The 2021 Cascadia OpenEd Conference

Over the past three days I attended several sessions at the Cascadia OpenEd conference sponsored by several west coast associations and the wonderful and always inspiriting BCcampus team. I thought I’d share a couple of broad thoughts about the event and what I saw on the screen and felt as I watched.

Cascadia OpenEd conference

One thought that continuously came up was how visible some work is and how hidden other work can be in education. The use of Pressbooks or YouTube or Google Sites or any platform that allows for sharing of resources is in sharp contrast to the many courses I get to see in my work that wall off the curated resources (often openly available on the web) and the instructor created resources.

The other movement I saw through was the impact of the pandemic on all aspects of the work I am involved in and the many good people I work with. Be it caring better for our students and ourselves, or simply acknowledging the depth of the challenge we face, many speakers addressed the need for care. Particularly from leaders or people in positions of power.

Visible Work

“Open Educational Resources” is certainly not new, but it is wonderful to see how it has grown over the years. Too slowly, yes. But it has grown and so have the available tools. Pressbooks is one that is growing and it does provide this interesting “bookish” website that is comfortable to those who like hardback books like myself and those more interested in digital copies. And the collections are growing! I recall when OpenStax had about 12 books. That seemed remarkable and such an exciting change in availability, price, and use of the web.

image of search field for open textbooks website.

While some faculty have been creating their own books, or their students, as an institution UW is just getting our feel wet with Pressbooks. That is exciting! Similarly, I think that the UW Libraries look at hosting WordPress, while not really a Domain of One’s Own, is a step in a better direction for both faculty and students to create and share work. All progress. That is good.

The other element that I felt during the event was that focus on the notion of “care.” Care for ourselves. Care for others. Taking time to be more caring. Being given the time to care for others. And yourself. I realize that when you are on a big boat, the messages that are shouted from the pilot house can be hard to hear. Especially if they are in an email. More especially, if they feel like empty platitudes coming at you in mass cc emails.

Message of Care

Of course they care. I do not doubt that at all. But as has been the case in leadership these days of mass communication, there is a gulf between the author and the audience that just gets wider. At the very least, make sure the people under you are demonstrating that they are communicating a message of care.

One of the presentations I enjoyed was shared by Brenna Clarke Grey. Here is her presentation. Next time you give a conference presentation, I hope you take the time to create something like that for your readers/viewers. I am sure I’ll get the recording, but since this just happened yesterday, I don’t have that yet.

It is so strange to sit in the living room and listen to a conference presentation. I feel lucky to be able to do it, but I miss the hugs, motion, sounds, and tastes of the physical conference environment.

A Foray into Spec Grading

Over the years, I’ve refined rubrics with the intent that students can evaluate their own mastery of an assignment. In some courses, students generate their own rubrics. During class sessions, students practice applying the rubrics, which gives them insight into how to create assignments that meet the goals. I still make comments in addition to scoring the rubric, trying to help students aim for a perfect score when they revise. But sometimes, students use the rubric to make decisions about what part of an assignment to skip. This is a smart strategy.

It also means the students and I have different goals. I want them to master the content I’m teaching; they want to get through the course while managing complex lives that include college, work, family obligations, etc.

This framing is a false dichotomy. Students are in college because they want to learn. It’s stress that changes their excitement about a new term and new classes to weariness by midterm. I firmly believe that I can help them maintain their excitement by offering crystal-clear explanations for why the content and skills they’re learning are necessary and crystal-clear expectations of what assignments will help them complete that material.

So what about feedback? How does feedback affect that clarity?

Red garnet inclusion in a diamondSome years ago, I listened to a Teaching in Higher Ed podcast with Linda Nilson that introduced me to specifications grading (aka, specs grading, mastery grading, competency-based grading, and other names). Nilson talked about how so many faculty members spend so much time grading without making a difference in student learning. I internalized this as wasting time. Her solution is to grade every assignment as pass/fail, and that mastery for each assignment is described through a rubric. Her recommendation is that students can resubmit 1-2 assignments in the term. Moreover, students can subscribe to different tiers of grade. They can pass tier 3 work for a C; they can pass tier 2 for a B; and they can pass tier 1 work for an A. That helps the instructor organize the work into different bundles of grades, one bundle for each tier. For examples a bundle of tasks might be necessary to contribute to society (tier 1), to achieve foundational experience for careers in this area (tier 2), or to highly qualify for an internship or undergraduate research experience in a lab (tier 3).

That podcast episode was released in 2015.

I’ve been waiting for the opportunity to try this, really wanting to learn from others who have practical experience with this approach. My colleagues David Goldstein and Charity Lovitt offered that opportunity when they began a Faculty Learning Community on spec grading in fall 2020. Learning from their models, I moved from “wow, that sounds cool, but I have no idea how to implement this” to “I have tried this out, and, while I have a long way to go to improve it, I’ve begun to recommend this strategy to others because it’s a powerful way to refocus from grades to learning.”

Talking to David about how he uses spec grading in film and literature courses, and to Charity about how she uses it in chemistry courses, inspired gave me the confidence to use this method when I taught BIS 499 Portfolio Capstone in winter 2021. In this course, students reflect on their progress toward the School’s learning objectives, drawing from experiences from their whole lives, but especially college courses. They use these reflections to curate a portfolio of their college experiences, as well as to prepare resumes and cover letters. The experiences and passions that students share in this course always move me. This particular quarter saw the beginning of the Biden-Harris administration and the first anniversary of the COVID-19 pandemic hitting. Students were dealing with so many stresses related to the pandemic and online learning. And yet, students thrived in the course.

I created two grading bundles: if students completed all of the assignments in the first bundle, they received a 3.5; a few students completed this bundle. They had the option of completing two more assignments to earn a 4.0, and most students aimed for this bundle. Given the stresses characterizing the time, I decided that students could resubmit assignments as many times they as they wanted, which encouraged most of them to complete most assignments. Students who received lower than a 3.5 missed some of the assignments. Those who score between a 3.5 and 4.0 completed only one of the extra assignments.

As the quarter progressed, I found my expectations creeping up, especially when students worked on their resumes and cover letters. I wanted those documents to be the best that they could, so I started providing more feedback than the rubric, and demanding more revisions. The students, helpfully, pointed out this creep, and I reigned myself back in to focus on accepting B-level work, rather than seeking perfection.

All-in-all, using spec grading was a good experience. I’ve improved my rubrics, and I’ll be less finicky and more focused on the big picture of meeting the rubric. But most importantly, students’ portfolios were among the best I’ve seen. Once a student committed to completing an assignment, they did truly excellent work. That commitment comes from their own interest alongside a crystal-clear understanding of why they’re doing each assignment and what they gain from it.

Note-taking as an Inclusive Pedagogical Tool

‘How will you live your life, so that it does not make a mockery of your values?”

~Bill Ayers

 ‘Teaching and Learning on the Open Web’ learning community has been one of the best learning experiences in my professional career. Whenever we meet, there are conversations that inspire me, question me, or gently nudge me to think about pedagogy in refreshing ways.  

One such discussion happened this past week about ‘note-taking’ a seemingly benign topic that has nothing to do with equity and inclusivity, right?  As my colleagues were articulating the rationale for engaging in note-taking, the conversation boiled down to two big ideas – record keeping and students’ desire to learn. Indeed, when we have a written record of classroom conversations, it benefits all students – not just those who might have trouble hearing what is going on.  Additionally, it might help students know about missed materials as well as connect their own understanding with the big ideas discussed. This ensures that all students are on the same page (literally and figuratively) with regards to their learning.

We then moved into discussions about the logistics of note-taking: Should teachers assign students to note-taking or should students volunteer to take notes? Other questions that surfaced in our discussions were about disproportionality when students were asked to volunteer for this task, student responsibility to the classroom community versus the use of points as the motivating mechanism, intentionality around the use of note-taking as a pedagogical and classroom management tool, number of students per class session taking notes, the use of Google docs versus other tools (such as Padlet) for note-taking.

The part that was most illuminating and that directly connects with the Ayers quote above was about inclusivity and truly demonstrating teacher values around inclusivity. Lightbulbs went off in my head when a colleague mentioned that students could be invited to use the language that they are most comfortable in for note-taking. Additionally, we could expand the definition of note-taking, this colleague suggested. So, students could be welcomed to use other strategies such as visual note-taking, the use of doodles to share classroom learning. Another colleague chimed in and discussed the use of annotation tools (such as on Google slides as another way to increase flexibility while allowing students to take notes on materials posted by the instructor.  

I value student diversity in my classroom and strive to find ways to welcome and build upon diversity. Much like what Chimananda Adiche discussed in the ‘Danger of a Single Story’ I realized that the single story of note-taking was prevalent in my own thinking. It was refreshing to rethink the use of note-taking as an inclusive pedagogical tool.  This is a simple yet powerful way to convey my values of not just welcoming but utilizing diversity and student strengths to the classroom discourse. I am constantly looking out for strategies to fortify my instruction in ways that align with values of diversity and inclusion and I just learned that I might not always need to look beyond but could also critically examine existing strategies to further this value.

There Once was a Learning Community…..

We don’t recall how it got started, but the email thread was long with limericks. Even some haiku from Gavin.

So many in fact, we share them here for your reading pleasure.

There once was a learning community
Who zoomed due to lack of immunity
It wasn’t that grueling
When applied to their schooling
So they polished the new opportunity.

There was a group at UWB,
they were into the web and wanted to see,
just how much they could do,
to show off their web fu,
and finally to get others to be.

The spider web and open web share
A special connection for those who dare.
Each enlarges their world
As the web is unfurled,
But one creates while the other ensnares.

There once was a learning community
That was digital with impunity.
A flip-book they decided
Would keep them united
And show off a great opportunity.

The tools that I use made by Google
Reflect my desire to be frugal.
Students shouldn’t pay
When they’re making their way
Through the expensive endeavor of U-school.

There once was a group at UWB,
They needed help with designing so others could see,
The cool stuff they were doing, to elicit “aahings” and “ooings,”
So they hired a student from IMD.

3 Haiku From Gavin

Sailing open seas
There be danger and dragons
But songs and mates, too

The light is off now
But suns and stars still shine bright
Lighting our new paths

Answers in the book
But turn the page to find that
The book is the world

I’ve been teaching a lot via zoom
From safety and comfort–my room.
My students take notes
And I am the host
While outside the damn virus brings doom.

Once day, a nonparticipating member of the crew was called out for not having a clue!

We’re missing a limerick from Todd,
Which really does feel kind of odd.
“I’ll share one next week.
From my brain they will leak,
Some lines for the Limerick Squad.”

But the forlorn former poet could not let it stand!

With a mere twenty sunrises till glorious St. Patrick’s Day,
Sadly, it seemed poor poet Todd, had very little to say.
“But I used to be a Poet!” Todd loudly exclaimed,
To the others he still seemed, just a bit deranged,
Though with much hesitancy, they allowed poor Todd into the limerick fray.

And to that end he added is limerick! And once again became a member of the clan.

For three years the valiant comrades – through the interwebs they scrambled,
With many ideas, and tools, places and purposes they rambled.
At some places they all shouted, Oh, this is silly!”
While at others they all concurred, “We need this! Really!”
And they were happy as ever and learned lots of lessons wherever they ambled.

Learning about Viral Epidemics During a Pandemic


During the last week of class this fall quarter, my First-Year students are giving presentations on topics related to viruses. We are using PowerPoint and sharing screens—sort of old school meets Zoom school. I am really impressed by how the talks are opening up larger discussions, especially on the topic of social and economic effects of COVID-19. Here are  examples of the things they expressed.

Listening to my students

Security: Many UWB students have to work and some are supporting their families, as their parents have been laid off. We know that students with financial need and students of color are disproportionately impacted by COVID—my students feel this impact. Unemployment increases financial stress and can lead to food insecurity and even homelessness. It also can lead to or exacerbate mental health issues in our students and in their family members.

COVID disease: My students understand the many impacts of COVID. Some caught it this quarter. Some had really strong disease symptoms while others were hardly affected. Like many who catch COVID, they either got it from their families or worried about spreading it to their families. Among their parents, some are elderly or immunocompromised due to cancer treatment. Others worry because transmission to other workers in the family could cripple family finances. This is stressful and emotional for them.

How to cope: My students also have great ideas about how to cope with the pandemic—how to stay safe and keep others safe (masks, physical distancing, staying home), how to get tested for COVID, what each test can tell you and about the trade-offs between expense and speed vs accuracy. Many are ready to roll up their sleeves for the vaccine but also appreciate that they will not be first in line. They will continue to mask up and stay in their bubbles. They can give you the number for hotlines to call when the stress is getting you down.

Yearning for the “university experience”: Most students would like to return to a form of normalcy—especially the “university experience”. They want to be here on campus, meeting each other and their faculty in person, going to labs, club meetings, the library, the ARC. They understand that the current surge will delay a return to campus. They are thinking creatively, and some have expressed a desire for hybrid courses in which those who don’t feel safe coming to campus can have an online option. I estimate that at least half of my students think that being in in-person classes would help their learning process.

Thoughts on hybrid courses: The hybrid option that my students suggested could work if adequate computer access is available in the classroom. Right now, student teams meet in breakout rooms on Zoom and they could still do so if students in class and at home are all on the same Zoom call—as is done in some global learning courses. UWB currently has only a couple of rooms with computers for each student; the maximum number of computers is 32. These computer rooms could work for First Year classes, which tend to be capped at 30 students. Is it time to consider creating more workspaces with computers?

 My reflections on learning in Fall quarter 2020:

The importance of engagement: The two things that encouraged student engagement most were (1) working in teams and (2)  having targeted projects. Working in teams was helpful on its own, but adding the longer-term targeted project united each team around a common goal. What didn’t work as well were shorter projects such as team worksheets around topics such as vocabulary. While helpful at the beginning of the quarter, the shorter projects were not as engaging as the longer-term ones (a debate and a presentation). The logistics of getting to worksheets on Google, completing them as a group, then uploading a copy into Canvas to be graded took too long. For some students, just learning how to use Canvas was enough challenge, and was reliable, so we tended to use it to access group work.

What is essential? Teaching during the Time of COVID has made all of us consider this question. It has been challenging to rethink courses that work so well in person–there is plenty of  room for continued improvement. But if there are silver linings to the pandemic, one is that it has made me think more seriously about the answer to this question. It, and the Black Lives Matter movement, are making me think about more about how I can decrease inequity in the classroom and motivating me to find better ways to understand and address what is essential in my courses.

Vision 2020

Vision 2020

Getting things in focus

Image Credit


20/20 vision indicates good visual clarity, much like the year 2020 has done for me.  2020 made me look very closely at what the teaching-learning process was truly about. I wondered about the affordances and challenges of a brick and mortar school, the unique challenges and opportunities presented in sudden  shifts, and about online education more generally. 

These wonderings were manifest especially in one undergraduate course that I lead in Spring 2020. In a typical quarter, undergraduate students enrolled in this course would spend time at internship sites and write essays/create multimedia presentations based on reflections from their experiences. The suddenness of the shift to online learning and the lack of internship opportunities was the driving force for reimagining this course. 

The urgency of this task coupled with what was happening in the world at the time forced me to think about teaching-learning like never before.  In this post, I will share some insights and also wonderings about  two questions: How can students take charge of their own learning? What can instructors do to facilitate learning especially in times of abrupt transitions?  

 I articulate how students and instructors may approach each of these bulleted points. Here the terms, students and instructors are not used as binaries. Rather, students and instructors are viewed as being on a continuum.

Get support when you need it

Students: The shift in modality meant that the way that students are ‘seen’ by instructors shifts. Hallway conversations about family situations, late assignments and happenstance encounters could not happen. Instead students have to be purposeful and ask for help. Writing an email to an instructor might not have been required in the past but reaching out with questions/concerns/clarifications became more imperative than before. 

Instructors: Find opportunities to connect with students and really try to hear. Reach out to students when you see anything amiss!

Find opportunities to connect with class peers

Students: Building connections with peers through online communication and reaching out via online interactions; responding to each other’s discussion posts, small group participation during synchronous/asynchronous class work, participating in class forums became all the more important to develop a sense of community. Building a sense of connection and reaching out to peers with diverse experiences and backgrounds does not happen automatically even in a face-to-face classroom. However, being more purposeful and connecting with peers through these virtual modalities became all the more important.

Instructors: Be thoughtful about creating opportunities for meaningful peer connections. It does not happen ‘naturally’ so be purposeful and articulate about ways to make this happen in online classes. 

When need be, step away

Students: Class meetings online can be exhausting and if the content you are learning seems to get overwhelming, take a breath and step away. Give yourself grace as you are working through unprecedented times, take a moment, gather yourself.

Instructors: Allow students to turn off their cameras and carefully think about attendance policies. If possible, record your class meetings. This allows students who might not be able to engage in the moment, engage with content when they can and are able too. 

Plan in some way 

Students: Learning online can be overwhelming. The present moment, family, childcare, other obligations might push class work in the background. Finding a way to organize yourself and keeping tabs on what is coming up helps. This is especially important for pacing yourself with regards to your assignments. This prevents you from getting overwhelmed while juggling multiple responsibilities. 

Instructors: Provide some wiggle room for late work. If your learning management system allows, put due dates on the course calendar. Share how you organize your own work — shows your humanity while also normalizing your student concerns about assignment submission timelines. Share how you give yourself some grace in your own work! 

Create some sort of routine for yourself

Students: While there might be no apparent need to get up at a certain time or do tasks at a certain  time, creating a routine helps develop rhythm. It gives a sense of  calm and being in control  while also allowing you to accomplish tasks. 

Instructors: Set your courses so that there is some predictability; for instance, assignments due on the same day every week. This reduces stress for students while also helping you set your own grading routine.

Celebrate mini-victories

Students: Rewarding yourself for accomplishing mini-goals will help you stay on task without getting burned out. So if you complete all the work that you set forth for the week –viewed required videos, completed course assignments, take some time off for doing something that you enjoy. 

Instructors: Acknowledge student work.  Be timely in your feedback. If possible, share how you are taking care of yourself. Self-care is not a luxury but indeed important to allow us to continue doing things we love (teach!) with care. 

Stay positive

Students: Worrying about your own health, your loved ones, your family members and friends can and does take a mental toll. Acknowledging that this is ok and expected but still finding ways to look forward to something that is coming up, finding ways to connect with your inner self and staying positive helps. 

Instructors: If possible, consider providing some outlet for students to share what is happening in their lives. A quick check in at the beginning of your synchronous meetings, journal writing, or other course activities that allow students to process what is happening can help. 

Stay focused

Students: Distractions while completing learning tasks are prevalent even in physical classrooms but this can be even more daunting when you could watch a video, read materials unrelated to class content, do other tasks that are required (folding laundry?) but can take away from your learning in the moment. Finding ways to allow yourself a distraction-free learning environment; both mentally and physically can help accomplish the goals you have set forth for yourself. 

Instructors: How can you leverage online tools for increasing engagement with learning? Consider providing authentic learning activities where students can see the meaning and importance of tasks. This can be a strong motivator for students to be focused with their learning. 

Remind yourself of things that make you happy

Students: Often things can seem overwhelming in the moment, it might appear that this will NEVER go away. At times it might seem like there is a huge hole and digging out of it is impossible. At times like this, reminding yourself of something that makes you happy ( a vacation you took, your loved ones) will help you put things in perspective. Reminding yourself that this is a moment in time and this will pass while reminding yourself of good memories can be helpful. 

Instructors: How can you provide opportunities for students to share something that is important to them? How can you help celebrate the small accomplishments? How can you be authentic in your praise? How can you build student self-esteem?


Making the Best of a Zoom Situation

I teach a lot of performance-based classes. Body and voice are especially important. And Zoom makes this especially hard. Students are often poorly-lit, often have issues with sound, and often feel stuck and physically-restrained in the small boxes of Zoom. So, my fellow performance colleague, Deborah Hathaway, and I recorded a short “Tips & Tricks” video for our students that went through our best advice for making the best of a Zoom situation. Here’s our video:


Let Me Express Myself

I am going to choose to represent what I am trying to convey in some text, a couple of images, and in a video.

Why three things you might ask? Well, I just don’t want to have to type all the sentences it may take to express this thought. That could take a long time and I am lazy. I am adding the images because they illustrate one of the more visually interesting parts of the expression and do so in a way I could not “write” into existence. And the video is perhaps just my normal way of trying to share some ideas. It feels more accurate that my usually terse and kinda poetic written expressions of stuff.

So that is why.

But what is your point Todd?

As an educator you are given the option of sharing “content” with students in a variety of mediums. As an example, you might share the amazing text to Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech. Or, you could share the broadcast video of the event. Or, you could share just the audio of the speech. In all three cases the words are exactly the same, but the experiences are all very different. With the text version you can easily reread sections. In the video you hear the ambient noise, the amazing crowd, and the crackling of the speakers. You see how vast the audience is and feel the passion and concern. With the audio clip, you get to imagine the time and space.

As an educator, you can share multiple expressions of the content you share.

But how do you allow students to share their learning, their ideas, in multiple mediums?

Often, we don’t.

And that brings us to the point.

You can offer students options for sharing the way they understand the work they are doing. That does not mean you have to forgo APA style papers or written math equations. It does not mean you have to forgo your multiple-choice questions or final exam essays. It does mean that along the path for each student they can be presented with other ways of expressing what it is they are learning.

Here is share two ways to look at what the “assignment” expectations are. One is around allowing them to choose between a few mediums and the other is a way to push them further with both options and some points toward their grade. Both offer options. They have a choice to make. They are in charge. At least a little. Depending on how you grade the assignments, it is possible that doing these types of things will cause you more effort. More work.

The image below shares a look at how a single assignment might offer students five ways of submitting the work. And, it offers them the opportunity to do the work individually or as a group.

example in Camvs of

This option shares what it might look like if you give students a few options for submitting the work. The lowest option is sort of the bare minimum. What they can do just to get a passing grade. Of course, this is about length, not necessarily quality, so it would be assumed that to receive credit, the work would need to meet certain requirements. There are some variations between the first and the last, but in general, as the student choses to do more to get more points, the expectations increase as well.

Here, finally, is the video explanation of all the stuff above. If you made it all the way here you get five points. If you watch the video you can complete a short quiz and get both ten points and a twenty-five-dollar Amazon gift card. Good luck.

Quick and easy-to-do strategies to promote online engagement

I went back to school.

This seems somewhat odd at first, given that I’ve been in school since I was 5, traveling an academic path that went from K12 to college to grad school to postdoc to faculty member. But I recently had occasion to present talk to the principal and vice principals at my kids’ school. I was so nervous to be back in that context! I had to go to the principal’s (virtual) office!

In our school district, spring and fall (and now winter) quarters have been taught remotely because of the COVID-19 pandemic. The principals helpfully held a meeting to speak with parents about how their kids are learning in these strange and stressful times. One message came out loud and clear: students and teachers are overwhelmed and overworked. None of them are prepared to work in a remote environment.

A fundamental component of teaching is the assessment feedback loop. You teach something, and then you see how well students understand it, and then you use that understanding to help the students achieve even deeper dexterity with the topic. But when teachers are falling behind on their grading, and when they can’t see students’ faces because cameras are all off, and when students aren’t submitting homework because they’re overwhelmed, and when chat is being used as a social tool instead of a learning one (long story—and big mistake on the part of the district), the assessment feedback loop breaks.

When teachers are in the classroom talking to students, moving around the room and fielding questions while students work, and constantly checking in with them, they are assessing student learn. It’s a critical part of the K12 assessment feedback loop. I wanted to talk to the principals about strategies that the might help teachers collect these same kind of data, but in a remote context.

Here are some of the strategies I mentioned:

Use the chat and collaborative documents like google docs.

  • Expect all of the students to answer questions, and immediately gauge where they re

Continue with classic interactive learning strategies like the jigsaw.

  • Have the breakout rooms take notes in google docs. Each group could have their own doc, or there could be one doc with students writing in different sections. I’ve used both strategies, depending on context.

Minute paper are tried and true.

  • Ask students what they understand, and what they’re confused about. They can write for a minute. This could be in chat, a google doc, and or a bulletin board app like Padlet.

Try collaborative notetaking.

  • I’ve done this with—you guessed it—google docs, but I’m curious what it’s like to use a mindmapping app like Coggle.

And it turns out principals are pretty cool. I had great fun talking to the team, and I’m reminded once again that my kids are in good hands.

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