On April 13 and 14 from 1-4 p.m. the University of Florida Center for Teaching Excellence hosted the Interface Teaching Conference. Each year, the conference looks at advancement in online learning and highlights tools that are beneficial in the field. This year’s conference placed a heavy focus on artificial intelligence, cultural responsiveness and rebuilding relationships after taking place virtually for the past 2 years due to the Covid-19 pandemic. With a wide array of applied knowledge around teaching and learning, the College of Education again played a pivotal role in this year’s event.  

“It’s actually a rare opportunity for instructional design shops to get together, collaborate, share ideas and learn about what’s out there,” said senior instructional designer, Dominic Durante.

College of Education faculty and staff research projects dedicated to advancing the field of online education were highlighted at the conference. Michelle Pacansky-Brock, Ph.D., faculty mentor for the California Community Colleges CVC-OEI/@ONE, was the Keynote speaker.

The College of Education is a leader in advancing online education and is often seen as a trailblazer in this field. Even with the setbacks faced by Covid-19, the college was still able to produce award-winning research and continue to grow as a college— and in national rankings. Just this year, the college ranked as a top program for online graduate education. 

Interface participants had the opportunity to engage in various breakout sessions covering numerous topics such as artificial intelligence, cross-cultural communication, liquid syllabi, intersectionality and more. 

“Our faculty and instructional designers have a wellspring of expertise in planning, implementing and assessing innovative pedagogical practice in online learning,” said Jason Arnold,  director of E-Learning, Technology & Communications, when asked about the conference. “We are so honored to be able to share our experiences with our colleagues across the University of Florida and beyond.”

Alyson Adams, clinical professor, and Taryrn T.C. Brown, clinical assistant professor, both from School of Teaching and Learning, Erica McCray, then director of the School of Special Education, School Psychology, and Early Childhood Studies, and Cliff Haynes, clinical associate professor of higher education, were among the college faculty who presented at the conference.

Adams, who also serves as the associate director for Teaching and Teacher Education, presented on rethinking online participation grades. She proposed an alternative to the way participation grades in an online course are assigned. Adams teaches various graduate level courses and expects that her students want to get as much out of the course as possible and give the class their full participation. 

“We wanted students to self-assess their course engagement and participation through the lens of becoming teacher leaders within our Canvas course learning community,” said Adams. “I think we can all benefit by trying to find more ways to make engagement and participation more visible and authentic in online courses.” 

Brown and Durante focused their presentation on the concept of a liquid syllabi and how it can enhance the student experience by making a syllabus a breathing document students can relate to.

“In an online course, the syllabus is sort of like the first day of class and most students stare at pretty boring syllabi, which is a lot of policy,” said Durante.

Brown and Durante worked together on this initiative and he stated that  Brown wanted something that was a little more fluid and included her presence in an online setting. In her own syllabus, she talked about her philosophies, strategies and promoted services across campus.

“The realization was that most students spend a lot of their time in online courses and that syllabi will not only express the teacher’s intent, but provide immediate services to students who need it,” said Durante.

 He described that a syllabus is not a “flat vision” of an instructor, but should be dynamic and more like a “start here” page. 

“Think of it as an opportunity to introduce yourself and create something we call a ‘teacher presence’ immediately,” he said.  

Brown and Durante are hoping to expand on this concept in the future and do a second version of the liquid syllabi next year.

McCray, who was recently appointed as the college’s first associate dean for faculty affairs, diversity, equity, inclusion and community engagement, utilized her time to speak about intersectionality and how it can be used in teaching and learning. The term intersectionality can be defined as having multiple identity markers, but she wanted to express how combining or layering these identities influence life experiences. McCray offered insight on using intersectionality as a framework for more nuanced planning, engaging and assessing instruction. She gave examples and specific strategies to implement this inside and outside of the classroom.

Haynes’ presentation, Using Student Development Theories to Support Students, focused on the use of foundational student development theories to assist faculty in providing supportive environments where students feel they matter. Theories included Nancy Schlossberg’s (1989) Marginality and Mattering, and Laura Rendon’s (1994) Validation. Attendees were encouraged to a) identify specific activities to provide students with a sense that they matter and they feel validated and b) identify specific activities to avoid so that the student does not feel marginalized.

Outside of the presentations, award winning online courses were publicly recognized. The Exemplary Online Awards are granted to online courses that demonstrate innovative practices in course production and online teaching. Seven awards were given to courses from around the university. Lauren Weisberg and her supervisor Kara Dawson from the College of Education received recognition for Student Engagement because of their pedagogical approach to EME4406 Integrating Technology in the Secondary Curriculum. Additionally, some award recipients were invited to share the exemplary or innovative practices used at the conference.

Despite the setbacks presented by the pandemic, the 2022 Interface Conference gave designers, educators and researchers alike the opportunity to collaborate with one another and share new ideas, generated in the past year, to advance the field of online education.