About Me

Education, the knowledge society, the global market all connected through technology and cross-cultural communication skills are I am all about. I hope through this blog to both guide others and travel myself across disciplines, borders, theories, languages, and cultures in order to create connections to knowledge around the world. I teach at the University level in the areas of Business, Language, Communication, and Technology.

Thursday, June 30, 2022

Reflections on Ungrading and alternative ways to assess

 As part of #MyFest22, I have been following the ungrading series. One of the assignments was to reflect and write about ungrading. 

So let me start by saying that I probably will never be in a position to use a pure version of ungrading. For one thing, I've retired from teaching (I know there is always the chance I might be contacted to teach again, but I doubt it). For another thing, for the 30 years that I taught, I had to follow fairly rigorous structure I had to follow for grading. Grade distributions were sometimes posted within the dept. and as a non-permanent contingent faculty member, our contract was dependent on the norms of grading laid out by our university. By the time I retired, grades had become a currency. We were often told that too many A's meant that we were not "rigorous" enough. The fact that many of my students used the skills I taught in lower level classes and that most faculty didn't want to teach courses students didn't want to take (thus receiving lower evaluations) meant there was always one of these courses available to me. 

What to do then? I discovered pretty early on that students gamed the system for good grades while not really learning what they needed to for the future. I also didn't want a student in my class who really didn't want to be there, so I had to create a course they wanted to be there for. I decided I could game the game of grades. 

  • Attendance and Class Participation: I tried to give people an incentive once where they would get a bonus if they didn't miss class. This backfired because students came to class for the points and really interrupted other students learning. Also, students came in sick and it disadvantaged those with medical reasons. Instead, I designed class to give students what they couldn't get on their own. I often used groups, but also used some individual in-class practices that students would hand in at the end of class. They did not need to be completed. I would review these so I could determine where students were getting stuck and what their thoughts were. Usually they were in class worksheets. Students would get a C or NC for that class, which converted into class participation grades. The only time students would get an NC were doing work for other classes throughout the class time. They soon learned that if they wanted to study for another class, just do it in the library. I had not maximum or minimum absences, but I took the first 10 C's to grade. So students could decide if it was worth it to come to class or not.
  • Peer review, self assessment, and instructor feedback: I let my students know that I was not the only one to determine grades, although I had the final say due to what university laid out. My policy was that students were not allowed to discuss specific grades in class because then I would always have the final say. If they had a problem with their grade, they were encouraged to speak to me during office hours or alone before or after the class (before Zoom, on Zoom during the pandemic). I let them know that I was human and therefore, sometimes when I graded, I may have missed something that demonstrated they understood the concepts they needed to know in class. But they should bring and be prepared to prove their request for a higher grade. Also, while I was very open to hearing their case, I still might not change it, but they would know why. To help me with grading fairly, I also used peer review and the student's own reflections to ensure I did not miss something or was focused on one aspect of the grading while missing something important that demonstrated they understood...just in a different way.
  • I always hated grades: How do you grade the same assignment when one person in really reaching and taking risks results in a mistake while another person only regurgitates what is in the book as they have been taught to do. I KNEW which one learned more, while the one who did not was only doing what they had been taught to do to success in school. So I tried to design assignments that encouraged taking risks and making mistakes, while supporting those that were scared to do so by making projects and assignments accumulative. No one part carried too much weight and as an assignment progressed there were changes to revise and make it better. 
In a way, I think I was able to incorporate many of the elements of ungrading into a rigid university grading structure. My students often told me that they learned more in my class than many others. I kept track of many of my students on LinkedIn and I see how they use the skills learned in my class to this day. More importantly, they continue to learn. 

Tuesday, June 14, 2022

Can Learning be Equitable if the Student Isn't Able to Access Learning Resources?

 Over the last two days I have attended 2 different #MyFest22 presentations (Accessibility Crowdsourcing for Digital Literacies Toolkit and Open Learning Journey Week 2 Kickoff) where the heart of the discussion was the question: what happens if a student or community is unable to access learning (tools, resources, content, courses)? In short, the student or students in a community will not be able to learn at the same level as those that have no trouble access the learning as it was designed. 

What is Learning Accessibility in a Digital Environment?

So let's start by identifying what is meant by accessibility. Often, in higher education, accessibility is often a medical condition that prevents a person from learning in a traditional way (labeled "disabled") thus requiring accommodations. Digitally, there are accommodations or finished products that must meet a certain standard when designing an online resource or course. There are tools that an instructional designer can use to ensure a learning object is accessible (for those that are identified as disabled). For the most part, these tools look at the design for those with hearing or vision impairment. However, there are many more impairments that might need accommodations such as neuro-diversity, chronic illnesses/pain such as back, neck, or limb pain, headaches, blurred vision, seizures due to or triggered by time on a electronic devise. There are impairments that can be amplified such as ADHD/ADD, speech impediments, audio processing disorder, light or sound sensitivity, dyslexia, or dysgraphia, or machine augmented speech/hearing. 

In most of the checklists I have seen for accessibility, these disabilities are not included. In some cases, typed writing (e.g. dyslexia or dysgraphia) may be a better learning environment for the student, with a minimum of changes (ensuring dictation software can be used or the font and spacing is accessible). But as other times the solution is in the instructional design (giving tool options, excluding timed tests). This is rarely given in a checklist.

Another area of inaccessibility often overlooked is made up of cultural, linguistic, epistemological, or technical differences. The first 3 are especially important to consider for international education. This is problem not only in distance/online education, but also for international students who attend a university outside of their home country. This could also be a problem from those from other regions of a country where the learning norms are different. In online education, it may not be obvious for an instructor (unless it is made explicit in the course design) that a student is from a community in which the basis of learning and how to learn, understanding of what "information" or "knowledge" is, and/or the rhetorical  style is different from the standards of the educator/educational system. 

Take for example the definition of plagiarism and the technology used to identify plagiarism. This technology assumes a student comes from a culture in which the norms for quoting and using others work are the same as those in the US or Western cultures. When I taught in Costa Rica, my students had difficulty writing in their own voice at the university level, because they had been taught that only those with the highest education and experience (professors) had that right. While this may be changing globally, there still are cultural differences that a anglo/western tool will privilege those from anglo/western societies. 

Another accessibility issue is based on technological constraints, either due to official policies (government, university) or infrastructure. Believe it or not, in New York state, there is an internet "dessert" in approximately 1/4 of the state, often in the mountainous, rural areas. Even students using cell service may have to go to a location from their home to actually use their phones/devises. In New York City, the cell demand, especially during the day, can result in some older areas having slower or intermittent internet service.  This means that students from rural or poorer neighborhoods may have difficulty accessing large files, downloading or uploading multimedia, or participating in video conferences. 

Why is accessibility important?

We often hear instructors, instructional designers, and policy makers/administrators claim that it is impossible to meet everyone's demands. There is a push for a standard design that will meet all needs. However, many times this becomes a standard template that does not take into consideration students' diverse needs. 

As one person mentioned in our Accessibility Crowdsourcing for Digital Literacies Toolkit, assessing learning is the difficulty. This is where the idea that assessment should be equal rather than equitable. Equal assessment will use the same measure for each student regardless of their barriers to access learning. This is especially egregious in online learning/activities. Time, culture, technology, and ableness (health) all are amplified when using the same metrics to assess learning. 

Without support, either within the instructional design, the technology, or support systems and staff, those that cannot access learning, will fail assessments that are based on their having accessed the learning resources and environment. 

However, there are many solutions to making learning accessible to all, some through technology use or choice, others through instructional design. At the core of this is an instructor/instructional designer's awareness of the needs of students and an understanding of the community they come from. 

As Lauren Lechtman said in the Open Learning Journey Week 2 Kick-off, it is important to engage in the community so there will be by-in. Often they have developed their own resources which means a student will be able to better access learning using resources developed within their community. 

Some Ideas about Solutions

As this is not a new problem, it is important to look at what solutions are already being used. When it comes to technology, many of the software companies have already extended packages that can be used with standard technology. Most of these packages address audio and visual impairments. 

In addition, Universal Design (link) is one way to offer students with accessibility issues choices in learning. There are some shortcomings to this, such as course policies which may limit access. However, working through the process will help someone new to course accessibility an outline of what to consider. 

Another thing to consider is to limit the amount of visuals. If you have a student that needs to have visuals, you might want to consider embedding a link to an alternative site that contains visuals. 

I also would like to see a directory of technology where an instructor or instructional designer can go to identify the accessibility features (including accessibility extensions) for a technology. As someone who is an instructional designer, I myself am never sure if the technology I use is accessible, and if so, for which disabilities. I am still learning how to make my work more accessible and need to reach out to those whose disabilities are different from my own to get feedback on how to make my work more accessible.  Having a directory with icons next to technology (as you have on travel sites for features at hotel) would make choosing the technology easier. These icons should include design orientation (i.e. reading right to left for non-western languages, using easily read fonts in multiple languages, color combinations that make it easy for those with colorblindness), audio extensions, visual extensions, eye strain/seizure warnings, low cognitive load/or cognitive load ratings, interaction with disability devises (text reading, dictation devices, alt text for visuals, audio or visual controls), and upload/download speed/internet capacity. 

Finally, it is important that when designing online learning we include opportunities for student support such as choice of media, flexible or long time frames for online work completion, working in pairs or groups (making sure that someone who may have access difficulties is paired or grouped with others that do not), options for alternative technology in case of lack of internet or devise, and access to technology support 24/7 outside of the instructor led class.  

Wednesday, June 8, 2022

Many People Making Small Changes can Change Higher Education

 Yesterday, I participated in a 30 minute reflective workshop by Karen Costa as part of the #MyFest22. It was based on the ideas presented in Emergent Strategy: Shaping Change, Changing Worlds by Adrienne Maree Brown. While I haven't read the book (although it has just been added to my reading list), according to Karen, the idea is that making societal changes can be overwhelming, but if we all work together doing something to change society, the sum of all of our efforts will be a good starting point and lead to societal change.

As she was presenting this idea, I thought of what we accomplished in the area of water and air pollution in 70's to the 90's. When I was a child, the Hudson River was so polluted that we could smell it in the Spring about 3 miles away. Today, there are fishing boats back in the river. While we still have a long way to go, this is quite an accomplishment. How was it achieved? Letter writing to industries along the Hudson, class projects measuring pollution in the Hudson, advocacy groups like the Clear Water sailing up and down the Hudson informing citizens and legislators about the problems and how they could be solved, and educating special interest groups such as those who like to fish, tourism industry, and chambers of commerce of the importance to the overall economy and quality of like that cleaning up the Hudson is a good investment. 

As part of Karen's presentation, she used a Google Jam Board. For those that have never used one of this, it is a virtual bulletin board in which users can upload sticky notes with responses from a prompt.  This sharing of ideas is a great way to brain storm and even categorize responses to the prompts. In this case, Karen gave us 9 prompts to allow us to reflect on our understanding of Higher Education and the direction we would like to see it go. 

In the moment, I found it hard to really "reflect" on where I would want to see Higher Education go.  But forcing me to just respond with the first thing that came to mind, but also see what others came up with, stayed with me for the rest of the day. As like many academics, I like to have time to think of an issue, virtually rolling it around in my head, seeing its many angles and possibilities. So this morning, I decided to present some of the ideas that came to mind of what direction I'd like to see Higher Ed go (these are actually not new) and how I could contribute to change in getting them there.

Changing Academia

When asked what I wanted to change in Academia, equity, acceptance, and balance came to mind. I also realized that I was thinking more of the power system, decision making, and organizational structure than the people who make up the university. However, for this to happen, all the people who make up the university from the students to the staff to the grounds keepers/maintenance to top administrators to dept/school heads to tenured faculty to contingents to the community members in surrounding areas need to have a dialog and interest in how the university is run, its goals and policies, and how each stakeholder can influence or benefit from the university.

This got me to thinking about my work the last five years before I retired last year. Last week I was happy to see that something I and my fellow adjuncts had been working on had finally come to fruition. In negotiations for our union contract, we finally had adjuncts represented on the negotiation team. Many of our concerns have been addressed this time around. While it may seem like a baby step, for adjuncts, even a small recognition of what WE want and having representation is a game changer.  

I look back to my first year as a representative to the University Senate. I had resisted doing any service work without pay. Three different times I was asked to be on the Senate, and I turned it down 2 times until I finally asked to be paid for it. It was a nominal amount they finally agreed upon, but it was setting the precedent that tenured faculty were paid 8 times more than an adjunct because they were expected to do service and research also. On the other hand, contingents were expected to "volunteer" their service. In other words, pay to have a place at the table.

 This was a small concession, but a monumental change that our time was recognized as valuable. It also was a fight towards equitable pay for the same work. 

One of the questions I asked at the first committee meeting (all Senators were required to be part of a committee) was why Senators for PT employees (which was the group I represented) were not elected by PT employees. You see, I was elected by Full Time employees only because Part Time employees were allowed to vote. With that simple question, Part Time employees elected me in the next election as they were allowed to vote for their own representation. Again, a small victory, but a change in mindset that Part Time employees should be considered responsible enough to vote for their own representation.

I then realized that each of the committees had annual or biannual reports that were read into the permanent record of the Senate. I asked if there were any committees, subcommittees, or reports on Contingent Concerns required by the Senate. Since 50% of the undergraduate courses were taught by contingents, didn't it make sense that there would be an annual report? This simple question led to my addressing this as a Senator to the Senate and top administration. In the end, we passed a requirement for the report, but then the Pandemic hit and even though it is on the books, I'm not sure if this ever was implemented.

In each case, these were baby steps. But with each baby step, came a growing awareness of how contingents and part-time faculty (which also includes staff at our university) were being treated unfairly. Students began to see how their professors were treated and tenured teachers were shocked at the inequities that they had been unaware of. Initially I viewed each of the groups as enemies against adjuncts. But as I began to speak to them about our work environment, I realized that I needed to inform them of our situation since they were often unaware of it.

Where to go from here

I hope that I have left even a bit of a mark on my university before I left. Looking at the new union contract, it appears I have. But more importantly, others have taken up the mantle to fight for change.

As a retired lecturer (hate this title because I never lectured EVER), I have tried to continue to keep the discussion going, encouraging balance, equity, and acceptance. This is not the same as equal, giving over my own values to avoid conflict, or excluding anyone from the dialog. 

This year I have learned about the importance of centering discussions to listen to those who feel/are excluded. I also have always believed it is important to listen to people to understand their perspective but also to set boundaries as to what is acceptable and what is not for myself, my community, and society (balance). Without listening, it is difficult to know how and where to change thinking (both mine and others) for a better university and society. Often it is not a matter of wrong or right but rather what am I willing to accept and when do I set boundaries for behavior (hint: hating someone because of factors outside of their control is outside the boundaries for me).  

I continue to do work that I hope will have an impact on others such as working with my former colleagues or Phd students. I continue to try to make the small changes that I hope will turn into changes on a mass level.