Drew Smith of Walsh College: “Effective educators know and respect their students”

The best educators are mentors who accept their role in shaping students’ lives and futures. Mentoring educators encourage students to pursue and explore their passions — that is individualized learning. As a part of my interview series about the things that should be done to improve the US educational system I had the pleasure to interview Drew […]

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The best educators are mentors who accept their role in shaping students’ lives and futures. Mentoring educators encourage students to pursue and explore their passions — that is individualized learning.

As a part of my interview series about the things that should be done to improve the US educational system I had the pleasure to interview Drew H. Smith.

Drew H. Smith, Ph.D. is the Director of Online Learning at Walsh College in Troy, Michigan, where he oversees the design, development, and technical support for all of Walsh’s online and hybrid courses. He has a passion for moving higher education forward into a new pedagogical model focused on transformation rather than information. His interests include academic integrity in the digital age, engaging emotional intelligence in online education, and optimizing assessments around real-world experiences. Dr. Smith earned his Ph.D. in Depth Psychology which focuses on the unconscious and transpersonal aspects of the human experience.

Can you share the “backstory” behind what brought you to this particular career path?

My current role is Director of Online Learning at Walsh College in Troy, Michigan, which is a northern suburb of Detroit. My career backstory begins at a small Christian College in Michigan. While I was there, we formed a small travelling non-profit drama group that performed skits in a different way. Instead of telling a story with a predictable ending, we let our audiences decide how this story applies to them. For over fifteen years, we successfully traveled as a troupe presenting with our unique style. When I moved into teaching, I took this storytelling approach with me.

I have always wanted to be an educator, so after 20 years, I returned to graduate school intent on becoming a professor. Ten years ago, I fell into the world of online learning. I started out coding text lectures and timing PowerPoints for asynchronous online delivery, and then worked my way up through the ranks to become the director of online learning. Now I aman educator, but not in the traditional sense. Education in general has completely changed over the past ten years, and especially this past year given COVID-19. The days of the “sage on the stage”are transforming, and with it a lot of old paradigms around teaching, learning, and pedagogy. There is huge opportunity to explore new ways of teaching and learning through an online modality if we can reevaluate and let go of outdated modes and approaches.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your teaching career? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

I was presenting at a conference on academic integrity and created four student personas (see a sample here) with backstories — putting those students in situations where they had to choose to be ethical or not. I asked the conference audience to put themselves into these scenarios, too, to see what they would do. What steps would they take in the moment? If no one checked their work, what would they do? What would happen if you cheated? What would happen if you got away with it? The idea of choosing your own adventure goes back to my acting-troupe days, where the audience changed the skit’s ending. To put ourselves into these situations helps us consider the pressure students face — instantly.

Today, I present a similar experience to students and faculty using Turnitin Feedback Studio integrated into Moodle. Students find this exercise enlightening. It helps them think through whether permission is needed to use material, and process potential pitfalls ahead of time. It allows students the opportunity to think through actions and decisions before they’re in a high-stakes situation and are forced to make a choice under pressure. I use it with my faculty as well. They tell me that they have rarely put themselves in the students’ position before. Now, my faculty understand the student side. They had usually looked at it from an academic’s point of view, not as a personal and ethically stressful decision for students to cheat or not.

Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?

The majority of our material was already online prior to COVID; we had this part nailed down. Where other institutions seem to have been floundering, and scrambling, we’ve been successful for over 20 years. Our primary sticking point was getting faculty to fully commit to using technology such as Zoom. Part of my job is to help faculty teach with Zoom. I’ve learned that it’s important to honor the person on the other side of the screen. We need to listen to both sides of the monitor.

There was a bit of a disconnect between students working on campus and students at home. Now education is taking place in and from our homes online and through Zoom, we have a direct window into each other’s lives. You see three or four little kids running around in the background, and that shifts your perspective. This is powerful because it humanizes education. Today, that is my passion and ties into the things I personally care about. It makes the way you interact with people more important. So, even though we’re more technological now, we’re in a position to humanize learning more than ever. It requires an extra level of trust.

I have a passion for learning online and changing perceptions of how education can take place online. I think we’ve entered into a day and age where online learning is becoming the standard. Look at YouTube how-to videos. If you want to learn how to re-tile your floor, use YouTube. If you want to learn how to fix your lawnmower, use YouTube. People want education on demand. That’s what online learning affords. However, higher education in America has really done a poor job of lending itself to this style of learning.

We are constantly connected to a streaming system of information. We can get answers to anything at any time. I’m passionate about promoting engagement with all this free information and learning to think more critically about it.. We have a huge opportunity in higher education to teach students how to discern what is quality and what is not, and then create arguments based on what’s freely available. This, in my opinion, is a new way to approach knowledge. We have an opportunity to promote academic integrity through tools like Turnitin Feedback Studio, which we’ve integrated into our LMS at Walsh, by using it as a tool to help students better find their own voice rather than using it as a tool to “find cheaters.” In some ways that just sounds like semantics, but it also creates a perspective shift that puts more value on the student experience.

From your point of view, how would you rate the results of the US education system?

I think the education system right now is antiquated. Adults are going back to school. We need to adjust and switch our model of how we deliver and receive information for adult students. They have a lot of wisdom to offer. Just because they don’t have a degree yet doesn’t mean their knowledge isn’t valuable. This is something that some institutions don’t seem to be capitalizing on. We should be approaching adult learners with a different perspective than we do those that come straight out of high school. As such, it’s important for us to know our audience — whether they’re traditional or non-traditional students should help inform how we approach their learning environment. This is where an instructional designer can really help.

Instructional design is one of those roles that feels very intangible. The syllabus, the instructions, the flow of the course, the assessments, and everything else should weave together from the content to the assessments to the outcomes. This is a massive undertaking and I’m not sure enough instructors truly understand this process. Consequently, students may have gaps in knowledge that we may not even know exist.

When an instructor thinks about a course, they are likely to think primarily about their own content. They think about what they’re teaching, what their expertise is in. But an instructional designer looks at the flow of all that content, to make sure that everything aligns — from the course instructions and directions, to what’s being taught, to the assessments, to the learning outcomes for the course, to the learning outcomes of an entire program. That’s something that no one teaches in college. However, to ensure that learning is taking place, all of these factors need to be involved.

Can you identify 5 areas of the US education system that are going really great?

Recently, we’ve been forced out of our comfort zones. This is a good thing. Whether or not we stay out of the comfort zone is anyone’s guess. Faculty may want to try to go back to the way it was, but we can’t. Teachers I know believe online offers more opportunities for students to engage with content. You can be anywhere and be teaching or learning and be on your own time schedule. Overall, however, finding greatness in the US Education System is difficult for me. I’m disappointed with the general lack of progress. Right now, it costs far too much. Students aren’t always getting a good ROI. They’re not being shown how to think, but rather what to think. This politicizes education, instead of allowing it to be a path to personal growth and enrichment. I don’t see education pivoting as quickly as it could or should. I wish it hadn’t taken a pandemic to jumpstart a focus on the benefits of online learning.

Can you identify the 5 key areas of the US education system that should be prioritized for improvement? Can you explain why those are so critical?

Educators can have all the new tools and gadgets, but they don’t have time to learn how to use them . The technological support isn’t there. While my 7-year-old can already multi-task on his tablet, teachers have difficulty. Setting up and functioning in an online classroom is different than on-ground, and difficult for educators used to decades of traditional classroom teaching. There is so much teachers have to consider in order to be good at teaching online. We can be liberal with broadband and devices, but to use them appropriately there has to be time, resources and training, too. And a willingness to learn new ways of doing things, try something new, experiment, and sometimes fail.

I think the US education system has failed learners by holding onto an old model. We have students who are raised on YouTube and Google and think TikTok videos are good for learning. They absorb, assimilate, and retain information electronically from unvetted sources, or don’t know how to summarize or synthesize their own thoughts based on previous work. Why not teach them how to think critically about the information they consume? We still rely too heavily on textbooks. Many textbooks are out of date the minute they are printed. More concerning is that publisher test banks are leaked as “study aids” while faculty use them for assessment. This creates a terrible cycle where students are charged for books they will never read and the answers to their tests are freely available online.

Can you please share your “5 Things You Need To Know To Be A Highly Effective Educator?”

  • Effective educators know and respect their students. They recognize their students have something to bring to the table. Learning should be reciprocal and much more than delivering information.
  • Educators should be familiar with instructional design and always consider their course, content, and instruction from a student’s point of view.
  • Highly effective educators are open to feedback and willing to change — no matter how many years they’ve been teaching .
  • Educators should discuss academic integrity openly, and be transparent with students about potential assessment pitfalls, too. This is why I mentioned Turnitin above. Let students use the tool — any tool — to peek into their own work and see what’s wrong or see what they’ve cited incorrectly. Doing so clears up expectations and doesn’t take students by surprise. We don’t need to create more “gotcha” scenarios — instead, be clear and open about the ethical expectations you have of your students.
  • Use authentic assessments that simulate the real world experiences students are going to have.
  • The best educators are mentors who accept their role in shaping students’ lives and futures. Mentoring educators encourage students to pursue and explore their passions — that is individualized learning.

As you know, teachers play such a huge role in shaping young lives. What would you suggest needs to be done to attract top talent to the education field?

We’ve all had at least one teacher who has helped foster a passion. For me it was my high school psychology teacher. She was a mentor rather than a lecturer — a partner in learning. Being a mentor helps students get excited about the subject matter and consequently learning about that subject matter. By the way, passion for a subject can be transferred to students from the teacher.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

“Don’t ask yourself what the world needs. Ask yourself what makes you come alive and then go do that. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.” This Howard Thurman quote might be overused, but when I first heard it, I was shaken to the core. It forced me to re-evaluate my own pursuits, and led me to getting a Master’s and a Ph.D. I realized that teaching, learning, psychology, and technology were my passions and now they are blending together.

We are blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US, with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why?

I would like to talk with Flower Darby. She’s been a big proponent of online learning. She’s a good voice out there, so sitting down with her would be great. I’d also like to chat with Russell Brand. I think he’s become a questioner of tradition and is willing to entertain ideas the mainstream tends to shun. I think he’d get excited about brainstorming new ways to approach education. There’s James Lang, too, the author of Small Teaching. It’s about micro teaching. That would be a fun get-together — Flower Darby, James Lang, Russell Brand, and me.

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