Diversity in the Online Classroom - The Labster Podcast Episode 6
April [00:00:04] 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. And if you're an educator listening to this podcast, we know you also share that mission. So thank you.
April [00:00:27] And with me, as always, is my friend and fellow Labsterite SJ Boulton, an educational designer and former university lecturer who now develops Labster Virtual lab simulations for students in high school, college and university.
April [00:00:42] In this episode, we'll be talking with two amazing teachers about their ideas for their experience with teaching in a diverse and resilient online science classroom.
April [00:00:52] Today, we're joined by Selinda Martinez and Juliana "Julie" Kelly, two very student-centered instructors from Laredo College in Texas who have spent the last year teaching undergraduate level biology courses online due to the pandemic. So let's meet them.
April [00:01:08] Selinda teaches biology both in-person and online at Laredo College, where she also serves as chair of the Natural Sciences Department. She is currently working on her PhD in curriculum instruction and the science of learning at the University of Buffalo, where her research focus is on diversity and the online classroom. Welcome to the podcast, Selinda.
Selinda [00:01:30] Hi, everybody. It's a pleasure to be here. Look forward to doing this podcast with everybody.
April [00:01:35] Awesome. And Julie is an associate professor of biology at Laredo College, where she has spent years teaching biology, microbiology, botany lab and zoology lab, both online and face to face. She's also spent 15 years as a high school science teacher at Alexander High School, which is a public school in Laredo, Texas. Welcome to the podcast, Julie.
Julie [00:01:58] Thank you, guys.
SJ [00:01:59] It's actually really nice to have the opportunity to speak to you to again. Actually, some of our listeners might remember that you both spoke at Labster's So:Inspired Conference in October last year in 2020. At that time, the fall semester was just limited to quite drastically by the pandemic. So you ended up one hundred percent remote learning and now your spring semester is also online only. So first things first. I would love to hear how your students are doing, how're they getting on, how are they handling the remote format?
Julie [00:02:31] I think this semester now students are a little bit more comfortable with the online platforms that we have in place. I know that we do have, you know, students who have taken Labster courses, who took online classes. So I think the newness of the online for everybody across the board is kind of dwindling down. People are getting comfortable. You know, I think they feel that they're able to handle the online environment because, again, it's just they did it already. And I think they feel a little bit more better prepared this semester than they were last semester.
Selinda [00:03:06] Yeah, it does seem that students are not as anxious as they were like we saw last semester. They were very, very anxious. They were just so stressed out with trying to handle both going to work and taking classes. And they were so stressed because this was something new for them. Now it seems like they've got the hang of it and they're now easily able to navigate through the course, especially if it's a second semester, because they already have experience from the fall and they can now relate it to the spring. So a lot of them are now a little bit more comfortable, know what they can handle now.
April [00:03:43] So Selinda, we mentioned in your introduction that you're researching diversity in online teaching as a part of your own PhD program. What inspired you to take on that topic?
Selinda [00:03:55] What basically inspired me was actually this whole move from going from face to face to online. And one of the challenges that we have and we still kind of have that challenge a little bit today, is trying to see our students and get to meet them and get to know them in a face-to-face classroom. They come in, you get to converse with them, and throughout the semester you get to know who they are, what their background is all about. But in an online platform, that gets a little bit to be difficult.
Selinda [00:04:27] And that was something that kind of interested me and saying, you know, a lot of these students want that relationship with that instructor. They want to kind of see that interaction, get to know the instructor. And at the same time, the instructor is also feeling that need to connect with their students as well. And one of the things I wanted to kind of study is seeing how is that relationship playing out?
Selinda [00:04:52] And as SJ kind of mentioned, a lot of times teachers were just kind of thrown into developing this online class, not realizing the. Impact this interaction can have and how we can look into how we can design an online course to bring back that interaction that we would normally see in a face-to-face class, because those interactions are so impactful. And that's basically what got me kind of interested in studying this particular type of topic and seeing how diversity is being addressed in an online platform now that it's a little bit different than, say, a face-to-face class.
SJ [00:05:34] So diversity is a really big and broad topic. So before we kind of go much further with it, I'd love to ask you how we could define diversity for our conversation today.
Selinda [00:05:46] Right. So diversity for me is one that brings in culture to kind of discussion, being able to hear students different points of view perspectives, especially on different type of topics like biology, for example. How do their ideas, how does their voice get heard within an online platform? And do we get differences in opinions among a discussion? Because in a face to face class, you can open up a discussion and you can call on students. You have those diverse, different opinions going on. But in an online platform, it seems that that is something that needs to be a little bit worked on or looked into to see how that is being brought in to an online platform.
Julie [00:06:33] How do you also you know, this is one of the I guess, one of the issues that we do have, at least in my classes. I don't know if it's across the board and I'm sure it is across the board where we have no interaction from students. They go in and they do their work. And then you you don't know who they are. They don't attend your Zoom sessions. They don't attend the lectures. And how do you interact with them? You know, they're just MIA on you.
SJ [00:07:00] But still turning in papers, still turning their work?
Julie [00:07:02] Yeah, they do all their work, they pass they're great. They're just kind of like silent, but they just don't have any interaction. They'll do the discussions but minimal, just to get the grade. But that's it. You don't hear from them, you don't interact with them. It's not as Selinda says, as a face to face. So that's I guess the opposite of what Selinda wants to do. She wants to get them involved with their cultural experience. How are you guys doing at home and tie it into the lessons. But if there's no interaction whatsoever, I mean, that's I think also a problem that we have at the moment with fully online lessons.
SJ [00:07:38] Yeah, that was this very interesting quote, personally interesting for me. I thought I'd throw it out that that was an interesting quote about in Inside Higher Ed, one of my favorite educational publications. But it said it's incumbent upon colleges to crack the cultural code. In other words, to uncover and compellingly articulate a core ethos that gets at a sense of place the spirit of the people and the shared value of the institutions. And it really is the whole article struck a chord with me because I found it so challenging that within a university or college space, you have this shared experience of being on campus, whereas in a virtual environment, we don't have that sense of shared space necessarily, or we have it in a virtual context. So I was wondering how but also can virtual campuses, kind of online communities, can they do enough to bind together learners or how can we kind of imbue a sense of institutional or shared culture, shared ethos with our virtual communities? Is it possible?
Selinda [00:08:48] That's a very good question, and I think it is possible. I think more study needs to be kind of done as to what would work. So I don't think it's been paid enough attention to and I think now there's a spotlight on it because so many courses have gone online due to the pandemic that I think now it shines a light of how do you build that sense of community? One of the initiatives that we started with is using a program called Circle In which essentially kind of builds that community with students and yet have tutors kind of come in and help students understand the material a little better. Now, we just kind of started something along those lines in an initiative to try to build that community.
SJ [00:09:39] That's really interesting. Yeah, it's also striking a little bit of a chord with one of our previous guests, Felicia, who had nurture groups where the students got together with an educator and almost had like tutorials. But this sounds a little bit more kind of focused on the course material, which I really like also.
Selinda [00:09:59] I think it still needs time. I mean, we're just piloting this for the first time, so we don't necessarily know how students will react to this, if it'll kind of trigger something and say I feel a sense of community with using this type of program, I think it is going to take some time to see, OK, what works, what doesn't work, but how can we build that community so students feel included so that they feel like they have a sense of belonging rather than kind of feeling like I'm all alone on this other side of the screen.
Julie [00:10:32] Yes. Yeah. And I think they feel honestly, because, again, you know, just being here on campus, you know, going to the lab and seeing people walk down the hallways, I think that's what every student, faculty, what you go to college for, right? That college experience. And now you're at home behind the screen. You know, you don't interact with anyone. It's rare. I mean, you do have group assignments that you have to assign students as part of team work. But again, it's still behind the screen. You really are still kind of, you know, secluded from the rest of your classmates. So I don't know. I think we still have a long way to go to I personally think that we still have a long way to go to be able to have the same online experience as it's the face to face experience.
April [00:11:26] You know, you mentioned that the faculty are also experiencing being at home behind a screen. What is it felt like since Laredo College has been 100 percent remote for almost a year now? How has it been for the two of you?
Julie [00:11:43] I've been at home, you know, pretty much the whole time, and it feels - I mean, I'm ready to come back. I feel like I'm not being effective at home, even though we have the resources, we have the technology. When you have a lecture, you ready to go on, let's say, stems and you have zero students show up. It's like I didn't do my job, you know?
Julie [00:12:10] So and for us, we don't have synchronous meetings with the students. It's asynchronous so the students can join or not or they can go back and be videos. So I feel as a faculty member, I'm not being effective. I'm not conveying the material, the knowledge that I need to give my students no feedback, nothing. They're just kind of they don't they don't meet me for Zoom sessions, so. OK, well, all right, guys, maybe next week. So I would really, really want to go back. I don't know about you Selinda how you're feeling if you've been affected, but I feel like I haven't been effective as a faculty.
Selinda [00:12:44] I would completely agree with that. I know when I first started teaching online, it kind of made it. I felt like I was just throwing the information at the students. Like, here you go. Here's this textbook reading. Here's these videos. Are you all watching them? I didn't get a sense of whether they were understanding the material or not. I just kind of felt like "here's all this information, I hope you're getting it, you know, let me know if you have any questions." And it's kind of like Julie was saying, we wouldn't get that feedback from the students. So we're kind of hoping, OK, I hope you're understanding the material. I hope that, you know, you're taking this information that you're learning and taking it with you as you continue.
Selinda [00:13:26] Interestingly enough, when I was at home, I had just way too many distractions on my end, right? I had the TV. I had my cats going every which way. And it was hard for me to focus. It really was. Now that I'm here in the office, I feel like a sense of purpose that I can actually get some work done without having cats zoom by or press the delete button. And so those are kind of my struggles with the transition from being at home to now finally coming into work and feeling a little focused.
Julie [00:14:01] Normalcy. Yeah, some normalcy. Yeah. It's still not it's not the same guys, you know. I mean, like Selinda says, I'm sure everybody who's at home teaching, whether you're a student or a faculty, you're kind of just at home. It's not the same. You know, like I said, it just feels different. I'm sure everyone wants to go back to class, back to normalcy, but it's just kind of it just doesn't feel right. I just don't feel like she says she's you know, you have all these interruptions. You have your kids coming in the background and popping back, and "Mom!" this, ugh, it's like you know, hopefully things get back to normal and, you know
April [00:14:42] And you can resume that connection with your.
Julie [00:14:44] We can resume the connection. Yes. The impact that we're making on the students. Because right now I don't feel like I'm making a positive impact because it's like no one's there where my students?
SJ [00:14:54] I had such a strange experience the other day where my boyfriend had left out some chewing gum and it was wintergreen flavor and I could smell it. And it was the smell of this phenol chloroform extraction. And I was like, "somebody's left the phenol out!" My brain just suddenly jumped back to being in the lab. And I suddenly remembered in that moment, "oh, I really miss the lab." And it was just it was the smell of this chewing gum. But the smell of a place, I think, for me is something that can really create a sense of place. And it's a sense that isn't it's not acknowledged by technology. It's kind of being in the space and getting the sense of it. It's about it's light. It's about smell. And there's no replacement for that. So for me, I think that's one thing that I miss a lot about. It's a sense that isn't satisfied at home, until we get smell-o-vision or something like that. I'm going to be unsatisfied.
SJ [00:16:02] I have to ask. So we've got students and I was reflecting a little bit on the technologies that we make about our virtual labs. And it's an experience that - it's for the individual. So the student as a user is engaging with our software on an individual level, and they are going through the process of knowledge transfer in the laboratory, virtual laboratory environment. But it's about them and their experiences of learning as an individual. And the only real or one of the main ways that a student can really gain a sense of community or setting up a kind of a culture around the new normal of virtual learning, I guess is through reflection. So it's really interesting to hear about these new technologies like Circle In or like your online groups, where the reflective practice might actually be pivotal, or it sounds like it could be pivotal in setting up this kind of sense of culture. Is that something you would you would see being useful?
Selinda [00:17:01] I think so, because in in laboratory work, you go in there. And one of the things that you normally keep is a laboratory journal where you can write down your reflections, what you saw, what you did, what you did differently. And I think that's something that could also bring some of that culture in there, because everybody's going to see something a little bit different or maybe think about something that was a little bit different, especially when you think about design of a scientific experiment. Each person has their own different observations. And I think having something along the line of reflections is going to be key in kind of doing that bit of a bridge where they can write down what they observed, what they did, what results they got. And that just adds into our main objective of basically scientific inquiry, which is what we want our students to eventually get for sure.
Julie [00:17:57] Yeah, that does sound like a good idea. I mean, and plus, like you said, you want the students, one, did they understand the material? In this reflective piece, you'll be able to gauge if they were able to understand the material, you know, and it might be, hey, apply it to the real world, something that they're going through at the moment. You know, so I think if you give the students a sense of, "Hey, I'm part of this lab and it's also asking me for me, for my experience" then I think that will be a good idea.
SJ [00:18:27] Yeah, that kind of sense of inquiry-based learning through doing the lab and getting the experience, practice and the techniques, understanding what that technique can be used for and then applying it in a reflective manner through some inquiry-based learning could be pretty powerful.
Julie [00:18:42] Yeah, I agree. I agree.
SJ [00:18:44] Hmm. Interesting. It kind of touched a little bit on something that you said at the conference as well. And I think it was something along the lines of "It's not that you don't know the material, that you might not know how to study." I found that comment really interesting. And I was wondering, how would you like to see virtual solutions supporting that kind of critical thinking and study skill development in your students?
Selinda [00:19:10] That one is very, very interesting. I think that's that's a really great question to ask, right, because we really want them to really understand what they're studying can be applied and think critically. And I think the way to kind of approach that would be, I think goes hand in hand to those inquiry type questions as to how can you apply this material that you just learned and how can you apply it to, say, a real world application?
Julie [00:19:37] Yes, yes.
Selinda [00:19:39] It's the only thing that I can kind of think of to really understand. OK, did you really understand the material or did you just memorize it and then you can only apply it to what you just learned. But if we apply it in this other setting, you can't make that connection.
Julie [00:19:53] Yep, that's exactly what I was saying earlier, that if students can relate it to their everyday life and they're think of something that you did this morning that applies to this lab that you just completed. How can you tie that in? Or think about something that has happened previously, have you ever gone to the doctor? And apply it to just things like that where they have to think about it and be like, oh, yeah, I did the lab, this is what it was about and this is how it applies. If they can make that connection great, you know, because that's what we want them to do. We want them to be able to connect what they're covering in the lab with the everyday application, you know, so I think something like that would work.
SJ [00:20:36] It makes a ton of sense. And I love this idea of like an individual experience or an individual learning experience, an event being fed into a more collective experience through reflection and through inquiry based design that can then further be assessed either online with the virtual technology or maybe even by a more traditional means, like the traditional essay or presentation.
April [00:20:58] Well, I'd like to shift gears, really to think about diversity in the sense of cultural diversity a little bit. We've talked about a lot of different ways of learning, but I noticed that in the description of Laredo College, it was noted that it had been designated as a Hispanic-Serving Institution. And I know that the student population you're teaching is about 97 percent Hispanic. So just wondering how you would say that cultural heritage has influenced your approach in the classroom, even in the science lab. Have you been able to find ways to bring in teaching resources that reflect, you know, culturally diverse scientists or professionals? Has that had any impact in your teaching?
Selinda [00:21:42] I think that's something that we're we're exploring, so we were exploring that kind of before this whole thing kind of hit, and now it's trying to study it through an online platform. But that's actually a really interesting question. I know one of the things that we have been looking into is bringing in more kind of Spanish type resources that students who because we do get a lot of students that come directly from Mexico who may not have kind of a mastery of the English language, I would say. And the difficulty is, and especially in biology, it's one, learning the language of biology because we have a lot of terms, but two, is also learning it, you know, from a language you may not be comfortable from. And so the difficulty there, at least in my case, was trying to bridge that gap, because a lot of times they had difficulty not only with the terms, but with certain language as well, especially when they would read the question. They didn't know what it was asking. They didn't quite understand. What does this word mean? What is inclusive mean? I don't understand. And so it was kind of taking a step back and saying, OK, how can we bridge this? Because we do have many students that have that difficulty and sometimes they'll just kind of quiet and kind of scared, not saying, I don't know what this word means. Can you explain it?
Julie [00:23:06] No, I mean, I agree. And then the thing about being online is that you don't have that interaction of a student has a question when you're in a face-to-face. I know previously students would ask me a question in Spanish and I would address it right now in Spanish or English, because I'm able to, I'm bilingual so I can answer that question in Spanish. But in an online setting, you don't have that interaction, right?
Julie [00:23:28] But one thing that I was going to say is I know when I was teaching at the high schools because of the state mandates of No Child Left Behind, you had to be able to accommodate everybody. Every child's right. And one of the things that they would have at the high schools was Spanish textbooks. You know, and I'm surprised that at the higher education, they don't have these. I mean, at least in the time frame that I've been here, I don't think I've seen a Spanish textbook at all. The same, let's say, microbiology textbook but just written in Spanish. That would help out if one of your students is primarily Spanish speaking. Obviously, they have to learn the material in English because that's how you're going to be tested and the assessments will be in English. But why not have those textbooks available for students?
SJ [00:24:12] That makes so much sense, keep their head above the water while they're still kind of like an enthusiastic beginner?
Julie [00:24:17] Yes, yes, yes. Well, I love that.
Selinda [00:24:22] Oh, my gosh, that is awesome, because that brings in that whole - I know there was some research that was out there that I read lately, and it was how do you perceive a scientist? What does a scientist look like? And one of the researchers, you go to Google and you type in like lab coat or lab scientists, and they're the white, the blond, the Caucasian with the lab coat. And, you know, and I think that's important to show diversity. Like, no, that's not how it is, you know, and showing that you can be Hispanic and be a scientist, you could be African American and be a scientist. And you can show all these differences in culture. And I think that is something that is fantastic to show that different cultures and different people participating in some of these lab simulations.
SJ [00:25:17] There was some really interesting research done. I think it was UK research, but it was looking at cultural representations of scientists and teaching materials and those unconscious biases of students that don't see themselves reflected in those materials. They don't have a sense of ownership over the information that they're receiving. And I'm not saying that's the only impact, but it can only contribute to a sense of 'oh, this career isn't for me" or "that's for someone else" or "this knowledge is only temporarily mine." So I think it's really positive that we take some steps to kind of remove even the hint of unconscious bias, we address the bias by just making it not a thing. Are you having those representations in the lab?
Julie [00:25:59] I think you're right, S.J. I think you're right about that. I think if students see themselves in a lab experience, whether it's virtually or face-to-face, they're going to have that connection. There's that cultural identity that you're forming that that bond with that, you know. So I think if we do have our laboratory simulations, then you should definitely include a diverse population of characters. I mean, that's just going to connect with the students. So I think that's needed in a lot of aspects, not just virtual labs, but in a lot of aspects, you know, especially in this day and age. Now you have to, you know, see representations of your own culture for it to make an impact.
April [00:26:40] Our time today is coming to a close now, unfortunately. But we just would like to ask one last follow up question, and that is what can be done to reduce the risk of further marginalizing students who maybe don't have access to computers or broadband Internet, but we'd like them to use some of the really engaging educational technology that's out there.
Selinda [00:27:01] I know one of the things that we also kind of addressed earlier was perhaps looking into programs that students can do even offline and that they're able to access answer questions from various different platforms, from their cell phone, from tablets, from chrome books, just to make it easier for them to access many of the assignments that they may have to do or to do things. If the Internet were to go down, they could still work on the assignment. They can still work on some of these things without the use of the Internet. But there are really, really great ideas now.
April [00:27:40] They absolutely are. And we've had so many great ideas exchanged today. I wish that we could keep talking in effect, SJ maybe we should do a part two of this episode and invite Julie and Selinda back and check-in again, maybe as the fall semester of the 2021-2022 year begins we can kind of catch up with you all again and see how things are maturing and blossoming in Laredo.
Julie [00:28:06] That would be great.
Selinda [00:28:07] That would be great.
April [00:28:09] I would love it. I know. So I guess the only thing that's left to say is thank you so much, Selinda and Julie, for joining us today. We had an absolute blast. 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.