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 edtech, personalized learning, virtual classrooms, or diversity inclusion, we’re going to cover it all. Sharpen your pencils. Class is about to begin.
Listeners, welcome back to another episode of Teach & Learn. As I was thinking about this episode today, it reminded me of the author and productivity expert James Clear, who once said, “You do not rise to the level of your goals. You often fall to the level of your systems.” This not only applies to large organizations, but it includes higher education. And so today, we’ll be discussing the potential for universities and colleges to systematize and scale innovation.
But before we get started, let me introduce our guest today. I’m so excited to have Michelle Sengara, who is the director of Academic Innovation at York University in Toronto, Canada. She is also an accomplished education strategist and consultant. Michelle’s at the forefront of technological enhanced education, contributing to the research and design of innovation systems that seek re-imagining teaching and learning as a dynamic network of interactions and developing our innately human capacity for resilience and agility. Michelle, I’m really glad to have you join me today.
Michelle Sengara (01:42):
I’m so happy to be here, Cristi. Thanks for having me.
Dr. Cristi Ford (01:45):
I just want to jump right in. I got to talk about these titles. I mean, apart from this current role you have, you’re an education strategist, an innovation architect, and an entrepreneur. Can you just unpack a bit, a little bit about your journey and touch on each of these roles and what you do?
Michelle Sengara (02:03):
Sure. Yes, no. I was raised by an entrepreneur. My father was an entrepreneur. I quickly learned working as you do 14, 15, 16 at these initial jobs that you have that I didn’t quite understand why certain people in authority would ask certain people to do certain things. Show up at a certain time. You do this work. It should look this way. And I always felt like I needed to be a bit more free, that life wasn’t as regimented as some of these traditional job structures.
Then, watching my father weave, and move, and be very organic with how he ran his business and how it really came down to relationships and building quality relationships between human beings that I became inspired to ultimately be an entrepreneur. But then education came into the field, and you want to be a teacher. Then you go in the teaching role-
Dr. Cristi Ford (02:58):
Michelle Sengara (02:59):
… Cristi, right? I was a teacher for many years on different continents, and then also domestically in Canada for a number of years working at an alternative school. And you see the systems are broken.
When you work in the field of education on the front lines, there are real tangible human beings that become the face of those fissures and problems in education, and my heart just couldn’t take it. I said, “No, I got to be part of something bigger. I’ve got to be part of the people who are making decisions about why these systems look the way they are, why these structures are built, and why they are so resistant to change.”
I got my doctorate and focusing on building communities in technology-enhanced educational spaces. Ever since then have worked both as an entrepreneur for various private and public sector organizations, but also more recently as the director of academic innovation at York University, specifically targeting their systems reform initiatives.
Dr. Cristi Ford (03:56):
I really appreciate your focus on relationship building. I think having this conversation with you today has been, for me, an example of that, and really being able to have these kinds of conversations with people who really are passionate about the work. Hearing about your journey, it’s really interesting. I want to dig in a little bit more deeply and have you help our listeners understand. When I looked at all of your research, I see the term systems cropping up a lot in your work. What do you mean by that, and how does it pertain to academia?
Michelle Sengara (04:31):
I mean, if we think of nature, nature is… A flower doesn’t exist in isolation. A flower in and of itself is a dynamic system of petals, and chlorophyll, and stems, and roots, but it also exists with soil, and amongst other plants, and with animals, and with the sun, and clouds, and weather systems. Everything in life… I could get a little philosophical, Cristi.
Dr. Cristi Ford (04:57):
I love it.
Michelle Sengara (04:59):
But I go to science.
Dr. Cristi Ford (04:59):
I love it.
Michelle Sengara (05:00):
Always go back to the science. The science always gives my philosophical beliefs grounding. Again, the biological systems of the body, and you look at the way the brains work, and neurons fire, and learning happens, and all the different systems that we have in our bodies. We operate as networks, whether we’re talking about the network of a single organ, or the network of a human being, or the network of a human being operating in a system like education. People talk about systems, and they think that they can identify all the components, like all the variables. Well, people who work in research understand that it is very difficult to actually name all the different variables and address all the extraneous variables or intangible variables that you can’t always quantify, or name, or account for.
Systems are extremely complex, and I think that’s one of the reasons why people get so frustrated by them and why we often feel the need to simplify our systems, which is not a bad thing, because change is incremental in systems reform. You need to label parts of a system in order to address parts of a system. But inevitably, it’s like Jenga. If you pull a Jenga block out, if people are listening and have played that game, you pull a Jenga block out, inevitably you are now distributing load on other blocks, which changes a larger system. Then maybe that block is weak. You pull that block, and the system falls.
So, you deal with it step by step. You have to identify different components of a system. But ultimately, they are always inextricably connected. In education, people often talk about stakeholders. We think of a system of education like students, parents, administrators, teachers. But if you look at the theoretical research, and the practical research of what teaching and learning really is, the built environment is part of that system. Break that down, like the desks. What kind of board are you using?
Als, then you look at the systems of the students. What’s the level of diversity or representation in a group of students? Where does a school situate itself? What community is a school in? What’s the socioeconomic barriers that people are facing in that community? There are a lot of variables that make up a system of education. But when we talk about systems change, systems reform or the education revolution as I like to call it, we often look at a system and we try to simplify it, see where we can make iterations, and then we zoom back out and see how that might’ve have altered the broader system as an organism.
Dr. Cristi Ford (07:31):
Oh, my gosh. You just offered so many points that I love. First, the representation of Jenga. I love the opportunity to think about when you pull out one of those blocks that… You’re right. You’re redistributing load to other parts of the system. I think many of us experienced that. Well, all of us experienced it firsthand during the pandemic in terms of thinking about how we had to move forward and be able to think about educating students in a very challenging and very difficult time.
As you were talking about systems approach, it just made me think about the importance for everyone to be thinking about the system. Because everyone has a part to play in this evolution of where we’re going as an institution and the kinds of things that we’re doing for our students.
A lot of work that you and I do that we have in common is around innovation. I know that you teach a class on thinking about systemizing innovation. I think that when people think of innovation, they think of this bright shiny idea or something that maybe you’re going to do once and done, but they’re not always thinking about the opportunity for sustainability and scalability. As you talk in your course, what are the kinds of concepts that come up for you as you’re thinking about the systems approach, and innovation, and the interchange between these two?
Michelle Sengara (08:58):
Absolutely. Well, part of that simplification process around innovation when we talk about systemizing it involves identifying some other main systems. Again, going back to the body reference, we have a digestive system, you have a respiratory system, you have a circulatory system. It makes sense to talk about the body. You don’t want to talk about the heart, and the veins, and the arteries. It’s a circulation system. Let’s try to simplify it. The same kind of approach can be beneficial when you’re looking at innovation.
Innovation, some of the systems that we need to talk about are learning systems. If you want to innovate as an organization, where does learning show up in your organization? Where are the channels for it? How do you promote it? How do you incentivize it? What’s the curriculum you’re promoting in that learning system? How are you consolidating that learning with practical experience? How are you providing schedule? How are you putting learning in the schedules of human beings so that they’re not looking at learning as some sort of tertiary thing they do off the side of their desk? How are you valuing it?
Another system is data systems. How are you looking at the curation of data, again, in connection to the learning system, the cultivation of data literacy skills? But, how does data move around? How are you collecting it? What kinds of data are you collecting? Knowledge systems.
When I speak in this class at the University of Toronto School of Continuing Studies, and I’ve taught it now for a number of years, and we’ve had representation from executives all across the private and public sectors, knowledge systems, common problem. I’m sure you face it in your organization. How do you capture knowledge? When someone leaves, how do you make sure that what that person knows is going into the head of the other person who’s now taking that job?
Dr. Cristi Ford (10:51):
Michelle Sengara (10:51):
We have these kinds of archaic… I mean, they work to a certain extent, but these ideas of shadowing or orientation programs where someone spends an hour with each person in each department, and that’s supposed to in some way magically transfer knowledge assets. Or organizations produce these pantheons, these binders of epic proportions, but they expect someone to go through and absorb.
Knowledge systems, transfer of knowledge, things like these, these are all data systems, learning systems, knowledge systems, measurement systems. We can dive into any of those specifically. But yeah, that’s the kind of approach you want to look at, similar to that physiological idea of breaking the body down into category systems.
Dr. Cristi Ford (11:36):
When you talk about this work in the course that you teach… Now, I want to go back to this topic of innovation and connected to your PhD research. You shared with us earlier that you worked on how to build communities in online learning spaces. I remember seeing an article a couple years back that talked about how you’re doing this work and re-imagining how courses are delivered at York University. I wonder if you can share a little bit more about how that’s going, where you are in that process, and just give our listeners a little bit of tangible understanding of how they might conceptualize some of this work.
Michelle Sengara (12:11):
Yes, absolutely. It’s a prototyping process. Innovation and prototyping I feel are almost synonyms. I know they’re not-
Dr. Cristi Ford (12:19):
Michelle Sengara (12:19):
But I feel like if you think of innovation-
Dr. Cristi Ford (12:19):
Michelle Sengara (12:19):
… you think about prototypes, right? Come on. Nothing is perfect. Again, we can get Buddhist about it, but I think innovation is very Buddhist in the sense that it’s always about change, right?
Dr. Cristi Ford (12:28):
Michelle Sengara (12:28):
You do a little thing, you figure out what you’re learning, you figure out what’s working, what’s not working, and you integrate, and you move on. We started out with looking at technology, enhanced teaching and learning spaces, oof, at York University 2015, I want to say.
Often, when people think about innovating and education, they think of one… Again, we tend to break things down into being very siloed, which makes sense. Neurobiologically, that makes sense. We need to categorize. We need to have something we can hold onto, see the edges of.
But, we were experimenting this agile design team out of the Office of the Vice-Provost Teaching and Learning at York University. We were experimenting with, “What if we change the course as a system and said the way the curriculum is designed and offered to students, the way the pedagogy is looked at, and the way what and how we define and measure success through assessments?” We did all of those things in technology-enhanced teaching and learning courses. Some were large enrollment first year courses with 300, 400 students who were taking fully online, asynchronous, some synchronicity, but majority asynchronous courses. Some of them were 40 to 60 student, fourth year blended courses with more synchronous options. But we played with a few different formats and the way we… I call that the teaching and learning trifecta, curriculum, pedagogy, and assessment. Accounting for all those in the system, those three systems of the educational experience.
In the curricular system, we were looking at modularization, so chunking information. Also looking at offering alternate navigation pathways. For a natural science course, we were redesigning. The previous iteration of this course was 16 weeks, 16 topics. Every week had a chapter in a book. Every week has a quiz. Is very normal to do this, right? Still in so many courses and in secondary level and high school level, “Here’s your course. We’re week one. This is a chapter for week one.”
But what if a student had more opportunity to decide, “This week, I want to choose…” Yes, yes. This first module is locked. Everybody has to take this first module together. We’re setting up for success. We’re looking at the foundational concepts and terminology. Great. But now, what if I could choose between content focusing on the water cycle or content focused on earthquakes or tectonic plates?
Dr. Cristi Ford (14:50):
Michelle Sengara (14:51):
So, we played with that alternate navigation pathways, pedagogically looking at experiential learning opportunities, which looked like in an asynchronous course… One of the things that came out of that research was… Sometimes looking at building communities in large enrollment first-year courses is not feasible. There are 350 of them. They’re not going to engage in a discussion forum in a meaningful way. They’re not forming affective bonds with people in their course. What if we just tried to stop pushing that so much and instead ask them to connect to their home communities, where they lived, who they know. Is there an interview we could ask them to conduct? Is there a project we could ask them to do that investigates their local context?
These are the types of pedagogical experiences we were integrating into the courses. But I’m an assessment geek, Cristi. I’ll tell you right now. I’m self-proclaimed assessment geek. My master’s degree was all about assessment, reflective practices. The assessment system, I think, is that first Jenga block we got to pull.
Dr. Cristi Ford (16:02):
Of course. Yes.
Michelle Sengara (16:04):
Dr. Cristi Ford (16:04):
Michelle Sengara (16:05):
That’s how we define and measure success in any experience, and this is true in our personal lives. If I said to myself, Cristi, a good boyfriend is a boyfriend who washes the dishes before he goes to sleep… I was like, “That’s the criteria. That’s my success criteria.” Or on my birthday, every year he brings me flowers or… We’re in our lives constantly defining success criteria and measuring performance against that criteria.
As we know in our lives, if we rethink how we define and measure success, if we can start to look at our personal relationships through that lens of maybe there are other ways to look at this being a successful friendship or a romantic relationship… And we need to be doing that in education. We need to be looking at competency-based evaluation models, but not-
Dr. Cristi Ford (16:50):
Michelle Sengara (16:51):
… just introducing more skills-based indicators, but the assessment side of that. Because as you know, Cristi, in the elementary and secondary school system specifically, there’s a lot of research that comes out that says, “We start to push for measuring different things. But because instructors aren’t necessarily developed or taught how to measure something-”
Dr. Cristi Ford (17:09):
Michelle Sengara (17:09):
Dr. Cristi Ford (17:09):
That’s it right there. That’s where I find the linchpin is. Also, as you’re talking about the work you’re doing at York University, there are a couple of things that came to mind. One, I’m hearing you living and breathing in action pedagogical and anagogical principles in terms of how you reconceptualize the courses. And two, when I think about Dee Fink’s work… And Ken Bain talks about this a lot in terms of deep versus surface learning. I’m wondering, what did you find or what came out of being able to give students, I’m going to date myself here, but this little bit of a choose-your-own-adventure in terms of some of the topics that they were able to come through?
Michelle Sengara (17:49):
Absolutely. I’m happy that you brought this up because there is a really interesting research finding. We ran this study three years in a row with a total of, oof, almost 5,000 students. In large enrollment courses specifically, it’s not only the instructor doing grading, right?
Dr. Cristi Ford (18:07):
Michelle Sengara (18:07):
It’s TAs, teaching assistants.
Dr. Cristi Ford (18:08):
Right. Of course.
Michelle Sengara (18:11):
When we changed and allowed for more flexibility, A, navigation, B, also in assessment… So we didn’t necessarily say, “The due date for assignment A is October 16th.” We said, “October 16th is the last day to hand in your assignment, but you can hand in your assignment anytime within this broader six-week window.” What we found was increased levels of flexibility in both of those ways, increased level of choice at times produce cognitive overload in students.
Dr. Cristi Ford (18:44):
Michelle Sengara (18:45):
Yeah. They were like, “This is not my only course. This is the only course that’s set up this way. All my other courses are set up differently. And the fact that you’re giving me all this choice just makes me procrastinate and do your stuff last.”
Dr. Cristi Ford (18:58):
That’s interesting. So they didn’t lean into agency and the ability to be able to decide for themselves how they would structure their time.
Michelle Sengara (19:06):
Yes. What came out was agency requires certain skills of self-efficacy.
Dr. Cristi Ford (19:11):
Michelle Sengara (19:12):
That isn’t taught. If high school does not start dealing with the fact that we need to produce individuals who can take ownership and make informed decisions, it doesn’t matter how flexible we make their higher education options, it doesn’t mean they’re prepared for it. They procrastinate. And guess what? So did the TAs, Cristi.
Dr. Cristi Ford (19:32):
Oh, my gosh.
Michelle Sengara (19:33):
They said, “Listen, you gave them a window to submit. I have a million other things to do.” This is human nature. Think of this in a professional learning setting. It’s all the same.
Dr. Cristi Ford (19:43):
It’s the same.
Michelle Sengara (19:43):
“Listen, I’ve got a million things to do. I’m going to log on October 16th.”
Dr. Cristi Ford (19:46):
Michelle Sengara (19:47):
“I’m not logging on until I absolutely have to.” It was very interesting. Flexibility and choice in higher education learning models, as we’ve researched them, requires specific targeted skill building.
Dr. Cristi Ford (20:01):
That’s major. That’s major. What you’re saying, I mean, it makes total sense in terms of being able to think about efficacy and the fact that historically how we’re teaching students, K-12, in primary and secondary education, it’s very rote. It is very much about, “I’m going to impart on you this new knowledge, and then you’re going to spit back to me what you have learned.” I mean, there is not a lot of opportunity to think about agency in those systems. Then you move them into a higher education system where now that you’re trying to manage your entire life. Because in many instances, if you’re a traditional student, you’re no longer living at home, so you’re trying to figure out all the nuances of just containing your whole environment. Then on top of that, you’re going to give me agency and choice in my class. Can’t handle it.
Michelle Sengara (20:49):
Yes. What I love about working with the York University population specifically is it is extremely diverse and it is, I think, quite representative of what a large urban… I mean, we’re the second-largest university in Canada. It is a larger urban university, and we are seeing all of the needs and access issues that people are talking about ever present. So many of our students work full-time, Cristi.
Dr. Cristi Ford (21:16):
Michelle Sengara (21:18):
A lot of them are caregivers. A lot of them are students who are coming back to education after taking time off to have children or being re-skilled or upskilled in a degree program or through our continuing education program. We have an incredibly diverse student body that offers a really great opportunity to look through research opportunities at how do these changes affect people.
Because it’s all great to say flexibility. Remember when Facebook came out 15 years ago and was like, “We have an open concept workflow.”
Dr. Cristi Ford (21:47):
Michelle Sengara (21:47):
“We got ping pong tables.” Everybody was like, “Yeah. This office is amazing.” Then, two years later, it came out that people needed isolation pods because the open concept doesn’t work for everybody-
Dr. Cristi Ford (21:59):
It doesn’t work for everyone.
Michelle Sengara (22:00):
… and you do need quiet opportunity space to quiet.
Dr. Cristi Ford (22:02):
You need think time.
Michelle Sengara (22:03):
Yeah. We might have great ideas, like flexibility, woo, but there are real implications to increasing levels of flexibility for students, and we need to be seeing what those implications are.
Dr. Cristi Ford (22:19):
So much good stuff. I want to go back to one other comment and then I’m going to move us forward. I don’t want to lose the thread where you talked about the importance of redefining how we do assessment. I find that in many campuses that I work with or I’ve worked with in the past, this is a real challenge. Because faculty members, one, in some disciplines have said to me, “Hey, I’m a computer scientist. I never was taught how to teach, number one. And now you’re asking me to think about assessment in a very different way.”
I think the other instance that I’m seeing is that we’re also asking faculty members to teach and create assessments that are representative of the subjects and the content that are not psychometricians. As you think about this concept and what you’re doing at York University, how are you tackling this, and what kinds of conversations are we having around how we redefine the ways in which we evaluate our students?
Michelle Sengara (23:12):
It’s a really important question and one that takes me back to that idea of innate human relationships. As you read in my bio, I’m very much about looking at teaching and learning as an opportunity to capacity build ourselves in our innate human capacities. Who we are and what we are capable of doing exceeds, or enhances, or complements what computers or technology is able to do, what a machine can do.
One of the things about reevaluating, looking at shifting the evaluation models, is all around what are the things that we can measure. Define things that make us unique, and valuable, and versatile as human beings that you’re looking at in your course, like a research process, or the process of analyzing, synthesizing information, and communicating something in a persuasive manner, integrating feedback. There are a lot of skills and behaviors, observable behaviors, that are important to consider outside of knowledge assets, which a machine could potentially be able to regurgitate back to you.
But taking us back to also what makes us human, the ego. We got them. You have a relationship with yours, and a lot of faculty members aren’t aware of the relationship they have to their egos. So, how do we approach it? Delicately. We approach it very compassionately because it is change, and it is threatening to a lot of faculty members’ identity as a subject matter expert. I am not a subject… like an SME. A subject matter expert will say, “I am not an expert in communication skills, in perspective taking, in the process of research necessarily. I’m an accountant,” or, “I’m a business professor,” or, “I’m a chemist.”
A lot of what we do, similar to what we’re trying to do with students, is build their self-efficacy where we’re like, “You can have confidence. You are a human being. You know how to do this stuff. You understand what it looks like. You’re already teaching it. You just don’t understand that you’re teaching it.” All we’re asking, really, is to help demystify this incredible experience you’ve put together for your students and helped to better articulate some of the other indicators that you are already addressing in your course.
The main thing, as I know you will already know, and we can talk further about, or people listening will cheer for, is you have to be very delicate with workload.
Dr. Cristi Ford (25:39):
Michelle Sengara (25:41):
Making work is a recipe for aversion, fear, frustration. It’s definitely not a recipe for buy-in and innovation. We do what we can to compassionately approach the ego of evaluation and assessment shifts, and we do our best to support the process to mitigate any sort of external workload that’s going to be put on them.
Dr. Cristi Ford (26:04):
I love this conversation because I was just meeting with a group of faculty last week talking about AI. I mean, again, everyone’s talking about it.
Michelle Sengara (26:15):
Dr. Cristi Ford (26:15):
But having these philosophical conversations around not just the ethical consideration, the bias which we know are there and we have to figure out how to wrap our arms around, but how can we responsibly teach our students how to use AI. One of the questions that came up from a person who’s a philosopher said, “I don’t know who I’m assessing. Am I assessing the machine or am I assessing my student?” My feedback to that person was, that had a very much Chicken Little, “The sky is falling. Human existence is going to be gone,” approach to this is, “I think we have to remember that at the end of the day with the advent of these natural language models, our students still need good critical thinking skills. They need problem-solving skills. They need resiliency. They need moral courage. They need intellectual curiosity. Those things aren’t going to go away, but it is-”
Michelle Sengara (27:07):
Dr. Cristi Ford (27:07):
“… going to require you to redesign and redefine what you’re assessing and how you’re assessing.” That’s why I think this whole piece around prompt engineering and the things that we’re seeing that are coming out, it is forcing us as an industry to start having different conversations. And how are we going to really attach that? As I was listening to you, I was just thinking about that dialogue last week, and the time is now for us to delicately, compassionately have these conversations.
Michelle Sengara (27:37):
Because, exactly, it’s the first Jenga block that has to get pulled.
Dr. Cristi Ford (27:43):
Michelle Sengara (27:44):
You know what? I’m having similar conversations, and I feel like there is a definite comparison to the kinds of fears and the levels of fears I’m facing now and hearing now that existed in March of 2020 when everybody was going online and I was leading workshops for the Ontario Secondary School Federation on how to alter their assessment models because everyone was freaking out that all their students were going to cheat. The way they tested in class was easy to cheat online. It was the hard conversation of if you can cheat online, then what are you really assessing? What are you really assessing? If it’s so easy to cheat, you should really think about what it is you’re measuring. Because if I’m being asked to demonstrate learning, that demonstration of learning should be something I have to work to do and will be in some way unique to me as a learner. Because I learned and have interpreted information and implying that information in my own Michelle Sengara unique way, and Cristi Ford is her own unique way.
But I always go back. Again, we’re going to pull on the workload thread. Because what happens? As soon as you say, “Let’s rethink our assessment models, then all of a sudden everyone’s like, “Yeah, but my Scantron. But my surveys and my quizzes.” How do I assess unique learning with 300 students if we’re talking about higher ed or even in a post-secondary classroom? I have 30 students. I teach that way. I do these presentations in the courses that I teach, and I only have 25, 30 students in my… But it is a lot of hours.
Dr. Cristi Ford (29:40):
It’s a lot of hours.
Michelle Sengara (29:42):
It’s a lot of hours. I listen their presentation. I provide their feedback. A peer is present. When you do this stuff, if you’re looking at assessing skills in particular, it is not necessarily an efficient process. But is it efficient?
Dr. Cristi Ford (29:56):
And it’s not for the faint of heart.
Michelle Sengara (29:58):
Not for the faint of heart. But is it not? This is where I love technology, because there are a lot of things. When you go through any experience, there are knowledge assets and skill assets that you need to be measuring, right?
Dr. Cristi Ford (30:08):
Michelle Sengara (30:09):
Technology is really good at measuring knowledge assets.
Dr. Cristi Ford (30:11):
Michelle Sengara (30:12):
Yes. Yes, if you only design a midterm and a final, you’re only really gauging proficiency. We can have that whole growth versus proficiency discussion, but I would prefer to see more growth-based models in the world, even for knowledge asset development. But technology’s great for that.
There are ways also of leveraging reflective practices, like self-assessments, peer assessments. Also, technology can capture those really effectively and connect people. If your students are not meeting in face-to-face, there’s a lot of great software and ways… I’m sure you’ll talk about Brightspace. There’s lots of ways you can connect peers in an online world, but we don’t value those marks because we still live in a… And I’m not saying get rid of instructor-based marking, but reducing workload. It’s not always all on you.
Dr. Cristi Ford (30:59):
Michelle Sengara (31:00):
If we can get better at equipping students with the ability to self-assess effectively, peer assess effectively, peer grade, provide peer feedback effectively, and we start valuing those contributions to an overall grade, and through technology levering that to be an efficient process, potentially the workload for us to do more authentic assessments will be diminished somewhat.
Dr. Cristi Ford (31:22):
Well, but I think you offer a good point there. One of the things I talk about with faculty, for good or for ill, the reality is that our students are coming to us to gain a credential, to gain a skill, to ultimately take that skill and to be viably employed, to be paid for good employment. And in that workplace, the ways in which they’re going to engage… They’re not going to go to their boss every time they say, “Hey, can you give me some feedback if this is good enough.” They’re going to find ways to be able to do that self-assessment. They’re going to do work in collaboration with their colleagues.
I think it just speaks to the point that closes the chasm that we sometimes find between higher education and employers in terms of really making sure that there are transferable skills that our students can identify for themselves, understand the value proposition of those skills, and then be able to use them in practice. All that you’re offering is exactly what our students are going to need anyway.
Michelle Sengara (32:22):
Absolutely. I also just want to name… In academia, we’re also very cognizant. We tend to make a lot of statements about equating higher education with the development for employment in the workforce, which is absolutely true. We live in a triple helix model. But I also want to name that there are also just academics who want to be pursuing academics.
Dr. Cristi Ford (32:40):
Michelle Sengara (32:41):
Even if you go into things like research or teaching in an academic setting, still those skills are the skills-
Dr. Cristi Ford (32:47):
Michelle Sengara (32:47):
… of self-assessment and peer assessment no matter where you go in the world. And no matter what your goal is of higher education, these are, again, the skills that make us uniquely human, the skills that we should be focusing on to make us increasingly versatile and valuable in the age of automation.
Dr. Cristi Ford (33:03):
This is so good. There’s something that you did earlier this year. I’m going to shift and pivot us here just a bit. But you offered a keynote I think earlier this year to the Consortium for School Networking Event, something around that effect. But one of the things I thought was really interesting when I looked at that work is you talked about creating robust systems of innovation for learning in a post-digital age. That was really interesting to me because I’d never really thought about the word of post-digital. Because for many of us, we think we’re going to be in this digital world forever. I’d love to hear your thoughts on this and what you discussed in terms of that realm and this post-digital piece.
Michelle Sengara (33:42):
Oh, sure. Yeah, no. If you look at the industrial age in that early 1900s, printing press, everyone seems to think… Maybe it’s just because I watched the show Peaky Blinders. But everybody seems to think of England, and soot, and coal, all that time period. That age lasted arguably 75 years.
Then you get into the digital age where computers start to become more prevalent. I was of the generation… I’m 42 now. I have no problems naming my age. I was part of that first, oh, my god, I’m, I don’t know, 12 or 13 or something, and there’s a computer in the house. I had never seen that before. The amazing sound of the internet going on for the first time. We enter into the digital age. I think of things like those yellow sports Walkmans, Cristi, prize possessions by all, and later those MP3 players, but that starts…
So, we have these devices. We have software, we have hardware. We’re in a digital age. These things are neither ubiquitous because the world is a big place, and technology was not prevalent across the world the way that it is now at the beginning of the digital age or during that digital age. This is why I also sometimes don’t… I don’t talk about technology as a tool. In the digital age, technology was a tool. They were these things. You could pick them up, again, hardware, software.
The post-digital age is something… Research rules will argue about timelines, but I consider it… 2010 was the pivotal tipping point when smartphones became ubiquitous, when more people had smartphones than didn’t have smartphones around the world. Really interesting research looking at that for 10 years after. In 2020, a lot of really interesting research started to come out. Everybody started talk… Because you can’t really report on a phenomenon, like how is technology affecting human beings, until it’s had some time in the ecosystem. 10 years from that point, from smartphones becoming ubiquitous, 2020, research started all coming out. What was it talking about? Mental health, depression, addiction to these devices, isolation. Because that’s what the research was happening.
That research was happening, in my opinion, at the beginning of that post-digital age. Where now you look at core cultural systems, health system, education system, the dating… I’m going to call it dating a system, Cristi, because I’m single, and it sure feels like a system. I’ll tell you. You can’t do these things. You can’t go to the hospital without some sort of technology recording your data. The nurse is doing your intake on an iPad. Your data is stored. It’s shared. Education another set of examples, obviously, and dating. Can you even date without having a profile in an online world? Now, I don’t know. I don’t know. I’m trying it. I’m going analog. Let’s see how it goes, but yeah. That post-digital age being no longer a separation, now an innate entanglement between technology and our social structures.
Dr. Cristi Ford (36:52):
I really appreciate that. I hadn’t thought about it in that way. One, thank you for reminding me of my own timeline in history as things was going along. I remember talking with folks saying that, “In high school, I had electronic typewriter, and it was the latest innovation.” But I never thought about the integration of technology and technology no longer being this outside entity, this tool, but now the integration and the things we have learned as this integration has happened.
To your point, the pieces around self-care, I was seeing something the other day from the CCO of Apple, but talking about the needs to be able to distance yourself and tune off and can disconnect from technology. That’s really something I’m going to think about. I’m going to have to come back to you on.
Michelle Sengara (37:48):
Yeah, and it’s a really interesting… The pervasive nature of technology in all of its forms in our world is not going away. It’s just like it has impacted our way of life, our quality of life in terms of connecting individuals, providing access, but now we see also it diminishes access for certain… It creates a whole other set of access issues. But it’s like the printing press. You can’t go back to before words could be written on a page. I encourage everybody to not try to go back to a world where natural language processing models did not exist because they exist, and they’re not going to not exist.
The question is how do we exist with them? Yul Harari, I’m going to butcher his name, the author of Sapiens and Homo Deus, he’s a philosopher, and he offered an interesting talk where I didn’t agree with… I mean, I think, again, this is an important skill that we’re not teaching enough in education, the ability to listen to contrary view points and be able to not enter into a bipolar, bipartisan-
Dr. Cristi Ford (38:54):
Michelle Sengara (38:55):
… conflictual… Right? I mean, this is a huge problem that-
Dr. Cristi Ford (38:58):
Michelle Sengara (38:58):
… the world is facing. We need to be able to listen to opinions that are not our own and try to understand those opinions and those perspectives, and how do they impact my own thinking process. It was a really interesting talk. He spoke of regulations, like nuclear power. We can’t un-split the atom. It happened. I don’t know if you’ve seen Oppenheimer, but it happened. So, we can’t go back.
He was talking about nuclear power and regulation, and coming together as a global society and looking at the impact. I honestly think that we’re having these conversations at York University, we’re looking at what our artificial intelligence, but more broadly we’re encouraging leadership to look at technology and the use of technology and our core principles and values around technology, entangled pedagogy, and looking at offering some guiding principles to instructors, to students, to staff.
We’re looking at these kinds of policy documents internally, but how do we look at these policy documents? We don’t just want to haul people in front of political bodies and chastise them for the fact that they have these highly populated digital platforms that are being misused or mismanaged in our opinion. So how do we come together as we did with nuclear fission and fusion and start to figure out this world that we live in is different? The tools that are being created have real opportunities to threaten certain elements of our lifestyle, certain professions. How are we going to start dealing with those? What are some suggestions? And how are we going to move forward in fields like education?
Dr. Cristi Ford (40:42):
Michelle, this is… First of all, every time I talk to you, we always have such good synergy, and I feel like we could go on for quite a while around this work. I think you’ve given our listeners really something to think about, but I want to quickly mention, listeners, that Michelle also has a podcast. It’s called The Education Revolution. We will put a link to that blog post with the accompaniment of this episode so you can check her out there. But Michelle, as we wrap up today, I just wonder, do you have any final thoughts or what’s new for you on the horizon?
Michelle Sengara (41:18):
Oh, such a good question. Now you take me to this philosophical place again, Cristi. I mean, we’ve talked a little bit about faculty members. We’ve talked about instructors. And this isn’t just because I’m a teacher. I think in education we speak so often about student success and student well-being. For me, over the last few years and watching high quality, passionate educators burn out, lose their spark, lose that drive, and that fire to teach and to learn, I… Because all good teachers are learners, right?
Dr. Cristi Ford (42:01):
Michelle Sengara (42:04):
We’re like great learners.
Dr. Cristi Ford (42:05):
Michelle Sengara (42:08):
If the only elements of the system that you take away thinking about today are the educator in line with the student, that is a good place to start. When you are thinking about innovating in your field and you are thinking about trying something new, if you’re an instructor doing it, you should be doing it understanding that you need to find joy in this experience. Only do what you can manage. Find support. Find community members that can help you so that you’re doing things that are manageable so that you can move forward and continue to do those small things or smaller things, and you can build on those smaller things.
Don’t succumb to pressure to do things that you might be getting from your administration without feeling like you’re able to set boundaries around your time, your energy, and your effort. Because what we need from you, educators, is to stick around. We need you to stay. We need you to stay in this system with us. You are the linchpin. Just the way assessment of the educational experience Cristi and I have talked about being the linchpin, I think instructors are the true linchpins. Students are the beneficiaries-
Dr. Cristi Ford (43:11):
Michelle Sengara (43:11):
… of really good educational designs that instructors put out. But ultimately, I really want to shift the focus towards instructors, educators, teachers, and the importance of focusing on their well-being and for them to focus on their well-being. Because as every good philosopher knows, you can’t take care of other people until you’ll take care of yourself.
Dr. Cristi Ford (43:28):
Fantastic. Listeners, you heard it. Great call to action. Start small, do what you can do, create boundaries, and don’t leave the profession. Michelle, thank you so much for the time today. It was really a pleasure to have this time to chat with you.
Michelle Sengara (43:43):
So great. Amazing conversation, and we’ll keep it going on The Education Revolution, Cristi. Thank you so much.
Dr. Cristi Ford (43:48):
Absolutely. Sounds good.
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 education and 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.