Critical Thinking, Engagement, Higher Education, Innovative Pedagogies

Productive Conversations

Eons ago (last Tuesday), before we learned that the President and First Lady had COVID-19, I was thinking a lot about the first presidential debate. As an educator, I’ve always encouraged my students to tune into these events as part of their obligation to be informed citizens. As a communication professor, I used to put these debates in context in terms of media employed and the stylistic elements that followed. I would provide them with excerpts from the Lincoln-Douglas debates, show clips from the Nixon and Kennedy debate, and remind them that hyperbole and mudslinging are in no way new. We would discuss the impact of the medium on these events, thinking through the biases of sound, image, and the differences between being in the room or watching from home. We also discussed rhetorical strategies and the key points of argument and persuasion. The students may have groaned at watching the debates, but they perked up in the discussion. It was fun.

Last week we saw what media ecologists might describe as the obvious “debate” style, when living in a world of instant, participatory communication, fueled by for-profit media structures. These media are antithetical to a true investigation of ideas and are devoid of a commitment to evidence. Television fully succumbed to shouting matches when we moved to 24-hour news cycles in the 80s. Time had to be filled, advertisers had to be bought with good ratings, and in the crowded world of cable TV, yelling was the winner. Indeed, through the 90s, I watched most of the shows with any kind of deliberation, become shouting matches or go off the air. Deliberation is lousy TV, after all, and not nearly “amusing” enough to survive. (1) Websites of all kinds then added immediate feedback to these shout-fests, and Facebook and Twitter helped us all promote our shouting to the world. We don’t just watch shouting, we shout along with the debaters, much in the way an audience at a pop concert no longer listens to the music but sings every song with the band. That’s not debate, that’s a chorus.

I am not going to go over what we saw on screen last Tuesday, smarter people have already done their best. What I am really thinking about is how to create some opportunities to foster productive conversations between regular people, off screen, and in non-monetized contexts. It seems to me that education is an important counterweight to all that cyber-yelling. (2) We absolutely cannot stop what is happening in all forms of electronic media. We can, however, model another way.

The good news is that education is the perfect context for this kind of modeling. We are all about argument (not yelling), evidence, and reflecting on different perspectives on a topic. Indeed, if we are not doing this, then we are not doing education. Whether we are talking about critiques of art and literature, arguments among philosophers and political theorists, or competing hypotheses about DNA, we are modeling arguments. As we sort through differences, sometimes the evidence is clear enough that we might even support a side/perspective/hypothesis (at least for now). But, not necessarily. Usually, we live with ambiguity.

But maybe it is time to be even more intentional about this, so that students really see that they are developing some good discussion skills, not just learning about a particular subject. In the past I have mentioned the idea of Debate Across the Curriculum (3) as an interesting educational strategy. Today, I am thinking about the civic learning initiatives from AAC&U. Drawing on A Crucible Moment: College and Democracy’s Future (4), they have spurred on several initiatives to try to promote teaching practices that foster engagement with democratic ideas. Well, it seems to me that productive conversations are at the heart of democratic ideas.

In a nice short summary chart called A Framework for Twenty-First-Century Civic Learning and Democratic Engagement two things really jump out at me (in 5).

  1. Understanding one’s sources of identity and their influence on civic values, assumptions, and responsibilities to a wider public. (Knowledge).
  2. Seeking, engaging, and being informed by multiple perspectives. (Skills).

Both of these are essential to supporting productive conversations. They ask us to think about our opinions/values, examine their sources, and reflect on how they shape our interactions with the world around us. This isn’t just argument for a right answer, it is a path to understanding. It is such a thoughtful phrasing, that does not seek to demean, but rather to examine. This seems like an excellent way to start showing our students that our goal is to prepare them for productive conversations, not yelling.

I think about the times I tried to discuss the semiotics with my students. Roland Barthes is engaging, but sometimes culturally distant from students in the United States (or in the 21st Century). To translate the ideas in Mythologies to my undergraduates, I often talked about hamburgers, yes, hamburgers. As a nearly life-long vegetarian, it is easy for me to access to symbolic value of hamburgers in the US. We usually had a lot of fun unpacking the ways in which refusing a hamburger can be, well, un-American. Then discussions of flags, national anthems, etc., would start to flow.

From this approach, and using myself as a foil, it seems like we could start to honestly discuss things like not standing for the national anthem or skipping the pledge of allegiance without hostility. It is not that we were all convinced of the validity of these moments of dissent, but we were all civil. We could better access understanding of that dissent by looking at our own values, their sources, and then thinking about those who disagree. On a particularly productive day we might even get to that most important of next steps –

3. Deliberation and bridge building across differences. (Skills)

This is the part that is so sorely lacking from our world right now. Our habits, like the media we use, tend toward taking sides and staying there. But important questions don’t have sides, they have nuances, deeply held convictions, counter-evidence and the need for reflection. I know I am not alone in yearning for more opportunities to build understanding with my students, friends, colleagues, and neighbors. So, let’s seize that desire and do something about it.

No, television, Facebook and Twitter “debates” are not going to improve. The media they occupy just do not support the details and the slow transformation that a depth of understanding requires. They are excellent places for slogans and barbs, but not for evaluating policy or supporting community engagement with important ideas.

But education, now that is the right place to be working on this kind of thinking. After all, we love slow. We live in an older kind of discourse that requires evidence, reflection, and fallibility. We absolutely have the time to go ahead and examine why we are disagreeing and potentially identify some paths forward.

So, let’s make modeling productive conversations a priority and let’s make sure our students recognize these as the core of what education does. In doing so we just might make the world a better place.

  1. Neil Postman, Amusing Ourselves to Death.
  2. Neil Postman, Teaching as a Conserving Activity
  3. Alfred Snider and Max Schnurer, Many Sides: Debate Across the Curriculum
  4. AAC&U, A Crucible Moment: College and Democracy’s Future
  5. Caryn McTighe Musil, Civic Prompts: Making Civic Learning Routine Across the Curriculum

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.

Higher Education, Innovative Pedagogies, Quality

Striving for Excellence

I realized today that I have been in crisis mode for four months. From dramatic exits, to traumatized students, families, faculty, and staff, to trying to carefully solve the puzzle that is the fall semester, the pace of my life has been ridiculous. I do not expect this to stop before September, and then only long enough to trouble shoot whatever we forgot to imagine for the fall semester and then pull reports and imagine what spring might look like.

It is not like the regular duties disappeared, either. The usual evaluations of promotion and tenure candidates took place. So did the reading and writing of annual reports, appointments of new directors of various university areas, review of accreditation reports, and evaluation of our efforts to improve retention and graduation rates. I am already planning for fall projects, prioritizing resources for a new academic success initiative, and producing the annual publication of faculty creative activity.

This morning was spent trying to complete a substantive change application to submit to our regional accreditor. Getting that done seems a bit too much right now, but nevertheless I will finish it this week. As I struggled to find the missing pieces and align my document with the needs of our accreditor, I thought the whole thing might just be impossible. Then I looked again and realized that this was a good opportunity for reflection.

Whenever I write about my university, I end up feeling proud. As tedious as an accreditation document can be, it always gives me the opportunity to step back and consider what we are doing well. In the day-to-day, that is not always possible. I am too busy solving problems, which can make it feel like there are nothing but problems to solve. Writing annual reports, reviewing strategic plans, and preparing for accreditors helps to reveal the good stuff, and even some of the results of all the problem solving.

Some of you just laughed. How could these tedious reports be anything but a chore? Too much? Not really. You see, when you have to gather evidence of doing something, you see the big picture. That big picture is pretty darn good.

For example, when WCSU moved online in March, we did not skip a beat in our path to developing online supports for our students. Tutoring, accessibility services, financial aid, advising, mental health and general health services all flipped to remote delivery immediately. That was good, but the better part is that we learned from it. We are now working toward consistency in training for online support, where appropriate. We are talking about developing good online advising practices. We are reviewing our protocols for online learning to be sure that we are meeting accessibility standards. We have moved beyond the abrupt flip in modalities to a focus on improving these services. Guess what…those improvements will matter long after COVID-19.

Then there was the bumpiness of moving all of our courses online. Ouch! It was hard and not all of it was as good as we would have liked. I will say that all of it was as good as we could manage in such a short time. Now we have a little time to prepare for online/hybrid and whatever else is ahead, and great conversations are going on. Never has our campus been so engaged in thinking about instructional design. The necessity of thinking about education in a new modality has invited us to think about instructional design more broadly. Faculty are participating in the workshops, but they are also helping each other by volunteering to be peer mentors. It is a big effort and folks are fully engaged. Guess what… this attention to the overall design of our courses will matter long after COVID-19. I hope the esprit de corps will transcend the emergency as well.

There has also been a great deal of earnest concern for the well-being of every member of our community. Faculty and staff and administration have been puzzling through the safety measures necessary for on-campus experiences. Each time we have these conversations (nearly every day), someone asks, but what about the students/faculty/staff who should not be here? How will we accommodate them? These are excellent questions. We are making plans for those needs. Every time we discuss online pedagogies, someone asks about students who are not well-suited to this environment. This is an excellent question (one that should be asked of on-ground instruction as well). We are making plans for those needs. Every time we consider being fully online, someone expresses concerns about the socio-economic issues that always impact our neediest students. Will they be able to access their education? This is an excellent concern, and we are working hard to address it. Guess what… this attention to differential needs of our community should matter long after COVID-19.

So, yes it has been a stressful time, full of long days, endless questions, and a learning curve unlike anything I have ever experienced. But I am pretty sure that my university will be better for it. This moment of crisis has brought out the true spirit of WCSU and it is one worth admiring. We have broken free of the usual silos and we are working together. We are listening to new ideas while remembering the good parts of our traditional approaches to education. We are trying to develop a plan that helps everyone succeed.

And absolutely no one seems content to just make do. We are striving for excellence and that makes me tremendously proud. As I think about all of this, that tedious report has become exciting after all.

Higher Education, Innovative Pedagogies, Uncertainty

Contingencies

Well, the national news is not encouraging. This morning I saw that two universities have stepped back from having any campus experiences. Although they started out committed to bringing some of their students back, the early signs in those (southern and western) states are showing a resurgence of COVID-19, so they are changing course. Here in Connecticut, things are still moving in the right direction (lower incidences of infection, low hospitalization rates), but we are just reopening, so time will tell how things progress in July. In the meantime, we must get ready for our August opening with a lot of uncertainty. Oh goodie!

Well, the obvious answer is to prepare to be fully online, just in case. But this is no small thing. Teaching online is (or should be) fundamentally different from on-ground teaching. For example:

  • In the classroom, faculty can see reactions (confusion, engagement, or the lack thereof) and adjust. Online, the space for reactions must be carefully constructed.
  • In the classroom, group work is relatively easily supported, online it must be designed in advance.
  • In the classroom, you can easily change course if things are not working. That change can happen in the same day or by the next session. Online, that change will require re-writing notes/assignments and so on, to address the change.

Preparing to teach online requires thinking about instruction in new ways. It is a departure from the routine. You can see, from this short list, that many people will be tempted to just prepare for teaching the last part of the semester online (when we all go home at Thanksgiving).

Nevertheless, with the hope of some on-campus experience before us, we must prepare for multiple possibilities. This preparation will take effort, but it might benefit all of us for the long haul. In that spirit, I would like to offer some thoughts about course design. I hope this is some encouragement. We’ll see.

First, for faculty who are new to thinking about building courses around weekly topics, with weekly activities to support and assess student understanding of those topics (best practices for online instruction, excellent for those aiming for universal design), I would like to say that this approach will also strengthen the on-ground learning experiences for your students. Like preparing to teach anything, this will require some thought and effort, but it can be very satisfying for everyone involved.

For lower level courses, this weekly topic approach helps students transition from high school to college learning expectations, by providing clear timelines, and lots of opportunity to see if they “get it.” Online, assessment opportunities can easily become self-assessments (mini-quizzes), to reduce grading for the professor. On-ground those same strategies can be deployed in support of the class discussions, ensuring students have started thinking about the ideas before you meet. Then faculty can attend to discussions and more nuanced assignments, without overburdening themselves. It takes time to get all of this organized, but once done, it can be edited each semester, reducing the preparation to normal on-ground levels.

For upper level courses, particularly those that are meant to be seminars, the same weekly groupings of topics apply. Offering these courses online will require a good understanding of how to set up discussion groups, so that students can take on leadership roles. This is a usual practice on ground that translates to online very nicely. It is true that most of this will be asynchronous and lack some of the in-classroom spontaneity. However, the time lag in responses often allows students to think through ideas in ways that they have difficulty doing in the classroom. Their responses, with time to think, are often more grounded in the readings and more thoughtful. The grading will be the same as always (usually lots of writing assignments in these kinds of classes), and faculty will find themselves nudging conversations rather than responding to everything, just like a seminar. In other words, it does not have to be a lot more work than on-ground seminars, after you set things up.

Second, many people already teach hybrid courses. This approach has long been seen as an effective strategy for learning at many levels. It blends some face-to-face experiences with online work. Faculty who have been doing this have been deciding about what is vital for on-ground and what works well online, for years. In normal times those decisions are made in advance. However, teaching this way also requires the kind of organized experience that an online class requires. Faculty who have taught hybrid courses will be well-prepared to flip to fully online if necessary. It might be a good time to phone a friend and see how they do this.

Finally, for those who plan to use live meeting platforms for the fall, I must acknowledge that it is not necessarily ideal. If you like to lecture, great, but getting feedback from students will be a challenge. We have all learned about the strengths and weaknesses of WebEx, Zoom, Teams, etc., this spring. People try to have “conversations” but they end up being frustrated as we wait for people to mute and un-mute themselves (and forget to re-mute themselves afterward). It can happen, if you assign moderators to discussion boards, but it is tricky.

And there are limits to our ability to pay attention in online meetings. We all know this now that we are working remotely. The chunking strategies that are ideal for the online teaching environment, are also preferable in the WebEx/Zoom environment. Faculty should carefully consider how they are organizing time in this environment. You will be glad you did.

In addition, even if you prefer the live meetings, assignments and assessments, you still need a learning platform (in our case, Blackboard Learn) so that students have a consistent experience. It is incredibly frustrating for students to have to find their courses – with some in email, some in Teams, and some in Blackboard. So, the work of preparing the course will still need the kind of preparation that our online classes require. It may be work to set this up, but those same tools work on ground, too, so it is not wasted time. Indeed, I have long enjoyed collecting assignments this way. It helps me keep track of things in multiple courses, instead of unseparated email trails and piles of paper.

So, I guess what I am saying is we must prepare to teach fully online, but the best techniques for online teaching can have great benefits for on-ground teaching. The process of imagining your material in multiple formats, might also help you see that material differently. This has the potential to help you reach students with diverse learning styles. The tools that you leverage now will be there for snow days, conference trips, and other scheduling purposes after COVID-19. They may also help us chart a new path toward new schedule configurations in the future. This is something we should be thinking about anyway, so why not take advantage of this moment of crisis to prepare for a more flexible future.

I know it is hard, but, after it is done, I think it will be worth it, not just for the fall, but for the future of the university.

equity, Higher Education, Innovative Pedagogies, Quality, Technology

COVID-19: Lessons Learned Round I

Final exams are underway, we are preparing our virtual commencement messages (to be followed up with a live event in the fall) and the rush to declare classes pass/fail is over.  Believe it or not, we are at the finish line for spring 2020 disrupted.  Discussions about fall have begun, but before we get to that, it is time to acknowledge what we have learned from this pandemic so far.  In reverse order, here are my top three lessons learned.

Lesson 3: We were not prepared for this.  

Well, “how could we be,” you say?  “This is new for everyone.” Yes, but we could have done better if we were not in the habit of thinking short-term.

We consider emergency scenarios all the time. From devastating storms to campus lockdowns to fast moving illnesses, all of higher education has worked hard to prepare for the worst.  And we have been through many of these things at WCSU.  Since I arrived at WCSU in 2012, there have been two major October storms that made campus largely uninhabitable for a week.  We had to pause.  We had a tornado (a micro-burst) that did much the same.  There have been water main breaks and heavy snow seasons and so on, and each time, well things mostly just stopped.

That is not preparation–that is closing Yet, we had the technology available for continuity of instruction all along. In this new normal, where the possibility of closing could recur multiple times in the next year (I’m sorry, but that seems likely given the spikes associated with reopening), we should be truly prepared for moving online.

Taking the opportunity to learn about online instruction must become a regular part of the life of a faculty member. Unless one’s career is fully devoted to research, with no expectation of teaching, this is as important as keeping up with new developments in one’s discipline. We don’t all have to be experts, but every university must establish basic guidelines on course design that are the minimum, and every faculty member should know how to meet that minimum. Every course should be developed to meet those minimum standards as a routine practice.

In other words, when we write a syllabus, develop schedule, and select course materials, we should then put it all in whatever learning management system the university uses, as routinely as we used to make copies to hand out in class.  It cannot be acceptable to just stop instruction whenever it snows or rains or any flu rages.  Unless the power goes out, we should be ready to teach. That is prepared.

Lesson 2: We have an equity issue.

Prior to COVID-19, we were content to let our neediest students depend on our computer labs and libraries to fully participate in their education.  What a ridiculous state of affairs that was.  Those same students are the most likely to have work schedules that keep them from being available when those spaces are open.  This is just a “duh” moment folks.  One cannot fully participate in higher education without a laptop and access to the internet.

When we all became tech crazed, private colleges and universities did things like give all first year students a laptop.  It was really a publicity stunt for them, because most of their students can afford to bring their own. We never thought it was within our means to do this in public higher ed.  Guess what, this must be a minimum standard for all of our students.  It is not just about moving to online in an emergency: it is about full access to one’s education and all students deserve it.  It is time to right this wrong and provide those minimum tools to all students.

Lesson 1: Online Education Sucks!

We have known it all along, of course, but this experience confirms it. There is just nothing like the immediacy of face-to-face learning in a shared space. Online learning is ok for graduate programs that serve working adults. It is okay for the odd undergraduate class as an alternative learning experience, and because, well, it gives some schedule flexibility.  We push it for returning adult learners because they are usually juggling other things. Do you see the theme here? Online education makes room for education for those who are trying to fit it in with other things.  It is not an opportunity to immerse oneself in education that a more traditional approach allows.

I want to be clear, there can be wonderful online learning experiences. Good course design and a passionate instructor can truly engage students and help them grow.  In fact, I have taught online and felt fully connected to my students. The kind of organizing required to do good online teaching actually improved my on-ground teaching as well, because if forced me to be a much more careful planner and to really think developmentally. So, online has its place and preparing for online teaching is a good practice.

I also think that the use of hybrid instruction can very much benefit all students.  It gives students multiple ways of encountering the course material, which is central principle of universal design. Shy students often shine online, and many students develop skills as independent learners in this environment. There are even good opportunities for collaboration online that are sometimes difficult for students to achieve face-to-face. Using online to enhance an on-ground class can help faculty dispense with a review of readings by quizzing students online before class (among other things), freeing up time for more discussion. When combined with online instruction, class time can be a true opportunity to explore further or apply knowledge. I am a big fan of that.

But without the face-to-face experience we lose something, and that something turns out to be irreplaceable.  This forced experiment with a totally online campus has all of us aching to return for good reason. There are a million little things that happen when we are all in the same room.  An idea is discovered, a shaky voice becomes braver, the direction of the discussion shifts totally unanticipated ways.  There are hallway conversations that praise or condemn what happened in class, which makes the learning seem more real.  In the real world there is spontaneity.

Like the connections that Facebook and Instagram and all the other social media provide, we are thrilled to be able maintain the connections with students that online learning provides.  It is an excellent continuity of instruction system.  And everyone in higher education depends on the electronic access to resources all the time, and that is a true benefit to the digital revolution. But putting the whole thing online … that just isn’t the real deal.

So, let us have no more talk about the efficiencies of online education and the potential cost savings (which are never real).  Online education is a supplement, a means of making up for a disrupted schedule, but the classroom is still the best home for learning.