Episode 121 ePortfolio as Digital Makerspace in Liberal Arts Education Part 1
Welcome to Digication
I'm your host, Jeff Yan.
In this episode, you will hear
part one of my conversation with
Abe Rashad, Director of Language
Technology and Academic Support at
Oberlin College and Conservatory.
More links and information about today's
conversation can be found on Digication's
Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.
Full episodes of Digication Scholars
Conversations can be found on
YouTube or your favorite podcast app.
Welcome to Digication
I'm your host, Jeff Yan.
My guest today is Abe Rashad, Director of
Language Technology and Academic Support
at Oberlin College and Conservatory.
Pleasure to be here.
And, uh, I am so glad
to be talking to you.
We've worked together, um,
for a little while now.
I think that we actually met in, um,
the very beginning of the pandemic.
We were like neck deep in that pandemic.
And, uh, and, uh, uh, you were...
You and, um, your colleagues at Oberlin
were at the time I, it was literally,
I think my first email, maybe my
first meeting was in March of 2020.
Isn't that crazy?
Oh, that's, oh, wow.
Oh my gosh.
Literally like, I think we were all
like meeting, but not sure like what the
world is going to be, whether the world
is going to exist in the next 60 days.
I know we're like, we're going
to, we're planning for this, but.
Let's see, I'm not sure.
And I, and, and it would be, uh, it,
it would be great, you know, it would
be, it would be, it's great now to
look back into, into all of that,
but really, we didn't know, right.
And, and of course.
At the time, um, your colleague,
Tanya Boster, um, Executive
Director of Integrative and
Experiential Learning, maybe?
Oh, very close.
That's pretty much what it is.
Our acronym is CELA, Center
for Engaged Liberal Arts.
And, and we were, um, she, she has
since moved on to, she's at Princeton,
um, now and, uh, but, uh, uh, you all
have created an, uh, Just beautiful
ePortfolio project and program at Oberlin.
Um, I, uh, it's, it's just been
amazing to see this journey, especially
born, born in, in, in pandemic,
you know, it's a pandemic baby.
It's a pandemic baby
and it keeps on growing.
Yeah, it's been quite amazing for sure.
Uh, and we started big.
I think like the timing was great because,
um, you know, uh, we one big part.
Um, was of this project started with 300
or 400 students in January of 2021, and
we were still that deep in the pandemic.
And that just gave us like an online
medium to engage with our students.
And so, um, but then also the
portfolio pedagogy, but like just
having that as an option during
this really, uh, tricky time.
Was, uh, quite amazing.
Well, we'll definitely go into
that, but first I wanted to maybe
learn a little bit more about you.
I mean, we've worked together for
a while now, and, um, you are...
I actually didn't even realize
that you're a title until today.
Director of Language Technology
and Academic Support.
It used to be a longer title too.
It was, I would get responses from my
colleagues being like, congratulations
on having the longest title ever.
Because a lot of these staff positions
and professional positions, um, are
they're, they basically, they're
playing like, you know, specialists,
but really we're generalists, you know,
we, we have a lot of hats going on.
And, uh, but anyways, and so.
They're trying to create a title
that encapsulates everything,
everything that you do.
It's more like your job
description at this point.
It's like, here's his job description.
It's like a CV, you know?
So why don't you tell
us a little bit about.
Your role at Oberlin, I mean, Oberlin
is, um, what a, what an amazing college.
Um, I've just been amazed to see what,
what you all do and, and your dedication
to, to your students and the level
of support you provide is just pretty
unbelievable, but why don't you tell
us a little bit about your role and the
kind of work that you do, I think it'd
be great for our listeners to also,
you know, get a sense of, you know,
what goes behind the scene, you know.
So, um, so when I started here
and I'm not gonna, it's not
going to be a long explanation.
I want to keep it short, but
started as a language lab director
and I still carry that role.
And the, and the lab is more of
kind of a digital makerspace type,
but we also have like 3D printers.
And so like supporting students as
they're using the green screen, which
I'm in right now, or audio, you know,
recording booth where they're kind of
creating these artifacts for their, uh,
for language classes or any presentation.
They only can use the space.
Um, and then I also direct the
digital portfolio office, which
is also kind of a sort of digital
makerspace where people are kind of.
Uploading and curating their content
and kind of, I mean, the project
is their life in this case, right?
Uh, so definitely the hats kind
of work well together, I think
kind of coming along students and
faculty with these types of projects
and kind of support them in that.
There's something that I still just, I, I
love you were talking about a language lab
and I must say that I didn't know anything
about a language lab because I, I didn't,
you know, I, uh, I was never in one.
I never used one.
What does, what does a
language, language lab do?
Well, that's a really interesting
question because, uh, it's
such a transition right now.
Because like language labs used to be a
space where students and teachers would be
able to access authentic language content.
And so you'd have, and so, um, and this,
this happened for a while, I think like
from the late seventies to, uh, to the
early 2000s where you like get a tape or
a CD or a computer and you're listening
to these conversations or watching
maybe a Like, uh, any media that's
associated with a language outcome.
Um, and also giving you kind of like the
point also with the technology was to kind
of mediate some sort of like authentic
experience to really kind of pull them in.
Um, but right now, I mean, it's changed
a lot, really just kind of evolving
with the time because, um, because a
lot of the textbooks now offer that
media as kind of part of a suite.
And so like, for example.
Any, any, like, language textbook for
its weight will have, like, a, a mini
learner management system associated
with it, so, so, like, students can
drill, uh, and kind of practice, and
then give them immediate feedback.
And so it's almost like a line,
a portable language lab that
everyone gets in a textbook.
So we have to change all the times, right?
And, and I think this is kind of the
trend if, if colleges tend, if they
choose to keep the lab, it becomes
like kind of a modular learning
space, um, or even a maker space.
And that's, we, we have both here.
We have like furniture on wheels, it's
supposed to be a space where students can
kind of take ownership of and kind of move
things around to kind of fit whatever.
Uh, programming or even
kind of a study session.
Um, but then also like creating content.
So not being kind of, not being the
consumer of it, but being the creator of
their presentation, whether it be kind
of a role play in like a green screen
room in a background, putting them in
like Paris, France, or Toledo, Spain.
Um, you know, and then that type
of kind of engagement as well.
So yeah, that's kind of what our
language lab is, at least now.
Um, yeah, I kind of see, I'm kind of
curious to see where we go from here.
Yeah, I think it's so interesting
because, um, various tools, learning
tools, and sometimes these tools exist
as places or as, you know, different
functions, they, they, they, they
more often evolve over time, right?
I mean, when you talk about
the way that people used to use
media, you know, recorded media
on, you know, CD tapes, DVDs.
You know, Betamax, whatever it might
be, you know, um, it's, it's, it's,
it's a little bit like the, like
a, a way to deliver experiential
learning to people, right.
It's a way to also, when they're producing
their own content, it's kind of their
way of doing project based learning.
So it, to me, like the, like
something like a language lab is, is.
It's like the beginning, or like the,
the, that, those are the intents, but
language became a really big thing,
whether it be, you know, a speech given
by someone at a specific time and place
in, in this language or another language.
Um, and, and, and letting that be
almost like it allows you to transform
yourself through time and space.
That's an interesting kind of
dimension there where you kind of.
You almost take on different
characteristics of that target, target
language, or you kind of imagine
yourself in that context and perhaps
you take on different I don't know,
aspects, maybe, uh, personality aspects
of that, you know, so interesting.
Well, you certainly have taken on
all of the pedagogical, you know, you
extracted the PE pedagogy out of, out
of, uh, the, the, the way that people
used to use a language lab and turned
it into something different today.
And I think that's really beautiful.
Um, I still remember that very first.
Um, I think it was that spring of 2000.
And I still remember, I think you,
you know, you all trying to figure
out how to deal with the pandemic,
but also at the same time trying to,
you know, I think we all had calmed
down a little, little bit by then,
just to at least know that we're still
here, you know, we haven't gone away.
And, um, and, and, but you were, I still
remember some of the things that you were
trying to do were extremely ambitious.
You know, you were, you know, during that
spring semester, you were having students,
um, do this, um, this project where they
were building portfolios that are talking
about, you know, big issues in the world.
Um, and, uh, you want to
talk a little bit about that?
And so that was our
Healing Democracy series.
And it was kind of a neat way to
do the portfolios where, um, The,
and these were students that, um,
were interested in coming to Oberlin
and, but weren't quite yet students.
And so this is a way of kind of providing
that engagement and giving them the
type of experience that they would have.
And the theme was, uh, healing democracy.
And I'm just kind of, and like the
students, um, you know, we'd have
a, like a pal, a peer, uh, like
a peer leader, basically kind of.
Lead and kind of facilitate
conversations with the students.
Um, they would be reading articles
on the subject and then they would be
sending the posts and then they would be
featuring the posts on a digital, kind
of like a, a shared blog in the way.
And it was a great way to keep the,
you know, keep the interactivity going.
And, um, during this time and
allow them to kind of engage.
And that's just something
we still do today.
You know, even though, I mean, uh, uh,
an Oberlin student or a prospective
student can come and visit the campus.
And we do have those campus tours.
Um, it's called all roads.
Everyone comes in, um, in April.
Um, but like they, they still
do that type of interaction.
And because it's so fruitful to have that
kind of asynchronous type of thing and
to give them that type of experience.
So, yeah, it was pretty good.
And we still do it.
I think that is just so cool
because you, I mean, you're all so
creative and you're like, Oh, can
we use it for this and for that?
And I'm like, yeah,
let's, let's go for it.
I mean, during the pandemic,
it was like, it was, you know,
everyone's just like trying their,
their best to, to be creative.
And you were all like, really
just hitting it out of the park.
Yeah, that's one thing I've appreciated,
uh, being at Oberlin is, um, how, you
know, when, you know, they, you know, when
certain contexts happen, when history's
kind of changing around them, you know,
people are, you know, my colleagues,
faculty, staff, they're sensitive to it
and they, they want to leverage their
knowledge and understanding and make the
connections and make the students see
those connections and bring it to them.
Usually it's really interesting, you
know, when you talk about like, for
example, in the middle of a pandemic,
let's think about this in different
contexts, let's bring it to them.
Let's have a conversation about it.
And those are really popular
classes, but it's just great that
they really, um, that that's kind
of the space that they have here.
So it's been.
I've really appreciated
that as being here.
Well, I remember seeing some of
the student portfolios as well.
I mean, you were not shy of basically
throwing the students into studying
and researching and having an
opinion about the biggest topics
that we have in the world today.
I remember seeing students and
hearing about them talking about.
You know, like you said, democracy,
right, but also climate change, but
also, you know, um, you know, uh,
issues of racism, issues of, um,
all kinds of issues, um, that they,
they, they, they try to address.
And, and it really, to me is a.
Is an incredible demonstration of
what, um, a, an authentic, perhaps, uh,
sort of the, the, the, the, the real
sort of, uh, crux of what a liberal
arts education really can provide.
It's the centering of the students
and giving them these sort of really
foundational core values, not just giving
it to them and having them through.
Um, experiential learning and project
based learning that allows them to
discover these things and own them.
I mean, I love that.
That was a great way of putting it.
It really is.
Um, and we started that.
That was the 2021 experiment.
Um, but like really, you know, engaging
the whole person, tugging at the
heart at everything that they do.
And ee, Yeah, so did you see any
difference, you know, with students going
through that versus, you know, um, what
versus, yeah, versus other institutions?
It's a really good question.
Um, you know, it's interesting.
I think with this, it's, you know,
it's hard to answer that question.
I'm not sure.
Um, I do think that, um, the
conversation and topic does pull me in.
Um, and, and so, um, being a part of
that type of conversation makes me feel
proud to be a part of this, uh, of what
we were trying to, what we're trying to,
uh, give our students and what kind of
goals and, you know, things like that.
I mean, so.
I think from, uh, I guess like
from a perspective of being a
part of a certain mission, I find
it really satisfying for sure.
In terms of the difference of
students, it's, I think it's the fact
that we're just talking about it.
You know what I mean?
It makes a huge difference in how, um, it,
how that kind of shapes the context that
you work and, um, the educational context.
So I guess, yeah, I'm not entirely
sure about the students, but like,
you know, in terms of my interactions
with them, yes, absolutely.
You know, what's interesting as
you just said that, um, I, I too
think that, you know, working on
something that is mission driven is,
you know, can set a huge difference,
um, I think that over the pandemic,
especially at the end of pandemic,
we see all of the great resignation
and, you know, and all of that.
It really, it has a lot, it's a reflection
of how important that, that mission is.
And, um, of course it, it, it's, it's,
it's more engaging when, when it, you
know, what, what you're trying to work on,
it's something that you believe in, but
you know what I thought was interesting is
that I was thinking by doing these things,
you are engaging the students, which
I think you are, but by having engaged
students in these topics, it engages you.
So it's a, it's a way also to engage
your staff and your faculty and everyone
around this culture, this, you know,
this, this, the, the, the real sort of
institution culture is how you build this.
That's a good way of putting it, and
I do think that, and then pulling
everyone in and thinking is that this
is our mission, this is our goal, and
no matter what, I mean, if you work at
a university to some level, you are a
leader, you're an example to the students,
and so like kind of bringing that And
giving everyone, no matter what you do,
a sense of ownership over that is huge.
Now Oberlin students are, I, I, I know
that they do very brilliant things.
Um, they, they can be
incredibly diverse going out.
Um, after they finished their
undergraduate degree in Oberlin,
they could go to, you know, so,
you know, any, any fields really.
And many of them go to, you
know, additional, you know,
advanced degrees and whatnot.
Um, one of the things that I, I, I would
love to see is, is to see the difference.
Or to see the impact that you have
on them by bringing them through the
paces of basically look, you are, you
are able to solve big problems and you
expose them to those big, big problems.
And I, I think that that could be a,
you know, you know, like one of those
things at 30 years down the road, we're
going to see the really big difference.
Cause you know, like in the beginning,
you just, you know, they just, you
know, diff the, the differences is a
couple of degrees of difference from
each other, you know, or from another
group that didn't have that experience.
But if you look at, you know, if
you look at, uh, you, you are ship
sailing for 30 years, two degrees off.
Put you in a completely different planet.
Oh yeah, absolutely.
And then like, I mean, it really does
matter like, uh, like how students
are being, um, what are they being
exposed to in this environment?
Because that does, I don't like the
metaphor trickle down economically,
but I think it does trickle down, you
know, I think it does trickle down in
terms of like who they become as human
beings, uh, in that, you know, position,
whether it be like a big CEO or.
Or something else that, you know, where
they're asked to be an example to other
people and that shapes their approach.
And I would argue that there's something
more to, I mean, sometimes people,
I mean, these days they look a lot
at, you know, uh, the value of higher
education as measured by, you know.
Monetary terms, oftentimes, you know,
like, are you going to make your money
back from, from, from the tuition and
student loans and things of that nature?
Um, but I, I think that there is
also a whole other set of metrics
that, that, you know, as a parent,
I have, I have five children.
Um, and, um, As a parent that I wish
obviously all of them well, but really,
you know, the, the kind of happiness and
maybe fulfillment, a feeling of, of being
fulfilled, um, is, and, and, uh, you
know, and the ability to relate to each
other, to the other people, to contribute
to society, um, And to, you know, have
a sense of, um, sense of, you know,
being someone who, by existing in this
world, they, they made everyone around
them better and the environment better.
These are, to me now, seem much
more important than, you know,
are they going to get, um, Uh, you
know, earning salary at this range
or, or get a title of some sort.
Um, um, I don't know.
I think that that's, I don't know
if it was just me, but a lot of this
current generation of people are,
um, younger people are, these are the
things that they're looking for as well.
I mean, they look for money too,
I think, but I think that people.
You know, you know, everyone wants a
certain standard of living, let's say,
middle class, you know, um, but yeah,
I mean, in the end, what they, I mean,
and what I hope for for my two kids
is like that, you know, the feeling of
belongingness, wholeness, you know, and
You know, that community friendship,
you know, those, those things that
are priceless, you know, uh, yeah.
And those two, to me, it feels like, I
mean, look, I think that you guys are
on to, um, it, that it, it's not like
you just started and figuring this out.
I mean, you've, you've been doing
this for a very long time, but I
think that this idea of putting
these things into, um, into such a.
Rich, reflective moment, because I think
that maybe, maybe we should talk about
that because one of the things that you
have students do is, I mean, when we
should probably talk about like what
it means by the students creating these
portfolios, um, why, why don't, why
don't, why don't, why don't you tell us?
So the whole, I mean, the
whole point is metacognition.
It's just awareness of what is going on.
What are they thinking?
Um, when they have primarily with
us, you know, And when they have an
experience, like they're doing an
internship and, um, they're thinking
about that experience, what emotions,
you know, what about the, their
experience in the specific institution?
What connections are they making
to their, to like the academic
classes or personal experiences?
Uh, and then asking those other questions.
So what, where are we,
where do we go from here?
You know, making them, um, that's
the, that's the opportunity and the,
uh, the space that we encourage.
students to, you know, use the portfolio.
Um, that's their space for, to reflect.
And it's, it's a very, uh, in, in
the hopes that they in the end make
choices that make sense for them.
Um, and, and then also kind of Um,
make note of the things that, um,
that inspire them, um, that are, that
might be the foundations for, um,
other decisions, maybe a change of
major, uh, going a different direction.
Um, but whatever it is, it's,
it's rooted in who they are.
And uh, yeah, I think that's
what we're talking about.
That's what that is.
I mean, it's, it's fascinating.
I think that, um, an increasing amount of.
Um, amount of focus has been,
you know, on this value of higher
education, almost entirely in a, in
sort of this monetary terms, you know,
uh, but I, I think that there is.
I mean, one of the, one of the
interesting things I feel like sort
of post Google world is that the,
the value of, you know, being able to
cram a ton of content into your brain
becomes slightly less than before.
I actually, I, I'm not in
the, I'm not in the camp that.
You know, Oh, Google has everything.
Yeah, it has everything.
So did the library.
Um, but if you don't, you know,
you, you still need to know how to
find them and, and sometimes knowing
some of these things, um, you know,
allow you to make connections, you
know, because you, you, you know,
where they are in the first place.
Um, and, and, uh, but, but I think it
is absolutely true though that, you
know, for us now, the confidence of
being able to say, well, I haven't
heard of this, but I know I can look
it up pretty quickly and I'll get a
sense of it, you know, pretty, pretty,
you know, pretty easily and freely.
And so, um, The, the idea of just cramming
a lot of content into people's heads
seems to, seems to, um, be slightly less
important than, than it used to be, right?
It's like, it's like gone.
It's like, you know, remember that
time when it was like, if you're
competing on Jeopardy, that is the,
that is this level of achievement.
But now it's like, well, they
know a lot about everything, but
yeah, I can just look it up on
Google . You know what I mean?
It's like Right, right.
The value of knowing them
is not Exactly, yeah.
It's, sure, it's, it's, you know,
it's a great party trick, , you know?
It's like, it's like if you're at a bar,
you're doing like, you know, AQ and a
or whatever it is, it's, that's great.
But , um, a problem solving.
Oh, I'm sorry.
I didn't mean to jump in there.
No, go ahead.
And the, well, I was gonna say exactly
that, you know, it's, it's then the
problem solving part of it that becomes,
you know, um, more important and,
and the idea of you, you know, having
students have that time and the space
to reflect and develop, you know, sort
of ideas and sort of soak in their
own experiences also, just to, right.
Just let it marinate so that they can
figure out what they want to be, right.
And, um, and I mean, this, I mean,
when we talk about problem solving
and kind of things marinating and,
um, you know, it makes me think of,
um, you know, one of my winter term
projects, which is a 3D printing
course, which is also a portfolio.
And, um, you know, and I feel like
that's, Like, making is a really
good context to think about, a good
way to interact with the world.
Because, you know, when you're making your
own thing, your object, your 3D printing
something, you've come up with a design,
and you're implementing it, uh, you know,
it's, you get that immediate feedback.
And you have this problem you have
to interact with, and chew on,
you try again, you mess up again.
And it's a really rich type of experience.
I almost wish life gave that type
of feedback so quick, so you can
actually kind of go through it.
But it's like, it really is kind of a.
A microcosm of what we're trying
to do with portfolios, but in like
a really short period of time.
I really want to get into this.
I want, I, I, we need to get
into some of the details of
this 3d printing part of this.
So you, you had mentioned it a couple
of times now, first of all, let,
let me just say that I am going to
assume that I'm not the only one.
Intrigued, but also confused that how did
this learning, I mean, I'm sorry, this
language technology, get into 3d printing
and how does that, how does that work, why
does your language lab have 3d printers?
Well, that's a good question.
I mean, that's the million
dollar question, right?
Um, with, uh, language, we can't
print letters, but like, uh, but like.
But really it is about
like printing artifacts.
And so, um, printing
like cultural artifacts.
In the classics, that's a
really low hanging fruit.
So you're printing scans of ancient relics
and bringing them and kind of making
that part of kind of a class experience.
Um, that's happened a
couple of times here.
Um, or an exhibit.
So a lot of times I'll have students who
were trying to, one recent project was,
um, making a, a more, uh, acceptable,
not acceptable, but accessible
exhibit, um, for, um, the other abled.
And so like making scans and
printing these objects so
they can be more interactive.
Um, and have that kind of textured type
of experience, uh, from the audience.
And, uh, but then it's not just that,
like, it, it can be, in terms of a regular
language classroom, you know, when you're
thinking of like, uh, you know, in a game
context where you're trying to kind of get
students to really get in there and, um,
uh, and interact in the target language.
You know, it's having a trophy there,
so customizing a trophy for your
classroom and so they can kind of win it.
Um, or it could be like a, you know, it
could be a prop for a classroom activity
or for a student's presentation where
there's, you know, um, one example is
also if like, uh, one, one class like, uh,
like East Asian religious objects, we, um.
They're studying all these religious
objects and there is like an initiative
to scan these objects because, you know,
a lot of these objects are in war torn
areas, but also for thousands of years.
So they're an earthquake or war away
from, you know, being destroyed.
And so they have this archive of all
these objects that you can print.
Um, and you know, and so one collaboration
was, okay, so let's bring these objects
to the classroom and, and instead of
just reading about them, You choose an
object, we'll print it, uh, and we'll
teach you about the process as well.
And, and then you have this
object to kind of commune with in
your own way, whatever that is.
Whether it just is in your space.
You know, or what?
I think that, I think
that is just so amazing.
I mean, you again have, you know, like,
you're blowing my mind, by the way.
So this idea of, you know, um, I
guess that what used to be being
able to take a recording of someone's
speech, let's say, into a language
lab, you're able to sort of replicate
that, but for objects and things.
I think that's really amazing.
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