Takeaways from Meaningful Living and Learning in a Digital World Conference

I’ve just returned from a conference on Meaningful Living and Learning in a Digital World in Savannah, GA. I sometimes struggle with how/what to report after a conference. There is a temptation to write down everything, and then it gets overwhelming. Here I’ve decided to summarize just a few nuggets from the conference. Enjoy. (Bevin and I led sessions on "Turning Off" and "Creating Compassionate Course Policies;" more on those later.)

Image from JoBisch on Pixabay. Used under a CC0 license.

Social Justice, Accessibility and Redlining 

  • Engaged students/learners make engaged citizens. Our work is not just to teach students our content over the course of the trimester. The skills we’re (hopefully) teaching also help make the world a better place; this is important for the country and the world. We want to go beyond engaging students to create engaged students. Doing so feeds into this type of change.
  • Resilience, the ability to adapt and grow following adversity, is a learned skill. It can be taught; are we teaching it? Teresa Mason shared an example that came up after her class bombed their first exam. The message was not punitive or derogatory. It was, “Okay, this is a learning experience. Here’s what you can do on your end to grow from this, make sure you’re learning the material and prepare for the next exam, and here’s what I can do on my end to make sure you are learning the material and that I’ve prepared you for the exam.” Can we build this into our online course experience as well? Are we explicitly teaching students resilience?
  • Does technology really level the playing field and increase access to education for everyone? Or could we be using it in ways that are favoring specific groups? Examples: some students may only have a mobile device from which to work & not a desktop/laptop; some students may not have high-speed internet at home. Find out whether your course works under these circumstances.
  • How do we account for students who are first-generation university students and/or those who don’t know how to “do school”? Not everyone has a support system. Not everyone knows how to phrase requests for extensions, help, etc. Not everyone knows how/when to reach out to an adviser, librarian, faculty member. Not everyone feels comfortable revealing personal information to people in positions of authority. Are we designing for this?
  • Students may trust TAs or other students more than faculty or advisers. How can we facilitate community among these groups so that there are multiple ways that students can access support systems?

Image from aKs_phOtOs on Pixabay. Used under a CC0 license.

Finding Meaning in Teaching and Learning 

The Slow Professor 

Lisa McNeal presented on the “Slow Professor” book and the associated movement, which encourages faculty to slow down and prioritize time for reflection, deliberation and open-ended inquiry. The Slow Movement builds on the principles that first came into national consciousness with the Slow Food movement, which many of us at MUIH have espoused. One line in the “Slow Professor Manifesto” from the book: “We need time to think, and so do our students.” Are we building in time and space for students to reflect and think? Do our working environments prioritize thoughtfulness and time to digest what we are doing, learning, reading as faculty? I’m going to do a separate blog post on this, and I’d also like to start up a faculty book club to read and discuss the book.

Elements of Meaningful Learning

David McCurry hosted a fascinating session where we discussed 11 elements that contribute to meaningful learning. These were inspired by the work of Art Pearl (see his blog here) and his concept of democratic education. Much of this is also grounded in the field of social-emotional learning (SEL). The eleven elements:

  • Usefulness: can students see the utility in the work we ask them to do?
  • Competence: do students believe they can learn? Need a positive relationship with the students to build this foundation.
  • Belonging: does the student feel like part of a learning community?
  • Security: is the student assured of their physical safety? What about their emotional safety?
  • Encouraging risk: To grow we must risk something; it is about finding a balance between boredom and fear/anxiety that comes from trying new things; students from oppressed populations may not feel comfortable with certain types of risk.
  • Meaning: Self-explanatory J do our lessons hold meaning for students? This may not involve connecting our content to other parts of the course but to entirely different areas of life (e.g. pokemon for smaller kids)
  • Elimination of unnecessary pain: Are our courses structured to eliminate pain that is not necessary? The most common unnecessary pains are boredom, humiliation and loneliness.
  • Hope: do our lessons kindle hope that more can be learned/done/had?
  • Excitement/Joy: do students feel excitement and/or joy in their work? Using authentic problems and facilitating discovery can lead to this experience.
  • Creativity: do our courses build in room for creativity and self-expression? Too often creativity and artistic pursuits are seen as extra-curricular. Art is the process of making our own meaning.
  • Significant participation in creating public good: is the work in our courses meaningful for the wider community? Is it contained and useless after the course ends?

castle emerging from mobile phone

Image by FunkyFocus on Pixabay. Used under a CC0 license.

Specific Practices for Digital Teaching 

  • Have students self-sort into groups in Canvas. In a recent MOOC, Instructional Designer Karah Higgens had participants sign up as either group Dogs or group Cats, and within that grouping they sorted into smaller groups of 3 or 4 (e.g. hounds, calicos). The course had an ongoing friendly competition where groups received kibble for performing different tasks and the winning group was “Best in Show” at the end of the course. Love this idea for increasing a sense of play and friendly competition.
  • Use scaffolded self-reflection to break the ice in a course. Rather than asking students to introduce themselves, Instructional Designer Charlotte Jones-Roberts has students take a Myers Briggs or something similar and reflect on the results/how it may affect their performance in class. This lowers the affective barrier and encourages community.
  • For weekly personal reflections, consider using the jelly baby tree or a similar jumping off point. Students look at the image and pick a number to describe which bear they feel like this week. According to Jones-Roberts, this elicits a deeper reflection than simply asking, “How are you doing this week?”
  • Nursing faculty Joanne Keefe described a simple way to help students improve their grades and increase learning after taking an exam. She offers students the chance to earn bonus points after each exam. They email her and are assigned a topic based on one question they missed on the exam. (For example, if they missed a question about the signs/symptoms of osteoarthritis the question they are assigned might be “describe the most common signs & symptoms of OA and explain how these differ from those you’d expect in RA.”) The student must then make a 3-5-minute video teaching this concept to her classmates. Keefe reviews the videos, grants a few bonus points, and then posts them for the rest of the class. She’s built up an extensive library of student-created videos and finds that this improves learning.
  • Someone at the conference mentioned in passing having a pre-class “quiz” that is designed to gather information about how the student learns and how/when they would like to be contacted. I got the impression that it included questions about whether student preferred email, text, phone, which phone # was best, any outstanding circumstances that they have, etc. I thought this was a brilliant idea.

Conference Logistics

  • The conference did not have vendors or sponsored sessions. Refreshing and lovely.
  • There was always a break from 3:30pm through dinnertime for participants to reflect on the day. This made a big difference in how overwhelmed I felt compared to other conferences.
  • Two days started with a “walk and talk” before the first session. These were not well-attended, possibly because they started at 7 am, and I love the idea anyway. I think offering them mid-day would be a great addition to any kind of full-day meeting.
  • The conference also had a relaxation room with chair massage (for a fee), dim lights, electronic foot massagers and baskets full of reading material related to the conference topic. Would love to see this type of thing, esp. chair massage, at more conferences!
  • If you’re in Savannah, I highly recommend the hotel where the conference was held (the Brice/Kimpton) as well as The Grey for upscale food in a super cool converted bus station. Fox and Fig offers delicious plant-based food and Pacci had an incredible happy hour.  
Camille

Hi there. I'm Camille. I'm an associate professor at the Maryland University of Integrative Health, where I teach physiology and pathophysiology. I'm also a licensed nutritionist, specializing in fertility and reproductive health. (I'm not taking any new clients!) Lastly but not leastly, I'm a mom, a gardener and a really horrible housekeeper.

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