Engagement, Innovative Pedagogies

The In-Between

Last week, Western Connecticut State University launched the fall semester online. We had hoped to open with a blend of online and on-ground experiences, but an uptick in COVID-19 cases in the city of Danbury put us on pause. We are still optimistic about moving to some on campus experiences, but in the meantime, we are in a strange in-between world where we are online only, with an expectation of on-ground eventually. This is a very complicated instructional design challenge. Already, our students are feeling adrift.

When designing for online only, and when students willingly enroll in online only programs, the expectations for instruction are clear. Faculty will choose a variety of strategies for connecting with their students, and though not all courses will be the same, some things are pretty standard. For example, most courses designed for online instruction include an opportunity for introductions. This is often a simple discussion thread where everyone, including the professor, says a few things about who they are and why they are interested in the topic. In most cases, there is also a requirement of some number of responses to peers just to make sure that people start to get to know each other.

This is something we do without thinking in classrooms. We usually spend a little time on the first day doing ice breakers, asking for introductions, and helping students get a sense of who we are as professors. In the online world, we have to think about putting this into the first week experience. Even if the rest of the course is primarily focused on independent work, that little moment to humanize the learning experience makes all the difference to students’ comfort levels.

Unfortunately, if the course was designed as a hybrid experience this step might have been missed. It is likely that faculty thought they would do introductions in the face-to-face part, and now they are jumping into the course material without this vital step. This is kind of alienating to students, especially those who did not want to be online in the first place. The grumbling has begun.

Good news. This one is not too hard to fix. Even in week two, introductions can go a long way toward building community and trust. It is okay to back up for a second. Here are a few good ways to do so:

  1. Add a discussion thread for introductions today and start it with a faculty bio to start. If possible, there should be a few ideas about what to include in the intro to keep things interesting.
  2. Enhance the above by asking for photos of favorite things, places, activities.
  3. Enhance the above with video snippets to support the intro.
  4. It might be nice to award a point or two, so everyone gets a little something for their effort.

In addition to getting to know each other, students who expected to have some face-to-face experiences really wanted that overview of the course that faculty so naturally do as they discuss the syllabus on the first day. With the somewhat abrupt switch, some faculty may have skipped the overview and launched directly into the course material. While the material and the assignments might be exactly what is typically covered in the first class, that missing overview is disorienting for our students. It gives the impression that they are “just teaching themselves.”

Once again, this is not too difficult to remedy. I recommend video for this, but audio is also fine. Record a brief introduction to the material, discuss course expectations, and then go over the syllabus. This should not be longer than 4 minutes. (No one watches things like this that are longer than that.) Doing this work and posting it on the first page of the course will let students know that their professors are actively engaged in creating the learning experience. Without it, students often feel like they just should have read the book on their own.

It would also be great to approximate a few of those casual conversations and opportunities to ask follow-up questions that often happen before and after class. We all know that web conferencing tools do not really support spontaneity in largish groups, but they are excellent for drop-in office hours. Scheduling one or two opportunities each week for students to pop in and ask a question can be very helpful, especially at the start of the semester. Like on-campus office hours, attendance will vary. To encourage participation, you may wish to set topics at the start. Or not. Like on-campus office hours, you can work on other things while you wait. Creating these opportunities for conversation will help students feel supported.

One last thing. It is probably a good idea to do at least one thing in groups. For some faculty, there are lots of group activities woven throughout the course. Groups might work without the instructor, and then turn in projects each week or so. Other faculty like to have groups take place during the designated course time and pop in to interject and steer the conversation. These are great strategies. But, if none of this was in the original course design, then just a small effort can go a long way. Consider some fun reasons to group students, perhaps around some of the interests they posted in the ice breaker activity, and set them up as a study group. (Create a space in the course shell for this). Give a little guidance on the first thing to study for–perhaps insight into a first assignment or quiz–and encourage students to send a representative to the drop-in office hours for any follow up questions. This small step will help students connect with each other. Those connections are more important than ever in this COVID-19 world.

Now, none of what I described above is foreign to those designing a fully online course, and I suspect many of those who prepared for that modality already did these things. But for those who prepared for blended teaching, these steps might not have been in the plans. I offer the above as simple strategies that require no redesign of the course, but just layer on a few small activities to build the human into the course. It is a small effort that can make a big difference. After all, we still want to be a community, even if it is remote.

Change, Engagement, equity, Higher Education

Active(ist) Learning

Well here we are.  In the midst of getting our minds around COVID-19, we have a resurgence of an old plague – racism (thanks to my colleague for that framing).  It seems unbelievable that this could happen while we are all still reeling from the trauma of quarantine. But it is not unbelievable to those who have been on the receiving end of our clearly codified structural biases. Indeed, we should not be surprised at all.  This is not new, and the current quarantine has only enhanced the visibility of the cracks in our socio-economic system.

As I have mentioned in other essays, COVID-19 made obvious the differential experiences of education that we have been complicit in supporting.  In March, as we deployed laptops and hotspots to our neediest students, I wondered why we had neglected this until now.  Why had we been comfortable knowing that our neediest students were required to come to campus (own a car, pay for gas) and forgo opportunities to earn money (give up shifts so they can access our open computer labs) in order to fully access their education? We were perpetuating systemic inequities. Those same students are also unlikely to have the opportunity to

  • win awards because they will not be able to participate in our co-curricular activities, which are the foundations of most awards.
  • do an internship because they need to work to support themselves while in college; or
  • participate in a faculty research project because it will require even more time on campus, time they cannot give.

These pieces of our “meritocracy” are entirely rigged against the struggling students who are mere mortals, as opposed to the superstars we always hold up as examples of what can happen with hard work. I will not go over all of the ways in which the paths to higher education are also rigged against the have-nots.  We all know this, and we should be ashamed that we let it stand. For students of limited means, being a successful college student is nothing short of miraculous.

Yet, our less advantaged students do succeed every day. They juggle the demands of work and school, and they accept the realities of the things they cannot afford. We work hard to help–despite the barriers I have described above.  As we see the barriers, we try to address them. But we are too slow. So is our culture.  Hence the roar of anger, dismay, and pain that we are hearing in our streets.

While it would be easy for me to throw up my hands and say, I cannot think about this right now because COVID-19 is taking my every waking moment, I will not do so.  I must not shy away from a thoughtful response.  Like the people in the streets, members of my community have suffered the endless indignities of a system rigged against them, and they deserve a response. So here it is–I am proposing direct instruction in the tools that can help our students to change the world.

Proposal 1: Let’s reimagine our first year courses. At WCSU, FY courses are a combination of an extended orientation (which is an important step toward equity) and an introduction to a discipline or set of disciplines. We can do better.  Let’s skip the intro to the discipline and focus on debate skills instead. Our students need to practice gathering and presenting evidence, responding to counter-evidence, and understanding multiple points of view. Standing up and presenting one’s case will be excellent preparation for their undergraduate studies and for advocating for their ideas after they graduate. We can build in the orientation piece, but the heart of the course should be honing debate skills.

Proposal 2: Let’s adopt a second year experience that focuses on developing and advocating for policy change. There is room for this in every discipline, but we could also cluster things around special topics. Sophomore year is a great time to do this, so students can understand the connections between policies and their majors.  Think of all the future educators looking at the structure of education while learning about pedagogy. Or the chemistry majors who might partner with our environmental sciences students to develop a path to environmentally responsible invention. And, of course, our students aspiring to careers in justice and law professions might truly delve into the persistent inequities in how our laws are applied.

Proposal 3: Establish a center for policy research that is powered by faculty, embedded in courses, and connected to the relevant political arenas.  Our students can be actively engaged, serving as lead investigators or research assistants as appropriate.  Making policy research part of our required classes will remove a barrier to participation, because it will be on a student’s schedule. We can harness the varied ideas of our students and faculty, who are not uniformly left- or right-leaning in their perspectives. This will help us keep our proposals grounded in the possible. And in a state the size of Connecticut, we will have real opportunities to get these proposals into the right hands.

All of this could be done quickly.  We could just say “let’s do it” and move to logistics instead of engaging in our usual, drawn-out debates. It is not that I do not value those debates, but there is no time for that right now. We must take action. We must prepare our students to take on the hard questions, eyes wide open, and we must instill in them the confidence they need to try to change the world.  We can evaluate and adjust the strategies I have proposed as the flaws emerge (and I know they will). That is good practice. But right now, we need to act, and these proposals are a good enough start.

We (I) will be vilified, of course. Everyone hates it when higher education is political, and this is political. But, as I learned in an undergraduate history class long ago, to do nothing is also political. This proposal is not about teaching students to support a single point of view. It is a proposal in support of the development of the skills necessary for active engagement with important societal questions.  I am pretty sure that was one of the points of education in the first place.


Critical Thinking, Engagement, Higher Education

One Book Re-imagined for COVID-19

For the last 10-15 years, many campuses have welcomed first year students with a one book program.  The concept was to assign a common read to the entering class to help bind them together in a shared conversation.  Often part of first year programs, this ritual also allowed for a preview of college level reading and analysis expectations. It had varied levels of success in terms of community building, but it was a go-to approach for schools interested in improving retention rates (among other goals).

We did this for a few years at WCSU, but ultimately found there was not enough buy-in to have the desired impact.  As we moved to a more eclectic version of a First Year program, this common read concept went by the wayside. I am not really interested in bringing it back. I am, however, very interested in seizing this moment in history to foster dialogue about the aftermath of COVID-19.

Here are ten topics that we should all be talking about in the fall (whatever fall looks like).

  1. Tracing a Virus: The origins and future of the study of epidemiology.  This is an opportunity to bring the non-science major into a rich understanding of how science research works, why math matters and, how to decode information about illnesses.
  2. Healthcare: From corporate benefit to a national security issue. COVID-19 laid bare the dangers of unequal access to healthcare when trying to quell a fast moving virus. This is an opportunity to discuss the realities of a “gig” economy, massive unemployment, and systematically marginalized groups in relation to our national healthcare strategy.
  3. From Smallpox to COVID-19: Public investment in science and the development of vaccines. As we rush to develop a vaccine for COVID-19, it is useful to consider both the protocols necessary for developing a reliable preventative effort and how market-based vs. coordinated international efforts can impact the results.
  4. Economic Crises and Social Change: Homelessness, economic insecurity, and plans for a more equal society. Large scale social changes like the 8-hour workday, child labor laws, social security, Medicare, and civil rights, nearly always occur as a result of a deeply felt national crisis.  What changes can and should we expect from the COVID-19 crisis?
  5. Illness as Metaphor Reconsidered: How language drives our actions and our search for cures. Susan Sontag’s classic work on how language shaped our understandings of tuberculosis and cancer provides a perfect context for considering the ways in which (mis-) characterizations of COVID-19 have shaped our responses.
  6. The Nation vs. the State: Closed states, nationalized production, and other constitutional questions in a time of crisis. When to close, when to open, ensuring access to personal protective equipment (PPE) and COVID-19 testing, bail outs of businesses large and small, and so on – what are the constitutional realities of these questions?
  7. Globalism Revisited: From supply chain disruptions to closed borders in the COVID-19 crisis. For over thirty years, the world has been moving toward an integrated supply chain system that is mostly controlled by private corporations and bottom line considerations.  Given the shortages that occurred with COVID-19, is it time to develop a more balanced system of profits vs. public safety?  What might that balanced system look like?
  8. Unintended Consequences and Opportunities: The Environmental Benefits of the COVID-19 Shut Down.  The reduction in travel at every level has been having a positive impact on air quality.  What other hidden benefits to the environment can we uncover and how might we extend those benefits into the future? We cannot stay locked down forever, but this is a real opportunity to reconsider the structure of our work lives, school lives, and the shape of our communities for a healthier planet.
  9. Internet as Public Utility: The digital divide and access to everything in an online world. As everyone scrambled to move operations online, the digital divide emerged in full force.  From regions of the country with little to no connectivity, to entire school districts with families who cannot afford laptops, the reality of the barriers to social stability and social mobility have come into focus. What would it take to level the playing field? Can access to the internet be re-cast as a public utility?
  10. What are Schools For? How large scale disruptions can help us re-imagine the structure and delivery of, and access to education. Online learning is not all it is cracked up to be and anyone working in education could have told you that.  As we moved pre-K to post-secondary education online, the holes in this approach became very clear. Nevertheless, we can learn a lot from this impromptu experiment that could have long term benefits for education.  What might school look like if we must always be prepared to go online?  What goals will we shed? What will become essential?

If every student (not just First Year) was engaged in one of these topics in the fall, think of the conversations we could have! Perhaps some good policy ideas would emerge. Certainly, we would all have a broader understanding of how a health crisis can shape policy.  For those who are wondering where we will find the time for all of this, I ask, how can we not? What on earth could be more important than learning from this crisis.

Be well everyone.

Engagement, Higher Education

Practical vs. Liberal Arts Education

Well, I am back from my respite in the tropics, where I had time to read several books, some of which were about education.  In an interesting history of higher education in the United States, I found myself laughing aloud, as I read that the demise of liberal arts education has been railed against since at least the 1860s.  Charles Dorn’s, For the Common Good: A New History of Higher Education in America (2017), flags the Morrill Act as a pivotal moment in this argument.  The Library of Congress describes it here:

“An Act Donating Public Lands to the Several States and Territories which may provide Colleges for the Benefit of Agriculture and the Mechanic Arts,” the Morrill Act provided each state with 30,000 acres of Federal land for each member in their Congressional delegation. The land was then sold by the states and the proceeds used to fund public colleges that focused on agriculture and the mechanical arts

Largely celebrated as an act that represented a commitment to education as a public good, it is about as clear a commitment to practical/applied education as there could be.  Even before this act was established, alarms about practical education were being raised. Dorn recounts a speech by John C. C. Hamilton on this very issue.

The numerous schools and colleges scattered over the vast expanse of our country, the liberal encouragement which they receive from the public, and the munificent patronage lavished on them by the various States, amply attest to the value which the American people place on their system of general instruction. And yet, whilst the importance of the subject is recognized in this practical and substantial manner, and whilst we fully understand the great agency which the enlightenment of the citizen is to exert on the progress and final success of our peculiar form of government, it is surprising to see how great a prejudice exists against the liberal studies. The pursuit of them is regarded as a waste of time. We are told that they contribute nothing towards what are vaguely called the practical purposes of life; that they are too tedious to suit the active spirt of the American youth. [An Address Delivered before the Philodemic Society of Georgetown College, D.C., by Joh C.C. Hamilton Esq. of Washington, D.C. (Washington, DC: Henry Polkinhor, 1862), 3-4.]  (as cited in Dorn, p. 68)

So, there it is.  We have always been torn between learning things that are good for us and learning practical things. But Hamilton does not just reflect a sense of longing for liberal arts; he is also recounting a public sentiment about the temperament of the learner. Well, if the liberal arts were “too tedious to suit the active spirit of the American youth” in 1862, then it is the “same as it ever was” (apologies to Talking Heads).

What strikes me is this: with the exception of those very few people who get to spend their lives thinking about one area of study, uninterrupted by commerce or teaching, we are always juggling the love of pure inquiry with the practical use of that inquiry.  For most of us in higher education, the juggle is not practical vs. liberal arts.  It is really about dividing our thinking between our field of study and how best to teach about it.  Frequently, the best path to that teaching is helping students see the value of what they are learning.  Guess what? They frequently find that value when they understand how it might be useful to them.

Whether we are teaching about nursing, accounting, art, philosophy, or history, most of us spend a lot of time considering where the points of engagement might be.  You see, after we get over the notion that everyone finds our discipline exciting (usually in one’s first semester of teaching), we get obsessed with how to help our students feel the excitement that we feel. We usually stumble through many strategies, testing out assignments of various types, trying to get our students to understand what is important or interesting about the subject at hand.  Whatever the assignment, that moment of understanding often comes when students can connect the knowledge to something tangible in their own lives.

So, our nursing students endure anatomy and physiology because they know it is a means to success in their profession.  But what about that art history course?  Can we help them see a purpose for this knowledge without demeaning the pleasure of just encountering some of the great works of art? For those who are pursuing degrees in literature, can we help them see the poetry in math, or at least connect it to their daily realities?  For the psychology major, can we offer a music class that fully engages them with the role of music in our culture, without turning it into preparation for future trivial pursuit games?

I guess what I am trying to say is this; it is all practical or useful in some way.  Indeed, much of what we teach is downright magical in the ways in which it can help us build an understanding of our lives.  Some things are directly useful in particular professional contexts. Others are a different kind of useful as they help us process cultural and emotional responses to all sorts of things. And those much maligned symbols of the true liberal arts, philosophy and history, have never been any more or any less useful than they are at this exact moment in history.  They are filled with opportunities to understand the world around us.

So, let’s not spend another minute arguing about practical vs. liberal arts education. If we continue to commit to a balance of major and general educational experiences, we will be just fine.  Instead, let’s think about how to create learning experiences that help our students discover the practical value that every discipline provides. After all, we don’t actually want them to find this stuff “tedious.”

Agency, Dialogue, Engagement

Policy-Making as Pedagogy

This morning I joined a group of students in Dr. Anna Malavisi’s class:  Sustainability: Economics, Ecology, Ethics.  This interdisciplinary course explores the intersection of these three topics or areas of study on decisions around environmental issues. I was to introduce our guest speakers, State Senators Julie Kushner and Christine Cohen, who serve as chair and vice chair of the Environment Committee.  Their presence provided a wonderful opportunity for our students to get a sense of the complexity of developing good legislation around environmental issues.

The wonderful thing about the conversation was the way in which the Senators were able to give specific details about how communities can come together around an issue and how individuals can participate in the discussions that matter to them.  It was a positive conversation that acknowledged the challenges of budgets, differing interests, and competing needs. Their examples revealed that different perspectives are both a challenge and an opportunity to build consensus.  The examples they provided showed strong pathways to positive change.

As students asked questions about the environmental issues they had identified as important, one of them finally asked a question that sparked a particular interest from me.  She asked, (and I am paraphrasing), how can the university get involved?  Good question.

It is complicated to discuss advocacy at a university.  We do not all believe in the same things.  We do not all want to see issues resolved in the same way.  As a university, we value inclusive dialogue from all points of view, but sometimes we are hesitant to get started on policy advocacy, for fear of the discomfort differing opinions might create.  However, as I listened this morning, all I could think of was the value of the conversation.  Students did not get simple answers to big environmental questions; they got the complexity of competing needs. Perfect!  We can work with this model in so many ways.

As I have remarked in other columns, education has a great opportunity to avoid the silliness that takes place in sound bites, tweets, and communication that is meant to provoke outrage rather than solve problems.  We have the luxury of a semester long conversation on a topic.  We are cultivating scholars who can find answers to questions for themselves and then discuss them in groups. By design, we encourage deep thinking about issues and, by design, we investigate multiple answers to our questions.  Tying those conversations to the potential for real-world change could help raise the level of seriousness with which our students conduct their research and apply their knowledge.

Generally, applied research takes place later in a student’s college career.  We design our curriculum to introduce a field (100-level), engage some of the key scholars (200-300 levels), review the appropriate approaches to scholarship (200-300 levels), and then get into asking and answering questions (300-400 levels).  This all makes sense because we are helping our students build a toolkit and context for answering questions.  But, perhaps we need to re-think the starting place.  What if the introduction to the field was a policy question instead of the history of the discipline?

This approach is particularly well suited to the social sciences, because the big questions in those fields are easily connected to current challenges.  Developing policy recommendations around food insecurity, culturally responsive healthcare, treatments for addiction, appropriate punishments for crimes, or the economics of free public higher education are all likely to yield a lot of good discussion and complex policy analysis.

It can also work well for the humanities.  Consider policy recommendations on topics like censorship and the arts, ratings on various media products, displaying controversial historical artifacts, or promoting diversity in curriculum.  These are weighty topics that demand deep ethical scrutiny, prior to any policy recommendations.

Then there are the sciences.  Instead of discussing the ethics of scientific research after time in the labs, situating the pros and cons of using antimicrobial soaps, requiring vaccinations, or creating databases of DNA in a policy recommendation could be a very compelling introduction to scientific thinking.

Reimagining the beginning of the educational process this way is a great way to connect learning to action from the start.  It moves abstract concepts like bioethics to an exploration of real world implications in easy to understand ways.  Asking students to make decisions and recommendations is a compelling way to support engagement; asking them to collaborate in the process offers the opportunity to practice reasoned and civil discourse.

We would, of course, still need those other steps about the history of the field, relevant theories, and appropriate research methods.  But, if we start with application, perhaps those other courses would have greater meaning for the students, because they will have already seen the path to action.  Better yet, perhaps their advanced research projects will be informed by the notion that the results could be part of a recommendation for changes in the world around them.  Now that is a formula for engaged learning.