He’s an Associate Professor of Mathematics and also the new Faculty Forum President
Today for “Faculty Spotlight” we’re sitting down with Brad Stetson, who serves Schoolcraft College as an Associate Professor of Mathematics and is the new Faculty Forum President.
Schoolcraft College: Hello, Professor Stetson, and congratulations on becoming our new Faculty Forum President! To start out, could you please share a bit about your background and career at Schoolcraft College?
Professor Stetson: I’d be glad to, and thank you for taking the time to chat. I started my career at Schoolcraft College in 2005 as a part-time faculty member. I was teaching at four institutions with half of my classes online and half face-to-face. About a year after teaching part-time, a full-time position opened up. I applied and was offered the position.
Early in my career, I wanted to figure out my niche by trying different things. My natural fit ended up being with Distance Learning. I had experience teaching online while in graduate school at the University of Florida, and I had taught online at two other institutions while I was part-time. I love the modality because I can reach students that may not be able to come to campus to take classes otherwise. To me, that’s exciting.
Shortly after becoming credentialed to teach online at Schoolcraft, I started teaching the courses required to be credentialed to teach online. At that time, the courses were not ideal for preparing faculty to teach online. They were very theoretical, with a lot of “read the text, answer some questions.” I redeveloped the courses to include more applied learning, where faculty could practice the skills they would be using when teaching or developing online courses. I have also developed (and redeveloped) three of our online courses in the math department. I’ve mentored many faculty and have assisted as a stand-in instructional designer on a few RTT (Ready To Teach) developments as well.
This work with Distance Learning has been my natural transition into work with the union as well. I served on the Online Instruction Committee for 12 years, for which I acted as a liaison between Distance Learning and the Faculty Forum. Due to my experience with Distance Learning, I was consulted in 2015 during contract negotiations, then asked to help negotiate in 2018, before serving as chief negotiator in 2021.
That brings us to today, where I have moved roles one more time into the role of President. I also enjoy teaching classes both online and traditional, as well as continuing to work on the courses required for Distance Learning credentialing.
SC: You have been one of our leaders in terms of integrating technology in the classroom – even before the pandemic. Please tell us about your strategy, best practices and how you try to find solutions that work for everyone.
Professor Stetson: Well, my approach to technology has always been the same: Let’s have technology do what technology is really good at and hopefully that will free up more time for humans to do what humans are good at. What that means in each classroom and each discipline may mean something different.
As an example, when I first started teaching, I would typically lecture for the entire class period. Students would rarely ask questions. My lectures would be similar from semester to semester, even with the same jokes. When I notice something that is repeated over and over, I think, “That’s what technology is good at – repeating the same thing over and over.” So I recorded my lectures, ask students to watch them at home, and use class time for more engaging activities.
As far as my strategy to find solutions, I think the biggest key is to identify when a solution is needed. That gets back to my original point about letting technology do what technology is good at. I think my biggest strategy is to always question the work that I’m doing and to ask, “Is there a more efficient way to do this?”
If the work requires repetitive tasks, binary decision-making, or simple information sharing – then I will think, “a human isn’t needed here.” Then I’ll identify what the purpose of the task at hand is, and start working through how to be more efficient by using technology. On the other hand, if the task at hand requires decision-making, personalized communication, empathy, or things of that nature – then a human is the right tool for the job.
SC: Could you please compare and contrast your teaching techniques in terms of the different modalities – Distance Learning vs. in-person instruction, for example.
Professor Stetson: The teaching techniques I use in face-to-face instruction and in Distance Learning aren’t really that different – just the tools are different. In either modality, I think technology can be used to deliver information and content. In either modality, I think technology can be used to assess students’ understanding of lower-level learning. In either modality, I think technology can be used to allow students unlimited practice and self-assessment.
Where the human element needs to come in is with engaging students, providing quality feedback, inspiring students, and assessing their mastery of higher-level learning. Where I may be able to engage and inspire an in-person student by sitting next to them and having a conversation, that may not be as easy in an online setting. I may have to work harder. I may have to reach out to the student. I may have to make a phone call, schedule a Zoom session, etc.
It’s similar when it comes to feedback. In a physical classroom, I can give a high five or a pat on the back. That doesn’t work online, but I can send an image of a gold star as a cheesy way to say, “way to go.” When feedback needs to be more constructive, I may sit and work with an in-person student, where that is harder online. I may have to write a little more in an email, I may have to record myself explaining something, I may have to set up an evening Zoom call or meet online over the weekend.
With the above examples, the big thing I try to remember is that teaching online takes effort and intention. While I could choose to fly under the radar and not make those efforts, that’s not what we’re about at Schoolcraft. We’re about going the extra mile for a transformational learning experience for our students – regardless of the modality they choose to take their classes.
SC: Another area that’s been important to you is helping to reduce costs for students by using Open Educational Resources, or OERs. First, can you briefly describe what OERs are? And second, can you highlight some success stories for Schoolcraft College students?
Professor Stetson: The definition from OER Commons is: “Open Educational Resources are teaching and learning materials that you may freely use and reuse, without charge. OER often have a Creative Commons or GNU license that state specifically how the material may be used, reused, adapted, and shared.”
Simply put, OER materials are those that are free (or extremely low cost) for our students. Here’s the thing. The internet is vast. There is a TON of information out there. Anyone in the world can choose to learn about any topic they want. So why are students paying a bunch of money to take a college class? They want a professional to guide them through the learning process. Let them know what information is good and what information is not. They want the professional to make sure they are understanding the material properly. With so much free information out there, and the students already paying for our expertise, it seems nearly criminal to charge them exorbitant amounts of money for more information in the form of a textbook. Sorry, I’ll get off my soap box.
At this time, every class that I personally teach has no cost for learning materials beyond that of a calculator. I use a homework management system that completely integrates into our learning management system. I use all OER materials and personally created materials for reference materials. I’ve had many students thank me for not requiring an expensive textbook.
One big area of success with this approach is in the stories I DON’T tell. I am not going to tell you about the student who had to drop my class because they couldn’t afford the textbook. I’m not going to tell you about the student who failed the first exam because their financial aid hadn’t gone through yet. I’m not going to tell you a story about the entire class that was a week behind because the publisher’s website was down for a week, and they couldn’t access their online materials.
Instead, I can tell you about the student who was able to safely drive to campus because they got the brake job on their car that they had been putting off. I can tell you about the student who got to eat quality food instead of processed, because they had a few extra bucks in their pocket. I get to tell you about the mom who didn’t have to worry about how to afford diapers, because she had an extra $200 that she had budgeted for a book. These are all true stories I’ve heard, and I’ve heard more.
I’ve heard many faculty talk about it being hard to transition to an OER. They say it is going to take a lot of time. Let’s do some math to see if it’s worth it. The life cycle of a textbook is usually around five years. If you teach two sections of a class, twice per year, then how much money do you save students over the course of the life cycle of a textbook? Let’s use a lowball estimate of a $100 textbook.
- 31 students * 2 sections * $100 = $6,200 per semester
- 2 semesters * $6,200 = $12,400 per year
- 5 years * $12,400 = $62,000 per life cycle
Is it worth your time to put together some good content for your students? At a lowball estimate of $62,000 that seems like a good amount of money to me. This becomes especially true when future tweaks to the content you put together are not going to be as in-depth, and you can keep making your materials better year after year. Or better yet, you share your content with a colleague or two, and start really increasing the money saved by huge factors.
Over the course of time, I end up with higher-quality content, because it’s personalized to what I’m teaching. This leads to more success for students. More success? Lower cost? Where do I sign up?!?! Oops, I think I may have gone away from answering your question and started making a sales pitch to convert to OER. Oh well, I stand by that pitch.
SC: You were recently elected Faculty Forum President. Please explain what that role entails and your goals.
Professor Stetson: I could give you a detailed list of my job responsibilities in my role, but I’ll try to sum it up in straightforward terms. I work with faculty and administration to make sure faculty have an appropriate voice in decision-making at the College.
Oftentimes the most evident presence of the union is in making sure the contract is being followed. While that is hugely important, in general the union advocates for faculty in every facet of what faculty do. We are proud of the fantastic faculty we have, and want to make sure the world knows how great we are. Whether that comes in the form of empowering faculty to be innovative, giving appropriate praise for jobs well done, or protecting faculty’s rights – we stand by our deeply held belief that Schoolcraft has the best faculty. As President, I see it as my job to make sure the above advocacy is happening.
SC: Thank you, Professor Stetson. Is there anything else you would like to add?
Professor Stetson: Thank you for your time, and I’m honored to be part of this Faculty Spotlight. I want to end by reminding everyone that we do work with the best faculty around. But that doesn’t come about by accident. It comes about from hard work. Hard-working faculty who are promoting their programs. Hard work in the classroom of constant improvement. Hard work by Facilities to keep our College operating and beautiful.
Hard work by Food Services, to keep me and others from reaching our goal weight (ha-ha!). Hard work by schedule builders to make sure our classes are staffed and offered at good times. Hard work by administrators to make difficult decisions and keep the College solvent. Hard work by Schoolcraft employees from all groups working together and always having a focus of student success.
My work in the union didn’t come about because I felt I had to make major changes. My work in the union came about because I was already proud of where I worked, and I wanted to keep it that way, and to improve on what was already there. I encourage others to do the same. You don’t have to step up because you want to see a major change. You can step up because you have a growth mindset, and you realize there is always room to continue improving.