Thoughts on Stommel and Burtis’s latest

Over the last year, as we've been collaborating more with our amazing instructional designers at JMU, I have learned more about the connections between, but also different emphases and origins of, educational development and instructional design. I am pretty new to educational development (though, 5-10 years in, depending on how I count, when am I supposed to stop saying this?), and this learning experience was very much welcome.

One of the instructional designers whose work I found particularly important over the last year, especially as we pushed back against overeager supporters of online proctoring, is Jesse Stommel. Today's piece, written with Martha Burtis and titled "Counter-friction to stop the machine", is a welcome "provocation" (as the authors call it) and good food for thought as we start processing what the heck happened over the last long year and consider what we need to do (and avoid doing) to have some justified hope in higher education.

Read the thing, and the follow-up pieces that are promised. Here I'd like to comment on two points by adding something that I think is compatible and worth the consideration. Stommel and Burtis note the paradox that faculty are assumed to be at least competent in-classroom teachers coming out of grad school, even though most of them have no formal instruction in teaching whatsoever, while online teachers are assumed to be clueless as to teaching and need close control by instructional designers and other "support staff" (who in turn should have the respect and status of faculty). (I appreciate that at my institution instructional designers HAVE faculty status.) Why are classroom teachers assumed to be competent? Stommel and Burtis write:

The answer likely lies in a number of assumptions about teaching that have been baked into our institutions:

1. Good college teaching derives from emulation; faculty can become good teachers because they can (and will) emulate how they were taught. We assume college faculty were taught “well” because they ended up with the terminal degree in their field.

2. Good college teaching derives from good college learning; faculty can become good teachers (again by osmosis) because they understand what it means to be a “good learner.” They can translate their own experiences into courses that turn students into “good learners.”

3. Since faculty were, by and large, taught mostly in traditional face-to-face contexts, we assume they can only emulate and translate within that modality.

4. Online and hybrid learning are “other” and unfamiliar because they’re not how most faculty learned; its presumed faculty need to learn a new language of teaching or have it translated for them.

https://hybridpedagogy.org/the-endgame-for-instructional-design/

The teacher-by-osmosis theory. And now I forgot what point I wanted to make. Oh, here it is: I think an additional paradox produced by this kind of reactionary "I am a doctor I know how to teach thank you very much" view is that scholarship is considered a public matter: we publish it, we problematize it, we ask puzzling questions, we expect criticism to which we can respond, etc. etc. Teaching, on the other hand, is considered to be almost private, part of our employment record. It is bad manners to speak of it in anything but positive terms, we don't disclose where we get stuck, we definitely don't want others to criticize what we are doing. As a result, while we have robust (though far from perfect, see reviewer 2) discourse in our scholarship, our scholarly discourse about teaching and learning has ways to go. Of course, I'm not being new or original here (see e.g. Huber and Hutchings call for a "teaching commons" in the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning), and I'm also not completely correct: I do appreciate the willingness of many of my colleagues to openly engage in conversation about their good and bad teaching experiences, though this happens typically in faculty-only conversations, not in public. And, again, while in-classroom teaching is such a kind-of-private matter, this is not so in the online environment, where, as Stommel and Burtis note, institutions and accreditors expect much more intrusive control of what faculty do.

Neither of this is a good state of affairs, obviously: Controlling-meddling does not foster good teaching, nor does lack of scholarly discourse on teaching. Which gets me to my second point: As someone who has done some observing and thinking about the roles of instructional designers and educational developers, I think part of what we need IS more collaboration and overlap between designers and developers. We need expert scholars on designing learning systems, structures, experiences, practices. And we need people whose work is focused on supporting (not sure "developing" is the right word here) faculty as educators: as professionals who combine disciplinary deep work with teaching, with leadership, with making their expertise useful to their various communities, with with with. We need people who combine these qualities and qualifications, but most of all we need authentic collaboration between the two disciplines to create the needed kind of applied educational discourse that encourages experimentation, offers room for failure, gives critical feedback, helps faculty (and staff) avoid burnout, advocates for institutions that are good for humans—the whole community of practice packet that we'll need.

(I am writing this as part of the #100DaysToOffload project because I don't want to give a shit about whether this is polished or not.)

The paradox of value neutrality in our teaching

At least in political science (I suspect also in other disciplines), there is a common ethic of political neutrality, at least in teaching. This makes overall sense: we don't want to indoctrinate students but help them learn about politics and form their own opinions and political identities. In mainstream political science, at least, such a neutral stance is also taken: We just study what happens, we're descriptive, not prescriptive. Of course, critical theorists have debunked such pretend-neutrality as a particular status-quo oriented value bias.

I suspect that other disciplines have similar written or unwritten neutrality norms. A few years ago, my institution adopted a (very laudable) program in ethics education that offered a range of approaches (they were called "key questions") and engaged students in using these questions whenever they encountered ethical decisions. The questions did not favor any particular ethical outcome; in fact, any decision could usually be justified by at least one of the key questions. Value neutrality! (This is partly justified with a reference to ethical dilemmas, in which no outcome is clearly good or evil. I should add, though, that the perception of a dilemma seems, at least occasionally, to be contingent on our highly individualistic "Western" value system, which is more accepting of openly amoral choices as long as someone comes up with a forcefully presented defense of them.)

What I find paradoxical about value neutrality in our teaching is that we take this stance in order to help students develop their own values, political views, identities; but by pretending that we are value neutral, we privilege NOT having values. In other words, we want students to make well-reasoned, carefully considered value choices while performing the roles of those who eschew value choices.

Obviously, who are we shitting? Not our students: they know that we hold values, and they imagine what they might be. I don't think we are helping them become good, moral human beings by pretending we are moral and political blank slates.

Reflections at the end of a pandemic academic year

My friend and colleague Emily Gravett asked me to contribute to this semester's final edition of the CFI Teaching Toolbox, a series of short email articles that she edits (and many of which she writes). Her prompt consisted of the following questions:

  • How am I doing?
  • What have I/we learned from the pandemic?
  • How will we transition back, thinking about summer and fall?
  • What challenges and opportunities can I identify in this transition?
  • What do I/we need to move forward?
  • What lessons do I want to carry with me?

The point was not to answer all of these questions, though I think I touched in some way on most of them. To see the responses of my colleagues, check the toolbox link above at some point on Thursday if you are not subscribed to the toolbox email newsletter.

Since you're asking how I am doing, I'll respond as I usually do these days—I'm doing OK. I have a well-paid job; I live in a spacious house; I can get out to forests and parks; I can work from home (saving on my commute made me more productive) and protect myself pretty well from COVID. But underneath all of this is a sense that things are falling apart, that society is tearing at its seams. I am worried about the colleagues, friends, and family who are sick. A good portion of the population is unwilling, for ideological and ego reasons, to bear even minor costs that would protect others. Some of the most prominent politicians and media personalities fuel such destructive, selfish behavior. And through all of this, we get constant news of all kinds of police shootings, all kinds of racist attacks, mass shootings. Our society seems broken. And then I remember that maybe it just appears to me, a white, well-to-do, educated middle class guy, that society used to be overall whole, things were good. For Black people, for example, America has been broken from the beginning (N.K. Jemisin's Broken Earth metaphor is quite fitting).

Where do we go from here? I look forward to interacting with people “in the flesh” again, though I think we will be keeping more distance for a while. (Small groups suit me better than large crowds, personally.) We've added tools to our teaching that we'll keep using. But I hope we will learn more deeply from our long pandemic year: That education can't just be about knowledge but requires ethical formation. That teaching includes leaving a society to the next generation that is more just, caring, and sustainable. That the individualist, competitive model that we've followed for centuries has met a point of failure that requires foundational rethinking of what we are doing, and how. That innovation is not the result of more gizmos but consists of strategies to build a better society and become better humans.

Pandemic Teaching Memo to Myself

Here is another CFI Teaching Toolbox that I wrote for the start of the fall semester. Follow the link to subscribe to the teaching toolbox email newsletter.

As another pandemic semester comes around and wreaks havoc with our teaching routines, I’ve found that I have to set some reminders for myself to go back to when the whirlwind of work makes it seem that nothing matters than the next immediate urgency. I didn’t have time to embroider these insights on pillowcases (so much for summer plans). A listicle will have to do:

  1. I’m overworked, overwhelmed, and freaked out. My students are likely to be more overworked, overwhelmed, and freaked out. Or maybe they’re just doing fine. Who knows? I'll have to reach out and check in with them—in person, by email, through anonymous surveys, whatever works. Let them know that I care about their well-being.
  2. I’ll have to focus on the essentials in my course: What is most important for students to learn? What are the central, inspiring, compelling questions that I want students to think about? What knowledge and skills should students definitely take away from the class? What things do I cover only because they’re in the textbook? Everybody’s bandwidth is limited this semester!
  3. As Cara Meixner reminded me two weeks ago, I need to keep affective learning goals and practices in mind. Practice care for myself and my students. We’ll all need it! And intellectual growth has to come along (and is often the result of) affective growth. 
  4. I love to geek out over new teaching tools and methods, but I’ll have to focus on a few simple, reliable, and effective teaching methods and tools. It is tempting to try out all the Shiny New Things that I come across, but doing so will only overwhelm me and confuse students.
  5. There is so much to read about teaching during a pandemic, and my reading list keeps growing faster than my reading time. Good news: I don't have to read it all. Or most of it. [Or any of it! adds Emily Gravett]
  6. There is so much advice out there! Not everything works for me: Video lectures are supposed to be up to 10 minutes long, but I noticed that, if I follow this advice, the production process takes much too long. Longer, fewer videos (and less lecturing) may be good enough. More lower-stakes assignments followed by in-depth feedback are better than a few high-stakes assignments, but, with my other professional responsibilities, I simply may not have the time for too much grading or commenting. 
  7. Even though I just promised not to overwork, I am still committed to following principles ofinclusive and anti-racist teaching. This is something that I’ll have to go back to again and again, reflect on, journal about, work on.
  8. This semester will be chaotic. How will we adapt to physically distanced in-person teaching? Will livestreaming lectures through a doc cam work? Will there be an online pivot 2.0? Will we get sick? I need to be prepared to improvise; focus on what’s essential (second point above) and what’s simple and reliable (fourth point above); take a deep breath; and adopt, adapt, and improve.
  9. I need to give students input and agency. What questions and topics do they find essential? What are their preferred ways of interacting? What tools do they use to stay in contact with family and friends? In the past, I’ve found that they can tell me what works for them.
  10. In a rush, I often end up lecturing too much. Reminder: I’ll have to find ways to make my classes interactive, even if it’s only in simple ways: brief surveys or polls, two-sentence “papers,” reflective paragraphs, and other Classroom Assessment TechniquesCanvas discussion boards are my friend(and can be set up for small groups), Zoom (I hope we’ll soon have a campus license) breakout rooms are my friends. I’ll plan on combining individual activities (reflection, writing) with small-group work (pairs of students, for example) and large-group interaction. 
  11. I don’t have to grade to provide feedback. In fact, I don't always have to provide feedback; student peer feedback can be part of activities, for example, in small-group discussions. I don’t have to respond to every single discussion board post (I’ll post this right above my monitor); instead, I’ll provide summary take-home points or observations afterwards in a short video or email.
  12. Maybe the most important point for me to remember: I need to stay in touch with friends, colleagues, frolleagues. Just because, but also to get feedback, advice, and new ideas. And I’ll have to sneak into some of the (free! can you believe it?) programs offered by my colleagues at CFI andLibraries.

What does your own beginning-of-semester listicle look like?

The wild ride that’s this year continues. Let’s hang in there and make the best of it. Best (of all possible) wishes for fall 2020!

Special Summer Teaching Toolbox: Inclusive Teaching

Two weeks ago or so, I added the following to the CFI Teaching Toolbox series.

As the Black Lives Matter protests revived this summer, there have been increased calls for inclusive,antiracistculturally responsive, and other teaching approaches that focus on JEDI (Justice, Equity, Diversity, Inclusion). These are not the same things, and we thought it was worth focusing on these different concepts in different toolboxes (stay tuned!). Inclusive teaching is about “creating equitable and welcoming educational environments for the diverse learners in our classrooms.” The focus of inclusive teaching is to make sure all qualified students are included in the learning community in our classes as equal members, with equal opportunities to learn and to succeed, independently of their socioeconomic background, racial-ethnic-cultural identity, gender and gender expression, sexual orientation, disability status, and the like. While inclusive teaching can be compatible with other forms of JEDI-oriented teaching and should ground the latter, it does not necessarily transform and decenter the curriculum from the Eurocentric traditions that feed the content in many disciplines. In other words, inclusive teaching may attempt to include minoritized students in a class community that is still dominated by white perspectives, institutions, traditions, ways of knowing, and other ways in which white supremacy structures our learning environments (see e.g., Haynes 2017). 

Here, I'd like to summarize a few of the key principles of inclusive teaching that form the basis of a reflection tool that two colleagues—Ed Brantmeier at CFI and Carl Moore at the University of the District of Columbia—and I developed a number of years ago. “The tool” is not exactly a cookbook for creating inclusive courses, but it does raise a number of questions that are important to consider as we try to make our classes more inclusive. When we created the tool, Ed suggested making a distinction between course context, course subtext, and course text. Let's take a look what these can practically mean for our teaching:

Continue reading Special Summer Teaching Toolbox: Inclusive Teaching

Spring 2020: A Look Back With Relief

The end of spring classes is now several weeks in the past. By this time the train has moved on and we are in the midst of another round of tasks that will eat up the summer: I (foolishly) promised online workshops on online Team-Based Learning and discussion boards; I have two week-long institutes on faculty portfolios to facilitate; I will support faculty who are applying for state-wide awards; and I'll have to prepare this year’s new faculty orientation program, which probably will be online in some shape or form. And on top of this I’ve been pulled in to help a colleague with little tech preparation to run an online four-week course, adding 1-2 hours to five days of the week until the middle of June. And I should probably prepare a report on the assessment data that I collected last year about our New Faculty Academy. Good thing that I cannot leave the house!

So, how did the spring semester end? Not with a bang but with a whimper! (Funny how good poetry can devolve into cliché, eh?) I noticed that I was slo-mo crashing during the last two weeks of classes or so. Nothing dramatic, but working felt more and more like wading through some kind of jelly; you could do it, but it was more effort than usual. I was badly, badly behind with grading, and the class became less interactive than I wish it had been. In addition, the end of the semester provided an added need for educational development programs, so I helped write a CFI Teaching Toolbox about final exams and participated in open office hours and consults on that topic. At least I managed to record a few lectures on different approaches to interpreting the Constitution. These will be useful for future classes, even for flipping in-person classes. (And I just saw that the first video got 18 views, which means that 11 students out of 29 did not watch it—that's a fairly typical "attendance" rate for the last week of classes. Sad in principle, but not too bad for this emergency!)

Looking back at the semester, here are some things that I’ve observed, some surprising, some not so:

Continue reading Spring 2020: A Look Back With Relief

Examining Exams

Here is a CFI Teaching Toolbox email on final exams in these COVIDious times, co-authored by my colleague Emily Gravett and me.

Special Edition Teaching Toolbox:

Examining Final Exams

by Andreas Broscheid and Emily O. Gravett

One of the main concerns we’ve heard from colleagues about online teaching is connected to the integrity of grades. Online exams and other assignments give new opportunities for cheating: Students can use Google to look up answers without actually having learned the material; they can email and text each other during exams; they can take photos of test questions and distribute them widely; they can outsource their work to others who are more knowledgeable and more than happy to be paid. After all, on the internet, nobody knows you're a dog.

Common responses to such concerns include timed tests that make it difficult for students to cheat, as cheating takes time, and various forms of online proctoring, for example, through video conferencing systems monitored by professional services. Yet these approaches can be problematic. Timed tests are not only a barrier for some students with disabilities (who theoretically can get extended time through an ODS access plan, though not all students have the economic resources to get the required medical tests to receive such accommodations in the first place), but also for students who do not have the economic resources for fast or reliable internet connections. (Try taking a timed exam from a McDonalds parking lot!) And forced video proctoring violates student privacy, as we—or the proctoring services—spy into their living spaces that now double as work spaces, and data security, as their movements are tracked and sold to third parties. (For more about problems with video proctoring, see this recent Washington Post article.)

Some disciplines and programs may nevertheless force instructors to use such “brute force” strategies against cheating, even if these strategies discriminate against otherwise already disadvantaged students and do not fully prevent the problem. We hope that the current crisis leads to a reconsideration of such policies, but faculty may have no choice but to follow suit in such circumstances. For those who have the academic freedom to avoid timed and proctored exams, we offer the following suggestions and considerations, in addition to those from JMU Libraries:

Continue reading Examining Exams

More on jigsaws and video lectures

In my post from March 31, I mentioned an assignment in which students in my US Judiciary class were asked to create mini online lectures on aspects of the Supreme Court process. I think it was a smashing success: Six of the seven student teams have created their videos, and a seventh is on the way. Not only that: the other students are busy watching and commenting. I uploaded the videos into TechSmith Relay, since this has two advantages: First, the videos can be restricted to the class only, so that student privacy can be guaranteed and FERPA won't come knocking on my door. Second, there is a feature that lets students comment and ask questions about a specific point in the video. Neat! I can see video views, and there now in the high 70s and 80s. Not bad for 29 students. (OK, some of those views must have been me, but still.)

Continue reading More on jigsaws and video lectures

POSC 386, Monday, April 6

Here is today's video message for my class:

Here is the sound-only version, and here is the script.

In brief, I am impressed by the video lectures that were created by the class. I hope that everybody had fun creating the videos and has fun watching them.

This week, I offer a synchronous online class meeting where we can discuss questions and comments about the Supreme Court process. Students who for various reasons cannot join the synchronous session or prefer asynchronous work, can alternatively leave a comment or question in the videos on Canvas.

I am producing and posting a series of video lectures on the writ of certiorari and the question of what leads the Supreme Court to grant or deny cert. Watching these videos will be followed by an online debate about a current case in the US appeals court: The case of the former mayor of Allentown, PA, who is incarcerated for corruption and has asked to be released because he fears to be exposed to the Corona virus. The debate question will be whether the Supreme Court should grant a writ of certiorari in that case, should Pawlowski (the former mayor) petition for it. Here is a bit more background on why this case may have some broader significance.

Stay safe!

Beyond “One Post and two Responses”

Here is the final draft of an essay that I wrote for this week's installment of the CFI Teaching Toolbox. I thank my colleague Emily Gravett for feedback and edits.

Discussions are great teaching tools. They can help students achieve a wide range of learning objectives: better understand course concepts, apply content to real-world examples, explore different sides of a question or controversy, analyze an important question based on the class readings, and more. Going beyond the traditional learning objectives of Bloom’s taxonomy of cognitive learning, class discussion can enable students to make connections with fellow students, learn how to deal with different opinions and emotional reactions, and build community. Finley (2013) notes outcomes such as “increased perspective-taking, understanding, empathy, and higher-order thinking, and more.”

Class discussion is an activity well-suited for online learning environments; in fact, participation online tends to be higher than in face-to-face discussions (Orlando 2017). An Edutopia resource guide notes that online discussions can foster community building, reflection, consensus building, critical thinking, and student leadership (2009).

Online class discussion typically takes the form of a discussion board. Watch a video lecture, take a quiz, participate in a discussion board: this is the common trifecta of online classes. The discussion board typically asks students to post a response to a question posed by the instructor and to respond to at least two other student posts. The instructor hopes that this assignment will spark sustained online interactions among students, but often this is not what happens: students do the bare minimum, and that’s that.

This state of affairs is sad, considering the promise that online discussion offers. Even in our current situation, where we have to create online learning experiences on the fly and with little preparation, well-designed discussion boards can offer students and faculty some of the personal interaction that for many of us is at the center of our work as educators. So, how can we create and facilitate discussion boards that are effective, engage students, and help achieve the outcomes promised in the literature? It’s not easy, and it doesn’t always work, but here are some suggestions:

Continue reading Beyond “One Post and two Responses”