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November 3, 2016

Inspiring Innovative Learning: The 2016 Fall Academic Conference

Duncan RyanMann, Frank Vander Valk, Rhianna Rogers and Menouhka Case
Left to right are: Duncan RyanMann, Frank Vander Valk, Rhianna Rogers and Menoukha Case at the 2016 fall academic conference. Photo/Empire State College

The SUNY Empire State College 2016 Fall Academic Conference, “Inspiring Innovative Learning,” attracted more than 270 college faculty and professional staff, an all-time high level of participation for the annual event.

The conference took place from Wednesday-Friday, Oct. 19-21, at the Holiday Inn, Saratoga Springs, N.Y.

In a departure from past tradition, this year’s Susan H. Turben Faculty Lecture was delivered at the fall academic conference, instead of during the annual All College Conference, which is held in the spring.

Julia Penn Shaw, associate professor of human development, and the 2016-17 recipient of the Susan H. Turben Award for Excellence in Scholarship, delivered her lecture “Construction of Meaning: Dimensions of Body and Mind,” which also was streamed live on the internet via ESC-TV.

The faculty conference, meetings of the college’s United University Professions chapter, the college’s undergraduate areas of study and a closing plenary session on the future of digital media and digital cultural offerings at the college rounded out the two-day conference.

Keynote Speaker Michael Moore

Michael Moore, chief academic and operating officer of the University of Arkansas System’s eVersity, delivered the keynote address, “How Simple Solutions, Athletics and Innovative Practices Can Support Student Learning and Success.”

Moore told the audience that he was well aware of SUNY Empire’s long history of success as an innovative institution of teaching and learning.

The newest of the Arkansas system’s institutions, eVersity was established in March 2014, and 100 percent of the education provided to its students occurs online.

The need for a new institution, as reflected in the business case for its establishment, is similar to that cited by SUNY Chancellor Nancy L. Zimpher when she announced the creation of Open SUNY: Too many residents have not completed a college degree and degree completion leads to a stronger state workforce and better jobs.

According to Moore, about 356,000 residents of the state of Arkansas have some college, but no degree; the state ranks 48th in the nation in the percent of adults with a college education; 49th in median income; and, importantly, 87 percent of jobs the jobs in the state do not support a livable wage.

eVersity began with a rethinking of higher education. The result was a focus on simplicity, which includes syllabus, proactive and preventative advising, standardized course format, due dates and grading expectations.

All courses are taught by Arkansas system faculty and, at $165 per credit hour, Moore said that tuition is affordable for residents of the state.

eVersity requires a free, 1-credit-hour course of six modules, where evaluation of college readiness is embedded and includes three modules designed to support individualized plans for academic success, development of a learning plan and a financial plan.

The undergraduate student population is similar to SUNY Empire’s in that the average age is 35, women comprise 64 percent of the population, 81 percent of Arkansas’s counties have students enrolled and many students bring transfer credit with them.

Moore reported that early results are promising. Students’ average GPA is 3.25 and their retention is 92 percent, he said.

Concurrent Sessions

The conference’s concurrent sessions ranged from immersive cloud learning, the college’s newest mode of study, and holistic mentoring (of students by faculty) on Wednesday, to looking at prior learning assessment and student persistence, how to make the most of open education resources in the college’s online library and a self-pace Massive Open Online Course, or MOOC, on accessibility and learning environments on Friday.

Applied Learning at SUNY Empire State College

Thursday afternoon’s concurrent sessions included “Applied Learning at SUNY Empire State College,” given by the college’s School for Graduate Studies Associate Professor Patricia Isaac, Mentor and Human Development Associate Professor Gina Torino, Executive Director for Institutional Effectiveness Eileen McDonnell and Associate Director of Enterprise Architecture and Applications Bob Perilli.

The applied learning session responds to the emphasis placed on this aspect of student education by the SUNY system.

Chancellor Nancy L. Zimpher has said that for students, applied learning opportunities increase career readiness, provide an edge in a competitive job environment and support degree completion; employers, in turn, have access to better trained prospective employees; the system and the college gain a better understanding of the effectiveness of various programs through job placement, career advancement of its students and alumni, based on evidence.

According to Torino, applied learning is most often associated with a traditional credit- and noncredit bearing internship, which, while effective and appropriate in any number of situations, is only one of many paths students may take.

Definitions of applied learning also include:

  • community service
  • civic engagement
  • creative works
  • research at the graduate and undergraduate levels
  • service learning
  • cooperative education
  • clinical placement
  • practicum
  • entrepreneurship
  • field study
  • international and domestic travel and/or student exchange.

Isaac shared with faculty in attendance that students engaged with learning in the “field,” whether it is collecting samples for biology or making site visits as part of social work, would very likely meet the approved activities delineated by SUNY for applied learning.

Areas of Study and the Future of Interdisciplinary Studies at Empire State College

One of the college’s 12 undergraduate areas of study, Interdisciplinary Studies provides a foundation for:

  • teaching
  • graduate work
  • social services delivery
  • journalism or creative writing
  • advocacy in an area of interest
  • communications
  • the arts
  • law.

Associate Professor of Cultural Studies Menoukha Case, Professor of Economics Duncan RyanMann, Associate Professor of Interdisciplinary Studies Rhianna Rogers and Associate Dean for Social and Behavioral Sciences Frank Vander Valk co-presented a session on the future of Interdisciplinary and Multidisciplinary Studies at the college.

Case remarked that Interdisciplinary Studies provides the opportunity for teaching and learning in  both structured and informal settings, where the amount of structure depends upon several factors, including the subject and the desired learning outcomes.

A specific academic discipline such as anthropology or history could provide the basis for an interdisciplinary independent study or course, she said.

As an example of learning taking place within a course structure and many related disciplines, Case pointed to "Living History: Little Bighorn from a Cheyenne Perspective," an interdisciplinary course she developed with Rogers and Clifford Eaglefeathers, an adjunct with the college faculty and a member of the Northern Cheyenne Nation.

Three of the four course modules focus on a specific discipline. Indigenous Studies, with a very specific focus on Cheyenne culture, is the first. The second focuses on history and the third on archaeology. Each module has a content guide explaining the disciplinary lens to be used.

In the fourth and final module, students blend their learning of Cheyenne culture, archaeological and historical learning into indigenous studies and examine a particular artifact of Cheyenne culture, a dress made by Northern Cheyenne women from the uniforms of dead U.S. Cavalry soldiers.

One key aspect of Interdisciplinary Studies involves students and faculty from different academic disciplines collaborating – most frequently in a face-to-face setting similar to a small class or online – to engage in the process of teaching and learning as part of a student’s independent study or a more traditional-style course.

Study groups, which meet one or more times, provide the opportunity to focus on many different aspects of a particular subject or topic and, very often, the subject or topic is problematic.

RyanMann offered several examples. For the topic of obesity, RyanMann said that he would contribute public policy and economic perspectives, while other members of the faculty, such as Associate Professor Cathy A. Davison, would bring a nutritional and physiological perspective to the group.

In the example of the Great Depression, RyanMann’s focus would be economics, Lecturer Christopher Grill would focus on the political context and Associate Professor Cynthia Bates would look at this important chapter in history from the point of view of the theater.

According to RyanMann, one of the great benefits of this mode of study is that established subject boundaries are challenged and stretched back and forth through the disagreement and debate among the participants.

He added that study groups are exciting for students, as they see the value of academic discourse and its benefit when developing a paper or for another academic exercise.

According to Vander Valk, Interdisciplinary Studies can provide a creative space that encourages risk-taking and innovation, leading students and faculty to engage in new problems and new ways of thinking.

At the same time, he said, Interdisciplinary Studies at the college must become an even greater source of information and inspiration for the way the college thinks about education.

An example Vander Valk used would be to connect data about intersecting interdisciplinary subjects that interest both students and employers as a way of better serving both groups.

In terms of Interdisciplinary Studies and data, Rogers said, “It cannot be just what we (the faculty) like. It must serve students.”

Rogers also suggested that data acquired from the college-level learning students earn apart from SUNY Empire, as well as the data acquired through the process of student support at the college, could be evaluated to determine how to strengthen interdisciplinary students.

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