Conversations on online learning

Episode 13. Virginia Byrne

May 02, 2021 Digital Support Partnership Episode 13
Conversations on online learning
Episode 13. Virginia Byrne
Show Notes Transcript

Our guest this week is Virginia Byrne, Assistant Professor of Higher Education at Morgan State University in the School of Education and Urban Studies. In this episode, we talk about Virginia’s experience and research on equity in online learning and how social media is changing the adult learning experience.

Follow Virginia on twitter (@VirginiaLByrne), and check out her website 


On Twitter: #AcademicTwitter

Karen Costa on her website and on twitter

Karen Costa’s asynchronous summer class Trauma Fundamentals for Higher Educators:

 Imi Dencer-Brown (IDB): hello i'm Imi Dencer-Brown and welcome to conversations on online learning a podcast in which we discuss online learning and how to support it in each episode we'll ask our featured guests to relate their own particular area of expertise and experiences related to online learning and we'll discuss how this has informed their understanding we'll also ask our guests to share their advice for teaching and learning support staff who want to enhance and develop their own online learning support our guest today is virginia byrne virginia is an assistant professor of higher education and joins us today from morgan state university in maryland welcome virginia 


Virginia Byrne (VB): hi thanks for having me 


IDB: you're so welcome thank you for coming virginia can you tell our listeners a little bit about what you do and how you came to do it sure 


VB: so um hi i'm virginia byrne i'm an assistant professor as you said in a school of education that's a little unique so it's an hbcu which is a historically black college or university and i specifically work with students who are getting graduate degrees in urban schools so teaching in an urban environment and i got here by being a person that works in higher education for a long time so i worked in student affairs i got my master's at florida state university i worked with college students for a while in different capacities and then got my phd from the university of maryland college park where i became a faculty developer teaching people how to use computers in their classrooms 

IDB: thank you and with this journey that has brought you to how you where you are now what are your areas of expertise and interest as well related to online learning 

VB: sure so i think in my years of working with college students i realized that there is a need to prioritize and friendships and sense of belonging and all the soft stuff we often sort of breeze over to get to maybe testing and what feels like harder parts of school and i really i think a lot about how technology has changed the way we build community and make friends and have civic conversations in a college environment so if protests and student organization meetings and the civic space of a college campus used to be the quad or used to be the union or used to be this physical building it's now social media and that is good and bad right like that affords new ways for people to get engaged and it affords incredible opportunities for protest and for speaking truth to power but then it also has a dark side right and so my work looks at both the affordances of online online spaces for college student life and the dark side and the dark side in my research is the long-term implications of online harassment culture online harassment sometimes referred to as bullying sometimes just sort of breezed over and talked about like oh just the mean stuff that people say online but really thinking about how that type of unique online trauma uh is real and is really impacting our children um and college students and can lead to um a lifetime of of showing up in that online civic space in an inauthentic way so my work before you know it all looked at social media and then really starting to think about well now that college is also in this online space how does that change how students show up in the online classroom um what are the what are the long-term implications of social media culture and cyberbullying culture that have changed how we show up in online classrooms so my expertise in related to online classrooms and online learning is thinking about community thinking about sense of belonging all this stuff i said at the beginning right and teaching faculty how to attend to those social aspects of an online classroom 


IDB: amazing thank you and and what do you think are some of the the key things that have emerged and during the pandemic in terms of the sense of belonging the students and that that community has there been like market changes between your research before and then with the pandemic now and can you tell us a little bit around some of the strategies and advice you've been giving um academics to to their students as well around this to foster that sense of belonging and connection 


VB: yeah uh i mean great question so now i think when i started this research it was just an idea that some of our classes would move online and some of our civic spaces would move online but now we're we're not allowed to be in person right like we're fully online here so it's it's really created it's imperative rather that teachers and and university staff and faculty uh attend to social spaces because i say i use this analogy a lot with faculty who sort of don't see that their classroom needs to be social is that the way that your say chemistry 100 students made friends is that they physically sat next to each other and they did a lab project together and and they walked in the hallway together they waited outside class together and they zipped their backpacks up together and that zipping the backpack up moment is when you would say like oh where you going next or are you heading lunch now or what'd you do this weekend the zipping of the backpack time we have no replacement for when we move online and yes we can continue to do group projects online and we must we must create these small environments for students to work intimately one-on-one with each other so they have some social interaction but we we lose the unstructured social interaction pieces when working with uh faculty again who do not think that this is a part of their regular responsibilities and i really talk a lot about how um like your students are isolated and now they've lost the connection that makes them feel like they belong both in your class and in the major and we know that sense of belonging in the major is what predicts retention and graduation and success and happiness and all the stuff we want so we have to find ways to shake up how you teach to make it more engaging and more fun and more social and i know you don't want to but here's what we're going to do and so i think folks have found that by adding a little bit of whimsy to their classes with icebreakers and adding more group projects within the space right within zoom putting you in a breakout room doing class projects or assigning you to a predetermined webex room and you do a little project there trying to find ways for students to have time for chit-chat it's just so important and i i sometimes feel like i'm just the fun just the fun clown over here telling people like no you need more time for socializing but really like that's that's essential and when i interview students i've interviewed a lot of undergraduates this year about what they're what they miss what they're grieving from their past learning experiences um is they're missing friends they're and they're not just missing their existing friends they're missing the friends that they knew they'd find in this like oh i just started an architecture minor and i knew i'd make some friends there but now i don't have any because i don't talk to anybody because there's no space for it there's no structure for that and so we're seeing that students are using you know these group chat softwares to make up for that and that's an incredible way that students are solving this problem for themselves um but i think faculty could do a better job of building that structure into the class 


IDB: yeah absolutely and that's great you've given some great strategies there i'm wondering um with that student feedback with with what life looks like for them now online and having those conversations with their peers and in a breakout room do they they feel like that is as fruitful as it was face to face or do they still feel like something's missing and have they given any advice to to their lecturers and to faculty around what could be done to help improve the student experience 


VB: yes yeah so i think the students i talk to overall think that the online learning is like they like that it's flexible they like that they don't to be in person overall i think they think it's easier but they they understand that they've lost a huge piece they've lost the the mentorship with the faculty member they've lost the relationships i've had a couple students say like i might just take these classes again i might just do it all over uh which is a real privilege to be able to say that and take that time but i think what we're what we're missing is where students feel like they're spending too much time on busy work right and there's too much time on individual busy work and i think the the recommendation i would make to folks is to simplify like focus on just the key learning objectives and figure out a way to not teach them or not assess them via test right not just assess them via a single paper with the individual writing that but instead find a group project so that students get that peer-to-peer learning that they would have gotten in a classroom discussion or they would have gotten if they did it in a classroom like a group presentation in in person i think if we hone in on just the key learning objectives for our class and then create group projects or group presentations or group case study scenarios where students get the ability to articulate their knowledge to their peers and then hear the critiques and other ideas that's really fruitful and i really think we're we're missing that this year absolutely and i wonder with that speaking about faculty sometimes not being as kind of willing or necessarily understanding what the issues are have you met any resistance when speaking to faculty about um icebreakers for example or breakout rooms and what that looks like and then have you got feedback also from faculty about well initially i had this resistance and this kind of i wasn't sure i was a bit dubious but now i'm finding it's working really well yeah i think us we're all tired right we're all tired and we all want this to be over we're all like waiting for summer um yeah so i get it the folks don't want to add an ice breaker down but i i i do them in my classes and i keep these structures in my class and they do add life and joy um in a space that's otherwise just at times empty boxes right and so for folks who miss the days at the beginning when everyone had their cameras on and want to come back to that i think that we there's there's these little moments of whimsy that that really shake things up and uh remind us that these are these can be fun learning environments and so the icebreakers i do um i keep the same structure each week in my classes and i find some type of meme and i say like which of these memes represents how you feel today and it's always very silly things like it's a nine pictures of spongebob squarepants and they have to you know write in the chat which one they feel like today and uh these moments of levity are helpful in just checking in and yeah tr remembering that we're all going through this together and i do not know how to be a party planner online but we can try absolutely and um i went to a health and wellbeing webinar yesterday i was wondering about that time away from the screen as well and how we need that to improve our health and well-being because we're we're constantly switched on and we're constantly online do you have any strategies for students and for faculty as well with stepping away from the screen and how that can be productive in our in our teaching and learning as well sure so i have a friend who uh turned the readings and lectures in his class into a podcast and so students don't have to look anything they can just like be outside in their yard and listen to him and take notes without having to stare at something or be speak on camera all the time which is exhausting and i think that's a really novel approach it took a lot of labor for him but i really intriguing yeah i think that there's it's hard to step away from screens now because it's our main connection to our civic life and also our communities and our schools so if you you have any recommendations i definitely need to unplug from screens myself but um i think for teaching and learning i haven't figured out a way to make it off-screen yeah it's really difficult i think um i think more ideas and inspiration will emerge as we as we keep going through this this pandemic then i was just wondering with your research with cyberbullying as well um has that increased since we we're all online and and what are the key issues with learning online in terms of social media engagement and and cyber bullying that you've observed in your work so we're currently collecting data now that compares it to our past pre-pandemic data and so i can't speak to if it has increased i you gotta assume it has because engagement on social media has greatly increased because it's people's main way of engaging with their friends peers and communities but i also think we're seeing this uptick in recognizing that be it that doom scrolling this phenomenon of just like just scrolling through twitter scrolling through instagram is really bad for our emotional well-being um and i think as we start to talk about i i definitely see college age students high school students using the phrase doom scrolling more and being aware that it's something they should avoid um and i think you know normalizing that idea of like when i recognize i'm doom scrolling i need to turn it off that is new language we had not talked about two years ago with students so i think that there's as they engage more on social media and you know as the good and the bad of social media show up more prominently in their lives i think they are i think we collectively as users are learning how to self-regulate and when it starts to make us feel bad 


IDB: yeah absolutely i'm just wondering also with issues of digital poverty and and equity and what's that looked like um since the pandemic with students have there been real issues with with students being able to access the internet and access lectures etcetera and what what has been done in a way to to help improve their learning experience if there are issues with this 


SL: that's a fabulous question um and i can only speak to the continental U.S. perspective but broadband equity is a massive infrastructure issue that our nation is facing um that has been privatized for too long and now just two weeks ago it is being approached by our federal government and so we saw uh horrific disparities in online classroom access all year last year with kids not having devices and also not having appropriate broadband in their neighborhoods even though they should have had it based on what our companies say and so i think figuring out how to make broadband equity a nationwide issue is really is essential and also realizing that having access to appropriate tools including hardware and software is an enrollment issue for universities and universities and colleges um we talked to some students college-level students who dropped classes because they their computer didn't have the right software and they didn't feel like the university would have helped our university would have just given them the software like we we want you to succeed um but we haven't appropriately communicated that giving you software when you need software is a student success issue and so i think that that just that communication and awareness between university folks and students needs to needs to really amp up 


IDB: yeah and just in terms of learning online do you have any myths or one myth about let's say um digital equity that you'd most like to debunk anything that you think that you know people assume something may be about online learning like everyone is able to access something um easily but actually that's not true for example 


VB: sure so yeah i think the idea that everybody has everybody has access also that everybody is accessible right now i think is a real issue and the idea like well you're home anyways i'm just going to call on zoom has become a real equity issue especially for folks that have two small children one of whom is breastfeeding like i do not have time as a college student and a mom to do to show up on zoom whenever my faculty member wants it to happen i think that that's an issue we're trying to debunk but also the idea that students don't want to engage on zoom i think they they want to have a zoom that's fun and they want to have a zoom classroom at least with a chat feature that they feel like they are seeing and that the faculty member cares that they're there um i think that there's a real we're getting pretty negative about like oh students don't want to be on zoom anymore well none of us want to be on zoom but we do want to be in a meaningful learning environment and so just sending out those individualized emails before class of like i look forward to seeing you you made great contributions last week i think we individually can sort of pull ourselves up together and to get through the rest of this semester because we are exhausted um but we all still want and deserve a fun and positive learning environment 


IDB: yes indeed and i've heard you mention and further near the beginning there around uh project work and and students kind of working together i'm wondering whether um lecturers have had to overhaul their curriculum or their assessment to a great degree or just make little tweaks here and there and what that's looked like in terms of providing really meaningful authentic assessment which can be done online and and students working with each other 


VB: yeah um i have an article coming out in the distance ed journal soon cross your fingers in the next few weeks about this issue about how novice online instructors learned to assess uh learning online and what they gave up because they just couldn't figure out and what we saw them just quit on immediately is the any type of field experience any type of classroom presentation any type of like experiential learning they just went like nope i don't know how to do that or like a gallery walk like these these ideas for teaching and learning or demonstrating learning that we've only ever thought about as like you physically walk around a room um or you physically visit a high school and do a like a classroom observation there they've just sort of quit those and so i think we've seen people make some choices that are not the best for student learning and we'd really love to find ways to encourage folks to use the available tools to them to like make those experiential learning learning experiences happen right there's a lot of great museums that have virtual field trips there's a lot of folks that would love to do virtual field trips in their offices for mentorship programs and i think that there's still real value in students giving presentations uh even though it's on zoom like stand up and record yourself ahead of time and here we are i think it you know we also need to give ourselves grace that this all happened so fast we all had to change our curriculum so fast um but i think now that we are probably planning for fall there's a lot of ways you can do great assessment online that still allows for that peer-to-peer learning where i get to see your final project and you get to see my final project even though we can't be with trifold posters together in some gymnasium we can still find a way to learn from each other's work 


IDB: yes those creative ways are are really coming to the fore now i think where we've been forced to be in that environment and so based on that what advice would you have for and teaching and learning support staff who want to enhance and develop their online learning like beyond this emergency provision say we go back to campus and especially related to that experiential learning for students 


VB: yeah i think that the the best learning i've had is from academic twitter right is from following folks on twitter who i think are doing cool things because our the the books the journals they have not caught up and they move too slowly for us to be able to talk about what we're doing cool today so um i think going to academic twitter has been wonderful um i think that's how i connected with y'all and just the the things i have learned and adapted from twitter has been really helpful and i want to plug somebody on twitter um karen costa is a faculty developer and has specifically been thinking about how the trauma of the pandemic impacts how we show up in online spaces and she put together this asynchronous summer class for faculty that i'm signed up for it's super cheap it is asynchronous and you can do whatever you want this summer and it's called trauma fundamentals for higher educators and it's in partnership with the online learning toolkit and i do not know karen costa in real life and i am not being paid to give this plug but i'm just so excited about this summer professional development because i feel like i am not appropriately addressing the amount of collective trauma we're all facing with this pandemic and i really want to show up strong in fall having a better foundation of how to talk about this with students so highly recommend karen costa and i guess i'll we'll put that in the show notes probably 


IDB: that's fantastic thank you for that i'll definitely be looking up that course as well just based on that trauma um and digital poverty there as well um i was wondering is has there been any work with the movements going on at the moment and activism around decolonizing the curriculum and what that looks like online as well to really support marginalized groups and there's a big movement here in the uk and i think in america you're way way ahead and particularly maybe your institution and being originally a black university could you talk a little bit about that 


VB: sure so i think when we when we give ourselves the freedom to break out of the traditional textbooks we have the opportunity to find voices that aren't just uh white wealthy people right and we know that our traditional textbooks have only taught one one history one perspective for ever and so i think as i've moved my classes online and away from these sort of standard textbooks i've been able to pull in guest speakers from all over the country uh who can speak to the truth and can give better perspectives in my classroom so in online learning like you you can invite any guest speaker from around the world and that is such an incredible benefit to your students um or take field trips to places that they might not have seen and that aren't necessarily down the road from you so that has been really wonderful and also being able to pull in blog posts videos articles from folks who are not there whose voices and stories are not captured in our traditional texts 


IDB: that's fantastic and just wondering about in terms of cyber bullying and i think we touched upon this before for students who have had a traumatic experience online how do you engage them and build their confidence up to interact and learn online is that difficult and has that been something that's come up in your research as well? 


VB: yeah and we're still working with students right now to figure out the so we've worked with faculty to say this is what you should do and now we're double checking that with students to say like is this what you actually want um and the results of that are still coming out um but i think what we've found is that students want to know at the beginning of class what are the expectations for everybody here so starting class with a set of ground rules and norming activity of like as the faculty member i'm not going to tolerate any form of hate speech and i'm not going to tolerate people being cruel to each other and if i find out that it's happening when i'm not around i will act accordingly and i think it is helpful to say these things really clearly up front to establish the foundation that you understand that online can be traumatizing for people and you are going to use your your power as a faculty member to protect them and to ensure that they have a harassment free learning environment and i think naming that you you have expectations you've thought about this before and you will use your power to make this a safe learning environment i think that people love students love that they love when faculty show up hard at the beginning that i'm gonna do what i can to make this effective for you to make this safe for you and they they like when faculty understand what their power is and use it accordingly to what they say ahead of time so you have to both say it at the beginning and then walk the talk throughout the semester and repeatedly check in with folks and say how is this going is everybody okay and the way i do that is i use an anonymous mid-semester evaluation so i send it out to all students it asks a bunch of questions about the climate if things are going on they're small groups is there anything i don't know about that i need to know about and that really shakes out some issues of students saying like my group's mean to me can i get a new group it's like actually absolutely you can get a new group i didn't know i'm not in your small group so it those types of like beginning foundation setting and then mid-semester uh questions those really help us ensure that the students who feel iffy about this being in a safe place for them that they know that they can show up because you have their back yeah 


IDB: that is fantastic there's some really great ideas there you've already spoken um about their academic twitter and course as well which we'll post up and we're looking forward to uh reading your publication will be coming through and we'll also put people in touch with your other papers as well which is super super interesting yeah we'd love that 


VB: so the distance ed piece um hopefully comes out in a in a couple weeks it's with some of my colleagues at the university of maryland at the university of texas at austin and i think is for folks who study and work with novice online instructors hopefully that that's a good conceptual framework for how to approach them because what we found with that paper is these were these were great instructors in person they had a lot of years under their belt they had a lot of professional identity as great educators and then the shift to online they really struggled to accept help from the university because our the university we were studying only sent them emails like you're brand new here's how we help help you and you don't know how to use zoom here's how we help you you're not an engaging instructor here's how we help you and that type of marketing from well-intentioned faculty developers conflicted with these people's professional judgment and so they refused all help because they didn't want to affiliate themselves with professional development opportunities that were for novices they were experienced they weren't going to be with novices so i think it's it has good recommendations for anybody in faculty development who wants to better connect with those people who need just a little bit of help but are already great instructors 


IDB: that is great thank you so much virginia this was a delight


VB: thank you so much for having me 


IDB: thank you so much for coming i think your work's absolutely amazing and please take care 


VB: thank you have a great one