Initially, Michael Wesch wasn’t thrilled about teaching online. He didn’t love the idea of talking into the camera and worried that students’ learning experiences could suffer. To him, part of the joy of teaching came from being with students in a classroom.
Over time, Wesch has come to see more opportunities through online education when it’s facilitated the right way. In his new video, Teaching Without Walls: 10 Tips for Online Teaching, Wesch shares about his own experiences with online instruction and gives viewers an inside look at his own pedagogical approaches. Wesch, a featured ACUE expert and ACUE-credentialed professor of anthropology at Kansas State University, says he doesn’t want the video to be a one-way conversation and wants ACUE readers to share their thoughts in the comments. Check out the video below and our interview with Wesch, then share your story in the comments section or tweet to @ACUE_HQ and @mwesch to share your story. #ACUE!
Q: What made you focus on “teaching without walls” in your latest video?
A: I want to show my students that an “online class” does not need to be contained to the screen but is best experienced as a class “out in the world” — a classroom without walls. This was an idea first inspired in me by Ryan Klataske. We ultimately created anth101.com together based on this core idea.
Q: In your experience teaching online, what is the most challenging barrier when it comes to engaging with students and facilitating their learning?
A: A screen — whether it be on a phone or a computer — has more potential distractions than just about any physical space imaginable. Our content has to be just that much more engaging, compelling, and relevant in order to compete. If students are not fully invested in the class, they can easily “game” assignments and discussions by fabricating comments and contributions just to “get by” rather than truly engage. In short, I think the bar for us is raised substantially by competing in a digital marketplace of education and entertainment of astounding quality.
Q: What online learning opportunities are you most excited about?
A: I get the chance to help students see how they can learn anytime anywhere through a wide variety of different formats, including podcasts, audiobooks, and videos. I get a chance to share great podcasts and videos and to create my own, opening new pathways for them to discover outstanding educational material they might never have encountered before. My main goal is not just to inspire them to love my class. I want them to fall in love with the tremendous wealth of all-the-time on-the-go learning materials available to us all.
A: The format of the ACUE course was even more educational than the content. The course design models several great online teaching practices and also gave me a student’s perspective on what works and what doesn’t.
Your new book tackles teaching with technology. Why did you decide to focus on this topic?
As part of my job at a teaching center, I’m always meeting faculty and other instructors who are using technology in creative and effective ways to foster student learning. I’m always taken by stories of technology use that involve learning activities or outcomes that would be challenging or impossible without the tech. I’ve been collecting these kinds of stories for years, and I wanted to share those stories in a way that would inspire other educators to be intentional in their technology use.
When new technologies enter the scene, we’re not always sure how to use them to support student learning. If there’s not some alignment between how we’re using the tech and our teaching and learning goals, it can become a distracting shiny object. My goal with the new book is to give readers some principles and practices they can use to be more intentional in their use of educational technology, thus the title, Intentional Tech.
It took a while to settle on the title because I’ve written a technology book that’s as much about the humans involved as it is about the tech. I share a lot of stories in the book, including stories from my own classroom and life, as well as stories of faculty in a variety of disciplines and teaching contexts. My editors and I had some rich conversations (over several months) about possible titles that would convey both the practical purpose and the narrative approach of the book, and we think Intentional Tech does the job.
Would you tell us a favorite story about how and why a faculty member is using a particular technology tool?
One of my favorite stories in the book is about Ashley Hasty. She uses a tool called VoiceThread to teach visual merchandising at Indiana University. She asks her students to work in groups and design window displays for local non-profits. Hasty asked her students to upload photos of their finished displays to VoiceThread and add audio annotations to explain their design.
The effect was revealing. Hasty learned why her students made the choices they did. In some cases, what looked like a poor design decision turned out to be the result of a constraint the client placed on the display. In other cases, students struggled to articulate why they had made particularly effective design choices; the technology forced a level of self-reflection that might not have otherwise occurred. These audio annotations allowed Hasty to be more responsive to her students’ learning needs through insights that weren’t self-evident in the final products.
I love this example because it’s a great match between technology and pedagogy. I learned about a tool I had never used in my own teaching, and I got to explore a discipline I don’t know much about. And I only learned about Hasty’s story because I posted an inquiry about creative uses of VoiceThread on Twitter and a mutual colleague connected us!
As you were researching and writing the book, was there anything that surprised you or challenged your thinking?
Something that challenged me was a realization I had while writing my chapter on multimodal assignments. When giving students nontraditional assignments like infographics or podcasts or digital stories, students usually need a lot of scaffolding. That is, they need assistance figuring out how to do the thing and what’s expected of them. This can mean having students submit proposals or drafts for feedback, analyzing finished products to reverse engineer how they’re put together, or helping to draft their own grading rubrics. These learning activities are just as important for more traditional assignments, because a lot of our students aren’t that experienced at writing research papers or giving presentations, either!
I think one of the advantages of exploring ways to use new technologies in our teaching is that we’re prompted to think more deeply about how and why our students learn, with or without technology. As my former Vanderbilt colleague, John Rakestraw, used to always say, “You can’t talk about teaching with technology without talking about teaching.”
You’re a big proponent of using concept maps and visualization tools—not just in your teaching and presentations, but also as a way to guide your writing for this book. Why do you think they’re effective and what advice or resources would you recommend for someone who wanted to learn more or start incorporating them into their work?
One of the harder parts of learning something new is seeing the big picture. What ideas and concepts are more important? Which ones go together and how are they related? How do particular examples and applications slot into organizing categories and principles? These are hard questions to answer, whether you’re a first-year undergraduate learning chemistry or an author writing a new book.
Visualizing the big picture as you currently understand it can help you refine and enhance your mental map of that domain. That’s why concept maps, flow charts, timelines, sketch notes, and other visualization tools are useful in learning and in writing. In the book, I share the story of having students in my first-year writing seminar construct a debate map on the chalkboard exploring arguments about privacy and surveillance, along with other examples of using tools like Prezi to help students visualize their big-picture understanding. And when planning the book, I spent a lot of time at my whiteboard moving photos and Post-it notes around as a way to figure out what I wanted to say in the book and how I wanted to organize it.
To learn more about this kind of visual thinking, I recommend The Back of the Napkin by Dan Roam and The Sketchnote Handbook by Mike Rohde. Or read some of the visual thinking posts on my blog, Agile Learning.
One of the first times you spoke with us on the ACUE Community, you talked about a SoTL pet peeve—the myth of “learning styles.” Is there a common misconception around teaching with technology that you can dispel?
There’s been a persistent belief in the idea of a “digital native” since Marc Prensky coined the term back in 2001. This is the idea that people under a certain age, having grown up with the internet and smartphones and the like, are better at using technology and more inclined to do so than older people. There’s some truth to the idea, of course, which is why it’s caught on. If you started using an iPad regularly in sixth grade, then you’re going to be fairly comfortable using tablet technology when you hit college.
But the idea of a digital native also has some problems. For one thing, not all traditionally aged college students grew up surrounded by technology since technology is expensive and not all households have equal access. For another, a student who knows the ins and outs of Instagram isn’t necessarily going to be quick to learn geographic information systems or text encoding tools, for instance. There’s a learning curve for new technologies or for familiar technologies used in academic settings. Moreover, being comfortable using a particular tool doesn’t necessarily mean you’re able to think critically about how the tool works. And while we all know teenagers who seem to treat their smartphones like extra appendages, I’ve also known college students who opt out of digital technologies or prefer analog approaches for some tasks.
For all these reasons, the ways our students approach technology in their education varies widely, and that’s important to keep in mind as we plan our instruction. Our students will need assistance as they engage with technology, and the kinds of help they’ll need will be different for different students. And they will surprise us, perhaps by finding something challenging we didn’t expect, or by showing us how to use technology in a way we didn’t predict. And all of this is okay.
If there is one thing you’d want a reader to take away from reading Intentional Tech, what would it be?
We often teach as we were taught, which is an understandable place to start, but we can’t stop there. We need to develop and expand our teaching skills throughout our careers. There are always new courses, new students, new technologies, and new teaching strategies to try. I would encourage readers to think of teaching as a creative act, one that requires a little risk-taking. Inspiration is important for creativity, and I hope that readers of Intentional Tech will be inspired to explore technologies that fit within their teaching contexts and help them meet their teaching goals. I know I’ve picked up a lot of ideas for my own classroom as I interviewed faculty for the book!
“You are the changemakers,” extolled Chancellor Nancy Cantor in an impassioned call for an inclusive world that “brings more people to the table of prosperity.” In her remarks during Rutgers University–Newark’s 2019 Convocation, Cantor reminded new students that “those willing to take the risk of shifting tried and true narratives, those who dare to take a new and different lens on the world, themselves, and others” don’t do it alone. “They get help, collaborate, and find partners” adding that Rutgers University–Newark “is the place to find them.”
Chancellor Nancy Cantor
Pedagogy, Professional Development and Publicly-Engaged Scholarship
The university’s P3 Collaboratory supports excellence in teaching, high impact and publicly engaged scholarship and leadership development under a general rubric of faculty and student collaboration and co-learning. The P3 is bringing scholars together to engage in critical challenges facing the Rutgers University–Newark community and is promoting student and faculty success across the entire university.
The P3 Collaboratory for Pedagogy, Professional Development, and Publicly-Engaged Scholarship was conceived in 2016 by the university’s New Professoriate Study Group. It advances key priorities of Rutgers University–Newark’s strategic plan and enjoys strong support from Chancellor Cantor and university leadership. “As provost, I have to make a lot of decisions about investments,” said former Provost Jerome Williams. By comparison, “when we invest in our faculty, it pays off year after year.”
Investing in Faculty to Impact Students
Among the P3 Collaboratory’s initiatives, cohorts of Rutgers University–Newark faculty are earning their credential in effective college instruction through the Association of College and University Educators (ACUE), with transformative results. Psychology instructor Christina Zambrano-Varghese explained how the experience changed her sense of professional identity. For much of her career, she believed it was her job to “deliver knowledge.” But now, she’s prepared to “facilitate student learning.” She added that the bonds she formed with other faculty have made her feel even more connected to the Rutgers University–Newark community.
Thanks to the work of Zambrano-Varghese and other faculty changemakers, more Rutgers University–Newark students are succeeding. A recent study by the Center for Advanced Study of Education at the CUNY Graduate Center found that students were significantly more likely to earn A, B, or C grades in courses taught by ACUE-credentialed faculty than in comparison classes. Completion rates were higher and surveyed students noted professors’ use of effective practices. This study joins other recent findings of improved learning and narrowed achievement gaps from effective instruction.
Rutgers University–Newark’s P3 Collaboratory is at the forefront of an important shift in the country’s student success movement. As noted in a new paper by the American Council on Education, “efforts must involve those people on campus who have the most frequent contact with students: the faculty.”
Bonnie Veysey, director of the P3 Collaboratory and acting dean of Rutgers School of Criminal Justice agrees. “When we help just one instructor, he or she will impact 40 students in one class and then 40 students in the next semester and on and on.”
This insight, and the P3 Collaboratory’s support, has been welcomed by faculty. Rachel Emas, an instructor from the Rutgers School of Public Affairs and Administration who earned her ACUE credential in 2017, shared, “It was the most important investment I’ve made in my academic career, hands down. There is no instructor on a college campus who doesn’t need more engaged students, or more evidence-based teaching practices, or more effective learning strategies. Every professor, every student and every university would benefit from that type of knowledge.”