Academic Technologists: the Unsung Heroes of Pandemic Teaching - The Labster Podcast Episode 11
April Hey, everyone, I'm April and you're listening to The Labster Podcast. I'm proud to say that at Labster we are guided by our mission to empower the next generation of scientists to change the world and contribute to solving global challenges. If you're an educator listening to this podcast, we know you also share that mission. So thank you.
April With me, as always, is my friend and fellow Labsterite SJ Boulton, an educational designer and former university lecturer who now develops Labster's virtual lab simulations for students in high school, college and university.
April In this episode, we have the pleasure of speaking with two special guests from the California State University Department of Academic Technology Services. So let's meet them now.
April Dr. Leslie Kennedy is the senior director of Academic Technology Services, in academic and student affairs at the California State University in the office of the Chancellor. She is responsible for the Management, Leadership, Administration and oversight of the Academic Technology Services Department. Her goal is infusing information technology into teaching and learning, research, scholarship and the full range of student and academic services. She also advises the Chancellor's Office leadership on academic technology initiatives for library services, online education, academic software support, learning management systems, affordable learning solutions and web design and presence. So welcome to the podcast, Leslie.
Leslie Thank you, April.
April It's great to have you and we'll also meet Shaidy Ruiz, who works with Leslie in the Department of Academic Technology Services as the Communications Analyst. Shaidy facilitates communications with CSU faculty and staff about system-wide licenses, common interest groups and programs. And she maintains several websites and projects on behalf of the Department of Academic Technology Services. Shaidy is also a proud product of CSU. She holds a bachelor's degree from Cal State Long Beach and is pursuing her master's from Cal State Fullerton. Welcome to the podcast, Shaidy.
Shaidy Thank you so much, April. Happy to be here.
April Awesome. Now, before SJ and I get started, I just want to give everyone who's listening and understanding about the enormous size and scale of the California State University.
April CSU is the largest four-year public university in the United States, with 23 universities that stretch over 800 miles, which is thirteen hundred kilometers. CSU is incredibly diverse. It educates the most ethnically, economically, and academically diverse student body in the nation. One-third of undergraduates are the first members of their families to attend college, and the university has more than 3.9 million alumni. So now with all of that in mind, let's get started with today's conversation.
SJ Shaidy and Leslie, it's lovely to meet you. And the first thing that really comes to mind is that a lot of our listeners probably aren't lucky enough to work with an Office of Academic Technology Services or have such a department within their own institutions. So could you just briefly explain what the role of academic technology and a department like yours actually is within the institution?
Leslie This is Leslie, and I'll address that question.
Leslie [We focus on academic technologies which support instruction in the classroom and online, which can enhance the use of innovative, diverse and engaging online and hybrid instruction. So ideally, we support the broad spectrum of the potential instructional environment for providing and supporting the ubiquitous instructional materials or technologies such as the learning management system. And most universities have one or two or three embedded in their instructional programs to the standard classroom and active learning environments that we're helping to promote with innovative technologies.
SJ So you have absolutely have not been busy during the Covid pandemic then, that's what I'm hearing!
Leslie Our poor campuses have been overwhelmed. Yes. And so what we do at our level, at the system level for these twenty three universities is we provide support and community actually for so many of the activities that take place. In other words, support is: contracts for the LMSs and other types of products such as Labster.
Leslie And we also bring together the campuses for a community discussion around any and all of the different tools that we use.
Leslie So we do Shaidy has helped to create a community for our Labster users, for example, and they meet monthly. So we try to engage our users throughout the system. We have 28,000 faculty and almost a half a million students. But from within the ranks of the staff, we have instructional designers and other support folks, such as the LMS administrators that we try to bring together to discuss challenges and activities that are positive, that can be shared amongst ourselves.
SJ That's awesome. I remember doing battle quite regularly with my LMS when I was an educator. I'm glad that people like yourself exist and your department.
Shaidy And I could speak just a little bit more about that community-building aspect that we handle. So like Leslie mentioned, we do have a Labster, CIG or Labster Common Interest Group, and that's where we bring together faculty and staff and instructional designers from all across our 23 Cal State universities. So usually they are just on their campus, isolated from all the other universities. So this is a great place where they can just come together and really share best practices or share just their experiences just using Labster in their courses. And we try to showcase at least one faculty or one instructional designer at each of our meetings just so they can get different perspectives from how people are using this tool and on the different campuses.
Shaidy And then it's really great because they get to hear Alison Malo, who is our senior customer success manager from Labster, is also present at the meetings and she offers a lot of updates on what Labster is developing and what new resources are available. So it's great that they get to hear all of these new resources. For example, one of our professors said, oh, you know, I can't edit like the lab manuals. And then two meetings later, Alison was like, oh, you know, now we're launching a new lab report, which you can you know, it's a complementary assignment that you can alter. So it's really great to hear that Labster is listening and just staying, innovating and adapting to the needs of their users.
SJ [That's lovely. Thank you, yeah. That's really awesome. One of my favorite things about being an academic when I was more involved was this kind of symposium aspect of, you know, really meeting and connecting with other educators and sharing best practice.
SJ So is it open? Can anybody attend?
Shaidy Yes. So it is a monthly meeting that we host via Zoom. And that invitation went out to all of our instructional designers that we have listed on our email list across all of our 23 Cal State universities. And then that also went out to a number of faculty who actually are using Labster in their courses. So Alison Malo provided a report of all of the faculty who are using Labster. So that invitation went out to about 300 individuals, and we usually get about maybe like 30-40 numbers. Yeah, so this is a good turn out after all. But it really is great to see how this meeting is evolving and all of the faculty are getting more comfortable asking questions and just providing their feedback. So it's really great.
Leslie And just in such a large environment, the faculty don't get to meet one another very often either. So they benefit from hearing from each other and hearing about how they're using the Labster simulations, for example, for various projects or programs or disciplines that might not even be very obvious to them. So it's been really good. It's been really good.
SJ So that sounds like some really awesome support mechanisms that you've got in place for academics. But I'm wondering, do you offer, does your department also work with students or is it really much more about the academic services?
Leslie Yeah, we do. We really are more serving the campuses from the academic side only because we just don't have access to students as easily. They are usually kind of somewhat removed from what we do, of course, where our focus is always in supporting them. And we have a large graduation initiative right now.: Graduation Initiative 2025. And it is has a large focus of increasing our graduation rates and also closing the achievement gap to zero, or we call it the equity gap now.
And so we we are very focused and interested in helping our students be successful. And as you mentioned in the intro, we have a very diverse group of students and we really, we teach and graduate the largest group of teachers for the state of California, the largest group of engineers and nurses.
Leslie And so we are producing people that are going to support the state in so many ways in the future. And so we're very focused on making sure that we help our students be as successful as possible. But directly, we haven't got anything that I'm aware of other than we support the technology support aspects of these various technologies that we contract with or engage in. And we make sure that when we meet with the various campuses and their tech support teams that the students are continuing to receive the type of support that they need.
SJ So obviously, you've probably been the busiest department in the California State University over Covid trying to really support everybody, get everybody up to speed, ensuring the academics have the tools and expertise that they need in order to respond to this sudden change in teaching paradigm. Are there particular areas that you felt academics seemed to struggle with when suddenly all of the restrictions were put in place? Or generally, do you feel academics were pretty well-skilled to kind of rise to the challenge?
Leslie So that's a great question, because we are we've been very traditional university and very face to face oriented. We had some online programs or some hybrid instruction taking place, but not required. And so when we had to go to this remote instruction model, our faculty, many of them had never used any technologies - other than maybe turning on the lights in the classroom and a projector maybe connecting their laptop, you know. And so it was a big hurdle to help them understand how to use the learning management system for those who hadn't really ever interacted with it, other than potentially uploading their syllabus, which is not required.
Leslie So then the Zoom situation was also a big, big leap in their area. So there was a lot of training happening around that. So really, faculty had to pick up halfway through the semester a course that they had planned to teach and had been teaching for many years face to face.
Leslie And that was quite challenging to understand what kind of tools would potentially help them, especially in the science courses, because they were used to writing on whiteboards. And how am I going to do that now in the virtual environment?
Leslie And so we showed them some ways they could do that using Zoom or using the LMS or other systems that they might have on their campus. But yes, it was quite challenging, quite challenging. And our academic technology staff worked, you know, many, many, many hours to answer questions and to help with developing - you know, suddenly they had to run their assessments. Most of our assessments were done face to face. And so how do you convert that into an environment using potentially the LMS? And then and then we've been dealing with some of the academic integrity issues around that. So how do we create the best type of assessment that will support the students' learning and help them to show what they've learned without some compromises along the way? And that still continues to be a challenge.
SJ Yeah, that must be really tough, especially if you've got a very you know, if you're an academic who has potentially used very successful methods in the past and sticks with them because they work and they have continued to work, and suddenly you're faced with having to use a completely different paradigm that you have no experience with. I guess, you know, trying to develop assessments within that framework or that repertoire of interactions can be a real challenge. And maybe, yeah, I could see why there might be bigger issues.
Leslie So many of our faculty rose to the occasion. It was just amazing and inspiring actually to experience and to be involved with. And so that's been an amazing learning takeaway from this pandemic experience.
Shaidy Yeah, it was really an all hands on deck situation where we were, you know, Leslie was even nights, you know, just helping one campus with, you know, like an office hour for faculty who just needed help with Zoom. And I think what this global pandemic has shown that, you know, academic technology can really be used to enhance instruction and provide alternative modes of teaching and learning for the students and for the faculty members. And it's really used to sustain student success. And it's really great to see, you know, new things like accessibility be at the forefront of these tools and just the way that faculty are using them. And, you know, something as simple as turning on your captioning for for Zoom or providing captions for videos, it's maybe something they hadn't thought of before. But now with this new mode of instruction, these new ideas are are coming up and I think are really just going to benefit higher ed and the students and faculty.
SJ So looking ahead to fall 2021. That's right, autumn people - for my Brits - there is some tension around that incoming first year students at colleges and unis that are going to have a big old skills gap as a result of learning losses that have been suffered as a result of the lockdowns.
SJ I'm wondering how departments like yours and the roles that you hold can support that incoming class in either backfilling the gaps or really helping them get up to speed as they want as they progress in university or join the university?
Leslie Well, we provide quite a bit of training for faculty in using technologies. And then from that perspective, our faculty development centers, which are usually run by faculty, are running workshops to discuss adjusting their expectations and or reinforcing quite a bit of the materials that they think they expect of the students to have when they entered into the course. So that training is taking place and we've been spending time accessing other multiple resources to provide some information around that and also to provide supplemental support for the students.
And so we've been, for example, we have quite a few programs as students transition from high school into our system to help them get an early start. And then so the early start programs are ramping up with various resources and technologies to support understanding where the students are and helping to place them and help them prepare for their courses that they're going to be taking in the autumn or in the fall.
SJ I'm assuming that's over the summer?
Leslie Correct, it is over the summer and we're pretty well organized. We've always had those early starts, but that's being given a little bit more emphasis at this point, being that we're concerned about the learning loss and how we can help the students be successful and not be at a deficit.
Shaidy Yeah, and Leslie mentioned, you know, that we provided a just robust training for faculty over the last summer. We have a program called Online Course Services within our department that provided training for faculty on how to teach a quality course online.
Shaidy And I think that's extremely valuable for for the students because, you know, the faculty maybe had never taught online before. And there are some different things that go into having to teach a course online and having them just take the training and you know them themselves, take an online course, and gave them a better view of how they're going to teach their students. So it was kind of like them putting themselves in the students' shoes and, you know, seeing what works best, what doesn't work in an online environment. So I think that it was also beneficial for the students.
SJ Unfortunately, we are already starting to get to close the end of our time together. Before we wrap up, I have one last topic I'd really like to touch on. So it's really clear that the pivot to online learning and the use of tech in the classroom were defining features of the Covid experience. But what are your thoughts and observations on how higher education has been and will continue to be transformed by educational technology?
Leslie Well, this is a topic that we've been discussing for several months now, and we're not quite sure. We're not quite there yet. We don't quite know how this is all going to turn out, whether we go back and suddenly within six months, everybody is back to their traditional ways they were teaching before. But we don't think that's actually going to happen. We see that we've crossed that chasm, the diffusion of innovation chasm, and that the early and late majority faculty, which is also called the mainstream in the diffusion of innovation perspective, are more comfortable now with the resources and the support.
Leslie I did my research on technology support for faculty, and that was a huge aspect of why they didn't feel comfortable using technologies previously. But now they've discovered that they do have support. They do, these tools can enhance the student's learning experience significantly and that the students are demanding it and feel comfortable with it. So we're going to see more of some sort of hybrid of instruction with academic technologies and the face to face classroom, we'll probably see less time in the classroom, not completely online in the CSU. We'll see some we'll see additional courses develop. But in general, if we think we'll see more hybridized type instruction.
Leslie And initially it's going to be very hybridized because even though we're opening back up again, we still don't know what the levels of vaccinations are.
So there are going to be some options where students can be at home and listening in on a lecture. We call that Flexible Instruction when some students choose to be in the classroom at the same time. So that's initially what we see happening. And then just continuing to to see what the instructors pick and choose, what works for them and what has worked for their students, because our faculty are quite focused on our student success and will adjust to make sure that their students are having the best experience in their learning time with them and so that they meet their learning outcomes, objectives as well.
Shaidy Yes. And I think the global pandemic, you know, just showed in the CSU that we are a tenacious group that is able to quickly adapt, if needed, to the situation at hand. And that educational technology was really an integral part of that transition. And it continues to be used to sustain student success. And I'm excited for the future of higher education and just seeing how the technology use from this time influences the future and the potential benefits that can come out of this time.
Leslie I just wanted to reinforce the fact that tools, virtual environments, augmented reality, artificial intelligence, all those different perspectives are the future of supporting innovative and dynamic, engaging instruction in the future and diverse instruction in the future. So we are excited to see and have partnered with Labster to see what resources are available that can be used across a large spectrum of instruction. And then also that I'm pleased to see that you all continue to address updating certain simulations, making them as is as accessible as possible, but also to consider broadening the spectrum of of labs or simulations to support our instruction. And I know you're not just doing it for us in the CSU, but we're very appreciative and I very much appreciate that perspective.
Shaidy It's really exciting when we do have those meetings with faculty and structural designers our Common Interest Group surrounding Labster just to hear their feedback of how the students are engaging with this new technology. And you know, how the students are excited to learn. And using Labster has really been, you know, a benefit for the students and the science courses who can't go to the campus and actually do a certain lab. They can do it virtually. And I think maybe in the past they thought these kind of simulations were only for entertainment value. But no, they also after a very academic and really is just a benefit to their learning. So, yeah, just want to echo what Leslie said and thank you, SJ and April for having us.
April Thank you very much. And as we now close out our episode, we just want to also thank our listeners. We hope this conversation helped to spark some new interest in using academic technology to support your learning goals. Of course, we know you'll have some questions of your own. So we invite you to talk with us at Labster dot com slash talk hyphen with hyphen us. And that's all for us today. Thanks for listening. If you like this episode, we hope you'll share it with a fellow teacher and subscribe to The Labster Podcast. Until next time, keep teaching, keep learning and stay safe.