CityTech Stories Podcast

We’re excited to announce a new edition of CityTech Stories, the official podcast of the Ursula C. Schwerin Library. Most recently, we featured Prof. Colleen Birchett, and Prof. Christopher Swift, who spoke of their experiences using Open Educational Resources – materials that are hosted online, free of charge for use by students and faculty alike.

Through the Open Educational Resources Faculty Fellowship, designed by librarian Cailean Cooney, participants get an in-depth look at the economics of the scholarly landscape. In the move towards open resources, faculty are encouraged to seek out material in their discipline through various OER repositories, and Open Access publications.

In the podcast above, Prof. Colleen Birchett speaks about her own path towards implementing OER, for the course Home Away From Home: Stories from the Diaspora, and impacts on both course design and content.

An excerpt from her interview: “One of the limitations that I’ve faced as an instructor is the fixed content in a given textbook: someone else decides, and that’s their worldview, and their pedagogical view. Whose voices get heard and whose don’t?”

“Chinatown, Grant Avenue, San Francisco, California” by Ken Lund is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

We’re so happy to present these excellent reflections by CityTech faculty, a window into the innovative pedagogy that continues to be inspired by the Fellowship. Thank you for listening!

Episode 3 Transcript

Thanks to Aisha Khan for transcribing this episode. – JT

CityTech Stories Podcast – Episode 3 Interview with Colleen Birchett

Elvis: Welcome to City Tech Stories! A podcast highlighting the experiences and voices of the City Tech community. Each episode will center around a theme and include perspectives from across the college. I’m Elvis Bakaitis, an adjunct reference librarian here at City Tech. Today’s podcast is an interview with Colleen Birchett, a professor from the English Department.

Alright, hello Professor Birchett.

Prof. Birchett: Hi! How are you?

Elvis: Hi! I’m good. Thank you so much for joining us for this podcast today. I’m gonna ask you a couple questions about your participation in the O.E.R. fellowship here at City Tech. For those that are listening, OER stands for Open Educational Resources. So, I’ll start off with a background question. How long have you been teaching here at City Tech and in what discipline or department?

Prof. Birchett: Well, I have been teaching since the full of 2011, and all of my teaching, in fact, has been in the English Department. I teach writing courses and literature courses.

Elvis: Great, so, cool. That’s a good long while. How did you hear about the O.E.R. fellowship? What drew your interest and how did you kind of reach out and get involved?

Prof. Birchett: Well, I heard about it in the email and it was advertised through the email, and I guess what drew my attention is, because of my background is instructional design but it was the early stages of some of the digital technology now and so it was fascinating, the idea of updating some of my skills. And also just being able to approach teaching in different ways. So I was very excited about both the learning experience and what it could do for the classroom, so that’s what drew me to it.

Elvis: Nice! So you had some experience with digital teaching tools online?

Prof. Birchett: Yes, uh huh.

Elvis: Great! So I guess I was curious kind of, to go off that, how your students have changed in terms of their use of technology over the years since you have taught at City Tech? For a while have you seen changes, an increase in their interest in digital or something else?

Prof. Birchett: Well, their involvement with the digital delivery of various kinds of information has increased over the years. And many of the ones that I am working with now, they have been interacting with things like phones, and computers, and laptops since they were infants. You know, in fact I have nephews who, I have three nephews who all line up at a board, and they’re all under five years old and they’re all working on computers already. And so students like this are not that much older than them, and it’s like a couple decades down and I think that their whole world is digital, which is unlike my experience and the experiences of the generation before them, even the immediate generation before them. So, in addition to television, you know, they’re walking around with phones and, you know, earplugs, and everything, you know, their whole world is that. So, you have to relate to them differently than you would have before.

Elvis: That’s a good point. I’ve observed this myself with the youth today at City Tech and beyond. Yeah, and you have mentioned a project called something, a digital bibliography that students are working on currently. Can you describe a little bit about that project and kind of how you came up with it?

Prof. Birchett: Well, the course is called Writing and Social Justice and it’s based in the current 2020 election campaign. And what’s happening is we’re teaching them about discourse communities and how discourses change based on the medium, the audience, the situation, and the purpose. And so what happens is, they have been broken down into four theme groups and like environmentalism, immigration, racism, and technology and women’s issues. So within each one of those, they’re seeking discourse communities that are attached to specific controversies that they’re working in. So for example, they’re interested in DACA and it’s survival, they’re looking at, they’re trying to locate discourse communities who are dealing with that issue in different ways and who have different discourses and different symbol systems, and different languages, and whose communities are diverse based on their specific interests, and their specific relationship to the problem. So, one of their projects is to create a digital bibliography so that, I take them into the lab and they create a page in which they break down different type of discourse communities. Underneath those they identify online different groups and their different discourses, you know, their artifacts, their newsletters and all. And once they do that, then my plan is that they upload it into a blog so that all in their group will be able to see all the different groups that relate to all the different issues. And that’s something that this type technology really makes this possible, and it’s just beautiful because they can just put that online and other people can see it and it can be uploaded in an O.E.R. online so that people across the country can possibly see it. So these are things you could not do if you were limited to print. So that’s their project that they are working on now.

Elvis: Oh that’s awesome, yeah. It sounds really conceptually rich, you know, and just like different cultural backgrounds and kind of letting students guide their own interests, you know, ‘cause, yeah. That always seems to go best, obviously. But that’s great, yeah. Thank you for sharing about that. I hadn’t heard the term digital bibliography before, so, I like that. Yeah, I guess it kinda leads us to the question that how did the students receive the O.E.R.? Did you feel like that they kind of understood the concept of having class on the open lab? Were they able to access things? You know, what was sort of their intuitive reaction to using that and maybe instead of a textbook or like an anthology and maybe describe what you were using before that.

Prof. Birchett: I was really surprised at how quickly they were able to adapt to it, because in their daily life they are doing all kinds of different things similarly to that and I was really surprised how there is some diversity in the classroom in terms of the ranges of their exposure to these different kinds of things so the class is not all the same. But I think that generally speaking, they catch on very quickly especially if you take them into lab and introduce it to them there, they can quickly catch on and quickly catch up those who aren’t able to process what’s going on. So they were able to adapt to it very easily.

Elvis: Cool. That’s great, yeah. It’s always interesting the print vs. digital question comes up a lot and sometimes we have faculty who is like “No, they need a book and they need a print kind of volume to ground them.” But I think you’re saying they are easily adaptable. They’ve used….

Prof. Birchett: Well there’s print online. What they’re reading is basically the same as, what is the difference from reading it in a hard bound book and reading it online? They’re essays and they’re all kinds of things and they can juxtapose different texts and see differences and similarities between those texts. Whereas if they have to go get hard bound periodicals and put them beside one another, it’s really cumbersome. And, you know, that doesn’t mean that sometimes they don’t need to do that. But basically it’s a real, it’s not eliminating the need for print, it’s just putting print in a different mode so that they can read it.

Elvis: I like that, yes. Taking a different direction of approach. That’s cool. [inaudible] …in any way so that other faculty can’t share it back and forth? So if you have any thoughts on like the pros and cons of using something like that or if you think open lab kind of makes more sense for where things are going?

Prof. Birchett: Well, I do think that the O.E.R. is in the Open Lab. They’re more accessible in many ways because everything is right in the same place and because of the advances in technology, students are able to access things more quickly than they do in Blackboard but I don’t think that it’s necessarily an either or, sometimes it can be both and because they’re certain advantages to connecting the O.E.R. with Blackboard, so that you can because sometimes there are copyright issues and lots of other things. So sometimes what can happen is you can link students to resources on Blackboard that they might not be able to put on the Open Lab. But because educational laws protect certain kinds of things for teachers to use in the classroom just for the educational purposes sometimes you can get around some of the resource restrictions because it is privatized and it’s not..the Blackboard doesn’t open it up to the whole universe so that you don’t violate certain copyright laws and so that’s one advantage on doing both. So I don’t see as a competitive and I also think that if instructor develops an O.E.R. and has to go through the process of getting clearances on a copyright and things like that by having both available while you’re in that process it makes it easier to be able to deliver the instructions and then before you put it on it’s like Academic Works, where you can get the clearances you need and things like that. So that’s been an advantage for me because I can link them to blackboard. I use Blackboard in the process of developing an O.E.R. if I hadn’t had time to get it set up on the O.E.R.. On the Open Lab, I can develop up to an open stage on Blackboard and test it out, make it work, and then go back and the do programming itself that is necessary to put on the O.E.R.. So I think they work together nicely, that they don’t have to be competing with one another.

Elvis: I love that, that’s a very diplomatic answer. Yeah, one question that it kinda weeds into is, you had mentioned CUNY Academic Works, which is the institutional repository of CUNY for those who don’t know, it’s a ‘site that you can upload lots of scholarships onto and you can also upload O.E.R.s so I think you had mentioned that you’re O.E.R. that was on there had some downloads, and some international attention. Can you speak to that a little bit?

Prof. Birchett: Well I did an O.E.R. and I learned how to do it right here in CUNY department at City Tech and I posted it, it was posted on Academic Works and every month they send me an email and it allows me to see exactly how many downloads it has had and where in the country because it allows instructors to go on the site, the platform, and download the manuel or download the syllabus either one. So what’s happened, I was surprised that over a period of about a year or maybe less they have…I have had 73 downloads across a wide variety of counties, from England to China to Taiwan to all over the United States, up and down the East Coast, in CUNY, on the West Coast. So it’s amazing to me that people have downloaded and because I have given them permission to adapt it for their uses that you have the system allows you to decide what type licensing you have your material. Can it be adapted, can it be just cloned or whatever but beat people, I don’t know exactly what people are doing but it does open up the flexibility and so I’m really happy and so I’m open to trying to get some research done using it and what have you, but it’s really great to know that you’re material is.

Elvis: Yeah, no it is great. It’s kind of exciting, “Oo I made this thing and now others [inaudible]” it’s wild! I think that’s great, it kinda highlights the core of O.E.R. which is resource sharing, you know, and just the fact that faculty do sort of work in [inaudible] and that they can tend to work within either only in their department or maybe even people in their department don’t really know what they’re up to. Even in the classroom has been a pretty closed space, so what I think is really cool about this is it’s sort of pivoting toward a more open, you know, potentially worldwide international fame but even just the idea of sharing is really new.

Prof. Birchett: And it has sort of like a social justice component to it as well because we have different, well not just within our and within CUNY and our closed classes, but across the world people are in different economic situations and this is making knowledge available to them because they would not be able to afford textbooks, you know, and some other kind, you know, because I know that many organizations that were in, you know churches and so forth, donate textbooks [inaudible] textbooks have over the years to various places around the world. But digital technology in this O.E.R., this makes it possible, you don’t have to come up with the money to mail it to them, you don’t have to have a garage where everyone brings their old textbooks from the libraries and have people shipping them, you don’t have to do any of that! Just press a button and it’s there! And I think that is marvellous, you know.

Elvis: Yeah, that is. And I think that’s really interesting too ‘cause I think there’s a lot of potential for O.E.R. in the future for kind of cross collaborative…

Prof. Birchett: Oh Yeah! know with interactions with communities ‘cause you wouldn’t want to be one directional…

Prof. Birchett: Right! Right!

Elvis:…like the rest will supply, you know, education, so I like that.

Prof. Birchett: Definitely, that’s another component, yes

Elvis:…two way streak…

Prof. Birchett:..yes, definitely…

Elvis: So yeah, that’s super great. Yeah, I think one of my last questions was, and maybe circling around some of those issues of content ‘cause you have spoke of how previously you’re releasing an anthology, you know, that was sort of assigned, it has a fixed amount of text and the topic is to export voices, right?

Prof. Birchett: Yeah.

Elvis: So you wanna bring in other things, so can you talk about how it changed the content of your class?

Prof. Birchett: Well I think one of the limitations that I faced over and over again as an instructor is the fixed content in a given textbook because someone else decides what goes in and what goes out and that’s sort of their role view and their kind of going into their political view, and it’s also, you know, how they view their textbook, and many many textbooks go through so many revision processes and there are certain centers in our country who dominate the textbook industry and it’s their theology, you know, concept of the world that gets into the text and whose voices get heard and whose don’t. Well one of the things that O.E.R. allows you to do is sort of modify that and not only for your own conception and so forth, but it also gives you the opportunity to adapt it as times change and issues come up on the national and international scene, you can adapt it much more easily than you can a textbook so it meets the need so my particular book that I did,text, has to do with giving voice to diaspora voices, people who come here from around the world and some of the struggles they had have, being able to adapt to the American society. And so many of them have become authors and they had written about their experiences, and so I have, I represent…this was a very short summer course had to be condensed and so what I did I only utilized the works of four authors but each one represented a different continent and each one I talked about, of course no one person can represent a whole continent, but basically they were examined against the backdrop of the historical background of that particular culture. Like we looked at Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie work representing Nigeria and the students looked at, learned about the whole history of Nigeria, the Biafra War, all the different generations of immigrants that have come from the, back in the mid-twentieth century to today and she represents more modern group that represents this era, millennial generation and so they were able to learn all that and so I can select the content, I can pull together the resources much of what was digital from all over from Nigeria. The next one that we did was Neil Patel from India and we talked about his story and we went Laura Vopniah who was a Soviet Russian Jew and her experience and her grandparents experience of the Nazis and the idea of Hitler and all this and that era and they were able to learn about that. And then the last one that we looked at was Juno Diaz who represented Latin America [inaudible] Domincan Republic…I moved it over to Latin America. And but many of our students are from the Domincan Republic so they were able to talk about his experience and then they were really able to engage in their own experiences and talk about similarities and background and grandparents and so forth. It was really a fascinating course to teach but I think it was all abled by digital technology, the Open Educational Resources and open lab. And that is a course that other people can access once it’s put on Academic Works. So I was really excited about it and Elvis, you are the one who helped me to post it.

Elvis: Ahh excellent!

Prof. Birchett: So I wanna thank you [inaudible].

Elvis: Ahh thank you so much, I didn’t even notice. Yeah that course sounds amazing. I mean I think just exposing students to all these, you know, because I know City Tech students are from so many different backgrounds, you know, and you can only imagine that, okay, they only know their own experience, they know their family’s experience, you know their parents, but I think imagining, kind of transposing those things onto another culture, seeing what’s different, other time periods I think…

Prof. Birchett: Yeah.

Elvis: …that’s so rich with possibility. So yeah, thank you, that’s great. Yeah, I guess, finally to bring it back to City Tech students, I was just gonna say, I mean City Tech students given that they are from so many different backgrounds, and so many socioeconomic, kind of contacts, would you say that the OER, did they have a positive reaction to not having to buy a textbook, I mean….

Prof. Birchett: Yes, they did! They really, really did because they didn’t even know what some of these students are experiencing in their everyday lives. I’ve talked to counselors who work with students here and they opened my eyes to, really, some really desperate situations. People don’t have food…..,students don’t have food. Sometimes students are working as translators for their families, and maybe the only ones who have enough facility in english to negotiate with the outside world. Many of them are helping to support their families. Many of them, in the current, political context of the country, are frightened that even they or their parents, or loved ones, or their friends might be deported or might not allowed to come into the country because they’re banned list. And their a lot of things like that many of them are very much upset about. And many times we don’t even know why there’s an alternate [inaudible] you know, it’s more than just their ability to understand to work, many of it is really distracted. And so I think, just taking one load off of them and not insisting that they pay $100 for a textbook that they might not use more than a chapter of is really a gift that O.E.R., the O.E.R. system and the digital technology and all bring to City Tech students because we don’t, we can’t even imagine how wildly diverse their backgrounds are socioeconomically, not just culturally but there many other aspects and I think the digital technology does have a way of helping us all with those different aspects and relieving different elements of their life that bring on pressure to students.

Elvis: Thank you. Yeah, I think that is a great window into the world of City Tech you know for people who will be listening and a little bit of context but yeah. We have no idea what students and their [inaudible], everybody is different so like which specific situation they’re dealing with. But yeah, thank you for bringing it together with O.E.R., I appreciate it. So I think for that concludes our time with Professor Birchett, but thank you so much for joining us on this podcast.

Prof. Birchett: Thank you for the invitation!

Elvis: Yes! See you soon on our next…

Prof. Birchett: Okay! Thank You!

Elvis: Thank you!

Elvis: Thanks for listening! Next episode will feature Professor Christopher Swift from the Theater Department here at City Tech! See you next time!