When Dr. Tazin Daniels was working on her dissertation at Michigan State University, she focused on college students who use Adderall as a performance enhancer. Her internationally funded research shed light on the academic pressures faced by students today, and what she learned gives her a unique view into how students experience their college courses.
Among her observations was that if students perceive a large lecture course as one-way communication, it can lead to problems like disengagement, isolation, a focus on grades over learning, and even academic dishonesty. Daniels put those insights to work as an instructor in her first course, which she inherited from a faculty member.
“I basically scrapped the entire course and turned it into what you would call an active learning space,” she says. Despite having almost 150 students, she was able to create a student-led environment with large and small group discussions. Soon, other instructors were asking her what she’d done to get students so engaged with her class.
Around the same time, Daniels got involved in online education and faculty development as the coordinator for all the online courses in her department. This helped her discover a passion for helping other educators. “I love talking about teaching almost as much as I like teaching,” she says.
That experience launched Daniels into her current position as an Assistant Director at the Center for Research on Learning and Teaching at the University of Michigan, and as an educational developer, consultant, and coach. In these roles, she consistently emphasizes that “good online teaching should be equitable, engaging, innovative, and holistic. Those are the core values I believe you should have across all your teaching.”
Now, as part of the Every Learner Everywhere Expert Network, powered by ISTE, Daniels is sharing her passion for helping others grow as online educators. She is one of a group of seven consultants providing flexible on-demand coaching to higher education faculty and leaders who are working to advance equity and inclusion in blended and online modalities. Her areas of expertise include curriculum design and assessment, lecturing and facilitation strategies, team-based learning, active learning strategies, and inclusive and antiracist teaching practices. She also works with campus administrators who are trying to change teaching practices at a departmental or institutional level.
Finding opportunities in the online experience
Online environments, says Daniels, create new opportunities for good teaching practices. For example, because instructors aren’t tethered to the podium, they can be more nimble interacting with students. Also, it’s easier to get frequent feedback from students, and there are new ways to seed engaging discussions with tools like data visualizations or interactive whiteboards.
Daniels is also excited about the potential to make teaching more accessible to students with different abilities or with language barriers. Closed captioning and recorded lectures that students can rewatch and slow down can make online learning more equitable, she says, “and it can make the learning experience feel more impactful.”
Daniels acknowledges that every instructor is at a different stage of their journey toward effective online teaching. As a consultant, she focuses on understanding each instructor’s concerns, fears, and goals.
“Using a poll in a virtual classroom might be innovative for one person, and building a simulation of a heart surgery might be innovative for someone else,” she says. “The idea is to push yourself and to try something new. I try to help people enjoy teaching online and to see that skills in innovative online teaching are a professional asset.”
Bringing social identity into the classroom
Daniels emphasizes that understanding social identity and systems of power and oppression in the classroom is key to achieving a well-designed, high-impact online course.
“People sometimes mix up colorblindness with equity,” she says. “Equity is literally the opposite of colorblindness. We’re looking carefully at the differences, and we’re thinking about our students’ lived experiences. I always say, a student’s identity isn’t the problem. The problem is that we need to account for how systems of inequity unfairly disadvantage students from minoritized identities and to offer support. The onus should be on educators and administrators to fix this, not students.”
While online learning has the potential for more equitable learning experiences, equity doesn’t happen without design. In fact, online education can actually bring about a false sense of “fairness” that ends up obscuring unequal effects.
“Just because everyone’s in a box on your screen, and the boxes are the same size, it doesn’t mean every person had the same path to get there,” Daniels says. “They’re not having the same experience during class, and they won’t have the same experience within 10 minutes of leaving class.”
That’s particularly true during the COVID-19 pandemic. “We don’t actually know what everyone’s experience looks like right now,” Daniels says. “Students — especially minoritized and underrepresented students — are being displaced. They’re having food insecurity and increased care responsibilities. They didn’t sign up for an online course, but that’s the option they’ve been given. Right now, we can’t disentangle online learning from the pandemic, so we have to be very aware of the range of traumas our students are facing.”
Along with understanding the perspectives and experiences of their students, Daniels coaches instructors to bring their own full selves into their teaching.
“It took me a long time to realize what my superpowers were, because at first I was trying to emulate a white, cisgender, heterosexual man,” says Daniels, who is Bengali-American, as well as a former rowing coach and lead singer in a rock-and-roll band. She explains that learning how to productively center her own social identities has greatly improved her practice as an educational consultant and facilitator.
When an instructor does the work to understand their whole self, she notes, they’ll also discover their unique superpowers, as well as recognizing their implicit biases and preconceptions. That’s essential to having a greater positive influence on students.
Amplifying impact as a coach
“Every instructor I’ve worked with around online learning has different concerns or ideas, so my number one goal is to listen, ask questions, and show empathy,” Daniels says.
She is particularly interested in connecting with people responsible for faculty development programs. For example, she regularly works with department chairs, instructional designers, and educational developers who want to learn how to support faculty who teach online.
Daniels enjoys her educational development work and her individual coaching practice because she loves seeing the long-term influence. “I like helping people meet their potential,” she says.
“One thing I love about being an educational developer is the exponential impact you can have. Every time I see an educator have an ‘aha’ moment, I know that may have just changed one hundred lives.”
This article is part of a series profiling consultants in the Every Learner Everywhere Expert Network, powered by ISTE. The program offers flexible, on-demand coaching to advance equity and inclusion in blended and online modalities using all aspects of digital learning.