a long time ago. But when I first listened to him talk about it, and he showed the features of the system, I really didn’t have a place for it in anything I taught at the time. So it has been brewing in the back of my head as a thing to build a course around for a long time, but really couldn’t have done it until the opportunity came along to build a signature course.

John: For those students who do go on to computer science. It seems like a really nice way of introducing the concept of object oriented programming. Does it work in that way?

Rameen: So the thing to understand about object orientation is that most of us who are software engineers by discipline, database types, we are very comfortable thinking of a student information being an object and the fact that we have a container of student objects and so on. But it turns out that’s not necessarily as comfortable for students as it is for those of us who do this for a living. But when you say, here’s an avatar, and you put this on the screen, and you could tell it to go from point A to point B, that seems like a very natural idea to students, and the fact that this particular avatar, so suppose it’s a bird, has wings, and opposed to a person who has legs, you don’t have to explain that. It’s a concept as inherent in being a human being and 18,19 years old. So some aspects of object orientation that often is difficult for students that are really obvious in this context. So any object like an avatar of a person, dog, cat, whatever, they can all be moved from point A to point B. So they share a set of expectations and attributes. They have a location in a 3D world, and you can move them from A to B, piece of cake, they understand. But then you say, “Well, this one is a bird, it has wings.” So the fact that you can spread the wings or fold the wings would be a characteristic that exists only because of it’s a bird. So inheritance, which is a concept that we like to teach in computer science is just built into the way the system behaves. And no student will say, “Well, what do you mean, a bird can spread this way or fold its wing.” People just naturally know what it all means. And believe me, it’s not always natural, in some of the other things we try to do with students to teach these topics. So it does lend itself extremely well, in understanding that objects have attributes, they have functionality, and it’s all there on the screen, and they can see it.

Rebecca: I think Alice is really nice, because it is so visual. And so you get those immediate, “I can see the thing I did,” whereas I remember when I started learning some code, I was building a database for car parts, and it was completely abstract. And I cared nothing about car parts.

Rameen: Yeah.

Rebecca: So it didn’t make it that accessible to me.

Rameen: It’s not, exactly, then the other aspect of it that I think we need to think about, about the platform, is that you don’t write a single line of code, you generate 1000s and 1000s of lines of code, but you don’t write any. So if you have a particular avatar as the object that you’re processing at the time, in building your code on the screen, you could just drag and drop functionality it has into your code. If you need to loop and repeat steps, you drop a loop into your code and then put the steps you want to repeat inside that loop. So all the typical barriers a student had with syntax or various languages, whether it was Java, Python, C++ kind of wash away, because you don’t really have to know syntax at all you, need to know “what are you trying to do?” and what will enable you to do it, and then you can execute that. So far, clearly, that’s not a problem for them. Here is the screen, this part of it is dedicated to X, that part of it is dedicated to Y and they’ve been able to handle it probably from week one. So all the standard things that tend to take a long time, don’t take any time. And besides doing 3D graphics, if you are a computer science person, in my mind, is super senior level type of activity. You got to teach them an awful lot about data structures and other event handling elements that they must learn because that is what we all had to learn. But guess what, you can learn it with Alice in short order. And this is the course is proving that you can.

John: Now one of the challenges that I could imagine you might have as that students come in with different levels of prior knowledge or interest or engagement with computer science. Some students may have not written a single line of code in any language, while others may also be taking other CS courses at the same time, or have some prior programming experience. How do you address the differences in background?

Rameen: So my sample case here is small, I only have 17 students, but this is not a computer science required course. So this is one that has art students in it, it has biology students, and and it does have a few computer science students and then maybe this one with an AP computer science background from high school, and none of them are doing any better than these other kids. So I guess the point is, it levels the playing field in a pretty significant way. If you can think a thought you can probably write code in Alice. And I’m finding it quite interesting, since I’m not preparing them for another course… not only this course doesn’t have a prerequisite, it’s not a prerequisite for anything else. So the way I designed the course going into it, I went into it with thinking, okay, so if storytelling and writing a really cool story within groups is the best I can get out of them, great. If I can get them to a point where they can write new functionality for objects, and I can help them write reactive programming so they react to the mouse click or collisions of objects and so on, maybe I’m dreaming, but that would be fantastic. At this point, I’m pretty certain I can get him there without other stuff. But that was kind of the key coming into the course, I walked in with a mindset of being flexible, that if they are struggling, I’m not going to keep pushing it like I would typically do in a CS course, which is partly why you would also lose students, but at least in my experience with these kids, and I can’t say until I teach it again (and hopefully I can) whether it will be the way it works is that you show them how to do something, and then they go to work, and they start doing it and then they make mistakes, and we all do, and then you give them a little bit of a hint about potentially maybe a different technique they could have used to accomplish the same task. I’m just going to give you an example. So you want the bird to go from point A to point B, so it’s on the ground, needs to go up on top of the tree. So Alice lets you put a marker where you want it to go on the tree, because you can’t go to the tree, you’re going on a branch of a tree. So you need to know how to put a marker there. So you put a marker there. And then it just goes from point A to point B, it goes from the ground to the top of the tree, then you say “Wait a minute, that’s really not the way birds fly.” So now you got to figure out, well, how am I going to flap his wings to go from point A to point B, to go from the ground to the branch on that tree? So it turns out and I’ve come up with a solution to this myself, obviously, you can’t really teach these things if you haven’t thought about how you could possibly solve them. And one of my students, after like three weeks of instruction, she figured out how to do what we call in Alice a “do together.” So as it’s moving from point A to point B, the step that is happening at the same time is the flapping event of spreading and folding the bird’s wing and she made it very clear that the bird was flying [LAUGHTER] from the ground to the tree with no interruption. Then we need to talk about well, do they really need their legs hanging out as they’re flying? I don’t know much about birds, but I think they fold their legs back. So now we have to learn how to address some kind of a functionality that is about a part of the body of the bird. So this is the way the learning is happening in the course, kind of naturally, you’re trying to make a realistic action on the screen in the animation. Well, how are we going to do that? Well, we have to now address the joints like the hip joint or the knee joint or the ankle joint to make that much more natural in the way it works. And there’s no persuasion here, the student is trying to make an interesting thing. And then I’m there to help them figure out how do you make that much more realistic.

Rebecca: What I really love about these courses, and in what you’re describing with Alice, as someone who’s also taught code to students, particularly ones that are not in computer science, is that they’re thinking like a computer scientist, and you’re really getting them completely within the discipline, you’re hooking them right in because they’re leading with their curiosity. They’re not satisfied with the way something looks, so they’re digging in and digging in and digging in. And unlike our traditional way of structuring curriculum, where we think this is the foundational information, and this is the next thing we build on, it almost turns it totally on its head [LAUGHTER], and does it like backwards from what we traditionally do. And it’s really fun.

Rameen: Well, I think the students are at the center of that type of a decision, that for years, you see human beings that probably could do this kind of work, but shortly after they try and they get errors after errors after errors, they say, “Hey, listen, this is great that there are geeks like you would like to do this kind of thing. It’s not for me,” and they walk away from the discipline, even though they could have had great contributions in computer science. So for me if some of these concepts are introduced this way, where syntax and semantics, which is typically what slows people down when they first begin, even the systems we use… like how do you type your program? And how do you run your program? …there’s a whole bunch of instruction around how do you do anything. You just go to alice.org, you download Alice 3, but once you do, it’s here you go, you click here, and then you set up your scene; you click here, you begin writing code. Well, how you write code? Well, the object is on the left side, you drag the command from the left to the right, how far do you want it to go? Well, you gotta choose a certain distance that it needs to travel… really, really easy for students to take to right away. And I just had no idea what I should expect. You watch a lot of YouTube videos. I mean, I certainly do when I was preparing this course, of all these different people, young and old, building things and being proud of what they had built. And I thought, if I could bring that to a course for our first-year students, that would be really, really awesome. And I think that’s what has happened.

John: You mentioned that the students are able to interact. Are they all in one virtual shared space for the class? Or do they have to invite the other students into the spaces that they’ve developed?

Rameen: So this is a really good question, John. So when I imagined how the course was going to work, I had to think of a number of things. One, I asked our technology people to install Alice on all lab computers because I can’t assume or assert that every single student that will take a course like this will necessarily have the equipment that could enable them to run it. Even the Mac kids who had trouble at first installing the thing, and I needed people to help them to get it installed, even they could continue to work because we had the software on our machines. The type of collaboration that I advocate for in class is a little untraditional. At least I think you could argue that it may be. So like the other day, I gave them a 10-question quiz. So they answer the 10-question quiz. And then I said, “Find a couple of other people and persuade them why your answers are correct and their answer is wrong.” So now the whole room starts talking about the quiz. I don’t know if they’ve ever had an experience where somebody says, “This is not cheating, what I’m asking you to do.” Who gives a quiz that says, talk to everybody else to see what they answered for the quiz.

REBECCA; John does. [LAUGHTER]

Rameen: And that’s not surprising, but in my mind, is it about the learning process? Or is it about assessing or giving a grade? This is a very low-stake experience. So why exactly would I care if you talk to someone else about it? So why not persuade someone else that your answer is right? That’s a very different tactic than to say, “Do you know the answer? And are you right or wrong?” Persuading someone requires talking to them, requires thinking for yourself, first of all. Well, why is this answer right? And then opposite of that, you hear the explanation. Are you persuaded that what they said is accurate? Or do you think they’re wrong? In which case now you’re giving them back a different perspective, and then they change their answer. And of course, you could change your answer for the wrong reason. That’s just one example. I really want them to collaborate and work with each other. And every time somebody does something interesting, like the young woman who built the code that I had not been able to myself, having the birds fly from point A to point B, looking very natural. I had her come to the front of the room, plug in with a connector that is in the room and show everybody how she wrote her code. And we’ve done that at least a dozen times so far, where people just come up, plug their computer and show everybody their code. So we often are worried about students cheating and using other people’s work. And if it is about collaborative learning, then you really have to cultivate the idea that, you know, that was a really good idea, maybe I can do that. And I think hopefully, the course will continue to behave that way where I’m confident everybody’s learning from it. That’s the concern that I’m the only one who knows something, whoever I am as a student, and everybody’s just copying me or whatever. That is not my experience so far in this course. They’re just trying to do it better, and if you have a better idea, maybe I can take that and move with it. Then maybe I’ll make it a better idea. And you see that also with students. One of them figures out how to make somebody walk more naturally, and then the other one even enhances that, even makes it even more realistic in the way you would walk. And that’s kind of what I like to see happen and is actually happening.

Rebecca: So how are students responding? Are you cultivating a whole new crop of computer scientists?

Rameen: So, this is an interesting question. I am wondering, those who are not computer science students, whether or not they decide that this may be something for them. But I’m also… with Rebecca here, is good to bring this up… they might become interested in interaction design as a discipline to pursue and become passionate about. Those of us who do this kind of work for a living and have done it for 40 years or whatever, the engagement aspect is the critical aspect. If they are really invested in the learning process, they can overcome an awful lot of barriers, that frankly, I cannot persuade you to put the time in, if you’re persuaded that you could do something a little bit better, then I’m done. As a teacher, I’ve set up the environment in the way it should be where you are driving the learning process yourself as a student, and they look like that’s what you’re doing at this point. And we’re only within a month into the course and they are behaving that way. Now whether or not they will continue to take more computer science courses, and get a degree in computer science. I’m not really sure, but, hopefully, if they do interaction design, there’ll be better interaction design students, because some of the structures that they have to learn here would definitely benefit them in that curriculum too.

Rebecca: Yeah. When can I come recruit?

Rameen: Anytime. I’ve already had Office of Learning Services. That was one of the things I wanted to point out, that I’ve had Office of Learning Services, they came and they talked about the learning process. And besides what they have done for me and talking about the learning process, and it’s all research-based discussions, which is really critical for students to hear things that actually do work, and we can prove they can work. I talk about the learning process on a regular basis with them. And I’m very interested in them understanding why we’re doing anything that we’re doing. I mean, they may be used to somebody standing in front of them talking for an hour and I just don’t do that. I may talk for 10 minutes and then have them work on stuff and then as we see gaps in what they understand then I talk for 10 more minutes, maybe. I try not to talk a whole lot. I want them to be working. So the time I’ve spent is on building what they are supposed to do to learn, not so much talking to them on a regular basis during the 55 minutes that the class goes on. Unfortunately, I’m not quite sure that that’s the experience they’ll have in other courses that they take, because to me, there is a freedom embedded in the way the course is designed that is hard to replicate if you have to cover from A to Z of some topic. You get to “H” and people are having trouble, well, you just keep going. Well, I don’t if everybody has the luxury to say, well, maybe we need to pause longer because we can’t get past this point. I mean, what’s the point? We get past this point, you’ll never catch up to where the end is. So I am hoping some of them will decide to be CS majors as a result, but I’m more interested in seeing how they will do if they take more CS courses. I mean, if they take a CS 1 course, are they going to do better than a typical person taking a CS 1 course if they move on and take data structures and other courses we require? Will it come to them easier? I think it’s a really interesting question. And I think there’s a lot of research that advocates for the fact that they will do better, but I like to see it firsthand.

John: One of the things I believe was mentioned in the title of the course was storytelling, what types of storytelling takes place in the class? Is it the design of the scenes or is there some other type of communication going on?

Rameen: So the way you do animation, in general… and I probably should back up and say I spent about an ungodly amount of hours trying to learn how to do this, but I went about it backwards because I went after event-driven programming and interesting things that I knew Alice could do to write games. But then you step back from it and say, well, students can’t start there. I mean, that’s just not a good place. So then you look at the alice.org website, which gives you tremendous amount of resources and say, “Oh, designing scenes happens to be the first thing they teach you to do. Oh, maybe I should learn how to design a scene.” So you put the pieces that you want in your story on the screen, and if you don’t want them to appear, you could make them invisible. But the way Alice works, you have to put all the components in on the front end. It’s a little different than the way we do object-oriented programming. When we do object-oriented programming, you create things when you need them, you don’t think about setting up the scene on the front end. So that took a little getting used to, but that’s what you do. And then the characters you put on the screen can move, they can talk, they can fly, they can do whatever you need them to do. And my biggest interest was storytelling, when I was conceiving of the course was that I really want students, especially those from other cultures, other backgrounds, to tell their story, find a way to tell their story. And this is probably going to be starting as a group project for my students in a few weeks. And we’ll see how that actually goes. And obviously it has to have a beginning and middle and an end for it to be an actual story. But I’m just excited to see what they will actually decide to do and how they actually do it. Along the way, though, they’re going to need some tools. And that’s kind of what my contribution will be in making sure that they can tell the story the way they want.

John: It sounds as if developing this course required you to learn quite a few new things that were outside your normal teaching experiences. Do you have any advice for faculty who are working on the development of similar courses?

Rameen: So for those out there who teach for a living, the opportunity to build something from the ground up, especially something that frankly, when I first thought of it, I thought it’d be a lot easier than it turned out, because there was so much that I didn’t know how to do, but when you don’t know something you don’t necessarily know that you don’t know something. People who were doing it and I was watching them do it made it look very easy to me. But once I began to do it, I discovered how much work there was to come to a point that actually orchestrates a course, I mean something that is meaningful, and has a clear direction to it. So if you have that opportunity, even after 40 years of teaching, to start over in some ways and build something that you feel not particularly comfortable about, I really highly recommend people do that. Because that is what your students are experiencing every single day when they are trying to learn this stuff that you know so well. So having a little bit of a taste of what it takes to learn something you know very little about, I think is critical. So my message to the faculty who are listening, is that if that opportunity arises, by all means, take it.,

Rebecca: You certainly get a lot more empathy for what it feels like to not be an expert, when you’re learning something brand new again.

Rameen: Well, that’s the thing about most of the things we do. I’ve been programming for 50 years. So it’s one of those things where you’re completely in tune with the idea of: understand the problem, solve the problem, whatever. But where should the camera be in a 3D world in order for it to point at the person talking just the right way? I had to figure that out. It didn’t come naturally to me. The first bunch of programs I wrote the camera was always in the same spot and then I began learning that “Oh I have control over where this camera goes. [LAUGHTER] So maybe it needs to be somewhere else when this person is talking versus this other one.” That’s been a lot of fun to get a sensibility back into the system here that this stuff is not as obvious as it may seem.

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

Rameen: So I certainly would like to teach the course more, and I also want to do some presentations with the faculty in computer science, and if there is interest in graphic design faculty to do some for them, too, because I think the platform is extremely powerful. It doesn’t cost anything, the resources that exist have been getting developed for a very long time and they’re pretty mature. And again, back to no cost. We all know how much books cost. You really don’t need one, you just use the exercises that they give you at the Carnegie Mellon site for Alice and go with it. So I really want to advocate for faculty to consider using it beyond just this first-year signature course.

John: Well, thank you. This sounds like a really interesting project that can really engage students.

Rebecca: Yeah, it sounds like a lot of fun. I can’t wait to come visit.

Rameen: Yeah. Thank you both. Really, this was fun. Thanks for the tea also.

John: Well, we have Myriam to thank for that.

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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.

Ganesh: Editing assistance by Ganesh.

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