Wednesday, November 1, 2017

Universal Design for Assessments w/Technology (UDAT)

And, like that, in my blog post title, a new acronym is born.

I had a fantastic meeting this afternoon with one of Fresno State's SSD (Services for Students with Disabilities) staff. Without divulging too much detail, I have a student who approached me in confidence about a disability (reported to me as dyslexia, although I'm not sure that was a formal medical diagnosis) that the student hoped I would be able to accommodate.

At the time, I felt torn. I pride myself in being as equitable as possible, so I immediately started thinking about how I might accommodate disabilities in a fair manner.

I feel absolutely fortunate that we have such caring SSD staff (as well as faculty) who are invested and committed to helping students succeed. Today I learned (and am sharing) a couple of points about Universal Design for Learning (UDL) that might also be useful to you!

Briefly, my student mentioned that it helps to be able to read exam questions out loud, which is clearly something that isn't feasible in a traditional lecture classroom-style written exam. So, feel like I have a few options if I want to accommodate this approach. One I'll rule out, and I'll explain the others further. My hope is that, every time you design a student assessment, you'll consider (as is a premise of UDL) pro-actively adopting the couple of viable options I'm about to describe.

1) Write multiple versions of an exam
No, I don't promote this. It is a lot of work, but more critically (I feel), there is no way to write multiple exams that fairly (and critically) assess students. Sure, you could write multiple-choice items in which you switch the order of answers, but because I avoid multiple-choice tests like the plague, I'm not comfortable with this approach. A similar, but more practical approach, might be:

2) Write "choose-your-own-adventure" exams
This approach is also not equitable, but I'm a bigger proponent of this than writing and distributing (randomly) multiple exam verisons. I like the idea of writing one section of an exam in which a student is presented with a few different questions (all worth the same number of points and assessing the same concept), where the student selects and answers one question. This can give students with learning disabilities the option to pick the question format that they're most comfortable answering. No, this isn't perfect (and there is, of course, no panacea for treating all types of learners equally), but it seems like a reasonable approach.

3) Write UDL exams!
I realized today that, in a course like I teach, which is specifically designed to incorporate mobile technology, there are some readily available approaches I can use to make life easier for the huge variety of students I have in my classes. In this specific case, I know that many students with dyslexia can benefit from hearing a question read aloud and/or having the student's response read aloud. This might not be practical in the traditional testing situation, in which many students are seated in the same room, and every effort is made to reduce distractions, including noises other students might make (including reading aloud to themselves!) Fortunately, I'm in a situation where I can reasonable inform students that they can bring headphones to exams and use their mobile devices to use text-to-speech software to read the questions in the PDF exam to them. I've never thought to mention to students that, with digital materials, these sorts of approaches are available. And, as is the principle of UDL, making such approaches available doesn't just benefit students with documented learning disabilities. Everybody can potentially benefit from having such options open to them!

In conclusion, I urge you to reflect on the exams you prepare. Ask yourself not only "Are they accessible?", but "How much do I explicitly demonstrate to students how they can use technology to enrich assessments (and not just learning, as many of us focus on in class!)?" 

As my SSD staff member noted today, some accommodations are legally required for students, but we would do best to help them learn how to advocate and find solutions for their disabilities that can be used beyond the boundaries of academia. Once they graduate, they'll be fending for themselves in the workplace, and we will do them a valuable service if we can help students with learning disabilities establish and practice their own methods of accommodating their disabilities!

Sunday, October 29, 2017

Course Materials: Faculty vs Textbook Publishers (& Faculty?!?)


I am in need of professional succor! In a bout of irony, it was during open-access week, which concludes today, that my considerable efforts to reduce costs for course materials to students in the California State University (CSU) system have been assaulted. My goal here is to share the issue at hand and, hopefully, to collect your feedback and perspectives!

The Background

Being one of the largest institutions of higher education in the world, the CSU system, which serves a huge number of financially disadvantaged students, has a number of programs that emphasize reducing the total cost of education, particularly with regard to course materials. These include Merlot, Affordable Learning Solutions (AL$), and others, with other CSU programs supporting them (e.g. @courseredesign, @cool4ed @courseredesign, @affordableCSU on Twitter).

We also have local initiatives, like Fresno State's "Be a Hero" campaign to promote faculty-bookstore communication, which helps give our bookstore time to research alternative (lower-cost) materials and to ensure that orders can be placed far enough in advance to get the best price on materials.

Over the last couple of years, as part of Fresno State's 1:1 mobile technology initiative, called DISCOVERe, and also as a faculty cohort lead in the CSU Course Redesign with Technology program, I have been working to adopt Open Educational Resources (OER):

  • I record course materials as videos for students to watch before class
  • I develop my own exercises for students to use to practice class concepts
  • I supplement these resources using OpenStax textbooks. These are open-access PDF textbooks that my students can download and use as references.

Doing this, I saved my students over $11,000 in expenses this semester alone.

The Challenge

While celebrating my intellectual contribution to my field and these cost savings for my students, I received an e-mail from a former student. The student had transferred to a different CSU campus and requested my course syllabus. The student's major department at the new campus wanted to evaluate the content of the class to see how/whether it articulated with their requirements.

To my disbelief, after I provided the syllabus, the student later sent me an e-mail response from the department. They made two main points:

  • The OpenStax textbooks I listed on my syllabus aren't suitable as upper-division textbooks: "The texts for the course aren’t genetics texts, but, rather, fairly basic online biology texts that we might use to teach our freshman-level core biology class."
  • That, although I provide much more detail in class (as evidenced by lecture capture videos, course exercises, exams, etc.), it would take too much work for the new campus to assess the quality of my instructor-created OER to accurately measure whether my upper-division genetics class would substitute for theirs: "The content has also not been demonstrated to be equivalent, but the level of verification this would require is more appropriately done at the university level. Faculty don’t have the time to do a point-by-point articulation between the two courses." It would be unreasonable to ask the faculty at the new campus to watch my lecture videos to do this sort of articulation assessment.

So, in the short-term, I might be saving students money, but am I doing them a favor? Now this student has to pay to retake a class.

The Call to Action

I was taken aback. Now that I've had a week or so to reflect, I'm still puzzled by this response from a sister CSU campus. I can understand that perhaps the individual faculty who responded aren't on board with our system's emphases on reducing course materials costs, or they don't want to take the time to evaluate the rest of my course materials (which I can understand). Regardless, this anecdote raises a larger issue that I think we must all, ultimately, address through discourse:

  • Should the choice of textbook used in a class be the sole determinant of whether units transfer? more broadly
  • Should the choice of textbook, alone, represent the quality, "depth of content," and rigor of a class?

Using the choice of textbook itself to deny my former student the ability to avoid re-taking a course borders on ludicrous. If this is how it is going to be, then I'll just put the latest and most expensive "real" textbook on my syllabus, just so it is listed there. After all, just because materials are listed on my syllabus as required doesn't actually guarantee that any student has actually purchased the textbook, much less cracked it open and used it!

Ultimately, I believe that this isolated encounter means we need to take action. This event might indicate a broader perspective in higher education about the importance of which textbooks are used in classes. Please consider informally reaching out to as many of your colleagues as you can to help inform our profession about:

  • the value of blended learning (flipped classrooms) and instructor-created course materials
  • the concept that lecturing from a textbook is not the only (nor the best) method of helping students learn

Finally, please remind them of how much course materials cost our students, and that adopting OER is a useful method of helping students afford to earn a college degree!

Saturday, October 28, 2017

Active Learning Week meets Clips

As I've mentioned here before, my campus' 1:1 program is not Apple-centric. So, I've mainly focused my efforts on developing ways for faculty to use their iOS devices to benefit students. I'm currently a co-leader of a California State University (CSU) faculty cohort working to augment courses with technology (the CSU CRT program). I recently led a videoconference with my cohort (using Zoom) that focused on various ways to use videos in (and around) class. Of course, I featured Clips! This despite many of the faculty in my cohort not being in 1:1 mobile device programs or classes.
One of the reasons I was inspired to focus one of our cohort meetings on Clips is because I had just used Clips to generate a video to celebrate AAC&U's Active Learning Week. This annual event, which just passed, is organized by Project Kaleidoscope (PKAL) and hosted on the STEM Central website. Briefly, the goal each year is to have teachers sign an online pledge to incorporate one active learning exercise in a STEM class (and this year, they added the goal of making that activity culturally responsive).
It just happend that, around Active Learning Week, I was scheduled to be at the annual conference of the Society for the Advancement of Chicanos and Native Americans in Science (SACNAS), which meant I would miss one day of my genetics class at CSU Fresno.

Yes, and…

Being digitally inclined, I had already been planning on leaving my students digital activities to work on in my absence; then I decided to up the ante and also be available on Zoom for my students to consult.
Another (optional) part of the Active Learning Week pledge is to create a video to showcase one's activity. This is where I knew that I had to use Clips - both to generate my class activity, and also to promote it!

Active Learning with Clips: Jigsaws

I've already written a blog post about using Clips for jigsaw activities, so I won't duplicate that information here. I'll just point out that it is fantastic that I can be states away from my class and still create a few short videos for different groups of students to watch and become content experts in.
puzzle piece fitting in jigsaw title.jpg
In this class, the topic of the day was "genetically modified organisms" (GMOs). So, I made a few Clips introducing different potential GMOs. My students were tasked first with developing their own definition of a GMO. Then, each student watched one Clip and then shared that information with students who watched the other two Clips:
Their group task was to determine whether any of the examples in the Clips above met (or did not meet) their definition.

Using Clips to Advocate using Clips

Clips made a fantastic platform for me to create in-class, interactive material for my students even when I wasn't present. It also allowed me to create a video showcase of the process. Please watch it here!
And so, this is the process I described to my course redesign faculty cohort. If you're interested, you can watch my presentation and the ensuing discussion here:


As a result of:
  • using Clips to create jigsaw videos, and then
  • performing synchronous online videoconference during a class meeting, and then
  • using Clips to create a video about the process

I encountered a few…opportunities:
  • It turns out, it is a good idea to put the "Do not disturb" sign on your hotel door if you don't want housekeeping to work on your room during class
  • I thought an efficient and productive strategy would be to wait until my travel home to create the Active Learning Week video summarizing my use of Clips to coordinate active learning, in my physical absence. I learned a few additional things I'd like to share:
  • An airplane flight is a great time to go back and edit live caption text (especially if you remembered to bring headphones)
  • It is difficult to get a clean audio recording when doing live caption voiceovers on light rail or when sitting at the gate (unless you really want to have the gate agent's voice in the background)
  • For some reason, even though I had already downloaded all of the posters and soundtracks and other Clips media, I had to do so again (in the absence of wi-fi)…I'm still trying to figure this one out. Maybe Clips had auto-updated, and new versions of Clips require those media to be downloaded again?

Next year, let's all participate in Active Learning Week (even if you don't teach a STEM discipline!)