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A Look at Perusall and Open Pedagogies | Social Learning Amplified

In episode 10 of Social Learning Amplified, host Eric Mazur talks with Dr. Sharon Lauricella (Ontario Tech University, Canada) about Perusall, non-disposable assignments, and how to make learning fun for their students. 


Eric Mazur:

Welcome to the Social Learning Amplified podcast, the podcast that brings us candid conversations with educators who are finding new ways to engage and motivate their students inside and outside the classroom. Each episode of Social Learning Amplified will give you real life examples and practical strategies you can put into practice in your own courses. Let's meet today's guest.

Welcome to Social Learning Amplified. I'm your host, Eric Maur, and our guest on the episode today is Dr. Sharon Lauricella, full professor in the faculty of Social Science and Humanities at Ontario Tech University in Oshawa, Ontario, Canada. She is the inaugural teaching scholar in residence and is a scholar of communication and a scholarship of teaching and learning. Sharon holds a doctoral degree from the University of Cambridge, that's not my Cambridge, the Cambridge in England, and a BA from Wheaton College, which is actually right here in Massachusetts. Her research focuses on teaching with technology, mental health of undergraduate students, and a value of fun and play in higher education. She has won numerous awards for her teaching on communication, ethics and public speaking. Sharon, I'm delighted to have you here.

Sharon Lauricella:

I'm so thrilled to be with you here today. Eric, thank you for inviting me.Dr. Sharon Lauricella Ontario Tech University, Canada 

Eric Mazur:

My pleasure. And you know, just from that list, I have the impression we could be talking for the entire day.

Sharon Lauricella:

We totally could.

Eric Mazur:

Yes, but no fear if you're a listener. This is a podcast, so we'll try to keep it to 15, 20 minutes. <laugh>. Now, Sharon has just co-authored a book entitled Ludic Pedagogy, A Seriously Fun Way to Teach and Learn. The book that was written with Keith Edmonds of Brandon University, will be released by Roman and Littlefield in June, grounded in research. This book presents in a lighthearted format, an empirically based pedagogical model for higher education that incorporates fun, positivity, play, and playfulness. I just love that, and I'll tell you why. I've worked really hard on designing a course that promote in promotes intrinsic motivation for my students to learn. And, you know, I have pre-med students who really don't want to, but have to take a physics course.

Sharon Lauricella:

mm-hmm. <affirmative>.

Eric Mazur:

And I've done my best to sort of redesign my course, my course to be more like a kindergarten. In fact, I tell the people who visit my course: when you leave, you'll be convinced that Eric Mazur teaches kindergarten. So I look very much forward to hearing more about this play and and playfulness. Yes. Now, before we get to that book, you also contributed the book, Thriving Online, A Guide for Busy Educators. And I believe it is in that context that I first encountered the term non-disposable assignments. I'm not sure everyone will understand what that term means. I certainly didn't. So could you describe for our listeners what non-disposable assignments are?

Sharon Lauricella:

I sure can, and I'll actually start, Eric, I think it's probably easiest to describe what disposable assignments are first, and then I'll describe what non-disposable assignments are. Good disposable assignments are kind of what most students do in university and college. It's tests, essays stuff like that that are the typical post-secondary education assignments that students do. These are the assignments, just they get thrown away. They might end up in the recycling bin if we're lucky. They're pretty much useless outside of class. They're the assignments that only the professor and the TA and the student ever really see. They're not transferable anywhere else. But on the other hand, non-disposable assignment assignments are assignments that have value outside the course. And the citation for this is Wiley 2013. This is not, I did not invent this term. This was, this is a good 10 years old.

They are assignments that students can use somewhere else. Students can publish these assignments themselves. They can apply them somewhere else. And I'll give you a few examples of some non- disposable assignments. For example, I teach a communication ethics course, and in that course, my students start a blog on the blogging site medium. And they, my students learn how to navigate this blogging system. They learn writing style for a blog, which is a unique kind of writing. And in the class, we address case studies every week, and students make blog posts every week, and they learn how to peer review and give each other you know, pointers and revisions and so on. And then the students post their blogs at the end of each week. And so at the end of the class, at the end of the semester, students have a portfolio that they can then put on their resumes and demonstrate their knowledge. And another example, in a fourth year class, I have students do a personal project, and let students go all out. Like I just give them no parameters. They, I've had students start a social media account, do a podcast. Some students have done an art installation. One students wrote a book and then published it the following year. Another student wrote and recorded an EP. So these non-disposable assignments give students a lot of freedom, and the students can play to their strengths and take these assignments somewhere else after the course is done.

Eric Mazur:

I think that's wonderful. And I think my initial misconception was that the non-disposable referred to the assignment the faculty member gives to the students rather than the work to students. Yeah. prepare. So that's, that's just absolutely wonderful. And, and, you know, I've been, I've been sort of wrecking my brains how, how I could do that for some of my quote, how I could convert some of my disposable assignments into a non-disposable assignments. It's a project-based class, so they are non-disposable aspects to it. but then an introductory science class, there are many, many assignments that are, you know, asking students to complete worksheets or or solve problems that I, I still have to find a way to wrap my brain around how to make them disposable. Mm-hmm. Now, one thing you and I have in common is that we both are Perusall users. And I would love to hear how you would apply this, this concept of non-disposability, if that's a word, to Perusall. After all, Perusall is private to the class. So how can you give an assignment in Perusall to a student that, you know, fits this non-disposable criterion?

Sharon Lauricella:

Yeah, that question makes perfect sense because you need a password. Students need their password for the course to get into Perusall, and it's a private place where students can discuss amongst themselves. But I use Perusall at two different points in a non-disposable context. The first point that I use Perusall is when students submit their work in progress. So in a formative way. So when my students are doing kind of a draft or making progress in their project, I upload their work into Perusall so that everybody can see their work. Or if I have a large class, Perusall can divide them into groups of 20, and then peers can then provide comments or insights or encouragement or direction for each other. And then Perusall kind of, I think of, of it as functioning sort of as a workshop at this stage in the formative assessment there.

So at this point, it's kind of a virtual works workshop, and there's kind of advice and questions support direction going on amongst the students. And then the second part of where I use Perusall is when the student's projects are finished. So it's more of a summative phase, and I upload all the student's final products to Perusall so that again, all the classmates can see everybody's final assignments or projects. And then at that point, Perusall kind of functions like a sort of a, a virtual exhibit hall, sort of, it's like a virtual museum almost. And it's great because Perusall can host, as you know, obviously a variety of different formats, videos, podcasts, photos, webpages, documents, anything really. And it makes it so easy for students to give each other feedback in that context. I, I originally tried this before I knew about Perusall. I tried it in Google Drive, and it was a disaster because it was just unorganized and messy. And once I got it in Perusall, it was, you know, you can see where all the comments are and you can follow the stream and the thread of conversation. And it just provided a really nice stream of flow of discussion.

Eric Mazur:

I really like what you said about using Perusall like a gallery or, you know, like museum almost. I never thought about that. It, it's sort of, of course, there are many examples of online exhibits and online museums, so they don't have any social component to it. People can interact with each other. So to have that and have the ability of students to comment on each other's work is, it's just absolutely wonderful. Now, you've also done some research on Perusall and your students experience with it. Can you tell us a a bit about that?

Sharon Lauricella:

Sure. This this piece is impressed with the Journal of Educational Informatics. And I did this in collaboration with my dear friend Robin K, who I think you actually might know, Eric. He's dean of the faculty of education at Ontario Tech. And Chris Craig who's doing his EDD. And I'm on Chris' EDD committee, and I'm the lead author on this project. And we asked students, my students, about the benefits and challenges of using Perusall. And I will tell you the qualitative that results that we got were just remarkable. Students described that using Perusall was motivating. It kept them on track with the readings. They loved that reminder feature. They described that knowing what their classmates thought or experienced made the readings way more interesting. And, and I didn't even assign always just readings. It was, you know, YouTube videos or whatever.

And they even said, those were more interesting when they could have a sort of backchannel discussion with their colleagues. And I will tell you, I'll take this moment to tell you my favorite qualitative quote from this research project. And I wish I knew who this student was. Obviously the research project was anonymous, so I don't know who this was. If I did, I would go buy them a pizza. But this student said, "It's actually kind of fun". This student said, it's actually kind of fun, and I wanna break this down. So this is my favorite quote for, for a variety of reasons. One is the word, actually, it's actually kind of fun. The student was kind of in shock that it was fun. Like they couldn't believe that Perusall was fun. It was like, I'm having fun with readings. Like, really? Why? Like, I don't know.

For me, I think learning should be fun. I maybe I'm just a gigantic nerd, I don't know, but my life's work is making higher ed more fun. And I just love that this student was kind of like, actually they were almost second guessing themselves. Like, was that really fun? Kind of think it was. And then the second reason I liked this quote is the use of kind of, it's kind of fun. It's almost like they're embarrassed that it was fun. Like it's kind of fun. Like they, they didn't really wanna say it was really fun <laugh>. So you know, I, I wanna help students realize that hard fun is a thing. Like, hard fun is actually a thing. And it's kind of like training for a sport, you know, like training for a sport is hard, but it's fun because otherwise why would you do it? Right? Like, seriously, why would you go to university and suffer? Why would you go to college and suffer? I just hate the idea that going to university or college should be four years of just drudgery and misery. I think it should be awesome. You should wanna go and you should wanna go to class.

Eric Mazur:

I could not agree more. And you know, I have a sort of similar little type of anecdote to share here. When I first started my project based class physics class for engineers, I noticed that a lot of students were, you know, had a similar type of discomfort with the fun aspect. I mean, they would to me and say I'm having, I'm having fun in this class, but I don't think I'm really learning anything. In other words, the learning and fun had become two mutually exclusive concepts and the brains of these students. And I think if you, if you stop to think about it, I think it's a sort of 12 year of traditional pedagogy and traditional definitely not fun assessment, which is stressful, isolating you know, that sort of in the mind of the students connects learning to stress and suffering.

mm-hmm. <affirmative>. And you know, we start life being intrinsically motivated to learn and learning through fun in kindergarten and before, and then that fun aspect decreases very rapidly. And it's only, you know, after we end our formal education that we discovered the beauty and the fun, the pleasure of learning it. It should really always be that way. So I think that's indeed an absolutely wonderful quote. Mm-hmm. <affirmative>. Now, just to remind our listeners, your paper is coming out shortly and in the Journal of Educational Informatics, is that correct?

Sharon Lauricella:

That's right.

Eric Mazur:

Good. Well, we'll be sure to post it on the Perusall website.

Sharon Lauricella:

And thank you.

Eric Mazur:

If you have access to the Journal of Educational Informatics and you're listening, please keep an eye out for this paper.

Sharon Lauricella:

And it's open access.

Eric Mazur:

Fantastic! Yeah. Now we, we sort of migrated from Perusall to fun, from non-disposable assignments to Perusall to fun. And that's a great segue into your forthcoming book, which really focuses on bringing more fun and positivity in higher education. And I can't wait to read your book and to see how I can increase the fund in my course even more. So in the book, you reveal your secret three ingredient formula for student assessment, and I think assessment is one sort of key barrier to find in any course. So can you please describe this for our listeners so that they can get a sneak peek of your book?

Sharon Lauricella:

Absolutely. And I tell you, Eric, I've gotta patent this, but it is in my book, but it's on your podcast first. So this is -

Eric Mazur:

Great, I'm honored.

Sharon Lauricella:

This is the place <laugh>.

Eric Mazur:

I'm very honored.

Sharon Lauricella:

I have a three question test that I ask myself before I assign or give students anything before I give my students my syllabus, any assignment, a project, a reading, watching a video, reading a website, giving them a journal article, anything. Ask myself these three questions. First question, would I wanna do this as in like, would I actually wanna do this? The point being, why would I make my students do something that I would not wanna do? Like that's just rude, <laugh>, why would I do that? So in one class, in my fourth year class, which is project-based, I actually do all the assignments with my students because it's different every year. And I do the projects with them. And it, it's fun because I get to know how the class flows and whether students have enough time to do each of the elements of the project.

And I get to, the first time I did that, I realized, oh, there wasn't enough time between these two sections kind of thing, but would I wanna do this? Like, is this a boring journal article? Is there one that's more accessible or do, is there enough time to complete this? Or whatever. So what I wanna do, this is a first question, second question, will I hate my life when I'm giving students feedback on their response or their assignment or whatever they create? Because like, let's face it, nobody wants to read the same essay over and over. And I have a, a large Twitter presence, and when I see people on academic Twitter, they're like beaking about like, oh, I'm grading in a semester. I'm reading the same essays over and over. And I'm thinking to myself, so why are you doing that? Like, why do you do that to yourself?

Like, you can choose cooler essay prompts or, you know, you can give a non-disposable assignment. Like, you can do that, that's the best case to do a non-disposable assignment because non-disposable assignments are so fun to assess, they're so much fun. So like, why assign something that is gonna make my own life miserable? I do a lot of ungrading, and I think there's a lot of discourse around that. And you're working with that yourself, Eric, and that means I do a lot of feedback and giving feedback on non-disposable assignments is super fun. Like, I get to sit down on my couch with a cup of tea and look at my students work, and it's just like, my mind blows. And where are these people coming from? They're so genius. So my third question, and this is my favorite one, is, will this make my students more interesting at parties?

And this is my favorite question, and I think it's the best question, it's the coolest question, because like when I say, is this assignment or this reading or this piece of whatever in the course, is this gonna make my students more interesting at parties? What I mean is, is this information transferrable to somewhere else? Have I taught it in such a way that students are gonna be able to remember it or be able to describe it so that someone else can understand it? And, you know, if we take a kind of a loose definition of party, and if we ma make party mean, you know, a family dinner or like, you know, going to your grandparents' house or a quiz night at a pub or something like that, it means that students are gonna have knowledge that they can just pull out of their back pocket that indicates that they're articulate, they're thoughtful, they're knowledgeable, they can articulate these things even when they're not in the environment in which they learned it.

And students' education is just part of their identity, and I consider myself responsible for supporting that. So I want my students to be able to talk about the cool stuff that we address in class. And I say to students like, if ever there's kind of a lull or whatever, I say, listen up people, this is gonna make you more interesting at parties. And, you know, and then suddenly like, everyone's like, oh, she's gonna make us more interesting at parties. This is really important stuff. And I truly believe that what we should be teaching should be engaging enough that students are gonna remember it later. And I really have, legit, I have had students email me years later after they graduate, after they graduate, and they email me and saying, oh my gosh, you will never believe this, Sharon. I was at a party and I talked about that thing that we talk that we did in that ethics class. And I mean, much like yourself, Eric, like, I live for those moments. I just live for that.

Eric Mazur:

Wonderful. So would I want to do it? Will it ruin my life? And will this make my students more interesting at parties? I love it. I'm gonna, I'm gonna reexamine all my assignments and evaluate them against that those criteria. So, you know, before we conclude, I, I have one question because I mean, one of the things that definitely takes the fun out of learning for a lot of student, and you sort of mentioned already what you're doing, but I wanna make sure that I completely understand how you're doing that in your course is sort of the numerical or alphabetical grade that that many of our institutions demand at the end of the semester, right? They, I've noticed I can work so hard on an assessment system that focuses on feedback, you know, narrative feedback rather than ranking and numerical scoring.

And I find that the looming grade at the end of the semester, especially for the type of students that I have who are pre-meds, who, you know, have gotten to Harvard by being incredibly competitive and who know that admissions to middle school is gonna depend on the grades that they get. And, you know, if, if I give them a choice, in fact, I asked them a question, if I had to choose -

Sharon Lauricella:

mm-hmm. <affirmative>

Eric Mazur:

- between learning and getting a good grade, I would choose. And then, you know, I don't make them choose, but I just wanna know what they, what they say to that question. I found out about half my students prefers a good grade over learning. So that shows that shorter sort of the iron grip -

Sharon Lauricella:

Yes.

Eric Mazur:

- that our institutional assessment has on our students. So how do you deal with that?

Sharon Lauricella:

Well, there are a few ways to deal with that. I think at the very beginning of our chat here, you mentioned intrinsic motivation. And I think that really is key. You've students need to have a sense of ownership or a sense of investment in what they're learning. And I think a lot of that comes from choice. Like when we can give students choice over maybe how they learn something or how they present their learning or pieces of autonomy like that, it, it increases that intrinsic motivation. And there's a sense of wanting to learn more for, for the sake of wanting to learn rather than wanting the grade. the other thing I do is a lot of self-assessment. And at the end of the semester, I ask my students, what grade do you think you should get in this course? And I invite them to contribute to a discussion around what grade they'd want.

And what I have found is that students are so hard on themselves. I have found that especially women and especially women of color, and I don't have empirical data, this is all anecdotal, but they're very critical and very unwilling to award themselves something that they think they maybe might, possibly, possibly maybe might not deserve. You know, like that little bit of reservation. And I think it's important to ask students what they want and why. And, and I think like your students, some of them are going, you know, they, they wanna go to law school, they wanna go to pre-med. They, you know, they wanna do a master's degree or whatever. And some of them need good grades for other reasons. Maybe they're the first in their family to go to university and their parents have threatened them, or, you know, there's a whole host of other reasons why. And, you know, there's lots of other reasons why students haven't done well. So I, I think there's gotta be more room in our system to collaborate with students about what their grade could or should be. Because I mean, you and I both know that a quantifiable grade, it's very hard to quantify learning, right? It, it's, it's hard to quantify how much a student has learned and grown and struggled and tried, you know? So there's gotta be some -

Eric Mazur:

Hey, my motto is if it's quantifiable, it's probably not interesting.

Sharon Lauricella:

Oh, coming from a physics - ?

Eric Mazur:

Well, if it's quantifiable in the societal context, right? Of course there are many things that are quantifiable, the temperature outside and, and you name it, of course, right? But, you know, if we evaluate things that humans do right in society if it's quantifiable, it's probably not something that's that relevant. I mean, look at, for example, the H index and publishing and articles, right? Yeah. And how -

Sharon Lauricella:

Yeah.

Eric Mazur:

How it's pushing people to, you know, pursue the H index rather than

Sharon Lauricella:

mm-hmm. <affirmative>

Eric Mazur:

- advancing knowledge. So, right. yeah.

Sharon Lauricella:

Yeah.

Eric Mazur:

Anyway, this is this been a wonderful discussion j just very quick. I have one further thought chatGPT, does that keep you awake at night given that you have your students write essays?

Sharon Lauricella:

Well, that's -

Eric Mazur:

Very briefly.

Sharon Lauricella:

Great question. I teach an ethics class, so I'm talking to my students about what chatGPT could mean for ethics. And what I've done with my students is ask them chatGPT a question and tear it apart. Let's find out how uneducated chatGPT is. So, am I losing sleep over it? No. But I think students need to not think of it as a rescue as it's not a lifeboat.

Eric Mazur:

Exactly. Just as Google isn't, or the calculator or the computer or any tool, any human tool.

Sharon Lauricella:

Mm-hmm. <affirmative>.

Eric Mazur:

Well, what a wonderful way to conclude. I'm sure listeners will all leave this podcast with lots of ideas. I certainly do. Great. So thank you all for listening, and thank you especially to our guest, Sharon Lauricella. It was great to have you here.

Sharon Lauricella:

Thank you, Eric.

Eric Mazur:

You can find our podcast and more on perusall.com/SocialLearningAmplified, or one word subscribe to be kept informed. And please join us on our next episode. Social Learning Amplified is sponsored by Perusall, the social learning platform that motivates students by increasing engagement, driving, collaboration, and building community through your favorite course content. To learn more, join us at one of our introductory webinars. Visit perusall.com to learn more and register.

 

 

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