Dr. Cristi Ford (00:00):
Welcome to Teach & Learn, a podcast for curious educators, brought to you by D2L. I’m your host, Dr. Cristi Ford, VP of Academic Affairs at D2L. Every two weeks I get candid with some of the sharpest minds in the K through 20 space. We break down trending educational topics, discuss teaching strategies, and have frank conversations about the issues plaguing our schools and higher education institutions today. Whether it’s ed tech, personalized learning, virtual classrooms, or diversity inclusion, we’re going to cover it all. Sharpen your pencils, class is about to begin.
Welcome to another episode of Teach & Learn. Today, I want to discuss the importance of humanizing online learning as educators. We know that there is a need to really connect and have personal relationships with our students, but I think for others it took the global pandemic to really solidify the importance of creating meaningful connections in a virtual space. I’m so excited to welcome our two guests today: Nicolas Pares and Mandi Singleton. Nicolas and Mandi have been researching and contributing to this space long before it became a hot topic. We’re going to talk about how to create engaging and welcoming atmospheres for all learners. But before we dive in, I want to take a moment just to introduce both of them to you as our listeners today.
I’ll start with Mandi. Mandi Singleton is a corporate learning and development specialist, and adjunct faculty at the University of Denver teaching in a bachelor’s completion program. Mandi spent 15 years in K-12 as a middle school dean, instructional coach, and as a math and science teacher. She taught problem-based learning at a STEM school in Denver and in Shanghai, China through the Kids to Glow organization. She also participated in an internship for teachers through the Colorado Bioscience Institute. While there, she became a contributor on the science publication and was named Educator of the Year in 2015. Mandi holds an MA in education from Saint Mary’s University of Minnesota and a certificate in educational leadership and policy from Colorado State University. Mandi, really great to have you joining us today.
Mandi Singleton (02:16):
Thank you, Cristi. I’m excited to be here.
Dr. Cristi Ford (02:18):
I’d also like to welcome our other guest, Nicolas. Nicolas Pares is an adjunct faculty member teaching in the Colorado Community College System on andragogy, applied linguistics, and educational technology. Nicolas has taught several topics over the past 10 years including high school math, English as a second language, and teacher education courses. He has served on the state of Colorado’s Open Education Resources or better known as OER Council, help to design the Google Business Intelligent Professional certificate on Coursera, and advanced research initiatives on the Research Professional Council for TESOL. Nicolas, really glad to have you join us as well today.
Nicolas Parés (03:01):
Thank you for having me, Cristi.
Dr. Cristi Ford (03:04):
So I’ll tell you that I really appreciated seeing the literature that you’re contributing around this conversation. I think for far too long we have known the importance of these human connections. But I guess I want to start by asking each of you, how did this chapter through this book called Designing for Care, so colleagues that are listening, if you haven’t had a chance to check it out, it’s a wonderful book called Designing for Care and in that book is a chapter called Humanizing Online Learning that our two guests authored today. So I want to start with how did that chapter come to be?
Mandi Singleton (03:42):
Nicolas, I’ll let you begin with this.
Nicolas Parés (03:44):
So I think while Mandi and I were working at the same institution, we were instructional designers, faculty developers helping faculty deliver their online in-person and hybrid courses, and we were seeing themes through COVID and the pandemic and shifting to fully online and distance learning as the primary method for delivering college courses, we just saw a real need for connection and care through online education. The chapter came from an opportunity that I saw a social media post about from a group called Hybrid Pedagogy. They were doing a request for chapters on the topic of critical instructional design, which eventually turned into two books, Critical Instructional Design and Pedagogy of Care, which is where our book chapter ended up and that was how the chapter came to be.
Mandi Singleton (04:53):
Yeah, Nicolas and I would sit in our office and we would just talk about what we were experiencing with the faculty that we were helping to develop and from our own experiences talking about a lot of these same topics and we had to create some professional development for our faculty and one of them that we created was centered around this, we called it pedagogy of care. And so we provided this professional development to all the faculty that we were supporting at the time, and it was very well received at our institution.
And so we brought it to the COLTT Conference, which is the Colorado Learning and Teaching with Technology Conference if anybody out there wants to check it out, it’s located in Boulder and they usually have an online component as well. But we brought it to that conference a few years ago and it was very well received at that conference as well and they brought us back to be part of a panel about this topic. And then Nicolas found that opportunity for the call for chapters in this book, and we decided to turn that little workshop that we had created into this chapter.
Dr. Cristi Ford (05:59):
I love hearing that your collective collaboration of the work that you were doing at Denver University, that time together working with adjunct faculty really spurred the conversations. But as I look at your histories and experiences, even that was not new to you. I’d love to hear a little bit, maybe starting with you, Mandi, in terms of when did you start to think about this concept, and when did this really materialize for you as something that as educators, we need to really drill down on?
Mandi Singleton (06:30):
Cristi, I think when I started working at a STEM school, we did all problem-based learning, and our school was really focused on, this was around 2015 I think when I started at that school. We were really focused on the social-emotional learning of our students, and I feel like when people hear social-emotional learning, which by the way, I was teaching seventh grade science at the time so I was working with middle schoolers. I think when people think about social-emotional learning, they think about feelings and that type of thing, but really it was about building empathy and growth mindset in students, which is so important in the middle school age that is so peer-centered. The classroom experience can be a very risky place, especially in problem-based learning where we’re throwing out brand new ideas and solutions and doing a lot of teamwork and team building.
So this particular school where I taught was, we had a unique situation. The school was the local community school public school, and the surrounding area was basically a large trailer park so most of the students that we had in the school were low income and maybe had some at risk students. But we also, because we were a STEM school, had a lot of choiced-in students from different areas of the district. And so our student base was very unique and had lots of different perspectives, and so we’ve really had to do that work with our students to build their social-emotional capacity to be able to, when we were done with a problem-based learning activity that students could present to experts out in the field about these brand new ideas that they were trying to solve in the real world. And so it was just a lot of work building that foundation of how do we work together and build that empathy so that students could feel safe and belonging in the school that we had created with so many different perspectives.
Dr. Cristi Ford (08:34):
I appreciate your focus when you talk about social-emotional learning and really being able to think about the critical skills and value around grit, around empathy. When you talk about, I just harken back to my middle school years or my daughters and thinking about those being really, really critical skills, and so I appreciate that reference and as you talked about the surrounding culture and climate, thinking about this local school and the socioeconomic diversity that you started to see with individuals coming, it’s really refreshing to hear that for you, that was the impetus around really thinking about this culture of care, this opportunity to really humanize and create these opportunities.
I want to shift a little bit, one of the things that I appreciate as I was reading your book chapter, you talk about student success really requiring more than good design. We oftentimes, as educators or instructional designers, think about starting with the end in mind, right backwards design. We think about all of the theorists, but in your chapter in Designing for Care, you offer a unique perspective. And so I’m wondering, can you share a little bit with our listeners what you see as a major focus?
Mandi Singleton (09:50):
For me, doing that work with social-emotional learning, I almost felt that putting that in place first made students learn the content better or they had a deeper understanding of the content, because when you remove some of those barriers, that anxiety, or some of those things from students, then they’re able to focus on that content more. And when they get to know you as a teacher, you have to be vulnerable in that space as well. And that student connection with you is what almost, it helps their motivation to want to learn more from you as well. And so I think teachers need to remember that they need to be vulnerable in that space as well and invite that student into that classroom and develop that sense of belonging first and then have the content come second so that students really feel that sense of belonging in that classroom.
Dr. Cristi Ford (10:48):
Nicolas, what about you and your experiences and background as you think about that paradigm shift in terms of not starting with good design, but really focusing on creating real cognitive relationships?
Nicolas Parés (11:01):
Yeah, I think, and going back to the theme of our writing of care, I think instructors and faculty like myself, we care deeply and greatly for our instruction and our subject matter that we are an expert in and teaching to students. We also need to remember that we should be caring for our students just as much as we do for our instruction and our subject matter. So that’s how I was thinking about it, was this care as Mandi put it, foundational and the first step and being your authentic self, being able to share things about yourself, learn things about your students, being able to say their names correctly, understanding a bit of their background and what brings them to the table or to the classroom or the digital classroom first is a really important step is from there you can begin to create an authentic connection, share a little bit about yourself, find spaces of common ground and grow your relationship from there as you begin to tackle instructions, assignments, your labs, the good learning objectives that a course and learning would be driven by, so yeah.
Dr. Cristi Ford (12:25):
Yeah. I appreciate we got to hear a little bit about Mandi’s background in STEM in 2015. Can you share with us a little bit about your background and how this came to be a major focus for you?
Nicolas Parés (12:37):
Yeah. I started out as a English language teacher in a school district out in Colorado, so working with diverse learners that I would find I didn’t have much in common with at all. But found that those relationships and sharing as much as I could, which was appropriately about myself and learning about them would keep them coming back to the classroom and keep them engaged and motivated intrinsically, and not so much driven just by grades and performance measured by assessment, that kind of thing. So that was where I started to really recognize everybody’s different. Nobody’s like me, I need to meet them where they’re at, but just go even further and maybe even begin to select case studies or content or materials and really tailor it to what they need and what they would find interesting and relevant to their background and their goals. So a lot of what my approach came from was teaching language, and then I had some experience teaching mathematics and science in a dropout high school, and that was a really fun and challenging experience.
It was very different, but I found that approaching everybody very authentically, building relationships, learning about their scenarios and what’s really going on, and their motivations and learning about them, and as they come into the classroom, figuring out what’s going on with this student and being able to approach and adjust my instruction and instruction and engagement and how I plan the day was just as valuable as sticking to those outcomes and making sure my instruction was well-written and my rubrics were thorough and I was being fair in those spaces and meeting timely grading, I found those first steps with the students, meeting them, getting to know them, connecting with them, caring about them, encouraging and building trust was a really important piece. Yeah.
Dr. Cristi Ford (14:58):
As I’m listening to you now and thinking about my own experiences, I think the piece that I am resonating with and I guess is where my next question is going to come from. We talk about asynchronous learning versus synchronous learning and the opportunities when you’re teaching a hybrid or face-to-face course, and you’re able to really be able to see the curious looks on your students’ faces, and you can tell when they’re frustrated or struggling. But this chapter, what I really appreciated, you elevated such great stories around how to humanize the virtual environment. And so I guess for faculty and instructors who are listening, thinking of the pedagogies of care framework and designing for connection, how can faculty or other instructors provide more space and opportunity for connection?
Mandi Singleton (15:46):
Yeah, Cristi, this is something that Nicolas and I talked about a lot and this is where this critical instructional design idea came from between us. When I made that transition from K-12 into the higher ed space and started teaching my own online class, I found our courses, even though they were very beautifully designed and had all the pieces and components there to help students do what they needed to do, it felt very transactional I guess is my new favorite word for that. Of students, you do your homework, you turn it in, I give you feedback, and so there wasn’t really a lot of space for the relationship building with students. And so that’s where I have this critical perspective of instead of us designing our courses to be the very best quality matters met course objectives, that we should really be designing our courses for the relationship piece first and build the content in second because right now I feel like we are constantly trying to fit the relationship space into the already well-designed course.
And so for me, that included things like even just asking students to share a photo or something in their introductory discussion board. I used Padlet, which is a tool that you can use. We would make little learning profiles on it so you could put multiple pictures and things about you and your hobbies and that type of thing for us to share with each other and I feel like my students made more connections through that. Everybody wants to share pictures of their pets or their travels and they want to connect over those things and so that was a very successful space for me in the online space of creating that space for students to get to know each other even though we were behind the screen.
Dr. Cristi Ford (17:37):
Yeah. I love the focus in your chapter and just that you mentioned, Mandi, this relationship first, content second approach. And Nicolas, I’m wondering from your perspective, as you started to look at the research and pedagogy, what resonated with you and what researchers were you and groups were you working with that really started to spark this interest?
Nicolas Parés (17:59):
When it came to right around the time that we wrote this chapter in the call for these chapters for this book came out, I was reading, and Mandi and I, we’re nerds about teaching and learning and so we would talk about this. Yeah, we were reading-
Mandi Singleton (18:15):
Shared a lot of books.
Nicolas Parés (18:20):
Nel Noddings’ work, that’s a very foundational piece of what we look at when we talk about pedagogy of care. I was also reading lots of Bell Hooks and community of practice, belonging, Culture of a Place I believe is the title and pieces by her. We’re thinking more of just, it’s not all about communicating care and that kind of thing, but also beginning to look at what kind of things, instruction, how you could mold or modify instruction to be a little bit more personable and caring, differentiated. And there are some really great practices out there that lend themselves to pedagogy of care and a little bit more of an individual approach to instruction, differentiated assessment and not minding if it’s poster or a video or a PowerPoint or presentation or an essay or something like that as their ultimate demonstrated piece of the learning and letting them choose.
And that can be from a student perspective, quite empowering and encouraging to say, I don’t have to sit down and write because I don’t like writing, but I could visualize my learning a bit better and recognizing that their output is maybe better in a visual format, or they’re into video making. Can be quite a powerful and caring approach. So we started to look at those kinds of things and how do we put this care into practice and where it might meet instruction in various ways.
I think Mandi presented some ways with just now with the Padlet use and other ways of just giving students choice in topic and helping them by understanding their background and what brought them to the classroom, what might motivate them through the activities, maybe a topic, maybe they don’t care about. Equations when it comes to credit cards, but they’re interested in cooking or they’re interested in understanding stock market better and choosing those types of areas that drive motivation and encouraging them to apply it in their lives. These are practices that you can begin to lend into the instructional space beyond just presenting an authentic self and really caring about your student.
Dr. Cristi Ford (20:56):
I really resonate with that. It reminds me of some work in 2011 and working with Ken Bain at the time and talking about that invitational syllabus. To your point in making space and opportunity for students to be a part of the creation of that learning experience as opposed to what we consider the “sit and get,” right? Really being able to provide opportunity for students to see themselves reflected in learning experiences. You talk about in your bio, I talked about anagogical principles and pedagogical principles and how do we shift that narrative, but I also wonder for a newly minted PhD faculty, just coming out of computer science who is still finding their way, or a new teacher who is moving into the district and trying to learn all of the culture there.
Mandi, I think you said it best when you said that it’s important to be able to show your own vulnerability, and so I’m wondering how you would relate to those faculty, how do you help them focus on the relationship? And I’m thinking also about the fact that R1s versus community colleges, all the different kinds of institutional types and institutes that we have, there’s a different lens and focus on teaching and learning. And so as you think about the work that you’ve done, I’d love to hear if you have some examples or some tools that might be helpful for these kinds of faculty.
Mandi Singleton (22:24):
Yeah, Cristi, I think with new faculty who have maybe never taught before, it’s really a paradigm shift that everyone is so focused on knowing the content and wanting to feel smart or something for their students is something that I saw the adjunct faculty always coming into that space with. And I had to remind them, I taught the student success course, which was the introductory course for our students who were entering one of our programs, and most of our programs were graduate programs.
It was quite shocking to me the number of students who almost felt an imposter syndrome of entering into a master’s program, that sometimes they didn’t feel like they belonged there or that they were smart enough for the program or that they were intimidated by their own instructors because they’re like, “They have all this information and they’re going to think I don’t know anything,” especially if people are moving into a new career space or something like that, that I think it’s really important for a brand new PhD or an adjunct faculty to think about the person who is behind the screen if it’s online or the people in the room if they’re teaching an in-person course of what is their mindset when they are coming into that classroom.
And again, I think just from that experience and realizing how many students are so apprehensive about starting a new program, that that’s what helps I guess, shift that mindset in a brand new faculty member thinking about how do you connect with that student first to show them that it’s okay to be in this space or that we can learn together instead of being, it’s almost a power dynamic when a faculty member is like, “I have all the knowledge and all the answers.” Instead, create that space to say, “Hey,” to my students, “We are going to learn together because I’m going to learn as much from you as you are going to learn from me.”
Dr. Cristi Ford (24:30):
Yeah, I appreciate that. Nicolas, what about you in terms of checklists, tools, what might you offer for those that might be listening?
Nicolas Parés (24:39):
Yeah, I would say make those connections early. Open yourself up to as many forms of communication as possible. I often offer up my cell phone. I download the learning management systems app to my phone so I can quickly instant message students, offer up Zoom time. I just create as many ways to access me as an instructor, and then I put out there requests to meet my students and hear about them just in general and learn as much as I can, build that connection as early in the semester or quarter as possible. That’s a big thing.
I think not all students are fans of discussions or they can feel called out in certain spaces and maybe sometimes they just want to instant message you or write a very long email or something like that, and that’s a little bit more of their style. And so just you can approach students that way. I know sometimes certain communication is isn’t very timely or feels like a lot of extra work, but those connections and really meeting your students and understanding them really important to a successful semester and some good learning.
Mandi Singleton (26:07):
Nicolas, I want to add on to what you said about Zoom sessions. I think anyone who teaches online doing an optional Zoom session is a really great way to connect with your students, but make sure you have an agenda for it, otherwise students don’t often show up. But doing that and then posting a recording of that Zoom session, I had so many students who were like, “Wow, you really care about my time and my access to things like if I couldn’t attend the optional session that you recorded it and were thinking about me as the student because my schedule didn’t allow for that, that I was able to access it when I could.” Doing little things like that is also very, very helpful for students because in our experience, I had students from all across the country, so they were all in different time zones, and being able to access things on their own time was very important to them.
Dr. Cristi Ford (27:01):
Yeah, both really great examples. I am listening to you both and thinking about some opportunities I’ve offered. I tell faculty that even if you’ve allotted two hours, let’s say on a Thursday afternoon for grading, even just doing something as simple as having WhatsApp open or having Skype open or whatever the instant messenger that you’re using to let students know, “Hey, if you have a quick question, this is open office hours virtually, you can just send me a quick message and I’ll respond right away.” I appreciate Nicolas, your focus on, and I think we do a really good job of that at D2L and really being able to provide instructors and educators access through apps and the mobile app to be able to just be available for students. And then I remember talking with some faculty that were concerned because Nicolas, you talked about giving out your cell phone number and working with, I am going to date myself here, but quite some time ago working with faculty to get a Google number so that number would ring to their cell phone, but still give them the same privacy that they wanted.
But there are so many ways in which we can close this chasm and make students really feel that there’s an opportunity to really be thoughtful and open and vulnerable and really getting to know your students. And so I really appreciate your thoughts on that. I also want to ask you about for more seasoned educators, so those who’ve maybe taught online for the last 10, 15 years, what is your maybe experience or examples you’d like to share with them in terms of, okay, maybe I’ve taught Writing 112 every semester, but I think, Nicolas, you said it best that you said something like what worked last time might not work this time. Can you share a little bit more about when you meant about that?
Nicolas Parés (28:52):
I’m constantly, I shouldn’t say constantly. Before every semester, I tend to look back at my evaluations, reflect on my last experience of teaching the specific course that’s about to launch again, and then I go in and I look to review all of the ed tech that I might be using, see if there’s any weird changes. Those are constantly happening in certain third party tools that you might embed in your class for use with interactions or video or things like that. So I always review those, but I’m always looking to see did it meet the mark? Were students able to use it and deliver? Whether it’s an activity or it’s a new tool like Padlet or Flipgrid or a new feature in a learning management system, were students actually able to demonstrate what I wanted them to and did it feel like a good authentic experience?
Was there engagement? Were people motivated? Did I get notes about it in my course eval? Did I get comments or messages about issues and errors with it? And so I’m always looking and reviewing my course and playing with how activities are delivered. And so I think that comes along with the changes in ed tech and tools, but also does this feel authentic? Am I just making them go and use a tool when I should or a website or discussion or a prompt style when I could be doing it more simply or more in line with their interests and their practice? So I’m constantly playing with how my students interact and authentically get to engage with me and with each other. I have tried video discussions, I’ve tried text discussions.
I’ve tried different versions of video discussions, and I’m always just playing around to see which ones have less barriers for students and which ones can work and getting their feedback on it all too. I think students are our audience, the people we’re there to support and help and teach and care for, so that I always take their feedback very seriously. So I constantly play around with this and I’m looking for other ways to do activities that work. And once something works, I usually stick with it for a little while and those are my practices. I don’t know if, Mandi, if you have some thoughts on working with more seasoned instructors and revitalizing their energy for caring for students.
Mandi Singleton (31:40):
Yeah, I think just asking for more seasoned instructors just always asking, “Is what I’m doing learner focused and is it still having the impact that I think it is with students?” And sometimes I think now, especially in the online space when there’s so many tech things that I think people just throw them in there because they think it’s a cool new tech tool. And to Nicolas’s point, does it really serve the purpose that you’re looking for? Is it having the impact that you want it to with your students and is it the right activity or tool for what you want your learners to learn?
A lot of people use Flipgrid or something, or I have an instructor who came to me with a PowerPoint that was a Jeopardy game because they thought it would be fun for students to do, but I asked what the ultimate outcome was from that and what they wanted their students to get out of it and how the Jeopardy game could enhance that, or if there was a different activity that we could put in place of it. And so I think it’s just always veteran instructors. You just always need to ask yourself, is this learner focused? Is it what the students need right now? Is it the best way to convey the objectives I’m trying to teach?
Dr. Cristi Ford (32:56):
That’s really good, I really appreciate that perspective. And as I’m thinking about the kinds of folks that listen to our podcast, we have K-12 educators, we have faculty members, we have corporate learning developers and trainers. And so I’m just wondering, given your years of experience in the K-12 space, working with adjunct and professors and all of the work that you’ve collectively done together and independent of each other, what way you offer is some lessons learned or advice to educators who are listening, who are trying to really think about stretching the boundaries of how they’re humanizing their virtual online environment and the experiences they provide their students.
Mandi Singleton (33:44):
I would say lead with building that rapport first, whether you are in K-12 or in the higher ed space or even in corporate development, you have to get to know the learners and their perspectives and how they’re accessing information, which can inform so many other things about your teaching delivery or training delivery. Remember, most students have, whether they are five or 35 or 65, everyone has that same need for belonging in that space. And so just make sure as an educator to invite them into that safe space first and create that safe space for them.
Nicolas Parés (34:29):
I would share that I think there are many ways to weave more care into your course and your experience, but encourage and certainly lead with your own kind of approach. So start strong, make those connections, encourage students, find ways to constantly be encouraging students and just building trust. And from there you’ll get there, where the students are encouraging each other and building a community of care in the classroom. So I just start early and lead with your own vulnerability in your own encouragement and set a good example for students and build from there.
Dr. Cristi Ford (35:21):
Really, really great thoughts and lessons and opportunities to share with the educators that are listening. Colleagues that are listening. If you have not had a chance to read Designing for Care, we will make sure to drop the link for the book. Again. Mandi and Nicolas, thank you for joining us. We have enjoyed really exploring, humanizing, and really being able to think about online learning and how do we build that rapport first. And so thank you for helping us to be reminded that it’s important to focus on the relationship before any content ever starts to go across the airwaves. So I really thank you both for being here with me today and really appreciate the time.
Mandi Singleton (36:02):
Thank you, Cristi. This has been a lot of fun and we were excited to share our thoughts with you.
Nicolas Parés (36:07):
Thank you, Cristi.
Dr. Cristi Ford (36:08):
Thanks again.You’ve been listening to Teach & Learn, a podcast for curious educators. This episode was produced by D2L, a global learning innovation company helping organizations reshape the future of educational work. To learn more about our solutions for both K through 20 and corporate institutions, please visit www.d2l.com. You can also find us on LinkedIn, Twitter, and Instagram, and remember to hit that subscribe button so you can stay up to date with all new episodes. Thanks for joining us, and until next time, school’s out.