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About Jason S. Todd

Jay Todd studied writing with Frederick and Steven Barthelme and Mary Robison at the Center for Writers at the University of Southern Mississippi. His fiction has appeared in various literary journals. Since 2007, he has been a member of Department of English at Xavier, where he teaches American Literature, Freshman Composition, Modern English Grammars, and The Graphic Novel and Social Justice. From 2007 to 2010, Dr. Todd served as Xavier's Writing Center Director. From 2010 until 2015, he served as QEP Director, managing Xavier's Read Today, Lead Tomorrow initiative. In 2015, he became the Center for the Advancement of Teaching and Faculty Development's first Associate Director for Programming. As Associate Director for Programming, Dr. Todd assists in providing high-quality, relevant, evidence-based programming in support of CAT+FD's mission to serve faculty across all career stages and areas of professional responsibility. You can follow him on Twitter at @jason_s_todd.

Debbie Harry using a rotary telephone.
"I'm in the phone booth; it's the one across the hall"

Thanks to Hurricane Ida, I'm getting to see what it's like for those students who have to, for a variety of reasons, do their schoolwork on a smartphone, and it's making me think about our reliance on education technology and the assumptions we make about our students. We need to think about how our use of technology might make learning even more difficult for some of our students.

We drove to Tallahassee to get away from the storm, returning on Tuesday, August 31, after ensuring that the roads were clear enough to get back to our house. We knew we wouldn't have power (or internet) when we got back, but we wanted to check on our house as soon as we could, since we live out in the country and have lots of pine trees in our yard. Our electricity came back on the following Tuesday, the same day Xavier reopened remotely, but our internet service is still out (the data cable is still lying in my front yard).

I am now on Day 18 without access to reliable high-speed internet service. At our house, we have our cell phones; however, since the storm, we have not been able to get more than one bar of signal.  Meanwhile, I still have work that needs to be done and requires access to the internet. Also thanks to Ida, we have very bad cellular service at our house -- one bar, at best -- and we are using way more data than we're supposed to.

A message from AT&T that we've gone over our data cap.
We went over our 9GB data cap for this cycle in just six days.

What all this means is that my highly connected life, in which I could work any time I needed to, has come to a grinding halt. I've repeatedly told colleagues and students that I will respond when I can, and that short text messages are actually the most reliable means of communication for me. I'm sure for some, I sound like I'm making excuses and trying to avoid work.

Responsive Pedagogy, Not Just Responsive Design

During the two weeks of asynchronous learning means everything is done in Brightspace, our LMS, which is fine, because I do everything in Brightspace anyway. After the past 18 months of remote teaching, I decided everything for my classes, even my face-to-face classes, would take full advantage of Brightspace. I don't even have a document called a syllabus anymore: instead, I have a number of pages in Brightspace that provide all that informatiom. Working in Brightspace when you have a full-sized monitor (or even two monitors) plus a high-speed internet connection is great. Working in Brightspace on a phone with an okay cellular signal is manageable, but barely so. The screens are slow to load, and sometimes they don't load at all. Uploading a PDF takes a very, very long time. Some screens, especially administrative screens with lots of settings, are hard to manage on a phone. And if you forget one little detail, you have to go through the whole laborious process again.

Some will ask why I don't just go somewhere with reliable wifi. I spent one Sunday in Hattiesburg at USM's library to do this -- and got a ton of work done, but that was a four-hour round-trip drive (although we were also able to load up on gas for the generator). The next day, I drove Baton Rouge, a three-hour round trip drive, and again got a ton of work done (that was Labor Day, by the way). Meanwhile, no one was cleaning up my yard or cleaning out my refrigerator or keeping an eye on my dogs who can't go outside because our fence is damaged. No one was talking to my insurance company about my car that got squashed by an oak tree.

Chart comparing digital byte units.
Wikipedia contributors. (2021, September 17). Byte. In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Retrieved 18:55, September 18, 2021, from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Byte

I'm privileged to be experiencing this during a major disaster, when compassion is more accessible. AT&T says they won't charge me for going over my data plan (although yesterday they started throttling our data rate to 128 kbps (yes, kilobytes)). Imagine doing this just because it's all you can afford to do. Imagine trying to do your work on your phone while sitting in the parking lot of a fast food restaurant because their wifi is better than your cell service. Imagine trying to look at PowerPoint slides full of small text on a 6-inch screen. Imagine having to cram all your work into one three-hour block of time because that's all you can afford to leave your house for.

All of us in academia try to balance our school work with our non-school responsibilities. It's a tough juggling act, and no one of us does it the same way.

I guess my point is that while I have always said I understood that some students might need to do their schoolwork on their phones. While I've always said I understood that some students are juggling multiple responsibilities that have nothing to do with school along with all their schoolwork, I've never understood just how difficult it is to do.

The advancements we've seen in educational technology over these past two decades have been really amazing. But #EdTech assumes a lot about the students (and the teachers). It assumes we have the personal infrastructure you use the technology, and for some reason, it also assumes that we that infrastructure allows for constant access to the technology. These are really bad assumptions to make. Demanding that students turn on their webcams during Zoom classes (What if they don't have a webcam? What if their internet connection isn't good enough to upload the video stream?) or expecting them to simply be able to do all of their work on a computer -- these are lousy assumptions.

Compassion means we need to make other assumptions, though. Compassion means we need to assume that our students are struggling as much (and probably more) than we are with COVID and Ida and Nicholas and parents and kids and bills and so forth. Before we automatically assume that our students can hop online and do whatever important work we want them to do, let's stop and think about why they might not be able to. Let's try to provide them with an education that is responsive to their needs rather than one responsive to just ours.

HAL 9000, the computer from the movie '2001: A Space Odyssey'
"It can only be
attributable to
human error."

When I started working in CAT+FD, way back in 2015, faculty who were interested in attending one of our workshops would send an email saying they were interested in attending that workshop. It was not a particular efficient system, as someone had to regularly check the CAT Box (our name for that email account) and update the list of attendees. As many people know, I'm a big fan of automation: any system that can be set up to work on its own, should be set up to work on its own. It saves time and cuts down on mistakes. So, I started playing with Google Forms and Google Sheets, and by the end of that first year, I'd built a system that let people register and that created an always up-to-date list of attendees for each of our upcoming workshops without the need for anyone in the CAT+FD office to do anything.

That system has worked (I think) pretty well for the past five years. There have been a few hiccups along the way, as there usually are with an automated system, but those were few and far between. Since its launch, we've had over 2,000 registrations recorded through the system. (No, we don't keep any records of those registrations.) When, in March 2019, we had to rapidly pivot to fully online workshops, changing the system required only a few small changes.

This summer when we learned that Xavier faculty and staff would be migrated from G-Suite to Microsoft 365, we knew that was the end of our hombrewed system. Even though we've been told that all of the documents in our Google Drives will be converted for us to the corresponding Microsoft application, the system itself is heavily dependent upon functions that only work in Google. Transferring the system to Microsoft would require starting mostly from scratch.

Fortunately, our friends and colleagues in the Library have given us space on their LibCal account, which includes its own events management system. Although it works in much the same way, it does look different in many ways. And it also offers a few new features that we think will be very useful. If you take a look at the CAT+FD home page, you won't notice much of a difference: we're still listing the next few events with links to more information. Likewise, our full events page, which lists all of our upcoming events, doesn't look all that much differece. And again, our weekly email won't look all that different either. However, when you click on the link for any event from those sources to get more information or to register for the event, things will start to look different.

A screen capture of the information page for an event listed in LibCal.
The pages for each of our events are where you will see the main difference with this system.

As you can see above, this screen is very different from what you might be used to, and this blog post is mostly just to prepare you for that change. In addition to the different visuals, please note that you can now print the information about an event, save an event to your calendar, or post about an event to social media (We'd love it if you did that! Be sure to tag us @xulacat if you do!). We've also been able to add categories to our workshops, which will help us keep things more organized and may help you identify workshops that interest you. For example, if you wanted to just see a list of our upcoming #LEX Advanced workshops, you can do that now.

Another change is how the registration process works and the format of our workshops, but I will save that for another blog post.

A lot of faculty at Xavier have found, when they are teaching multiple sections of the same class, that it is helpful to merge those sections on Brightspace. Janice recently posted about the process to get your courses merged, so I won't go into those details. Instead, this post is going to consider the rather unique challenge many of our faculty will face this fall: teaching one section online and one in person.

...continue reading "To Merge or Not to Merge"

All we have to do is click with the right clique.

Anyone who has spoken with me in the past month knows that I am not a fan of synchronous remote teaching. Beyond the basic belief that teaching in the classroom and teaching online are two radically different pedagogies (in other words, A ≠ B (in other words, "You can't fit a square peg into a round hole")), there is the greater problem of imposed pedagogy -- requiring faculty to teach in a specific way rather than empowering them to teach in the way they think best. Moreover, the use of Zoom and other teleconferencing systems as a means of achieving that required synchrony have raised other concerns, such as the unfortunately named zoombombing, wherein bad actors disrupt the virtual classroom, often with hate speech, and the as yet unnamed problem of invading our students privacy.

Despite all that, I have done my best to follow the expectation to meet online with my classes according to the original class schedule, and to be honest, many of those meetings have not gone well, in part because getting students to engage in a large-group synchronous discussion online is even more difficult than getting them to do so in person. I find they are more willing to do small group discussions, using Zoom's Breakout Rooms function (here's a quick tutorial on setting up Breakout Rooms), but I have learned over the years that while consistency in teaching is good, redundancy in teaching is not good. So, I've been trying to find ways to run my classes that give them work that both challenges them but that keeps them connected to the actual class.

Photograph of Edward Snowden
Edward Snowden / CC BY

One of the classes I'm teaching this semester is called Dystopias, Real & Imagined (I think I deserve some kind of award for that level of prescience, to be honest), so for the past six weeks, I've been able to do a lot more just-in-time teaching than I had anticipated. Last weekend, I came across a video interview with Edward Snowden talking about the risks to civil liberties that come with the COVID-19 pandemic. Under normal circumstances, I would have posted the link to Brightspace and told the students to watch it on their own before Thursday's class, since under those normal circumstances, I don't like using class time to deliver content. Given our current circumstances, I thought about using Zoom's screen sharing function to watch the video together during class, but I've seen other people try this, and the video usually ends up being unwatchable (choppy audio and such).

So I did what I often find myself doing and borrowed an idea from my wife, who teaches high school English. Since going remote at her school, she has been using EdPuzzle, a site that lets you create assignments by embedding videos and inserting questions and commentary at specific points during the video. While this can be used to simply test understanding/attention (by asking a simple multiple choice question about something that was just said in the video), they can also be used to encourage/demonstrate critical thinking and to prepare students for a post-video discussion.

Active Listening

At one point in the video, Snowden starts to talk about the expanded surveillance powers the federal government gave itself after 9/11. Before he does so, I inserted a multiple choice question that asked students when they thought those emergency powers were retracted. After they answered the question, the video resumed, and Snowden gave them the correct answer. (Take a look at the screen shot below for the answer.)

Screenshot of the multiple choice question about the Patriot Act.
A question like this one about the Patriot Act prompts students to speculate on what is about to be discussed in the video. Prediction is a key function of active learning.
Screen shot of the question as presented to students during the video.
Making personal connections to course content is another important aspect of critical thinking.

At another point, Snowden explains how our cellphones are being used to analyze social distancing at the local level. Here I paused the video and gave the students a more complex task by asking them to use Unacast's Social Distancing Scoreboard, a site that uses the data Snowden discusses in the video, to look up the county in which they are currently living. Although the text box seems small, it expands with whatever the students type. A few of my students wrote short essays on why they think their home counties are getting such bad grades for social distancing.

One of the best functions of EdPuzzle is that you can prevent students from skipping ahead or even going backwards, so in order to answer these questions, they had to watch the entire 22-minute video. While this is a useful way to monitor student engagement, it's also, I think a way to make the task more transparent -- the system makes it impossible for the student to misunderstand what is being asked of them. Moreover, EdPuzzle tracks everything they do with the video -- when they started it, how much of it they watched. For the MC questions, EdPuzzle will automatically grade them; whereas for the open-ended questions, I went through after class and read each one and awarded the points.

To be honest, I was hesitant to use this. The interface for EdPuzzle is clearly designed for grade school teachers, as are many of the settings (EdPuzzle integrates very well with Google Classroom, but not at all with Brightspace). Also, sometimes my students get frustrated with my attempts to trick them into learning more actively. Two things convinced me I was wrong to worry though. First, about a third of my students, without any prompting, told me how much they enjoyed this activity.

this is a really cool activity

Second, once everyone was done with the video (after probably about 40 minutes, since some wrote really long answers), we had the best discussion we've had since going remote. Both these things really moved me. I don't know about you, but this past week, the students have really seemed to sink deeper into the malaise they've been in since going remote. They've been a lot less engaged, so it was great to see that must natural positivity coming through the screen.

If you're like me, you spent a lot of time in the past week thinking about how you will hold your classes online, but not a lot of time thinking about how you will hold your office hours online. Office hours don't usually require much forethought. You show up and deal with whatever comes up.

But now we need to think about our office hours, in particular, how we will make ourselves available to our students during those times. There are a number of options for doing this, including Virtual Classroom and Google Hangouts. I've decided to use Zoom, since that's what I'm using for my synchronous class meetings. But instead of creating a new Zoom meeting for every office hour (which would make for a real mess every time I log into Zoom, even if I just did recurring meetings), I'm going to use my Personal Meeting Room in Zoom.

Personal Meeting Room

Zoom's Personal Meeting Room is a meeting you set up once (although you can change the settings whenever you want), but that you can start and stop whenever you want. This way, there's only one URL you need to provide your students. It's sort of like telling your student where your office is on the first day of class. Once they now where it is (theoretically) you never have to tell them again.

For the most part, setting up your Personal Meeting Room is the same as setting up any other meeting in Zoom, but you don't give it a special name or description, and you don't have to worry about any scheduling details. To change the settings, click on the Personal Meeting Room tab.

The toolbar for Meetings on the Xula.Zoom.Us web site.
The tabs available when on the meetings page on the Xula.Zoom.Us site.
The toolbar for Meetings when in Brightspace.
The tabs available when on the meetings page on the Zoom page in Brightspace.

Branding

One of the nice options with the Personal Meeting Room is that you can change the Join URL to make it more personal. Whereas with regular meetings, you just use whatever 9-digit code the system generates for you, with your Personal Meeting Room, you can customize the link. This makes it easier to for students to remember (just like how they remember your office location). It also gives you the opportunity to do a little personal branding.

A screenshot of the Zoom page listing the settings for my Personal Meeting Room.
With Personal Meeting Rooms, you can customize the Join URL to make them easier to remember (and to do a little personal branding).
Screenshot of the main menu on the Xula.Zoom.Us web site.
The profile settings, and many others, are only accessible by logging into Xula.Zoom.Us.

However, you don't change it on the Edit This Meeting page. Instead, you need go into Profile, but you can only do this through the Xula.Zoom.Us web site. You can't access your profile settings by going in through Brightspace. When you log into Xula.Zoom.Us, you'll see the following menu on the left of the screen. Click on PROFILE, and you'll be able to change a number of details about your account, including the profile picture that will appear in a meeting when you have your video camera turned off. You can also connect your Zoom account to your Google calendar, and many other things from this page. What we're interested in here, though, is your ability to change your Personal Link. Click on Customize, and you can change what follows the the main part of the URL (https://xula.zoom.us/my/). Instead of a randomly generated string, I plugged in my name: jason.s.todd. Your customization can be between 5 and 40 characters, but it can only contain letters (a-z), numbers (0-9) and periods (".").

A screenshot of the profile settings page on Xula.Zoom.Us.
From the profile page of the Xula.Zoom.Us site, you can change a variety of settings that you can't access through Brightspace.

So now I can add this link — just one link — on my Brightspace course. I can start and stop this "meeting" whenever I want, so when it's time for an office hour, I just go into Zoom, click on Personal Meeting Room, and click Start Meeting. I should note that this new URL I've created is just an alias of my real PMR link, that string of random characters. Still, it's a handy way to make it easier for your students to get in touch with you.

Calendar Events

I've also created recurring events in Calendars for each of my courses in Brightspace noting my office hours and providing the link. I've done the same thing with our regular class meetings. This way, when the students look at the Upcoming Events or the Course Schedule on Brightspace, they'll see, in addition to their upcoming deadlines, reminders with links for my office hours. In addition, if the student has installed Brightspace's Pulse app on their smartphone, they will receive notifications about these events.

This is a screenshot of the upcoming events section in Brightspace.
Using Calendar events and Due Dates in Brightspace provides students with clear reminders about what's coming up in your class. For new remote learners, this may have a significant impact on their ability to keep on schedule with your class.

 

Class Engagement 1.0

Image Source: Duke Innovation Co-Lab [CC0]
Most anyone who has heard me talk about teaching in recent years knows that in every class I have a Class Engagement grade that counts toward 10-15% of the student's final grade. I started including this a number of years ago because I wanted to help students understand that simply showing up for class isn't enough. So I borrowed quite heavily from Stephen Brookfield (who encourages people to borrow from him) and his "Class Participation Grading Rubric". What I like most about Brookfield's approach is that he provides students with an extensive list of ways they can contribute to the learning that takes place in his classes, including  ways that deviate quite a bit from the basic ideas of asking and answering questions. For example, active listening is a completely acceptable way of being engaged, according to Brookfield ("Use body language (in only a slightly exaggerated way) to show interest in what different speakers are saying"), as is encouraging other students to be a bit more mindful ("When you think it's appropriate, ask the group for a moment's silence to slow the pace of conversation to give you, and others, time to think"). Brookfield's rubric greatly expands what many of us (and many of our students) think it means to be engaged in a college classroom.

Engagement does not necessarily mean talking a lot or showing everyone else what you know.

As I said, for many years now I've used this model to assess my students for good engagement. Theoretically, during every class, I would give each student one of the following "grades":

  • ✔+ (In class on time with good engagement.)
  • ✔ (In class on time with adequate engagement.)
  • ✔– (In class on time with no participation; or in class late.)
  • ✘ (Not in class; or in class but actively disengaged.)

So — theoretically — each week, the students would get a grade through our LMS showing them how engaged they'd been according to me. For the most part, this worked pretty well over the years. When I started, I was worried that students would complain about receiving such a grade, but not only did I not receive complaints, I saw some students adapting to the expectations. They would actually do the things listed on the assignment sheet! Not all of them, of course. I've had plenty of students over the years who have ended up with Cs for their Class Engagement grades because they did little more than show up for most classes.

The problem with this is that it's difficult to keep up with in anything other than a very small class. For the first two or three weeks of the semester, as I'm still learning everyone's name, I can't really assign the grade at all. Then, during the last few weeks of the semester, I'm on a sort of autopilot, and I often forget to make notes about who does what. Last semester was perhaps the worst experience with it, as I was teaching two sections of Xavier's still new XCOR 1000 class, which meant I had 50 students who I only saw once a week, so I had a lot of trouble being accurate with my weekly assessments.

Class Engagement 2.0

This semester, I'm trying something slightly different, in order to A) take some of the burden off my shoulders and B) add a degree of reflection to the assignment. This semester in my XCOR 3010: Dystopias, Real & Imagined class, the students will be grading their own class engagement.

Figuring out how to do this was a bit of a challenge. Brightspace has a Self-Assessment tool, but that's not an accurate name: In Brightspace, Self-Assessments can't be graded. Instead, I set up a weekly quiz that asks students two questions:

  1. Briefly provide examples of your engagement with our class this week. (This is what Brightspace calls a Written Response type question. It provides the students with text box.)
  2. Please rate your own level of engagement in class this week. Based on the input you provided in the previous question, how engaged were you, on average, this week. (This is a Multiple Choice type question, using the same language as the rubric I included above.)

Each week, after our second class, that week's quiz will open up and remain open until the next Sunday evening. Students will have until 6pm on Sundays to submit their self-evaluation of their class engagement for the week. I've set the quizzes to allow the students to revise/resubmit their answers as often as they want during the open window, just in case they have second thoughts (This happens to me every year when I submit my Faculty Update: Within a few hours, I remember some important thing I did that I forgot to include.).

This image shows the settings in Brightspace for the Multiple Choice question and the weighted answer options.
Settings for the Multiple Choice question type in Brightspace.

The quizzes are worth 6 points each. The multiple choice question is worth 5 points, and Brightspace allows you to Add Custom Weights on Multiple Choice questions, so instead of there being a "right" answer on this question, each option is weighted (see the image above for details).

The Written Response question is worth one point (because you can't have a question in a Brightspace quiz that isn't worth anything). At first I was annoyed by this, as it will require me to go in and grade each response, but now I think that will be a good thing, as it will require require me to go in and pay attention to each response. This will also give me a chance to comment on and evaluate the students' self-evaluations.

How will this work? We will see. Look for a follow up post around mid-term. In the mean time, feel free to take a look at the assignment sheet for my modified Class Engagement assignment: Class Engagement Assignment Sheet.

The more I learn about eportfolios in theory, the more I think that's not the right attitude to take.

Having an integrated eportfolio platform has become a pretty standard option for learning management systems (LMS) in recent years. At Xavier, we adopted D2L's Brightspace last year, and with it, we gained D2L's rather blandly named ePortfolio system. So when we started discussing the use of eportfolios in the classroom and for other purposes, we focused much of our attention on the system we're already paying for. But the more I learn about eportfolios in theory, the more I think that's not the right attitude to take.

The main thing to realize is that an eportfolio is really just a focused and purposeful web site; therefore, in reality, any system you can use to create a web site, you can use to create an eportfolio. A system like Brightspace ePortfolio has some advantages because it's so integrated into the LMS, but as is so often the case, it also has plenty of disadvantages. In another blog post, we'll take a look at the pros and cons of Brightspace Portfolio.

The better practice I often hear from people who are heavily involved in eportfolios at their schools is that when requiring someone to create an eportfolio, you shouldn't require them to use a specific platform. It's sort of like word processing programs. We don't require student a to use Microsoft Word when writing a paper; rather, we give them the specific requirements they need to meet and tell them to use whatever tool they're moat comfortable with that can meet those requirements. Portfolios are even easier in this regard, as they don't require a specific program to access them -- any web browser should do the trick.

Here are a few of the many options available to someone wanting to create an eportfolio outside of their LMS. All offer free access, although most require a subscription for full features:

Last month, I wrote about setting up my classes in Brightspace before the semester had begun, in part because I was in the process of gamifying my advanced grammar class. I've had a few people ask me about that, so I thought I'd provide an update here with plans to provide more as the semester progresses. ...continue reading "Gamifying Grammar, Part I"

1

This summer, I'm on the verge of accomplishing something I've never accomplished before: having all my classes completely planned and plugged into the LMS before the semester even begins. ...continue reading "How Do You Know When Your Course Is Ready?"

By now, Xavier faculty have received an email from ITC asking them to identify the courses they have in Blackboard that they want to have migrated over to Brightspace. Brightspace's parent company, D2L, will be doing the actual migration for us, but we need to tell them which classes we wanted migrated. The email from ITC links to a form that asks for some very specific information for each course you want migrated (if you want to have more than one course migrated, you'll need to refill and resubmit the form for each course). This post will show you how you can quickly find all the information you need. ...continue reading "How to Find the Information to Request a Course Migration"