From the Office of the Provost
Episode 4: Inspiring Innovation with the University Center for Teaching and Learning
Joe McCarthy: Hello, and welcome to “From the Office of the Provost,” a podcast that highlights exciting activities and initiatives in the Office of the Provost, or University-wide that bolster and enhance our collective vision for growth and transformation. I'm your host, Interim Provost Joe McCarthy, and today I'm joined by Mike Bridges, executive director of the University Center for Teaching and Learning.
Mike was appointed as executive director of the center this past July. However, he came to the University in March of 2020. In his new role, he's responsible for supporting the university's efforts to promote excellence in teaching through the implementation of best practices in course design and evidence-based pedagogy; the appropriate use of educational technology; and innovation in educational practices in the face-to-face, hybrid, and online learning environments. Welcome, Mike.
Mike Bridges: Thanks, Joe. I'm really pleased to join you.
McCarthy: So Mike, you and I reflected on the fact that Pitt’s University Center for Teaching and Learning is structured in a very unique way. Can you share what makes it so special?
Bridges: Yeah, that's right. Our center is unique in a number of ways. Most notably, it houses a broad range of functional areas that are often physically and operationally siloed in different areas at many other institutions. However, here, these areas are organized under a single office.
So the units that support instructional design, pedagogical innovation, assessment, student engagement, educational technology, the design of learning spaces, the use of technology in the classroom, online learning, and the creation of digital media assets – all of those, which contribute to the creation of robust learning environments for our students, they're all co-located. And this means they can share important information, they can collaborate and cooperate on projects, and that all these activities are informed and guided by a deep understanding of the application of the science that helps us understand how people process information and learn.
Now, what this means is we have a large center that can provide a lot of information, resources and support to our faculty.
McCarthy: Thanks, Mike. Wow, what a, what a fortunate University we are to have such a robust center. As you know, I've used the services of the Center for, for many years over my time here at Pitt. Can you share what types of supports the University Center for Teaching and Learning offers and how faculty can leverage these services?
Bridges: Well, I think a good place to start is with the center's mission, which is to inspire and support excellence and innovation in teaching, learning and scholarly activities at the University. Now, that's clearly a broad and abstract mission statement. So let me tell you what that looks like in practice.
So, to name a few things, our teaching support team provides expertise in instructional design, and the development of face-to-face, hybrid, and online courses. That takes a whole variety of forms. Consultations, both with individuals and groups. We offer workshops, and we cover nearly 100 different specific topics. We facilitate and coordinate learning communities with particular areas of focus. And our online instructional design support through Pitt Online and Pitt Professional provides support for online learning.
You know, our educational software consulting team – that's the ed tech team – that helps faculty members to apply current and emerging instructional technologies. That means Canvas and a whole host of other educational technologies like Gradescope and Top Hat and Turnitin, Qualtrics, Zoom. We support and provide classroom equipment and we also scan the horizon for emerging technologies.
Interestingly enough, we have a learning space design team. Those are the folks that design learning environments to align with and support the learning goals that are actually going to happen in those spaces. There's lots of collaboration with our pedagogy folks and our classroom technology folks. Our academic digital media production team, they provide support for spaces like we're in right now, which allow faculty members to create videos, podcasts, and other media assets to use in their face-to-face, their online, or their hybrid courses.
Our measurement and assessment team, they provide services and support for assessment for the measurement and evaluation of teaching that includes midterm and end of semester students surveys and a newly piloted pre-course survey questionnaire for students. These are all really critically important sources of formative information for faculty members.
Another note is the Open Lab. This provides a space for instructional experimentation using a whole variety of kinds of interactive and engaging technologies. I'll talk a little bit more about that later.
McCarthy: All right, great, Mike. I can personally attest to the value of those one-on-one consultations. And frankly, I wish the technology support had been around in the early 2000s. Can you tell us a little bit about what some of the highlights of new activities from the center are?
Bridges: You know, a few things come to mind. The Canvas Course Shell Best Practices Review. That's a mouthful. So we've launched a new review process that examines six important areas or dimensions across an instructor's course Canvas, Canvas course materials. So, and this review can take a variety of levels. It can be guidelines for self review, it can be reviewed by an educational technologist who provides feedback for the faculty member, or a review that then sits down and provides a consultation.
In the area of production of video assets, for instructors, we're really trying to lower the boundaries and the burdens associated with video production in our studio facilities that, that's in the [Information Sciences Building.] And we continue to build resources and support for faculty who want to take a much more DIY approach using Panopto, which is our course lecture capture platform here at the university.
As I mentioned, the Open Lab, which is a collaborative effort between the Teaching Center and the University Library System, it is a brand new space in Hillman Library. Folks should really check it out. It provides a space for, as I said, experimentation using virtual reality, 3D printing, laser cutting, and a host of other technologies that really facilitate active engagement.
And finally, kind of generative AI guidance. AI is on the, is on the horizon and the radar for everyone. We have a great resource page for the use of generative AI for teaching. We're constantly updating and expanding that resource. And we hope to expand our collaborative efforts with other key stakeholders here on campus to inform kind of equitable practice in the effective and unbiased use of generative AI and higher ed.
McCarthy: So, I'd like to dig into that generative AI topic a little bit. It feels like it's really important that we encourage the most appropriate and meaningful use of AI. We can really leverage that technology to do better in the classroom, frankly. How can faculty utilize AI to support student learning and be more inventive in the classroom? What are some of the practical ways that we can inform faculty of best practices?
Bridges: Yeah, so, so to start the answer to that question, I think it's important, at least for me to say that I don't believe AI is going away. So then our task is to figure out how to use it in the way that best supports our goals. And I think about three broad applications.
The first is how do we use it to help us design, develop, and deliver better learning experiences for our students? So some examples of that might be: How can we use AI to help us build more engaging activities or group projects, maybe demonstrations? I think it will be a great tool for helping us customize case studies in those courses that use case studies.
Second, I think how can we harness it to provide customized and differentiated support for our students? This has been an ongoing challenge in education in higher ed more broadly, for a long time. AI might help us do some really heavy lifting in this space to provide that customized and tailored support for students.
And then thirdly, how can students use AI as a tool to enhance their learning? So this includes in what context, for what purposes, and among what group of students is it most effective?
McCarthy: So you mentioned a number of ways that that faculty can use these tools, but how can they encourage their students and their colleagues to most meaningfully use these?
Bridges: Yeah, I think there are a number of things that faculty members can do. The first is to clearly communicate whether and how generative AI can be used, and do this upfront in their syllabus. Have a discussion about it. I think it's also really important to emphasize trust in students and a belief that they can be successful in the classroom completing coursework themselves.
I also think this is a point to really have a conversation that stresses an understanding about the reasons why students often cheat. It's not because of some dispositional character flaw. There's lots of science that lets us understand that most students cheat, because of fear, because of pressure, and because of cognitive overload. And so if we understand that and, and express that sense of confidence in students abilities, that will go a long way in building trust.
I think it's really important to invite students to ask questions, to attend office hours if they're confused or feel unable to successfully complete their coursework. You know, to build intrinsic motivation, to engage in the coursework fully, to really connect to what students find relevant and applicable in their lives.
You know, it's always a challenge to reduce assessment anxiety. That means incorporating more low stakes assessments and scaffolding assignments that allow students to get periodic feedback and to build on that feedback. There are a number of ways in which to develop assignments that cannot be completed or would be minimally influenced by using AI.
And also, it's important to think that students probably in the future will need AI skills in their future employment. And then to think about how can your course be used to develop those skills by incorporating them into classwork, into group work, into homework, or other assignments? So it's a complicated and evolving topic that we hope to provide continued, kind of, support and guidance on.
McCarthy: Thanks, Mike. As an engineer, I could geek out all day and talk about this technology, but I want to, I want to change direction here for a second. I know that the University Center for Teaching and Learning empowers faculty members in their teaching, strengthening their practices as the higher education landscape continues to change. In line with that, a while back, the UCTL created the Provost Award for Diversity in the Curriculum. This award recognizes a faculty member’s efforts to integrate diversity, equity and inclusion concepts into courses and curricula across the University. We know that this work has had a profound impact on our students, but what's the significance as it pertains to faculty development?
Bridges: That's a good question. So, just as the holistic movement in medicine calls for doctors to treat patients not symptoms, a student centered approach to teaching calls for us to teach students, not content.
Our students are increasingly diverse. They bring a range of identities and backgrounds, life experiences, and expectations to our classrooms. These social, emotional, and intellectual characteristics have a powerful influence on the learning that actually takes place in our classrooms. The climate and interactions in our classrooms matter. The nature of our content matters. The design of our courses, our assessments, our activities – those all matter.
I think it's really useful to ask ourselves who is being marginalized, unrecognized, or excluded from the ways we design, develop, and deliver our courses? I think it's also useful to continually reflect on how we can create an inclusive and equitable learning environment so that all of our students, all of them, have a chance to be successful.
Now, in the context of that, and you mentioned the diversity awards, we also do some programming. We have the Provost Diversity Institute for Faculty Development. We offer a range of programming on inclusive learning environments and creating equitable teaching practices.
I'll note in particular, the Diversity Institute, which is offered at the end of the spring semester, often targets a particular area of focus. Two years ago, we focused on anti-racist pedagogy. This past summer, we focused on queering the curriculum and at the end of the spring term, this year, we're going to be focusing on advancing anti-ableist pedagogies and practices as a step toward recognizing ableism within our instructional practices. Talking about some tools, syllabi, course content, etcetera, and how the community can become active allies, for students of all ability levels.
McCarthy: Yeah, thanks, Mike, that's really inspiring. I appreciate you engaging in that important work. I know we've talked about a lot, but you're a visionary leader here at UCTL. So looking ahead, what opportunities do you see for the center?
Bridges: So one of the things that I really want to do is think about key partnerships that we have at the institution. So reinvigorate, establish, and perhaps maybe make them a bit more robust, particularly with LRDC, the Learning Research and Development Center with the School of Education and other key key stakeholders. And we've had this conversation a number of times, I think, for the institution to position itself as a thought leader around generative AI and its application in higher education.
You know, one of the challenges that any teaching center has is how do you have reach? And so to expand our access and reach, our visibility on campus, and to maximize the efficiency of our processes, right, faculty members are busy, they have lots of demands for their time and energy. How can we effectively become an ally and an advocate for their success in the classroom without overburdening a demand on them? So, those are, those are really the big areas that I think we'll focus on for the next year.
McCarthy: Great. So back in the day, of course, I just wandered over here to Alumni Hall and poked around. What's an efficient way for people to get connected with the center and take advantage of the services nowadays?
Bridges: Yeah, so you can always look at our webpage, which is teaching.pitt.edu. There's a host of resources and available venues and channels to connect with us. You can send us an email at firstname.lastname@example.org. We have a weekly newsletter that goes out on Friday afternoons, It's filled with all kinds of resources and timely information. We have Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and all the socials, YouTube channels, that you can keep track of what's going on. And we'll continue to try to think about ways to, again, raise our available visibility and get greater access to folks.
McCarthy: Thank you, Mike, for joining me today and for sharing the great work that you and your team are doing. And thank you, listeners, for tuning in. I'm Interim Provost Joe McCarthy and this has been “From the Office of the Provost.”