HybridPod, Ep. 12 — Access
Chris Friend with Robin DeRosa
You’re tuned to HybridPod: a show that presents conversations of Critical Digital Pedagogy, listening for ways to empower students and champion learning. It’s the aural side of Hybrid Pedagogy: a online, open-access journal of learning, teaching, and technology. I’m Chris Friend, from Saint Leo University.
It’s been a long while since the last episode, and I apologize for the extended silence—more on that at the end of this show. To resume the conversation, I want to think about a broad issue that affects the way we do things in our classrooms; the way programs design their courses; the way institutions support their faculty and learners; and the way knowledge, education, and publication are funded. (Again, more on that last point at the end of this episode.) I’m talking about the issue of access—particularly open access—to course materials, course content, teaching tools, and even student work.
Ensuring that students have access to available networks of knowledge is just one piece of a very large and complex problem. We also need to ensure teachers have access to materials that help them teach. And everyone in the classroom has to have access to whatever tools are being used, whether that’s a #2 pencil that Betsy Devos seemed unable to find on her first day of work or a laptop that students could use to help them annotate or even publish online articles.
That’s what we’re exploring in today’s episode: What does it take to access an education? Learners must know how to navigate the system; how to self-advocate when needed; and how to distinguish among necessary processes, bureaucratic obstacles, and genuine injustices. Without these institutional social skills, navigating — and getting to — an education takes more effort than the learning itself. If you don’t know how exhausting institutional bureaucracy can be for students, hang out in your financial-aid office someday and watch students’ faces. Decide for yourself whether they look like they’re working on self-improvement.
Since I just mentioned financial aid, I’ll use that as a starting point. It’s an appropriate place to start, too, since most conversations about access—especially open access—these days center around the cost of textbooks. You’ve probably heard of OERs, or Open Educational Resources. As we’ll hear in a bit, these aren’t simply free texts, but that’s often the easiest selling point — an OER doesn’t itself cost students anything to obtain. Bear in mind, though, that the device or account needed to access the OER might itself include hidden costs. That caveat about accessing free materials is why this episode exists. I had a conversation about educational access with Robin DeRosa…
Robin works to spread the word about OERs, but she tries hard to make the “free as in library” point secondary to a broader concern. But I’ll let her explain.
Robin: Saving students money is a big deal, and it's a big deal beyond what we think of as "textbooks cost too much" or "textbooks are..." What we're finding is that those textbook costs do some to objectively be linked to student success.
The prohibitive costs of textbooks is closing students out from succeeding in college or even just taking the number of courses they need to take in college, college completion, a whole bunch of things.
Part of what I'm interested in with the cost issue is trying to help people contextualize that it's not just about textbooks. It's really about learning outcomes and also about general sort of access to education.
I think when you ask faculty "Do you care about students having access to education?" most faculty would say yes. When you say do you care that this textbook costs $120 —
"They do, but this book's really good. I think it's worth it." It's part of a larger sense of what students are suffering as a result of the cost of education. It makes more sense.
Some of the studies on math that have really persuaded me was one of them that showed that students are more concerned about textbook costs than they are about tuition costs. Probably because they have some plans for tuition.
I think a lot of times they're bad plans, but they're plans. With the textbook costs they sort of just go in. The bill is right there. It's immediate. As a result they're not buying them.
We are seeing the repercussions for that in their pass rates in courses and their withdrawal and drop rates which slow down their time to graduation. All that stuff I think is a more compelling case than just reduced textbook costs.
Then it looks like a one-off, right? "That book is worth it. It's a good book." You're not seeing it as part of a larger, systemic problem for students trying to pay for education.
You have to contextualize it in a larger access conversation, I think. Then it gets, to me, more compelling. One of the things I've tried to do when I think about textbook costs is think about commitment to accessible quality education for all students.
Chris: We typically use the phrase "open access" to discuss the nature of the materials themselves where the access is provided openly to anyone who wants it. What I'm hearing from you is the "open access" phrase could be used to describe the university itself and say that it is open to providing access to education to our students and that we are structuring our system in a way that helps students reach the goals they have set for themselves and doesn't encumber them with so many of these costs and extra things that they may not have budgeted for whenever they're looking at their bills.
Robin: Yeah, I think that, at least for me, is the really compelling part of this — and the parts that I'm really trying to work on are making those connections between OER and textbook costs and a larger thinking about particularly sort of public education and what it means to really provide a public education.
I don't really have all the tools to put that together yet. Every time I give a keynote or workshop I'm trying to crack a little bigger piece of trying to think of this as a way of articulating back to ourselves and the public what this thing is called public education —
Particularly because the institution I teach at, 4-year public institution is somewhere between seven and nine percent funded by our state legislature. I'm just trying to figure out what we even mean when we say a public education in higher ed.
If you had to pay 91 percent of your kids' elementary school you might not say that you sent your kid to public school. Trying to think about all of this as an access movement more broadly conceived I think is a little more compelling to me.
A few minutes ago, Robin used a phrase I don’t think I’d heard before: Open Pedagogy. It sounds like the kind of thing I’d be a huge fan of, and it sounds like it connects well with the intentions of critical digital pedagogy, but I wasn’t familiar with the term. Is “open pedagogy” actually a thing?
Robin: Sure. I love that you're like "I didn't know there was a name for it." There is a name for it, as soon as I pretend there's a name for it. Open Ped is kind of in a phase where it's becoming a thing, but it may or may not actually be a thing. I don't know when you get to say something is a thing.
The question of what that thing is — I've sort of developed this little definition that I use, which I like very much. Probably if you ask someone else to define it you would get something pretty different.
The way I think about it is, first, it's got a commitment to access broadly conceived. That's that piece that I think stems from the cost savings of OER and the way you broaden that to think in general of students being able to afford their educations.
I think of open pedagogy as digitally critical, which is a phrase that the hybrid ped folks will appreciate. I take a page particularly from Jesse and Sean and some of their first pieces about critical digital pedagogy.
One of the problems I think we sometimes see in Open is the sense that open education is going to be a panacea. it's going to fix everything. I prefer to think about Open as a critical lens.
When we see barriers to work in Open — For example you convert all your text to OER. Everything's free. It's amazing. Okay, well my students don't all have laptops.
Explain to me how I've initiated this absolutely amazing keynote trend toward access when students don't have Wi-Fi necessarily or internet connections or certainly hardware. I think Open needs to be asking critical questions all the time of itself.
That's another piece. I think that the bigger piece is really what we might traditionally in the field call Connected Learning. It takes a page from some of the sort of basic ideas about putting students in conversation with wider publics as they work.
Some of this about the kind of assignments that we do so that they’re not what David Wiley calls "disposable assignments" but are assignments where students are actually contributing rather than consuming educational materials.
One of the ways that this generated out of OER is that once you have an OER textbook — and it's openly licensed. Now the faculty can remix or revise that textbook. So can the students if the faculty are on board with that.
Whether or not you revise an OER textbook, the symbolics really of the facts that those texts are revisable puts learners in a very different relationship with the context of the course. That sense of being able to shape the knowledge that you're engaging with, not just consume it, is I think at the heart of open pedagogy.
That "student as contributor" model depends on a certain kind of access to technology, I think, in the sense that — Technology offers some affordances there of being able to publish, being able to put your work out, being able to connect with the scholars who are in the field in ways that you can't if you're just locked down in your LMS or in your classroom.
Of course we take also I think a page from Audrey Watters and Domain of One's Own, people like Gardner Campbell, where we try to get students working in the web in educated ways so they understand where their work is going.
They own their own spaces if that's what they choose. They are architects of not just the work they do but the way that — the structures within which they work. That to me was a profound, huge revelation in pedagogy.
My students could not just be responsible for their own work — but also where do you want this work to live? What shape do you want it to take? Who do you want to own it?
With whom will you share it? Engaging students with that conversation was really revelatory for me. I think it's a connected learning piece. It's a critical digital pedagogy piece. It's an access piece.
You roll those together and you get open pedagogy.
Open Pedagogy with connected learners sounds like a brilliant goal we should all work toward. But to avoid being accused of wearing rose-colored glasses, we need to pause for a minute to discuss the potential risks of these approaches. They exist, they’re real, and they can be hard to predict until they’re upon you.
Robin: Part of this is because I have a very privileged position. I am a full tenured professor. I didn't worry so much about taking certain kinds of risks, which I think there are. There are so many risks, challenges and barriers to working in these ways.
I'll give you just a level of immediacy that just woke me up right away when I started working this way. This was really early on. Students we're in their own domains.
We had kind of like a class blog. I was just trying to gently move out of the LMS and ask my students to engage with wider groups. I had a student who's probably the top student in my class come to me after class.
It turns out that she had transferred into my institution. It was almost like a witness protection transfer related to domestic violence. It was centrally important that she not be identified on the web.
Let me interject real quick here. I interviewed Robin about this last semester. This semester, I chose to use a class blog, and I have one student in a near-identical position. These concerns arise more often than we might expect, and trying to account for privacy online is harder than it seems.
Robin: You think that that's going to be somewhat possible to do. For example for many of these kinds of things you can use a completely fake email — I mean not fake, but make up whatever name you want.
Many of my students choose to blog under pseudonyms. Their names don't appear anywhere. The second you get other people involved in interacting, like your classmates —
Let's say you're on a class blog and your classmates are identifiable and somebody — What are the assurances that you can safely protect this person's identity?
The question of how to work anonymously on the web is not a really easy one. When you register for Domain of One's Own you need to pay a little bit extra to cover your tracks with IP identity.
All of these things are things you have to educate yourself about a little bit before you just jump in. The other thing is — Forget about sort of bodily safety, which is what was going on there.
The issue of trolling and harassment online is so very significant. For the most part a lot of students haven't seen that world. Their social media use is very protected.
Sometimes they're familiar with cyber bullying right between students who know each other in some ways. That kind of anonymous web trolling is a new thing. Sometimes we'll read about that.
There's no answer to what you do with an internet troll. Some people are like "Clearly you disengage. Clearly you block. Clearly..." Who knows? Talking about that stuff with students I think is important, what we call that sort of digital divide, all the issues related to the digital literacy that they might come in with.
Some of my students come from very rural, poor high schools where they had virtually no computers at all. You say things like "Okay, go on here and get yourself a username and register."
You're already 50 steps ahead, that kind of basic digital literacy that requires a kind of catching up. As I said before, one of the things I had to do when I started working with OER is I immediately had to advocate to my institution for a laptop checkout policy so that students could just get machines.
The response I got which I think is a classic one — it's not just my institution. "Well, you don't have to really worry about that because 94 percent of our students have laptops."
I thought "Well, that really sucks for that 6 percent that we clearly don't worry about." I think that's the — working digitally definitely has the potential to augment all sorts of power imbalances as opposed to correcting them.
There's nothing natively in the web that makes it a democratizing tool, I don't think. All of those pieces to working with students are some of the first ones I had to wrestle with. I don't think you have to solve them all, but you do have to make sure your students aren't naively working into something that's going to be really dangerous or uncomfortable or problematic for them.
OER is free for students, which is great. Students are our most vulnerable population. There are lots of vulnerable populations in academia. They are the most vulnerable.
It's great that OER is free to them, but OER is not free to produce. It's not free to make. It takes what we might call academic labor. We have a major academic labor crisis in the academy right now.
Talking about how we're going to fund and generate OER, how we're going to host OER — Who's going to help educate about the metadata that makes OER searchable?
There's a whole host of infrastructure problems. You might make some great OER and stick it on your website and no one on the planet is going to find this stuff. I think the movement, if I can call it that, which I do unapologetically, needs to pay attention to those questions and really enlist the help of people who do that kind of work too.
That’s a really challenge and barrier to working Open, finding what you need and — I wrote this OER textbook. People love it. It's great. I'm happy to share it, but they can't really remix that sucker. It's locked down. They can't just go in and move stuff around unless I export it and they reimport it. We're trying to think about — I know people like Hugh McGuire and the Pressbooks guys and this Rebus initiative that they're working on —
We’re trying to build now tools that will facilitate the working of open. Who's going to own these tools? Are those tools public? Are they non-profit? Are we just going to build a whole new industry to sell Open?
My radar goes up like "danger, danger." There are some really good models in private corporations right now working to fund Open. I'm worried. I'm worried because I don't see public advocates really pushing sustainable economic models for doing this work.
That's what I'm interested in but kind of out of my depth in trying to fix right now.
Chris: How do we deal with this problem of "We want it to be free to our students, but it's not free to make this stuff?" Where does the compensation for that labor come from and all that?
Robin: I would say things like OA publishing and OER production, these are the big challenges — open source public tools, these are the big challenges.
What I keep thinking is the money is there. The problem, I think, are the profit margins. When I think particularly about public ed I just think — Sometimes I just get weepy thinking about it.
I just think off whose back are we profiting when we look at things like textbook profit margins? It's different. I have friends who are poets. They say "You don't want a student to buy my book of poetry?"
To me that's a very different thing that a textbook that is created fully for students — the whole point of that existence is to go into the educational system and educate students.
For things like that it seems like we could be funding labor more directly as opposed to the kind of, pardon my French, ass-backward flow that we have going on right now. It will take some pretty smart economists to —
It will also take some first movers to really get out there and start shifting the money around. One other thing I say about OER is that lots of us — We make OER all the time.
If you teach and are contingent labor, you have made all sorts of handouts and quizzes and cool assignments and whatever. A lot of that labor is part of the labor of the work that we're already doing.
The question is can we make that more available to the vulnerable pieces of our population? I have heard some pushback particularly from contingent labor who are worried about intellectual property—This is what I have. I do feel like we actually probably are not serving the cause of contingent labor by locking that stuff down. I don't think it's probably helping the way it seems like it might help.
The question is how can we open all that stuff but also deal with the labor crisis at the same time? I think the most important thing is just when you talk about OER don’t obscure these questions. Put them out there — Just like when you're talking about publishing a scientific study in an open access journal, there are problems. The journal has to be run. Someone has to pay for that server space and that peer review process.
That's why I'm not really opposed to things like author pay fees for Open Access journal articles even though I totally get why the first time you mention it people are like, “Nooo!” There's money available there.
It doesn't have to come from the authors per se. I think calling them whatever we call them, article processing fees or whatever — There's just a way of taking the money and cleaning it up a little bit and putting students more at the center of that narrative.
Let’s shift the conversation and focus on that last point a bit more. How do we put students more at the center of their own academic narratives? How can Open Pedagogy and Open Access combine to allow students greater control over what and how they learn?
It’s interesting. I think I'm going to switch to Domain of One's Own a hundred percent this coming year. But what I've done so far is I've given students the choice. I've explained the different options that are out there, generally suggesting that they either choose Wordpress.com or Domain of One's Own.
We read Audrey Waters. We read Andrew Reichert. Is this domain mine if you grade it? We talk about who owns your data. We talk about how to build a website. Then students choose. They either pay about 25 bucks a year for Domain of One's Own just independently because they have such a great per student price that I don't really need my institution. I have all OER. There's no other cost for the course. Twenty-five bucks seems pretty reasonable.
Or they can choose the one with ads or what not. Sometimes they'll even choose things that I basically staunchly say like "For God's sake don't build with Wix. You're killing me." They say "This is beautiful. I love it." I say fine. Then by the end of the semester they're like "Why did I use this?" They realize how limited they are by the sort of template drag-and-drop models. The cool thing is whatever they select, they can move things around. They can change. I really, really wanted them to have the agency to choose how they built.
I'm really struggling with that now. I'm thinking that we may all move over to domain, partially because I am doing this all by myself. The support is challenging when everybody is using different tools. Generally the way I approach the tech support is kind of like "Yeah, I don't know how to do anything either. Let's go on YouTube." They become pretty savvy on their own. It's one of the benefits of having an English professor who really is not a digital native in any way.
Let’s pause the interview for a second here. Instead of expecting herself to have all the answers, Robin approaches these projects with curiosity and determination. Not only does she learn about her tools right alongside her students—watching YouTube videos with them and everything—but she’s showing students how to use connected, open-access resources to solve problems. The content here doesn’t matter, but the methodology sure does. She’s showing students how to be self-directed, resource using problem solvers.
I didn’t interrupt Robin’s explanations just to compliment her teaching style. I wanted to point out the position from which she’s operating. She’s coming to her students saying she’s not a digital native. Though that term is of course problematic, saying she doesn’t have all the answers inverts the traditional classroom hierarchy, and it puts the needs of her students, rather than the structure of her lecture notes, in the driver’s seat.
Now take that position of discovery and non-expert-ness and apply it to textbooks, textbook creation, and classroom assignments. Most classes are built around a textbook that purports to include all relevant material about a subject, and most students expect to have to interpret and internalize that material to say they’ve learned whatever the subject is. But what if we inverted that process, as well? What if learners, as they learn, create the materials they need to document their learning? Can they produce quality materials while they struggle to learn that material?
How can we respond to teachers who worry about the standards of quality with OER, especially if we're asking our own students to contribute material? I've heard a number of people object saying, "They're still learning this. How could they know it well enough to be able to produce material on it? Don't we need to be the ones with our expertise providing the ‘good’ stuff? How is that okay that students just go off and create stuff while they're learning about it?"
Robin: There are so many answers to that question [Laughter][Inaudible][43:34].
Chris: You have five minutes.
Robin: The first is that I really think we need to build a collaborative internet. If we only put perfect things there, it will not be a space that we can push forward into new knowledge. It will just be a repository for gems and jewels, which is not what I'm super-interested in. Usually with my students I say "Look, you might put something up there. It might not be that great. You're still learning. People might rip you apart." Just try to be open about "I'm a student. Here's what I can offer. Correct me please." It's also the spirit in which I blog usually.
I don't wait until I know everything. Just put it out there. There's that piece first of all, which is about "what web do you want to build?" In terms of OER there are a couple things. If you just adopt an OER textbook, like from OpenStax for example, just a replacement bio textbook, there are plenty of studies that show that both faculty and students rate them as high as or higher than conventional textbooks. We don't have a quality issue with the sort of standard adoption of OER. There are really high-quality materials out there that you can just grab right now. The only difference is really that they're free and openly licensed.
If you want to do more of the stuff that I do where my students are actually producing things, I don't hide my expertise. I got a PhD. I also have a ton of teaching experience. I bring all of that to the table and put it out there. I don't not correct them. I guide them. The other piece is that they bring a lot of stuff to the table. For example, when I used to teach critical theory in English — Derrida and Butler and Lacan — really super-challenging texts, I could explain this stuff in a certain way.
What they really wanted was to read each other explaining this stuff. That was the language of people not assuming the kinds of knowledge that I just can't get past. It's already built into my head, especially in terms of textbooks. Maybe not in terms of writing a history of the United States, but a textbook about the history of the United States is a different animal. That's aimed at a target audience. Why would you not want your target audience to create that stuff in partnership with people who have the expertise? Everybody brings their skill to the table. You work as a team. I think it's the way to do that.
So how far can this be pushed? What happens when you really open up a course, making the content, the pedagogy, and the texts totally open? Robin’s biggest suggestion is to start by getting connected. I’ll let her explain
One of the things I do usually at the onset of my classes is that I have this conversation that we're having right now. As opposed to just being like "You guys are going to write a textbook." [Laughter][35:44] "Okay, thanks, can't we just buy one?" Lots of them will say "Can't we just buy one?" By framing it this way — the thing is we also build their spaces sort of write at the beginning.
We talk about why we build those spaces. When they write for, for example, a textbook that we may be producing, they're usually just writing in their spaces. Then I'm working kind of like an editor and pulling things in. I think by showing them pretty early on the payoff of connections, which is really not that hard — Although one thing I will say to people who want to do connected learning is that if you are not connected, “that ain't gonna work that good.”
One of the things I did is I took a couple of years and connected myself. You can't decide to become connected and then get connected by tomorrow. You build those networks. I built those for myself. Then it was a little bit easier to show my students that for example if they wrote some really interesting blog posts that I could share it with a group of people who I knew would be responsive, who I knew would comment and share it. They're just immediately flabbergasted to see that their work has effect.
I have not really found students — I might find it this fall. I'm actually teaching a first-year seminar called "Whose course is this anyway?" It's going to be so open that it's going to be one of those things where it's like there is no course. They're going to completely build the course from scratch. There may be some pushback on that.
It is truly a contentless course until they pull the content in. One of the main principles of connected learning in general or open pedagogy is that content is sort of second to the collaborations — so that the unique content but that because content is changing and evolving you really want to be hooked up so that you can participate. This is going to take that way to the radical extreme and just be like "There is no content. We need to work together to kind of figure out what the work is of this course, what we should be doing."
Let me interrupt here for a second. Again, I interviewed Robin last fall. She has a post-mortem of her experience with this course on her blog. It’s called “Extreme Makeover: Pedagogy Edition, and it’s definitely worth spending some time reviewing. Robin starts the post with her then-current definition of Open Pedagogy, if you want more detail about that. There’s a link to her post in this episode’s transcript. Okay, back to the interview.
I would imagine that there would be a little bit of pushback there. I think it's exactly the kind of pushback you want to give the first-year students, which is "What are you doing here? You need to have a sense of what you're trying to mine from this place." I can't imagine that they come in with that. Why would you when given sort of the common core approach to high school, everything has been packaged.
I think when you get that pushback it's kind of a blessing, right? Those are the questions they need to answer. Why are you here? What are you trying to learn? Why does education matter? Where are you trying to go, either today or in a few years? I think that stuff is good. I have mostly found students completely amazed. Really the question I get more than any other is, "Why don't other professors do this?"
Gardner Campbell tells that story. I'll just say Google Gardner. Maybe you can find it somewhere, but being involved — I don't know. He heard it somewhere else too. The tagline was basically like "Holy shit, big world." When they realized that they are actually part of a scholarly community and a public, they I think mostly feel kind of cheated that so much of the rest of their work is just busy work. They don't like busy work, I don't think, not all that much. I guess sometimes it's more labor intensive. I think if you really do de-emphasize the content a lot you're going to get some pushback.
The idea of doing the connected learning, of having students contribute work out and of trying to hook them up with people who will engage, I think all of that is — I have not had to sell it really.
Chris: Okay, emphasizing the network and the connection over the content kind of puts the entire ordeal in a different light. You're advocating for your course using language that is part of the course's strength.
You're selling it to the students. I hate using that phrase, but that's what it is. You're selling it to the students in terms of its own marketability. You're letting them know what the actual values of the course will be.
Robin: Yeah. Chris, I teach inter-disciplinary studies. I have some students who are, for example, lots of entrepreneurs and small-business folks. We're across the College of Arts and Science, [Phonetic][40:49] the College of Business and the College of Education. Particularly some of my business students are very vocationally-targeted. I call them e-ports, these spaces that they build, because I'm interested in the portfolio piece but also the portal piece — The idea that there's a two-way capability on this site that you'll build. Some of those entrepreneurs really love the portfolio piece. They're just thrilled to be creating a controlled digital footprint that they think is going to have some marketability for them — great.
Part of what I do with teaching inter-disciplinary studies is I don't say what you have to think is important about being on the web. It depends on your field. The web works in really different ways for really different fields. Part of what I say is figure out how your stuff works on the web. Look at what people are doing with web space. See what you think about that. Then off we go. We'll build towards that web world that you want to see. I don't always love that with each student. I think they really respond to the fact that they are building towards a sense of place that will move them past college.
Here it is summer and I'm seeing these posts come in from my students. They're not enrolled in a class. Some of them have graduated. There they are working on the web in the world that they've constructed. I think it's pretty good evidence that they don't feel pushed. They feel like they're driving.
And right there is the whole point, isn’t it? To give students the authority and empowerment to take control of their own learning — their own educations. Open pedagogy allows for greater student empowerment. Open resources help us get there. But underlying all of this is a very real need for access — to courses, to content, to resources, to other people, and to a supportive environment. Ensuring access is an essential first step to providing quality education.
You've been tuned to HybridPod, a production of Digital Pedagogy Lab.
Just because the show is over doesn't mean the conversation ends. Robin and I are each accessible through Twitter, and so is the show itself. So along those lines, @HybridPod and @chris_friend would like to thank @actualham (you heard right, that’s A-C-T-U-A-L-H-A-M) for taking the time to talk with me for this episode.
I mentioned the way publications are funded and HybridPod’s extended radio silence at the top of this episode. This is the twelfth episode I’ve made since starting in January 2015. The eleventh debuted in early August—you know, right before the fall semester started. Since then, I’ve been distracted by stuff that pays the bills. This podcast has its own bills to pay. This episode marks the first time I’m asking for financial support from the listening community. The hosting and equipment costs for this show have been coming from Digital Pedagogy Lab, which operates annual on-ground institutes exploring critical digital pedagogy. They’re wonderful, and if you’ve never been, you should check them out. I’ll add a link in the show transcript.
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