Listen to an audio version of this interview here:
Gina Riley, winner of the 2022 Presidential Award for Excellence in Teaching, interviewed by Shiao-Chuan Kung (Center for Online Learning)
Shiao-Chuan Kung: Prof. Gina Riley is a faculty member in the School of Education at Hunter College. She is a senior faculty fellow at ACERT, our Center for Teaching and Learning, and leads professional development events for our colleagues. We all know Gina as an expert in assessment and online teaching, and as our resident “flexpert”–as in “HyFlex expert.” When I heard the news about her receiving the presidential award for teaching, my first reaction was to ask “Is this Gina’s second award? I don’t remember her first.” I didn’t think it was possible that she had NOT received this award before. Gina is one of the most positive, optimistic, dedicated and adventurous educators that I know.
Gina, it’s so great to be chatting with you today. Let me ask you, when you hear the word “classroom,” what do you picture?
Gina Riley: This is such an interesting question. When I hear the word classroom, I immediately think of “the world”. We are learning each and every day, everywhere we go. The rooms we learn in at Hunter, and/or the online space we learn in on Zoom or via our learning management systems are also “classrooms”, but they are microcosms. Our job as faculty at Hunter is to create classroom spaces that give our students the world – a world filled with opportunity and experience.
Kung: I imagine that this world is filled with your positive energy and appreciation for each individual. What else is in it?
Riley: Kindness is really important, especially in academia. Our students truly deserve to be seen and appreciated for who they are. The classroom should be a place of joy…A place where students feel a sense of competence, a sense of choice, and a feeling that their classmates and instructor love and accept them no matter what. Basically, I am always seeking to facilitate intrinsic motivation in my students. This internal drive allows students the ability to try new things without fear, with support, encouragement, and feedback from those around them.
Kung: Ah… “intrinsic motivation” and “ungrading.” I hear those ideas frequently in connection with your name. Would you say a bit more about them?
Riley: Absolutely! Facilitating intrinsic motivation in my students is really important to me. I want students to come to class because they want to, not because they have to, and my courses are always designed with intrinsic motivation (IM) in mind. This goes hand in hand with my interest in ungrading, which I always explain as an alternative form of assessing students. Instead of having them (and myself), focus on the “grade” as a means of motivation – I want them to focus on their own personal learning within the context of the course. That generally means I give lots of feedback, and have lots of back and forth conversations with my students. What is important here? Why is it important to you? How can you apply what you’ve learned to your practice and/or classroom? What is one thing today that you can “take away” and utilize tomorrow? I want students to remember my classes for the experience and/or what they learned. I don’t want them to be just a notation on their transcript.
Kung: Love that idea! Can you tell me about one memorable, significant experience in your teaching, maybe a class, a student, or an assignment?
Riley: I have had so many beautiful classroom experiences at Hunter. I was hired in 2008 to teach the first fully online synchronous class within the Department of Special Education. That was really special (and Hunter was way ahead of its time!). Some of the students in that class are now faculty members in the Department I teach in. I have to say – I feel like every single class and every single student I have had at Hunter is really special to me. I keep a list of the classes I have taught in a notebook, and when something fun or unique or special happens I jot it down. Not one class has ever had an “empty entry”. Our students are the very best.
Kung: Oh… I want to know about that first fully synchronous class back in 2008. Hybrid and online classes are my cup of tea, so of course I’m going to ask you about that. What was it like?
Riley: That first class was awesome! Adobe Connect was pretty new to everyone, so it felt very experimental. Students used chat frequently, and were at first hesitant to use their mic, which sort of reminded me of what happened during the pandemic. But by the end of the semester, everyone got really comfortable with one another, and the conversation flowed! I really enjoyed those early days of distance learning, and learned a lot from them. I think that was also the year I started using WordPress as an asynchronous learning tool to complement our lectures and discussions on Adobe Connect. I think I presented the use of WordPress as a learning management system to ACERT in 2010. I love innovation! Just thinking back to those days makes me so happy, and really proud of how far we have come as a college community.
Kung: 2008 was almost 15 years ago and a completely different world! The tools were different and our understanding of best practices to help students learn online has come a long way. Getting students comfortable and interacting with you and with each other online is so hard but so important. How do you do it? Do share some strategies that our colleagues can try, please.
Riley: I know this is a bit controversial, but in synchronous classes, I do ask that everyone have their camera on. It’s just really hard to teach (and more importantly, really hard to learn and build community) if we can’t see each other’s faces. If a student is really uncomfortable with that, I ask that they email me – but if you join one of my totally synchronous classes, you will always find students with their camera on. In asynchronous classes, I am a super active participant. Students will find me interacting with them every weekday, and on Sundays – whether it be on the discussion board, or on Padlet, or on another tool we are using. I also require that they interact with each other frequently online as well, and assign points for that. I love online office hours, and in my more clinical classes – joining me for office hours once per month is a requirement. I want to be able to check in and see how they are doing, and answer any questions they have! It’s something we do naturally in-person, but sometimes we have to plan things out a bit more in an online space.
Kung: I got you! So you maintain eye contact even though it’s through a screen and you are constantly letting your students know that you are there for them. You won’t even let them forget you on a Sunday?! That makes me think of the 7 principles for good practice in undergraduate education. The first one is “encourage student-faculty contact.” The principle was important in 1986 and it’s important now. It applies to face-to-face classes and it applies to online courses. It’s good for undergraduates and good for graduate classes. I have one last question, Gina. How do you prepare for a new course that you are teaching? What is your process?
Riley: I work from a base syllabi, but I update it every single semester. I also don’t reuse power points or lectures. It makes for a ton of work, but I also want every class to feel current to my students. Plus, courses never feel boring if you always feel like you are teaching something for the first time. I think a lot about how I can make the class a fun, exciting experience. We all learn best when we are having fun 🙂
Kung: I see. Always refreshing and always innovating is what keeps you and your classes special. Thank you so much, Gina. You are such a Hunter treasure and I’m SO lucky to be working with you!
Riley: You are the very best, Shiao! I don’t know what we would all do without you!!!