How Student Voices Enhance Instructional Design: The Western University Customer Story
By Rob Humenik
October 7, 2021
Including all voices in the discussion
What do you do when you want to bring more perspectives into your curriculum design approach? How do you shift gears when you realize you might not be measuring the right things to figure out the success of a program? What can you change to ensure student outcomes will help your students succeed in their future jobs?

One way may be to involve students in the curriculum design process. While student viewpoints can help clarify program outcomes, bringing students behind the curtain can cause some disruption. So how do you add student voices to your instructional design team? And how can you make it all thrive in a time of massive cultural upheaval?

The Western University Teacher program faced these questions. We recently talked with three members of their team – Kathy Hibbert, the Associate Dean of Teacher Education; Katie Mentone, BEd Program Coordinator Teacher Education, Faculty of Education; and Abhi Shetty, former research intern and teacher candidate. They shared their Coursetune Customer Story and what they learned along the way.

A multitude of challenges

The Western Customer StoryWhen Kathy Hibbert began her role as Western’s Associate Dean of Teacher Education, the Initial Teacher Program was in year three following a massive change from a one-year program to a two-year program. The program has many student outcome goals and competencies around which the Western team was building. The program had to meet the accreditation standards of the Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario as well as the accreditation standards of the Ontario College of Teachers. Kathy spent the first year of her tenure doing a comprehensive, manual curriculum map on the whiteboards in her office. It was during this exercise that she noticed a disconnect between the program and the student experience.

“It was literally written on the walls,” Kathy reflects, “All of the courses. I was reading feedback from students who were taking the courses. I noticed they were talking about places where there was a bit of overlap, and then in other cases, there were places where they were looking for something, and they couldn’t find where it was.”

Complicating that realization was that Western, like most universities, was hiring limited-duty instructors (like adjunct faculty in the United States). Many of these faculty might stay at a university for a single year or work for multiple universities.

“You lose the ability to have your instructors understand the whole,” Kathy explains, “They know their course. They spend a lot of time developing their course, but they may not have longevity in the program. So, they may not be back. They may not take up the student feedback in the way that they may have if they knew they were going to be teaching with us time after time.”

However, getting that feedback was essential to the program, so the Teacher Education team formed an advisory council with their local boards. They also did the same with students.

“We wanted to hear directly from them along the way and get their input rather than just comments on an exit survey or just on an individual course feedback,” says Kathy, “They were able to open our eyes to some things that we did not see.”

For the instructors teaching at Western for multiple years, the team faced a different challenge. As Katie puts it, “Instructors used to use just a Word document. So, each year they’d build off last year’s word file. And then, over the years, they would all look quite different. Some would be forty pages; some would be two pages; it would be all over the place. We must include some standard content, but it would look different. And it’s hard for teacher candidates. Our students take a lot more courses than the average university program, with 8-12 courses a year. So, by the end of their program, they might’ve seen twenty-four syllabi that all included information in different spots or with different formatting, which is obviously a challenge. It doesn’t necessarily communicate the information clearly.”

As a first attempt to capture their course mappings, the team used a homegrown fillable PDF tool. It worked well for a standardized template but didn’t solve the challenges with big picture planning. At that point, Coursetune came into the picture.

From the beginning, Coursetune helped clarify some of the challenges the team was facing.

“We really wanted to shift the conversation away from, ‘Why’d I get an eighty-eight and not a 90%?.’ And not just focus on transactional learning, but more on the importance of building lifelong learners. One of the Ontario College of Teachers Standards of Practice is lifelong learning. That’s something that a teacher should be doing,” Katie shares.

Societal upheaval drives DEI to the forefront

Addressing a painful history

Image from a memorial to indigenous children who did not make it home. credit: Sonya Romanovska

While working through these challenges, Reconciliation, Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion became an urgent priority.

“We felt a powerful need to address Anti-Black racism, Indigenous ways of knowing, and ensuring that we were creating inclusive, equitable diverse classrooms more than ever before,” explains Kathy, “We’ve always shared those values, but I don’t think anybody this year can say that they haven’t learned a great deal about how it’s not just individuals. It’s systems. It is the structures. It’s choices that we make in courses. It’s a language that we use.”

Knowing the challenges they faced and the imperative to focus on REDI, Kathy and her team soon found a way to take student involvement to the next level.

“Last fall, I put an application in for some funding, and I tapped all kinds of people around the University, people in critical disability studies, women’s studies, our indigenous leaders, our equity and diversity leaders. Just a range of people. As well as those that work with digital infrastructure and so on,” says Kathy.

“We called it a curriculum innovation framework,” Kathy continues, “But the innovation wasn’t about developing bells and whistles. The innovation was to ask how we can review our courses with a mindset to serve the historically disadvantaged. That’s when our president also said, ‘Let’s get students involved.’ We were looking for ways to support our students during the pandemic with summer employment and involved them in research activities, and I thought this is a perfect fit.”

They put the request to the program’s students and had a thrilling result. Twenty-three students immediately volunteered. They accepted them all and began a new path toward student engagement.

“Students always have something to teach us if we let them.”

At first, there was some growing to do. Faculty weren’t accustomed to having students review their courses with them. The student participants had to learn how to engage differently in conversations with instructors. Everyone had to learn that while each has a perspective, it’s only one. All viewpoints are valuable. In the end, they came together around their shared goals.

“How can we do a better job preparing people who are going into our classrooms to teach our future students?” Kathy asks, “To acknowledge the painful history that we are grappling with in our country as we learn of the Indigenous children that were buried across the country our residential schools and ensure that our teachers are prepared to teach this history, and bring a critical mindset to what we can do differently.”

With that mindset, the students jumped in. They began to look at how things could change.

As Abhi puts it, “The first thing we go back to is looking at the curriculum documents. Just to start, I think the Teacher Ed Office is exceptionally responsive and incredibly open to feedback, and I’m just one of 700 teacher candidates, so there’s a lot of inquiries and responses going in.

“They were constantly asking questions, ‘Is it possible? Can we look across all the programs and see how we’re doing with equity education in all of them? Can we look at how often we’re asking teacher candidates to write a reflective response?” says Kathy, “And those are the kinds of things that we wanted to know too because it’s a much more powerful tool if those reflective responses could be brought together.”

Coursetune helps bring clarity to the curriculum design

Coursetune became the means of seeing what the answers to their questions might look like.

“It made visible to us practices that in and of themselves are pedagogically sound. Because students had just come through it, they could see the potential alignment,” says Kathy, “Then they could talk to the various instructors that they were working with about that. And many of the instructors were inspired by what those possibilities were.”

Coursetune brought clarity to the team’s view of the entire program. They could see all the parts, visualize how they could drill down, and see where course outlines were consistent and where the program may need additions or deletions. It helped them see how they could add the missing parts. In all, it helped them plan for curriculum scaffolding and alignment.

Support for an exhausted faculty

What’s more, the information and insights the team had paved the way to better communication so they could proactively discuss and resolve issues with the curriculum before instructors began teaching.

“I needed something that would allow us to respond in a flexible, and fluid, and timely way, and that’s what we’re finding,” says Kathy, “We’re also finding that this project and working through this deep dive into all of our course syllabi, and the kinds of changes that people elected to make or got really fired up about helped us also see what kind of work we need to do with our instructors.”

The team noted that having the students involved helped everyone see things from a new perspective. Although Kathy brought years of wisdom and experience, she realized that would only take her so far.

“I can’t be thinking about what my experience as a teacher candidate was and assume that it has any relevance to what our teacher candidates are experiencing right now. I meet with them all the time. I have my advisory group. But I’m also meeting with, especially students who struggle in one way or another. They’re the ones that come to my attention first. So that also alerts me to the kinds of things that might be going on. ”

Abhi adds, “I feel that coming on board at the end of my program, where we got this chance to work with Coursetune, was an opportunity to actually get behind the scenes and understand how instructors go about designing it. And I think I became a lot more understanding because I realized that it takes so much work to put those syllabus documents into place. So, I was a lot less critical and a lot more empathetic at the end of the process.”

Support for an exhausted faculty

The upheavals of the COVID-19 pandemic were also taking their toll on professors. The team had to be sensitive to anything they were asking faculty to take on. The good news? Kathy soon realized another benefit of having students who were excited to work in Coursetune.

“We tried to take away any need for faculty to learn Coursetune or to have to be in there at all because, especially now, that would be asking too much,” says Kathy, “So we tried to make sure that all those changes were entered for them while ensuring they could continue to make refinements up to the moment we provide them to students. So, we looked at it initially as a way to support instructors to say, ‘You’ve been going out of your mind this last year. Our students need work.'”

For the Western team, it was a win-win. They could support faculty who wanted the aid while helping align the curriculum and improve the program.

“We have been inspired. Those of us that worked on the project have been inspired. The students have been inspired, and they are inspiring. As I said, most of our instructors have been just surprised and thrilled. And part of it is because it’s not just… It’s not coming in and saying, ‘Let’s look at your course and see what you could do better.’ It’s about saying, ‘Let’s look at this in the context of the entire program.’”

Even the limited-duty instructors have seen the difference.

“Even though they’re not on contract with us in the summer, many of them are still working with Abhi and his colleagues now,” adds Katie, “The faculty hope that they’ll be teaching these courses again in September, but for now, the research interns have been working with the faculty coordinators and the instructors, and in some cases, there wasn’t an instructor available so we’ve been working with other faculty members to get their expertise, and we’ll start to transition that into the confirmed instructors for September.”

The team has also noticed time savings and improved alignment between the curriculum goals and the course syllabi.

“It was actually quite eye-opening to see some of the reports that we could generate using Coursetune software,” says Abhi, “And I think as a teacher, it was exhilarating to see that there was a tool that could make that process a lot easier because it would take hours and hours to do this earlier, but with Coursetune we were able to do it very quickly, especially the assessment report and the syllabus report that we could generate for most of our courses. That is going to be immensely helpful for both teacher candidates and instructors going ahead.”

Katie adds, “I was surprised, once we got our data in Coursetune, what is happening but not necessarily articulated. Coursetune will quickly show gaps.”

Building on momentum to fulfill a commitment toward equity

The team’s REDI work has also begun to bear fruit. Coursetune has been a part of that too. It’s something the team plans to build on.

We are better together“I think that Coursetune has helped with that,” Katie shares, “Because we’re already reckoning with some heavy topics in North America and Canada. So, this has given us a chance to articulate them. We’re trying to map them. These are topics that are also charged and sometimes scary and hard to deal with. So, having Coursetune provide a way to talk about it from a logistical standpoint, a technical view, or a map is just a side door into these topics. I think it is helping instructors address them. Hopefully, we will later be able to use the data to help our students, as well, see where these topics are being addressed and be very transparent about our focus on these.”

“I describe it as an imperative that we can’t ignore,” says Kathy, “Right now, I happen to be in a position where I can say, ‘We’re not ignoring it. We see this change. We see that imperative has momentum. I’m looking at my degree right here in front of me: granted ’with all its rights, privileges, and obligations.’ We often think about the rights and privileges and not the obligations, and I want to raise the obligations.”

Kathy closes with this, “I believe that none of us has all of the answers, and we’re stronger when we sort things out together.”

The team reflects on the possibilities ahead

Katie and Abhi also share some of the benefits and potential ways Western can use Coursetune going forward.

“I think a benefit of Coursetune as a tool is that it allows you to look at the student experience in terms of the courses they’re taking and look at all the assessments and activities they’re also taking,” says Abhi.

Katie adds, “Because we hope to get instructors in and looking, and exploring, and comparing, we’ll allow ourselves to have little snapshots. Abhi and his team made these nice little graphics that we can include in a flyer, or a handbook for instructors, or our training PowerPoints, just to say quick, ‘Hey, don’t forget your students have eleven other classes. And on average, they read thirty pages of readings a week,’ or whatever the number might be, just to impact them in any way that we can.”

Abhi concludes with ways to continue to innovate and collaborate for improvement, “If you want to create a culture of innovation, you need to give people as much information about what you’re doing, but also be accessible in terms of being open to feedback. And I think Western in general, especially the Faculty of Education and the Teacher Ed Office, has emphasized that as one of their core values. And that’s something I think more institutions should do because students in your program will have a lot of valuable information about improving your course. And not just students in the program, but also students that have graduated from your program. So, they are an essential data point for you to improve your courses going ahead.”

Ready to bring new voices to your instructional design?

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