KIERAN: Hello, I’m Kieran Lindsey…
DAN: … I’m Dan Marcucci, and this is Wired Ivy. We have combined 20 years of experience in the virtual classroom.
KIERAN: Dan lives in Pennsylvania, I live in Missouri, and we work for a university in Virginia. As part of a geographically distributed team we know from personal experience that online faculty and staff benefit from having access to their peers.
DAN: You may have been teaching online for a long time now or relatively new… you may have been thinking about a move to online or suddenly find yourself doing it… regardless, you are welcome in this virtual salon.
KIERAN: Our goal is to create a collegial community for real academics working in virtual classrooms… a safe, supportive space where we can learn from one another and share what we’ve figured out.
KIERAN: In keeping with a tradition started in Season One, Dan spoke with a panel of alums from programs featured in some of our Fall 2020 episodes — North Carolina A&T’s Online Master of Science in Agricultural Education from Episode 17, Growth Edge; Virginia Tech’s Online Master of Natural Resources from Episode 15, Field & Screen, and the Online Program in Digital Content Strategy at University of Kansas, from Episode 14, Role Rehearsal.
As educators, we try to create a learning environment that is inspiring, efficient, and above all meets a course’s stated learning objectives. Online learning is, by its very nature, conducive to innovative techniques. But, as with any creative endeavor, there will be hits and misses. So… how are we doing? What can we do to make learning outcomes even better?
Following Dan’s conversation with our guests, I’ll join him for a debrief and a preview of Season Three’s topics.
DAN: Our panelists today are graduates of three programs we profiled in Season Two. It happens they all completed professional graduate degrees which were fully online, so they have extensive experience as online learners. That said, their programs serve diverse professions and they themselves are based in dispersed regions across the U.S. I’ll introduce them East to West, based on their current residences.
Josh Snider just completed in December 2020 his Master of Science in Agricultural Education at North Carolina A&T, where he worked with Dr. Chastity Warren English. Josh lives in North Carolina, where he works as a full-time teacher and as a dairy farmer.
Leigh Sellari received her Master of Natural Resources from Virginia Tech in 2019, where she worked Dr. Jim Egenrieder. For full disclosure, I should add that Kieran Lindsey, my co-host here on Wired Ivy, was Leigh’s graduate advisor, and Leigh and I worked together in several courses. We even crossed paths in the real world once to have coffee one lovely afternoon in Pittsburgh. But Leigh lives in New Mexico, where she works for a federal agency as an attorney on natural resources and public land management.
Kristin Glover completed a Master of Science in Digital Content Strategy in 2017 from the William Allen White School of Journalism at University of Kansas. Dr. Doug Ward was a teacher and mentor for her there. Before graduate school she was a TV news producer at KABC in Los Angeles. Kristin still lives in California, where she works as a client strategist for Magid, a research and consulting firm. Her primary focus is digital strategy for TV news organizations across the country. The exciting update is: Kristin returned to KU this year to teach a class in the online program she graduated from.
To get started, I’d like a sense of where you each are coming from and how you got to grad school. And please share a little bit about your lifestyle at the time. For example, were you working a day job while you were in school? How did you set it up?
Let’s start with you, Leigh.
DAN: I happen to know you already had a law degree…
DAN: But tell us about your more recent graduate studies.
LEIGH: So I started at Virginia Tech… I want to say it was January 2017. Took three years, basically, to complete the degree. I was looking for something that would facilitate me making a pretty significant transition in my career.
I was at that point practicing law for over 25 years and, you know, had gone down a path and realized that I wasn’t really happy with what I was doing substantively. I’d had a significant interest in environmental issues, natural resources issues, when I was a lot younger and I found myself pursuing a different path.
So I started looking for ways to transition back into a career in natural resources, and I realized that, given where I was at my stage in my career, my age, I needed to do something fairly radical to open some new doors, meet some new contacts, give me some credibility to transition to a completely different field. I realized that probably the most efficient way to do that, the best way to do that, was to go back to school.
Because I was working full time, I knew that I could not quit my job and, and, and go back to pursue a traditional master’s degree in a classroom, and so I started looking at options for pursuing an online degree. I was very skeptical at first in terms of what I might find, but I researched a number of programs and ultimately settled on Virginia Tech, for a variety of reasons, one of which was there were really no barriers to entry. It was a brick and mortar school, which is very important to me. I was in the area — I was in Washington DC at the time — and the curriculum fit my interests.
So, and then three years later I was very happy to graduate. It was, it really did help me achieve my goal of transitioning out of what I was doing at the time and into a desired subject area for my chosen field.
DAN: So it sounds as though the online format was kind of a given as far as what you needed to fit into your life.
LEIGH: Absolutely. There’s no way… and I needed to have a curriculum that was, was a hundred percent flexible. You know, I could not commit to logging on at a particular time. I had to have a curriculum that was very much self-directed in a way that the, the professors provide the material review and yes, you have certain deadlines, but how you meet those deadlines is very flexible. And that was absolutely important to me, just because I have an unpredictable work schedule and could not commit to being available at certain times to pursue.
DAN: And so I’m also assuming that if your law degree was about 25 years ago, that was old fashioned brick and mortar, in the classroom.
LEIGH: Yes, absolutely. And that’s why I had a lot of doubts in terms of what the online education was going to be like and the quality of that education, because of brick and mortar classes, that’s all I ever knew. And so I had a lot of doubts in terms of what online instruction was going to look like and how that instruction would be delivered.
DAN: We’re going to get into the details of how that worked out in a minute, but first of all, let’s hear from Kristin. Give us your origin story. Where did you, where were you living in grad school? How did you find grad school? Give us the background there.
KRISTEN: So I was working full time at KABC. I was a, I was a morning news producer at the time and so my schedule was: Go in at 11 o’clock at night and work until about 7 or 8 in the morning, which is already challenging. And then on top of that to, to think about driving and going somewhere and committing to a school and a traditional brick and mortar just did not seem like a reasonable thing to do for me because my sleep schedule was so irregular.
So I was working full-time with a crazy schedule and also had reached, I think, same with Leigh, where I had reached a point in my career where I had achieved all of these really great things and then was like, okay, what do I do now that I’ve achieved every goal that I’ve set out for myself. What do I do next?
A masters seem to be a very good option. I knew that it would allow me to teach if I wanted to and I thought that that could be a potential future career possibility if I wanted to eventually get out of news. It happened to be that the same year that I was searching for an online program, really specific to journalism, because I wanted to stay in that general realm, KU launched a master’s in journalism program online. And I am an, also an undergraduate degree earner from the University of Kansas. So, um, that one I got traditionally by going to Kansas and lived there from LA and did all of that. KU has a very special place in my heart. So I’m a legacy kid.
DAN: So, like, Jayhawk, through and through.
KRISTEN: Jayhawk through and through. The amount of Jayhawk stuff in the apartment, if you could see my desk, is, is crazy. I did work full time, I studied full-time, I completed the degree in one year.
DAN: Wow. So you were working nights at the TV station?
DAN: Going to school full-time, as you could. And then the degree after you got the degree enabled you to sort of transfer jobs, it sounds like, because you’re not working at the television station anymore. So was it facilitative in going into your new position?
KRISTEN: Absolutely. I, I credit the program and the degree directly to this position. I was headhunted by the company. They, they reached out to me. The position that I was recruited for was a Digital Strategy Consultant for TV News Stations. I mean, I, I don’t know if I could have had a more perfect fit for a career, and I absolutely give all the credit to the program at KU, hundred percent.
DAN: I’m not hearing anything in that background that you would take an online courses before your masters. Had you?
DAN: No. But you knew online… it was online or nothing because you were working full-time and living in LA.
DAN: Right. Then do you have to go to KU because of all the Jayhawk stuff you already own, right?
KRISTEN: I couldn’t go to Mizzou!
DAN: For example! I wasn’t going to say it, but you can say it.
Josh, how about your background story? You’ve, you’ve got a very interesting background, since you work at a dairy twice a day, but you’ve got a lot of other things going on too. How did you get to school and how has that working out?
JOSH: First off, if I would have went back three years and you would have said, “Would you be a teacher?” I would’ve said, “Heck no, you’ve lost your mind. This is, like, not where I’m going to see myself.” When I graduated from University of Tennessee in 2016, with my degree in Animal Science, I actually got a job at the post office, not even using my degree.
One day I guest taught at the local high school in the Ag Department, we were doing a dissection. The teacher there actually said, “Josh, you’re really good at this. You know, you should consider teaching.” There was an opening in the county and I applied. Being lateral entry, you have to have your teaching license. So I’m coming from an Animal Science degree, I don’t have the formal background. They give you three years to get everything done.
A&T had this program, completely online, which I knew would work great because I could incorporate some of the stuff I’m learning as I’m teaching, and then it would help me get better as a teacher in the profession, as I’m actually learning from these courses and professors. If I had extra time, I would sit there and that’s when I would really work and focus on my coursework. After school, about 4:30, I could come home and then take care of the farm until 9:30, 10:00 o’clock at night, finish up those assignments, and then go back and start the next day.
Like I said, never would I have dreamed that this is where I’m at and just the thought of having this degree now and the potential that I can go even farther and teach somewhere else, and just keep that passion for agriculture going, I guess, is just the best thing about it. Like just the opportunities that are going to be persistent past this degree.
DAN: And then when you said that it was a three year curriculum for you… did I get that right?
JOSH: I had three years to get my teaching license.
DAN: The lateral, the requirements in the lateral hire is: train for your license in three years.
JOSH: Yes, but I completed the masters in two. My students have been awesome and just supportive, too. And through this whole process. They knew I was doing it and they were always, like, looking up to me, seeing that they could go do something like this as well.
DAN: I gotta ask, do you have WiFi in the dairy barn?
JOSH: I do not. We actually do not even have WiFi at our house. We live way too far off the road. I’m using my mobile hotspot for this but it seems to keep everything going, it works. When the pandemic happened, it was really a big struggle because I’m having to do all this stuff at home and we don’t have good Internet. I literally go to my uncle’s and sit on his back porch, when they were at work, and do my homework.
DAN: I thought you were gonna say at three in the morning and, it’s like, yeah, make sure he knows you’re on the back porch.
JOSH: He probably wouldn’t have cared, but sometimes I would text him, say, “Hey, I’m in your driveway in my truck trying to finish this assignment.”
DAN: What I’m hearing in that is, if your program had not been online, you wouldn’t have been able to fit it into your life.
JOSH: Oh Lord, no. No way.
DAN: And had you taken any online courses like at Tennessee, or was this the first experience you had with online learning?
JOSH: I had taken one course. It was a nutrition course in college, an undergrad, and it was actually completely different from the whole, the master’s part online.
DAN: The experience was different.
JOSH: Yeah, a lot different. Yes.
DAN: Let’s jump into some conversation about the experience that you’ve had in your particular studies, in the distinctive fields that you guys come from.
Kristen, let’s go ahead and start with you. In Role Rehearsal, Doug described his technique of using a Socratic method in a lot of his classes, where he’s teasing analysis by asking provocative questions, challenging you guys to come up with the answers. And he also describes really relying on small group dialogue as an important component of the learning environment that he was creating.
Can you describe that from your end? How did it work? Did it meet your learning objectives? I mean, shed some light for us.
KRISTEN: Sure. You know, it’s interesting because I listened to that episode with Doug, and I was like, “Oh, that’s what he was doing” [laughing]. It, it was very enlightening. I absolutely think that using the Socratic method, I think, was, was very helpful. For me as a student it was also incredibly frustrating because I’m going, “Give me the answer! Like, just tell me what I need to know!” And then he would ask me these really insightful, thoughtful questions that would lead me to the answer that I was searching for.
He could have given me the answer. He could have just said, “Okay, Kristin, here you go, and shoo, shoo, shoo.” But I would go on these, like, hour long, amazing phone calls with Doug and just have these amazing conversations that would have me, have me thinking about my project and assignments in ways that I never would’ve thought of them before.
So to that point I, I think that that was one of the things that I really admire about Doug and, and his teaching method, particularly with an online class. And even the questions in discussion groups were very open ended, and very thoughtful and critical thinking types of questions. That really did help encourage discussion in those smaller online discussion groups. So, um, credit to him.
DAN: Tell us a little bit more about those small discussion groups. How were they structured? And, and I mean, did you have a role in it, or was it just an open discussion? How did that work?
KRISTEN: Sure. We had… at the time we were using Slack and we had different channels for our groups. And then we also had, like, a fun channel where we could share things and converse and have more of those relationship-building types of things happening.
I will say that we… we also had small group roles, so we did have Leaders and we had the Devil’s Advocate and we had Synthesizers. So a Synthesizer, for example, would go into the other groups and read and keep track of what those conversations were having. and then post in their group, “Here’s what the other group is talking about.” And that could maybe spur a separate conversation or different thoughts that we weren’t having in the group on our own.
That’s how that was framed and it, it seemed to work very well. It’s interesting, because I used the same method when I taught, and assigned roles, and it was very split on whether people really liked having a role or didn’t like having a role. Some people really gravitate toward it, some people say it impedes the discussion. So it’s hit or miss.
DAN: Yeah. It’s interesting. I think as someone who sets up situations like that, sometimes they’ll complain about it, but after the fact they think, well, I didn’t like doing it — it’s kind of group work, right? I didn’t like doing it, but after the fact I could see there was value in it that I got something out of it. I don’t, I can’t speak for your students. I’m just saying there’s what they say, and then there’s what happens in the end.
KRISTEN: Well, and giving structure to it, even on a level where people have particular roles while the conversation is unstructured, just that additional structure where they feel responsible for contributing specific things or specific ideas in mind, I thought was very helpful because it kind of gives them a purpose.
DAN: Yeah. So there was a forum and people had roles in the form. That’s interesting.
So, Leigh, let’s talk about your experience a bit. In the episode Field and Screen, Jim Egenrieder detailed his own personal journey of having to transfer from a group field-based course that he’d been teaching in-person to an online distributed team structure, and it was one where the field study ended up being self-directed.
And I don’t actually know if you took one of Jim’s courses or both of Jim’s courses, do you recall?
LEIGH: I think I took both.
DAN: I thought you had taken both. So I’m wondering, you know, how your experience was. I mean, it was a field course, you know, you had to go out and do field work. But in some respects you were by yourself. How did that work? Was it satisfying? Did you find it effective in meeting your learning objectives?
LEIGH: I did. I mean, it’s the reason, frankly, why I took the second class with him is because I like the first one so much. One of my specific goals, apart from getting into new subject matter in the environmental and natural resources space, I very much wanted to do a geographical relocation to my desired home state, which is now New Mexico. My husband and I had been trying to get down to the Southwest for a long period of time. So I really wanted to try to tailor, if I could, my educational goals to New Mexico issues.
Jim was not only very open to that, he actually expected people to do that and, and really welcomed folks who were enthusiastic about tailoring their learning to a specific goal and being self-directed. He, he gave you, of course, guidance in terms of how things should be structured, but it was really up to the student to say what do I want to pursue? And what do I want the components of this lesson plan to look like for me?
I was able to focus studies on the Sandia Wilderness down here and various, you know, various New Mexico environmental issues. I was able to probe various topics that were very important to me that I otherwise wouldn’t have the ability to pursue.
I did look at University of New Mexico to see if they had had an online learning program, and they did, but it wasn’t a, a flexible one, a master’s program that I wanted to pursue. And so there really was no other way for me to achieve learning in New Mexico-specific issues, so I was very grateful for Jim’s class structure to facilitate active learning.
DAN: That’s really interesting because what I’m hearing is that the combination of a self-directed field study that you were doing — and obviously it was remote cause you didn’t visit New Mexico during the process, I imagine — combined with the fact that this was distributed learning. That we, we’re trying to use technology to make distance less relevant, or irrelevant if we could, is really what enabled you to focus on New Mexico as a place of study, in this particular case. I mean, in a traditional field group, you get on a bus, you go to a site and you study that site. This was, this obviously was vastly different.
LEIGH: It was. I was not able to travel down here and I think for those portions I, the field work that I did was local to my home in Maryland at the time. But in terms of the overall lesson plan, it was very New Mexico specific, supplemented by field work that was conducted locally. I think I might have, though, contrasted what I found in those local field visits with what I knew and researched about New Mexico issues on the same topics.
DAN: And Josh, I know Chastity Warren English described in the episode Growth Edge that she has a very large teaching portfolio at NCA&T, and so I suspect you took multiple courses with her.
JOSH: Yeah, I think I took two out of the… so I had 10 courses altogether with that Masters, and I think I took two with Dr. Warren.
DAN: She was pretty savvy in how she used software to get people to work across distances, both her working with the students, but then also the learners, the students working with each other, or working in the field, because so much of your work seems to be in the field, since it’s Ag related it’s in the field, and can be hands-on. Can you tell me sort of about the approach that you had towards the specific things you needed to learn in Ag Ed?
JOSH: She was really vigorous at first, getting the stuff to us. It was a lot of deadline-savvy stuff, just to make sure that we were keeping up with things. And then if we worked in groups for projects she would kind of facilitate who would be more of the leader, because part of a lot of the Ag Education stuff that we have to teach our students is those leadership skills. She wanted us to give different methods and different ways that we could use our specialized leadership traits and incorporate those into our group discussions.
This last course we just did, which is where I finished up with my Ed TPA and the teaching, that was probably one of the most intense classes I’ve taken. Dr. English was in charge of that. And we were working to make sure the lateral entry process, with the teaching license, was hand-in-hand and all those worked together.
DAN: Since you were lateral entry, how did your student teaching–I don’t know if it’s called a practicum or clinicals in North Carolina–how did that work with your lateral entry and licensing requirements?
JOSH: Since I’m already a teacher I student-taught as a teacher.
DAN: Who supervised that?
JOSH: My principal at my school actually supervised that, along with Dr. Warren. She would actually jump in Zooms when I was teaching. ‘Cause right now, in North Carolina, we are doing a hybrid system with students. So every once in a while she would be like, “Are you zooming today?” And I would give her the link. She could jump in and see what kind of interactions going on.
DAN: So she was really using Zoom to shrink the distance. I mean, to actually do things synchronously and work together to satisfy those requirements.
JOSH: It worked great. My kids didn’t even know she was there. They didn’t even question who this random person was. Just shows how much they were paying attention, obviously.
DAN: I’m interested to hear about any other innovative techniques that your faculty used that stand out in your memory as effective or particularly helpful in getting everyone to engage.
KRISTEN: Well, it’s funny because I mean, I got my degree three years ago, and so Slack was like a new thing. Zoom was a very new thing. And these are now things that we use all of the time so what is, what was innovative then is like old hat to us in this, in 2020 [laughing].
DAN: It’s a very fast moving space. It really is.
LEIGH: I think for me, Dan, I ended up taking a few classes with the University of Idaho. I took a class on fire ecology and the professor had us do these oral — and I can’t remember the name of the software that we use, and it was a separate platform that we would navigate to — but we would have to narrate our presentations and record various comments. And I thought, “Oh, really? I, I actually have to record my voice to these PowerPoints?” But it was great. And I was, I was happy to try to learn something new and I thought it was just a different approach than I had experienced before.
And Dan, I have to put in a plug for all of your teaching methods, whether it was introducing songs or poems, or… [laughing]. You had all sorts of great techniques!
DAN: It’s true. There’s nothing, nothing is ruled out as far as I’m concerned. If I can use it, I’ll shamelessly do it. Any song, any tool, as long as I can fit it in. Yeah, it’s true.
Our panel that we had for Season One alums, one of the things that they said was it was very valuable to them to actually hear the voices of their colleagues and not just read their words or maybe see a photo, but to see a video or hear a voice-over, just to hear the voices. They felt as though they had a better sense of the person. So, I guess it’s more of a human aspect.
LEIGH: I could see that. Absolutely. Because I do think we get just so wrapped up in our electronic communications or written communications that we lose a lot in not hearing somebody’s voice, or not seeing their face.
KRISTEN: I’ll say that the times where I had instructors give us the opportunity for an optional live class meet. So it wasn’t necessarily required. It was, Hey, if you can make it and join and chat, and we can talk about some things that are going on in class, and it was very informal opportunity just to get to know each other… I did really appreciate that. I think, particularly in those early classes in the program, because it allowed to put a face to a name, and a voice, and mannerisms, and you get to know people that way.
DAN: That’s good to hear. I mean, it’s good, as an instructor, to hear. Josh, were there other things in your program that you thought were particularly innovative that I haven’t thought to ask and didn’t know to ask.
JOSH: A lot of times we would have to introduce ourselves through a YouTube video. We’d have to share a private link and introduce ourselves. We had to watch and comment. So I agree, like, seeing people and hearing them and learning their mannerisms makes it easier to connect with those people in your class when you are reading those blogs or those discussions, because you kind of see where they’ve come in from, um, more so instead of texts, but actually as a human, not just from the back of a screen.
DAN: It actually makes me wonder, was there anything that you had in your online programs that surprised you? I mean, about online learning.
LEIGH: It was much more effective than I thought it was going to be, comparing it to, say, college. Law school’s a little different… the professors are engaging in Socratic method, there’s a lot more classroom discussion, classes are smaller, they are more interactive.
But in college… I went to a big university. We showed up, there might be a thousand people in Bio 101, and you listen to a lecture, you know, do some reading on your own and you take a test at some point.
That’s why I had my doubts. So it was like, well, what is the online learning going to be like? Is it just going to be listening to lectures? And I was pleasantly surprised to learn how engaging it actually was. I frankly did not expect that. Virtual classroom discussions, I think, were even much better than some of the classes that I had in law school, because you’re not just speaking off the cuff. You can research what you want to say? So in a lot of ways it was, it was more educational.
JOSH: It, it’s definitely more personable. I went to UT. My biology class was, I can’t even remember how many students was in it. The online stuff, there’s maybe 15 to 20 of us through the entire program. And once you started with those same people, like, you were with them throughout it. Other Ag teachers in the state are doing the same program or getting their master’s. And so I would work with them or get their number. And so I think that there’s more connections to your colleagues, being with that small group and that virtual aspect, than being in that big lecture hall, listening to those lectures.
KRISTEN: I will echo everything that, uh, both of, both Josh and Leigh said. It was a much more personal experience than I expected. And building relationships, both with fellow students and with professors, I think was surprising to me. The level of engagement from the professors in an online environment, I could tell they really cared. They were invested in all of the students. They wanted us to succeed and we’re always willing to get on a phone call — at the time it was a phone call, not a Zoom — and, and have those conversations.
And like I said, you know, getting on a phone with, with Doug or any of the other professors… an hour phone call was not unusual. I mean, they were willing to give their time and effort to their students, and that really was special to me.
DAN: I have two more formal questions and then maybe a little bonus afterwards. if we have a minute. Josh, let’s start with you. I’m wondering, do you have any advice for faculty, in general, who are dealing with higher education online, to develop a high quality learning environment? We’ve touched on this a little bit. Was there something you thought, “Well, this would have really been better if I’d had more of this.”
JOSH: I just think that the one-on-one interaction with the professors and, like Kristen said, having that phone call. I mean, Dr. English has been so great. She just gave me her number and just said, “Text me if you need something.” Just that close connection has really made the difference in all of this.
DAN: So if I can paraphrase your advice: Keep the connection going. Don’t don’t overlook the connection.
JOSH: Yeah. Don’t break that bond.
DAN: Leigh, do you have any advice for faculty who are trying to develop and teach an online course?
LEIGH: Yeah, I, I… just a piggyback on what Josh was saying. More connection, more frequent connection, one-on-one with professors. I think that was great. But apart from that, I think sometimes I would have liked the professors to jump in more to the online chatting, with the groups, to maybe sometimes refocus the discussion or tease out some topics or… ‘cause sometimes things just… conversations would drag on a little bit.
DAN: Very good. Very good advice.
Well, Kristen, you’ve been on both sides of the computer at this point because you did a whole degree, and now you’ve had the chance to teach one section, or maybe a couple of sections, I’m not sure.
KRISTEN: One section so far.
DAN: So what advice would you give yourself as a new person designing these courses?
KRISTEN: I will say Leigh, it’s interesting that you gave the feedback that you gave because, for my class, I had this internal debate about, do I want to jump into the conversations and the discussion groups, or do I want to stay out of it?
And at the end of the day, I decided to stay out of it and let that be the student’s safe space, where they could converse and not worry about me being nosy and jumping in and, like, diverting the conversation. Because I did want it to have it be theirs.
I read it as soon as something was posted… are you kidding? Like, I was obsessively reading what the students were posting! But I felt like that was, that was kind of their space to work things out.
Now, what was interesting was there was one conversation that got heated between two students and I go, “Okay, is this the time to jump in Kristen? Like, this may be the time where you have to jump in and say something.” And what was really interesting was that another student actually jumped in and got them back on the right track. That was actually really helpful for the entire group, and, uh, it was interesting to see that dynamic work.
LEIGH: That’s great.
KRISTEN: But I still kind of have a, have it in the back of my mind. Like, was that still the best decision? I don’t know.
LEIGH: And I think there’s a balance too, right? I mean, certainly I think if a professor weighs in too much, I think then it actually kind of can discourage the class from participating. It’s like, “Oh, what does the professor think is important? I’m just going to let the professor kind of lead this.” There’s value in, in stepping back and letting the class engage in that active discussion. But yeah, I think I would have liked a little bit more involvement.
DAN: Let’s shift gears a bit here because I want to give you guys a chance to ask each other any questions you might have. What would any of you like to ask the other panelists?
LEIGH: I was just interested to hear about Kristen’s program, where folks had roles that were assigned in the discussions. I don’t recall us doing that in the classes that I had in Virginia Tech. Dan, I don’t think we did that in your classes.
DAN: I haven’t done it before.
LEIGH: But I think that’s really interesting, and particularly the Devil’s Advocate role… assigning somebody’s responsibility for asking provocative questions. Did that result in some meaningful discussion?
KRISTEN: I think it did, actually. Oftentimes, what we reminded people with, particularly, that Devil’s Advocate role was that this was not just to be a naysayer. It was really just to bring in a different opinion or a possible argument to it. So it didn’t necessarily even need to be your opinion or your thoughts on it. It was, this could be a possible argument against what you are saying. So not to make it a personal, like that’s just really dumb and that’s, you’re stupid. It was very clearly described to avoid that type of situation.
Having a Leader was also very helpful to make sure that somebody kicked off the conversation each week and not everybody was leaving it until the deadline day… which, you know, some of us are guilty of doing… potentially [laughing].
And here’s the thing. Some students are better than others at doing that. Right? I mean, some… there were some Leaders that were fantastic and some just didn’t really latch onto that. Or some Synthesizers were amazing at going and getting other ideas and bringing them in and others just didn’t bother at all.
DAN: I think the closest that I’ve gotten to, in setting up one of my classes is, sometimes we’ll have a topic that we’ll debate. So I’ll say, “Take a pro side or a con side and debate this,” but it’s self-selected. This is really intriguing the way that you had it, Kristen, the challenge of course is the Leaders got to be active early in the week because, you know, that’s, if they’re not, then everyone’s kind of waiting for the Leader to get things started.
KRISTEN: There were times where other people, I mean, they’re, they’re the very engaged students who say, “I really want to jump in. Do I have to wait for the Leader to do it? Can I start earlier?” Of course you can. Like, there’s nothing that says the Leader has to start. It it’s just that somebody does.
I’m interested, Leigh, I actually, and Josh, too… cause it sounds like there was some on-site things that you had to do. How did that work in conjunction, I guess, with an online program?
LEIGH: From my… I’m trying to remember the details. You know, I have distinct memories of going out to one of our local, um, preserves in Maryland. We were doing like water quality tests and different plant identification, reporting on what we had seen, kind of walking through the analysis process, the type of equipment that was used. I actually really liked it. I, I wish there were more of those classes. But I definitely, uh, saw that it was possible to introduce that type of component to an online course. And then we would just come back to the classroom discussion and chat about what our experiences were. It was just a nice varied approach from what we were doing before.
DAN: And that field work was something you were doing by yourself. I mean, you lived in southern Maryland at the time?
LEIGH: Yes. Yes.
DAN: So there were no, no other people from class.
LEIGH: Exactly. Everybody, you know, picked where they wanted to go and what they wanted their field work to be. So everybody has different experiences in different environments in which they were conducting their field work, which of course contributed to a more colorful discussion, too.
KRISTEN: I would think that that would be really interesting because you’re not all just in one place doing the same type of work. You’d have these varied experiences and varied results in things to talk about. I love that!
LEIGH: Yeah, it was great. It was. I thought that was a lot of fun. I wanted more (laughing).
DAN: We’ll work on that!
Josh was all of your stuff online or did you have anything on campus?
JOSH: Everything, as far as the course stuff was online. Dr. Warren was supposed to come visit during that clinical teaching time with me, and that’s when we had to do the virtual, because the way the school system was cracking down on COVID, and so instead of her being able to come in and see more of the hands-on stuff that I was able to incorporate, she had to see it virtually.
And sometimes that was challenging because if I was going to take them to the shop to do a hands-on demonstration, I would have to make sure I had a computer set up out there with a camera, so everything was turned and set so that she could see what was going on.
DAN: I’m impressed how technology really helped you connect with multiple parties and provide both classroom- and field-based experiences. We’re coming to the end of our time together but I do want to get your insights on one more topic. Kristen, because it’s been the longest since you were a student, what advice do you have for other potential students or learners who are either already in a program doing online work, or considering going into an online program? Is there any advice you have for the young Kristen?
KRISTEN: Do it! (laughing) Um, I also think… use all of the resources that are made available to you. Find out what those are. Use your professors. They are there for you and can help guide you.
It’s very easy to feel like you can sit back and in an online environment and hide behind that screen. And I would really encourage, uh, students to not do that because you’re not going to get the most out of that program. And you may not be as successful and you may not want to continue if it’s just that type of experience.
And then time management. I mean, my goodness, it’s a cliched answer, but there you go (laughter).
DAN: That’s the woman who worked the graveyard shift (laughter), yeah, indeed.
DAN: Leigh, what advice do you have for people who might be thinking about an online program?
LEIGH: I would say, yes, if, if you want to see a change in your life, and you’re thinking about pursuing further education, don’t hesitate. How old was I? Forty-seven, when I went back to school, and I had anxiety about that. I’m glad that I did it. It’s done now. The degree helped me to get where I wanted to be. It was hard. It wasn’t like it was easy. But I’m thrilled that I’m now on the other side of it, I feel better for it. I’m just, I’m just so glad that I did it and I would just encourage anybody else who’s thinking about it, at whatever stage in life. It’s not too late. Just go for it!
DAN: Those are encouraging words — thank you!
Josh, how about you? What advice do you have for someone who’s thinking about an online program in education, you know, whether it’s in your field or anyone else?
JOSH: Well, to piggyback off of what Kristen and Leigh said, I’ve always been told your education is something that someone cannot take from you. So once you get that degree and you set yourself to those standards, no one’s taking that from you because it’s yours. Now I’ve been teaching that to these kids — nobody takes that knowledge that you learned from you.
But, like I said, if you would’ve asked me three years ago, would I have went and got a master’s degree? I’d’ve looked at you and told you you’re crazy. And here I am on the other side of it, and I feel just so accomplished! Set yourself goals and you can reach them if you just try.
DAN: One of the things that I’m hearing is, from all of you, is it’s not scary, and it is worthwhile. It’s an effective way of getting an education, learning new things. It’s worth pushing forward on it.
I think that’s a wonderfully positive note for us to end on so I want to thank everybody. Kristen Glover from University of Kansas, Josh Snider from North Carolina A&T, and Leigh Sellari from Virginia Tech… although that is not where any of you are living at this point (laughter). It’s great to get a chance to talk with you. Thank you so much for joining us.
LEIGH: Thank you, Dan.
JOSH: Thank you, Dan.
KRISTEN: Thanks, Dan.
KIERAN: Hey Dan!
DAN: Hey Kieran!
KIERAN: How’s it going?
DAN: I’m doing great, thank you.
KIERAN: Excellent. Remind me when the recording of this panel discussion took place, ’cause there’s been a holiday, and an election…
DAN: …and all that. Yeah, it’s been a busy couple of months we’ve had here.
KIERAN: Have you had a chance to listen to the interview again since then?
DAN: So I had a chance to sit down with Josh and Leigh and Kristen right before the Christmas holidays, right before the winter break. You know, it was really kind of a wrap up for the semester. It wasn’t a semester for them so much, although two of them are educators now.
KIERAN: I’m assuming that you’ve listened to it since then…
DAN: Yes, I have!
KIERAN: What are your thoughts now that you have a little distance from it?
DAN: Well, you know, it’s interesting because at the beginning of Season Two, we kind of set out with this idea that we were going to look for innovative educators and innovative learning techniques, and I really think we found some.
DAN: What I wasn’t expecting is we actually found innovative learners as well. So the people who are attracted to these innovative programs are themselves, both entrepreneurial and innovative in the way they approach their education. And in this case it was graduate education. The way they were looking at their learning and their education was really kind of out of the box.
DAN: That was my thought… but what was your take on it?
KIERAN: Well, what I heard is that they each had, if not some fear, some hesitation about how this experience was going to play out, what it would be like to do it, and then just forged ahead. And I think that kind of courage is probably… look, I’m biased, ‘cause I run an online program and I work with phenomenal students and faculty. But I think there is this tendency to attract early adopters or people who are wanting to challenge themselves, are comfortable trying out an environment that is not solidly in their comfort zone. I heard that here, so. Sometimes almost with disbelief in their own voices, Josh still seems to find it surprising that he is teaching, that he went through this graduate program…
DAN: …he’s got a Masters degree…
KIERAN: Yeah, that was delightful to hear.
DAN: I absolutely agree with that. They, I think, surprised themselves a little bit. But at the beginning of their journey, they really sort of said, okay, we want to do X. We have a learning objective, you know, to put it in jargon. They looked around to see, “How can I accomplish this goal?” And that’s exactly the approach they took. It was okay, this is a little scary because I’ve never done this before, but yeah, they really kind of pushed forward, didn’t they?
KIERAN: They did! And, and made it also clear that it wasn’t easy, but it was worth it. They really push themselves. Looking back on my own graduate programs and knowing how much work that was. I still was blown away… by Kristen, who works all night and then, I don’t know, takes a nap on the couch, and then gets up and does a graduate program… Leigh is working as a, an attorney and manages to work this out. Josh is getting up to milk cows and driving over to his uncle’s house so that he can get WiFi. How can you not be inspired by that, as an educator?
DAN: I certainly was both gratified and inspired. As someone who is on a different side of the equation, I’m inspired to try to make it better for the learners that I have.
KIERAN: So for any instructor who wonders whether students ever really appreciate all the work that goes into what they’re trying to do, they not only really appreciate it, but they bring as good as they get.
In online, it’s a little bit higher barrier that people have to get over just because it’s not familiar from their undergraduate experience. So, yeah, of course they’re more motivated. If they’re not motivated we don’t ever see them.
DAN: On the social aspects of online learning, you know, when we look at some of the specific innovative techniques that were discussed, there was kind of a common thread that Doug and Jim and Chastity all had. Their innovations were designed to make the learning outcomes individualized for the student. It was social still, but they could pursue exactly what it was they needed to do.
KIERAN: We heard this from Leigh — we heard it from the Season One panelists, too — that online students want to connect. They want to connect with each other, even if sometimes that means the dreaded group work [laughing], they still would rather have the connection. They want to connect with their instructors, and ideally that would be real-time, one-on-one, informal.
That raises some interesting challenges from the standpoint of an instructor, especially when you’re running an asynchronous course with students who are distributed across multiple time zones, geographically. They understood that there are challenges with that. But it challenges us, as instructors, to figure out ways to address that problem. Because that clearly it makes so much difference in the experience. And the three instructors that our panelists worked with were all exemplars of that, really make themselves available.
DAN: Yeah, I think that’s true. At the same time, I think — internalizing this about myself now — when I hear the alumni testimonials and I think about our guest panelists from earlier in the season, it kind of really inspires me to think, “Yeah, you really have to be creative.” And I find it creative. I find a creative to sort of think, well, how can these connections be made most effectively, and most efficiently? How can the learning outcomes be achieved most effectively, most efficiently? You know, there’s a ton of tools out there and there are new tools every day.
DAN: So it’s just, it’s such a creative space to be working in right now. That’s very gratifying for me.
KIERAN: Well, it helps that in graduate courses, which you and I are both familiar with, the number of students in a course
makes it much more feasible for you to be able to figure out two or three times in a semester where you can connect one-on-one with each of the students in the class.
A totally different situation if you’re dealing with an undergraduate course where you’ve got 75, or 175, or 275 people in that class — that’s a whole different beast. We need to be aware, and we need to set realistic expectations for ourselves. And then we also need to explain, sometimes, to our students, why things have been set up the way they are.
My experience has been that when you are transparent about that kind of thing, they understand. And if you compensate for not being able to speak to every single one of your multi-hundred students in a section by creating opportunities for them to have more engagement with each other… I think the main thing is they just want to feel like they’re not doing this in isolation.
DAN: I think so. I mean, it’s a very human desire to feel connected. So it shouldn’t be surprising that no matter the, the medium that desire is going to be there.
KIERAN: Mmmhmm. Right.
That feeds directly into another component of your discussion that caught my attention: The issue of discussion groups and how engaged the instructor should be, shouldn’t be.
There’s an inherent problem, as they recognized, with the instructor jumping in too early, or being too willing to offer their own answers. And then it’s not a discussion anymore. It’s just everybody piling on an agreement with the expert.
And yet, I’d, I’d be curious to get your take on this. Because of their experiences in earlier grades, as an undergrad or even in high school, they don’t always seem to recognize — and I’m not saying this about our panelists in this particular episode but generally — students don’t always recognize discussion as learning if the instructor’s not there. Just talking to their peers, it’s almost as if there’s something less educational about that. I don’t quite know how to address that or how to thread that needle. I’m really curious about your take on that aspect of discussions.
DAN: Yeah. I think this is a great question. And maybe it’s just because I think about it every single week when, you know, a new lesson is published and a new discussion is moderated.
First off, I don’t think that we can go by what the students expect our involvement should be because there’s quite a range. Some are going to be asking for detailed approval or affirmation of every post that they make, and I think that just has to do with the personalities that come into the group.
KIERAN: And social media, right?
DAN: Well, there is that.
KIERAN: You get trained to expect likes or replies. I really wonder how much that plays into expectations now.
DAN: Yeah, and our LMS has a like function in it, which I turn off because, it’s like, okay,
you’re in graduate school. You can use your words.
KIERAN: Just a thumbs up in not actually feedback of any useful kind, right? [laughing]
DAN: An anonymous thumbs up? No. Use your words and sign your name to them.
But thinking about the discussion some more… if you can get the group to really start talking with each other early in the semester, they don’t notice if I’m in or not in the group because they’re really starting to have very engaged conversations with each other. So I can come in where I think I need to and be surgical about it.
KIERAN: And this came up in your conversations, too… this idea that it’s not all that important who is leading the discussion, but someone needs to lead it. The approach that Doug takes of assigning roles… maybe you don’t have to go into as much detail as he’s done — he’s doing that for a very particular reason — but at the very least assigning a leader, that doesn’t have to start it off, but is sort of in charge of keeping the ball rolling of moderating things. I actually found that to be a really useful way of trying to address that issue… not wanting to be a presence in the conversation because it changes the whole tone, and everybody’s in looking to me, was that the right answer?
DAN: Yes. I was really intrigued by this idea of having explicit assignments for roles in discussion, particularly the leader, the devil’s advocate, the spy. You’re asking them to take ownership of the discussion. But it also has the value of forcing people to take roles that they might not naturally have taken. So I really am intrigued by that method that Doug used and that Kristen talked about in her feedback.
KIERAN: Right. I was so tickled when she said she listened to that episode and thought to herself, “Oh, that’s what he was up to!”
And that’s, I think, what was helpful about having the two educators. I think it was pretty clear that when they turn their focus to teaching themselves, they reflect back on what that experience was, what worked, what didn’t work, what they got out of it.
That actually is a great segue, I think, to some of what we’re going to be doing in Season Three. In fact, we’re going to be following up with someone that we interviewed earlier last year to see how that experience has played out for her. Give us a little bit of a heads up about what’s going to come for the rest of Season Three!
DAN: Sure, happy to! Well, it’s been 12 months since the pandemic started moving across the country, which changed higher education. And what we’re going to do in Season Three is take a look at what that sudden pivot is starting to mean.
For the last two semesters, including the summer, we found a lot of our colleagues who had never taught online having to scramble and figure out how to do this thing.
It’s a year out and some of them are starting to see an end at a light at the end of the tunnel.
We’re interested in knowing, well, what has the last year meant? What have people learned? What changes come out of that?
We had the pleasure of talking with Liza Wieland, who had done a little bit of online teaching but not a lot, found herself suddenly doing fully online teaching. Got her first impressions of how that was going, then a follow-up at the end of the semester to see what her thoughts are now — she’ll be our next guest. And then we’re going to have a series of guests after that who had to make this pivot and do a check-in. See how they’re doing, but also see how it might impact their teaching going forward.
KIERAN: And that is one of the interesting things, right? First we have to get through the initial change. Then the curiosity starts about what kind of longer term impact will take place. I personally see some of that chatter happening in social media groups, in higher ed blogs… yeah, there’s just so many different ways that it is going to have this ripple effect. And I don’t think we’re going to roll it all the way back to where it was before.
DAN: I would go with that hypothesis. I think that will be permanent changes. It remains to be seen what they are.
KIERAN: Now we want to hear what you have to say! Send us your questions, comments, and suggestions. You can record a voice message, send an email, or leave a comment on our website, wiredivy.org. And help Wired Ivy grow by sharing, subscribing, rating, and reviewing us on your favorite podcast app.
DAN: Wired Ivy is wholly owned by Kieran Lindsey and Dan Marcucci, and we are solely responsible for its content. Views expressed in this podcast and affiliated media are those of Kieran, Dan, and our guests, and do not represent Virginia Tech or any other institution.
KIERAN: Our audio engineer is Star Path Images, and a license for our theme music, Breakfast with You, was purchased from SmartSound.
DAN: Until next time, this is Dan Marcucci…
KIERAN: And I’m Kieran Lindsey.
KIERAN and DAN: Let’s stay connected!