DAN: Our guest today is Doug Ward. Doug is an associate professor in the School of Journalism and Mass Communications at the University of Kansas. He is also the associate director at the Center for Teaching Excellence at KU. In 2011, the Scripps Howard Foundation named him Journalism and Mass Communication Teacher of the Year. Among other courses, Doug teaches about pedagogy and data gathering. We’re excited to talk with him. Welcome to Wired Ivy, Doug!
DOUG: Thank you. Nice to be here.
KIERAN: Let’s started with some context. Why don’t you tell us a little bit more about the programs you work in, and the courses that you teach.
DOUG: I’m split, 50/50 supposedly, between the School of Journalism and the Center for Teaching Excellence. And in Journalism, primarily I have been teaching in the Program in Digital Content Strategy over the last few years. That’s a program that I led development of a few years ago, and I teach courses there in data gathering. Also I’ve taught the introductory course for that, which is sort of an Intro to Online Learning, as well as an overview of things like data and social media and putting it all together into a strategy area.
The last couple of years, well, actually the last three or four years, I’ve been teaching a course in pedagogy for graduate students, for PhD students mostly. Teaching it through a journalism course number but I draw students from just about every discipline around the university.
DAN: That’s part of your role, I assume from the Center for Teaching Excellence or an outgrowth of it?
DOUG: Yes, it’s an outgrowth of that, to some extent. And at the teaching center I work with faculty from all over the university as well, along with students.
Yesterday we had our teaching summit, which is the intro big event of the year that kind of kicks off the semester. Usually it’s in person, this year we did it online for the first time. We did a dozen podcasts for that, getting faculty together and doing podcasts, so that we had this asynchronous portion of it. And then we had two speakers who came in online from North Carolina.
We did another one in the spring on emergency remote teaching but we decided during the summer that we really needed to create something that helped our faculty kind of re-envision what they were doing. At that point we did not know what the Fall was going to look like, but really what we’ve been talking about is the need to be able to move back and forth. That even in person you’re going to have a certain amount online. And our assumption is that we’ll probably have to go back online at some point, so how do you create a class so that you can teach it in person when you need to, but can shift online quickly when you need to as well.
KIERAN: It’s always been curious to me that when campus-based faculty decide, or are required, to start teaching online they want training but often push for it to be offered in-person… pandemic consideration notwithstanding.
But being an online student myself informed so much of my thinking about course design and delivery… still does. Also program design and delivery. I’ll admit to being biased toward having faculty put themselves in an online student’s shoes, so to speak.
Do you have any thoughts on whether the experience of going through this training in an online format will be informative for the instructors?
DOUG: Oh, yeah, we set up a lot of things for modeling, so that we could model the kinds of things that we wanted instructors to be able to know how to do. We set up sessions and used a lot more technology than we might have otherwise. And faculty recognized that, “Oh my gosh, you’re throwing all these different technologies at me! I’m having trouble thinking about some of these things. How do I do this then?”
And then we’re saying, “Yes, we did this on purpose. How do you think your students feel when suddenly they were shifted online and one instructor uses this technology, and another one uses another one, and another one uses yet another one?”
It’s overwhelming. So we really wanted them to experience that. And some of them came away just sort of shocked at how different it was because, they, you’re right, I mean, they had not had much experience in learning online.
What with the Director and I talk about a lot is that a lot of what’s happened right now is just, we’re doing a lot of pedagogical therapy, for lack of a better word. It’s that there’s a lot of apprehension about going into an environment that people don’t know. “I don’t know what it’s going to be like.” For a long time, many instructors have approached teaching, as “I know exactly what’s going to go on, I have it all mapped out. I know what’s going to happen in that classroom.”
Now they’re having to go in and recognize, “I don’t know what’s going to go on. I don’t know whether I’m going to be in that classroom.” And really that’s the way that I taught for a very long time, is that you have to be able to take the cues from the students. What do the students need? Where does the class need to go?
And yes, I go in with a game plan, but depending on what the students need, that I may, I may take a zigzag, do a turnaround, and come back again before I get to where I want to go. And I think that’s really where we’re facing right now is that we have to be adaptable. That’s the key, is being adaptable because we don’t know what’s going to come next week, let alone next year.
KIERAN: It’s intimidating for a lot of faculty, especially those who have figured out how to set up courses for a classroom environment so they do know exactly what’s going to happen…
KIERAN: … you lecture nonstop for the entire 50 minutes and then… are there any questions? No? Okay. I’m out the door! And they don’t know how to do that in a virtual classroom.
DOUG: That’s right. And we have for too long approached learning as, really, shallow learning that I tell you something you need to know, and then you tell it back to me on a test, and we call that learning. Students come in and, and have mastered that sort of a system. And then they get to some classes and suddenly it’s about trying to grapple with problems that I don’t necessarily know. That’s a real eye-opener for a lot of them. And it takes some time and some work to try to get them over that.
And I think what we have done is that… I’ll refer to an article by David Thornburgh called Campfires in Cyberspace that I really like. He breaks learning down into four areas. He calls one, the Mountaintop Method. That’s the idea that information is scarce, and the person up on the mountaintop is the guru who hands it down to those below. And there’s a campfire where we’re all gathered around in a group and we’re sharing stories.There’s the watering hole, which is the idea of informal learning — there are places where we all go and we don’t necessarily know who we’re going to run into and what we’re going to learn from them. And then there’s the cave, and the cave is just an idea that we all have to be alone at some point. We may need to read. We may need to study. We may need to do something on our own.
I like those four but really what we’re trying to get to is more of a barn raising. It’s the idea that, alone I can’t build a barn, but as a community, if we bring people together we’re all learning something, even as we’re creating something much bigger than we could individually.
KIERAN: As a fellow Midwesterner I’m familiar with the concept of a barn raising, or quilting bees… that’s a great analogy!
DAN: You’ve talked about things that you do in courses, and you’ve built into courses, to really encourage active learning with the students and mentioned that active learning is an important, uh, mode for students to be engaged in online learning. I agree with that completely. I mean, I think online learning doesn’t work if the students are not actively engaged and actively working towards their own goals. One way that this takes shape is using the Socratic method. I understand you’ve been quizzed by Socrates, on stage before.
DOUG: I have, yes, I have.
DAN: How did that go? Were you intimidated? Did you wish it was online?
KIERAN: Talk about a logistical and time-management challenge… how’d you pull that off?
DOUG: I gave a keynote at, at a technology group, and so I thought, okay, how do I do this? At that point, this was in the early, like 2011, 2012. There’s a lot of conversations about “You can’t do this online.” I mean, there’s still a lot of that. If you look at surveys of faculty, the far majority will say, no, I don’t want to teach online. Once they have taught online, then they recognize, “Oh, this isn’t so bad!” And then it starts to change.
DAN: Kieran has a theory about that.
KIERAN: Yes. Yes, I do. A rising tide lifts all boats. They’re teaching online so now it’s better!
DOUG: We talk a lot about the Socratic method and how that is the best approach. Well, yeah, and I love it. I mean, that’s how I do my classes. It’s about questions. It doesn’t have to be something that you do in person. Rather than telling students something it’s about asking them things.
And so, the way that I usually set up my classes, it’s with discussions. I will say, “I want you to read something. What are you getting out of the readings? What kinds of questions do you have out of the readings?” And then in discussions I’ll bring some of those questions in and have them grapple with it.
Then in projects, I have them choose a project that they’re interested in and we’ll often have a conversation back and forth. “Okay. Why are you interested in that? How are you going to find that out? What do you know now? What do you think you’re going to need to know? Where are you going to find that information? How can I help you? Who do you need to talk to?” Those kinds of things.
And then we continue that conversation as they work through the project. What I will give them back is questions, try to encourage them but ask questions about things they’re writing and say, “How do you know this? Why do you think this is true? Can you back this up, make your case better?”
And do some of the same things in online discussion boards. I tend to be fairly hands off with the discussion boards, but I’ll go in and kind of redirect some things sometimes and say, okay, this is interesting, but everybody has been talking about X. How does that relate to Y? How does data gathering link to data analysis? In a pedagogy course it’s, “how does how does prior learning affect what we’re doing right now?” Try to get them to start making connections.
That’s really where we are falling down in a lot of cases in education right now… here’s still too much of it about knowing facts. Well, I can, I can find the content myself. I can go out and learn the content. What I need to know is what do I do with that content? How do I put those pieces together?
KIERAN: Higher Ed doesn’t seem to have shifted yet, from operating in a world where information is hard to come by to one in which anyone with a smartphone can access an ocean of content with a search engine.
DOUG: No, we haven’t, That’s right.
KIERAN: In that limited access world it made sense that an educator would have to spend a lot of time transmitting by voice. But now… it’s as if we haven’t noticed yet, even though we access that same networks daily. We’re stuck, or so invested in being the ones who know things. “Let me tell you… because I know more than the Internet.”
DAN: ‘Cause I have more knowledge in my head than the entire Internet, yeah.
DOUG: I work at a research university so the way the courses were structured, the way the whole system was structured, is that a faculty member would be involved in a lot of research, spend a lot of time gathering and learning new things, and then share that in a lecture with students.
There’s nothing wrong with lecture inherently. There is some of it that’s valuable and that can be very motivating. There are ways that you can do it to interact with students and to help them understand things in a deeper way. But not something where I’m just going to go in and give an address to people, and they’re going to take notes, and then they’re going to give it back to me.
What’s so hard is to move into something more meaningful. You’re not going to be able to walk into the classroom and talk for 50 minutes and then walk out. You’re not going to be able to use the same exam that you’ve been giving for the last five years. It doesn’t work online.
KIERAN: No, it doesn’t. Of course, whenever humans are asked to move out of their comfort zone they’re going to resist, or at least some of them will… what kind of “but what abouts” have you been hearing from faculty?
DOUG: The faculty that do give exams and are so worried about cheating. What I was hearing last semester was “Grades went up in my courses!” Students actually had more time to grapple with the material and probably learned it better. And some of them looked at it as bad because the overall GPA in my class went up. Which I don’t think is a bad thing if the students were learning. I think what we have to keep in mind is that we’re not in the testing business, we’re in the learning business. We’re not in the lecture business, we’re in the learning business.
KIERAN: We act as though we’re in the knowing business. We test to find out what students know, not what they’ve learned. It’s definitely efficient, but…
DAN: You’re optimizing the wrong person.
KIERAN: … and the wrong outcome.
DOUG: That’s right.
KIERAN: It’s also redundant because the instructor is getting the content from somewhere, probably a textbook. A lecture-focused approach, as opposed to the Socratic method, assumes the goal is transmission of information… transmission of information that’s now accessible from many sources.
DOUG: Right. That’s where universities of all kinds are struggling right now. I’ll compare it to the newspaper industry. That’s where I came from, I was at the New York Times. The newspaper was built on volume of subscribers, that could then sell advertisers based on that volume of subscribers.
The Internet comes along and now people can go and find Information free in all of these different places. So then what, what do I get out of paying for the newspaper? What is the model?
And that’s where education is right now, in the very same place. This information that we offered, in the way that we offer it was scarce and it is not scarce anymore. So what is it that we are offering at our universities that makes a difference for the students,
KIERAN: Right. The model is based on having a monopoly over a certain kind of information.
KIERAN: We no longer have that monopoly position. So what can we offer now, in the Information Age, that makes taking classes at a university worth paying for?
The main thing I’ve come up with is the concept of curation. The information is out there. It’s mostly free. There’s no such thing as secret sauce anymore. But you don’t yet know what you need to know, or where to find it, or how to assess the information you do find. Learning all of that, before you can begin to learn what you want and need to know, is going to slow you down tremendously.
DOUG: That’s right.
KIERAN: Higher Ed can help students to navigate the most efficient route from point A to point B, from where they are now to the career they want. We can help students to use information, to think about it creatively, to apply it, build upon it, rather than just amassing a lot of facts. If we shift to that kind of a model, I think we could offer something of value that isn’t available through a search engine.
DAN: And I would also add to the curation part that something else that we’re doing is we’re creating those online learning communities that we were talking about and setting people up to be in an active community because there’s so much learning that occurs at that point. There’s so much synthesis and analysis that happens at that point that, that becomes is a very important part of the process.
DOUG: Absolutely. Absolutely. We were talking earlier about the humanity. And I mean, there is that humanity. I mean, by, by making our courses human, by allowing students to make connections with a lot of different people, that’s where you start to get the value in it, and in that curation.
And I think to get back to the Socratic idea about the ability to ask questions, To be able to not just take that information, but to ask, “Alright, where did it come from? How do I know that it’s reliable? How does it fit with what I already know?”
KIERAN: “How do I think about the answer I need and then frame a question that will deliver that information?”
DOUG: Yeah, even things like I’ll, I’ll give an example of an undergraduate class that I’ve taught a few years ago. And just, with students who come in, and I will say, “Okay, we’re going to learn how to use Google.” “Oh, What are you talking about? Oh, I know how to use Google!” Alright, how do you search a specific site with Google? How do you search for a PDF? How do you, do you know that you can create your own search engine? Do you know that it has this available and that. “No! how do you do that?”
So I, so I think sparking that curiosity too, and taking some of the known and kind of putting some mystery into it and, and helping students realize that the world is not a set place, that the world is a changing place. And that by asking the right kinds of questions, you start to learn much more about that world, but also about yourself.
KIERAN: When you’re doing this in a discussion…. One of the challenges of discussions, as a graded assignment, is deadlines. There are always going to be some students who post immediately and are frustrated at the slow pace of their fellow students. There are always some students who post right before the deadline and no one else has a chance to comment.
I recognize the value of asynchronous discussion, even for in-person classes, and I understand the role they can play in applying the Socratic method… but how do you set that up so there’s an actual conversation? How do you prompt thoughtful dialogue? How do you make sure the structure is feasible for the instructor as well as for the students?
DOUG: Well, I’ll usually have a couple of deadlines. There is a deadline earlier in the week where students have to post the first time and then that’s usually, I will often give them a couple of questions each week. And in one question there’s, well, for both questions, there’s a, there’s a deadline earlier in the week, let’s say Tuesday or Wednesday that they have to provide an answer and then they have to provide two more answers, and part of that discussion by the end of the week.
And I, you know, at times I talk with students about this too, and say, all right, if everybody waits until the end, it’s not a discussion. It just becomes a dumping of notes. And that really detracts from what you’re trying to do. Most of them understand that they don’t… there are times when we all get busy and like, some of them will then come in and apologize and say, “I know I’m late this week, but here I’m, you know, here are my thoughts.”
Another thing that I’ve done that I’ve found very successful is that I will assign roles to students for discussions. And then I’ll have a Leader, usually I’ll have someone who is the Devil’s Advocate. I mean, it’s kind of back that Socratic method. It’s the, that Devil’s Advocate is now asking questions based on sort of the contrarian method of what’s, you know, how do we know this? Why are we doing this all? Have someone that identifies as a Synthesizer whose job then is to bring in and tie this week’s discussion to ideas that we’ve had in previous weeks to try to bring that into the discussion.
Often when I have a class, I try to have groups of discussion that are no more than probably six or seven, because then that helps the students get to know each other better and are more comfortable. And it prevents that feeling where they get into the discussion board and find out that, “oh, you just posted exactly what I was going to say. So now what am I going to say?”
If I can shift some of those roles and I shift the roles around week by week so that they have a different way to approach it. There’s somebody usually who’s then taking notes who may be summarizing what’s going on, but then I also have somebody who then visits the other discussion groups.
So if I have, let’s say you’re talking about a class of 20, I may have. I’ll probably have. Three or four groups in that class of 20 all, I still want the students to be able to interact in that class. I want them, I don’t want them to just feel like it’s a class of six or seven.
So what I will do is assign somebody that week to be, and the students we’ll call this the creeper or the lurker, you know, it’s just, okay, what I want you to do is to go into the other discussion groups and kind of get a sense of what they’re talking about and bring those ideas back into your own discussion group. That way they’re feeding off each other and ideas aren’t necessarily isolated. So it’s up to them to identify some of the key things that their classmates are talking about in those other groups.
And then to say, here’s what’s happening in that other group. And then. Often that that will spark another discussion about, “Oh, I hadn’t thought about that.” And then somebody else will kind of start talking about that or discussing more about that. And it may go in a different direction.
KIERAN: Do students who share the same role in different groups ever ask if you can create a subgroup for them? A virtual watering hole where they can share and get ideas from each other?
DOUG: I’ve never thought of that! But it does raise something that I have found with students… and one reason that I really like setting things up on either Slack or Teams is that if you don’t do that, students will do it on their own. Then they’re having those discussions offline and without you there to guide them. I find that then what it often turns into is a gripe session about the instructor is not doing this, the instructor is not doing that, how horrible it is, rather than having it out in the open where, where I can see it as the instructor and can guide it and can address some of those problems. It just creates an atmosphere where things fester.
KIERAN: Right. Sure.
I can see value in having subset groups of Leaders, Devil’s Advocates, Synthesizers, etc. so they can say, “This was a great question to ask, the whole group dove in” or “I tried this but it isn’t working… any suggestions?” They get to learn not just from their experience but in a crowd-sourced way.
DOUG: I liked that! I liked that a lot. That’s cool. I’ll have to try that. I have not tried anything like that. I like that idea a lot.
KIERAN: I’m sure there will be listeners who gasp and say “Managing discussion groups is hard enough, this just adds more layers of complexity! Students won’t be able to keep track of everything and neither will I!” But the subgroups don’t have to be part of the graded assignment.
I would argue, in life outside of higher ed, how many groups, on average, do we belong to? How many “friends” do we follow on social media? How many tweets do we keep track of every day? Students know how to do this, and when we take off our own elbow-patched armor we do this, too. It’s a mental block, something we don’t recognize from the template of “class” and “teacher” that we learned when we were students, and so we have a hard time getting over that hurdle.
Dan, was there anything else about the Socratic method that you want it to get into?
DAN: I could really relate when you were talking about how you responded on the discussion boards, because you know, I’m very careful myself not to make declarative statements and become the expert that shuts down the discussion. If ever I’m posting in the middle of a discussion, you know, in the middle of the week while the discussion is going on, it’s either highlight something that was said, to try to encourage more conversation about that, or I always end the post with a question. No matter what my comment is, my last sentence has a question mark on it.
I am curious — this is for my own purposes here because of the course load I have this Fall — when you’re breaking a group of 20 up into say three sub-groups, the three discussion groups, for that week are there many prompts that they’re working on at the same time? Or do you try to organize the activity into one or two discussion threads?
DOUG: I usually have two discussion threads and then I’ll create a group for each one. So I’ll have say in teams, I’ll have group one question, one group, one question, two group two question one group two, question two. So that they know where it is so that they’re not stumbling over each other on the questions.
DAN: So they can actually see what the other ones are writing.
DOUG: Yeah, yeah! They can.
DAN: It’s not… they’re not blocked out of it.
DOUG: No, no, I think that’s the thing that I liked. What about Teams and Slack is that it was set up as a cooperative environment, unless you specifically lock somebody out. It’s all public. And I think that that’s okay because this is something within the class where the discussions like this, you want it to be public. I mean public within the class.
DAN: Yes. Yes.
DOUG: You don’t want it to be public out with, with everybody, but I mean, it’s within the class. If I’m having a conversation with the student, I’ll go individually with that student. Or I will find some way to, I’ll have a call with them. I mean, I’m not going to put out something about grades in there.
I’m not going to put out something about the individual problems that a student is having. There, then I’ll take it into a private group. So I think that there are things that need to be out in the open so that everybody can see what’s going on and that then helps them move among those different groups and to see what their classmates are doing.
KIERAN: Having these different roles, having somebody in the group who is tagged as the Leader, that takes some of the pressure off of you to keep the ball rolling, to keep everyone engaged.
KIERAN: That said, not everybody knows how to lead a discussion and facilitate it, rather than dominate the conversation. Do you give students instructions, let them know what’s expected or the parameters of different roles?
DOUG: I do.
KIERAN: The one I’m thinking of specifically is the Devil’s Advocate role, and whether, without knowing what they’re supposed to be doing, somebody says “well, that’s stupid” thinking somehow it’s constructive?
DOUG: In terms of the roles, I do in my syllabus or in another handout that I’ll give to students, kind of give them some general guidelines for what I’m expecting from those roles and that I want that leader to be able to post first during the week and to provide… not necessarily a summary of what’s going on, but to kind of address the question in a way that helps others enter the conversation.
And with those other roles, I do provide some guidelines as well. Some minimal guidelines… I could probably do better. But I do try to provide some guidelines for what I’m expecting, because I don’t want students to just go on and to say, I don’t know what, I don’t know what that means. What’s a devil’s advocate? I don’t know what that means. I do that. Explain what I’m expecting from them and what I’d like them to do. Do they always do it? No.
And sometimes I’ll have students in a role. I will say, I wish I could be the devil’s advocate this week. And I say, “that’s fine, be the devil’s advocate, then!” The roles did not, I don’t want the roles to be limiting. I want the roles to be something that allow you to go into a conversation with something new, to say with something. Interesting to say, if you want to take a different position, that’s fine. Go ahead. It doesn’t mean that you, that doesn’t limit you to what you can do. It just provides some guidance for you, if you would like to have it.
KIERAN: It’s especially relevant with your subject matter, right? I mean, these are all skills that they actually need to know…
KIERAN: … as journalists who have to engage people in conversations to get information.
KIERAN: That makes a lot of sense, yeah.
DOUG: Right. No matter what job we’re in, it’s that back and forth, that cooperation, and that ability to move back and forth among those kinds of roles, that’s so important for any kind of a job today.
DAN: Yeah, I use as an organizing philosophy for my courses a book called Teaming by Amy Edmondson out of Harvard’s business school. It talks about these dynamics. How do people come together, particularly across different expertise, different roles, different geographies, to accomplish some task. I find it to be very informative as to how groups work and can be structured.
DOUG: That’s terrific. And I think the more that we can help students with that, the better, and I that’s something that I need to do better at. Because I think that we all want students to work together, whether it’s in a group of that we’ve specify or a group that they’re involved in, and we often don’t give them enough help with that.
We’ll throw them together and say work in the group, but they’ve, don’t really understand what that means sometimes that what are the things that a group, what are the characteristics of a, of a good group? What does one person do that another person doesn’t do? How do you do, how do you create a group so that. No one person isn’t dominating the conversation or isn’t squelching other people and making them feel that they, not, that they don’t belong. All of that is an important part of the skills that our students need to have in whatever discipline they’re in.
DAN: I think that’s a great place to end today’s conversation.
Doug Ward, University of Kansas. Thank you for being on Wired Ivy today. It’s been wonderful talking with you.
DOUG: Thank you. I’ve enjoyed it. This has been fun.
KIERAN: Thanks, Doug!