An hour with
Terry Austin, Professor of Biology
This month, as part of our special “Transition to Digital” issue, we chatted with a Texas professor who’s become one of the nation’s leading online educators. Today, over 80% of his students are online. Join us as we talk Commodore 64s, video lectures, and the 45-second tech rule!
Degrees: Hi Terry. A few words about yourself, please?
Terry: I grew up dreaming of being a scientist. At age six my Aunt Betty got me a subscription to National Geographic. I cut my teeth on stories like the Moho Discontinuity and the bathyscaph Trieste. I followed the 16-year-old round-the-world sailor Robin Graham in his sailboat Dove. I watched every Jacques Cousteau special I could get my hands on.
I also grew up with the wildlife of North Texas. I’d bring home wagons full of pond water loaded with bullfrog tadpoles to study. I eventually ended up in the biology department of Midwestern State University where I got my BS in Biology and my MS focusing on mammalogy and field biology. From there I did a left turn when I headed off to University of North Texas to work on a doctorate in Neuroscience. Coursework and research were completed on that degree along with the first few chapters of a dissertation, that for a few personal reasons never quite got completed. So… “ABD.” [Editor’s note: In case you haven’t come across the acronym, that’s “All But Dissertation”!]
For all my grad school days I taught, and discovered that I loved helping others learn. I also got heavily involved in technology very early. I took computer programming classes while working on my BS. I’d already had some of the rudimentary computers available at the time — the Radio Shack TRS-80, the Commodore, and so forth. I’d devised a suitcase to carry around my Commodore 64 and its accessories, and was the only grad student at MSU with a computer at his desk. I thrilled the department chair (Dr. Norman Horner) and my major professor (Walt Dalquest) when I made a digital database of our very extensive mammal collection.
A student in my Physical Anthropology lab at UNT loved my teaching style and suggested I apply for a job at Temple College where she’d just come from. She knew they were replacing the outgoing department chair. I interviewed and within a few days was offered that position. I became the newest member of the three-person biology department in January 2001.
D: What kind of institution do you work for, and what do you spend your days doing?
T: I am a professor at a two-year school. Our department provides foundation courses for our allied health programs, including nursing (LVN/RN), radiology, dental hygiene, and respiratory therapy. Some of our students also go on to four-year programs and beyond. I had the pleasure of having one of my best students ever graduate from med school this past Spring.
I began teaching online in 2010. Today my semesters range from 80% to 100% online. This means most days I work from my home office, with occasional trips to campus to handle various things, including committee work, or helping students who are visiting the anatomy lab.
I also spend quite a lot of time revising my online material, including making new lecture and lab videos for my courses. I’m never completely satisfied with my course material and I’m constantly revising to make it just that little bit better. I treat my (short) lecture videos as if I were sitting down across the desk with a single student and explaining tough ideas to one person. I’d like to think that’s how my students feel when they view these videos.
D: How would you describe your students?
T: About 80% to 90% of my students are female. Quite often they are single mothers, struggling to make a better life for themselves and their families. They’ve got dreams of making it into one of our allied health programs: nursing, dental hygiene or one of the other programs. I love these students. So many of them are so dedicated and hardworking. They’ve certainly got the right motivation to succeed!
D: How would you describe Temple College?
T: Temple College just celebrated our 90th anniversary. I’m quite proud that we’ve spent almost a century making lives better in the Central Texas area.
D: How did you choose biology?
T: Actually, in large measure, my main teaching topics chose me. In interviewing for my position in what was then a small three-person department, there was an empty niche that needed filling. At the time I thought it was little odd to teach both Microbiology as well as Anatomy & Physiology. Since then, through my consulting work across the country, I’ve discovered there are quite a few of us with that same disparate load.
The fun thing about that load is I often get the chance to take my students through a year and a half of their biology courses on their way to nursing or dental hygiene programs. I can get to know them very well.
D: What’s the best part about working with students?
T: The vast majority of my students are headed into Allied Health. I get to know that I’m helping to give most of my students a new career — and the community a new nurse.
D: What keeps you up at night?
T: Sadly, wondering whether I will ever be able to pay off my student loans.
D: What is the most important lesson you can teach your students?
T: Critical thinking … and how to channel their energy and focus as they learn.
Those who approach these courses as a list of items to memorize are in for a hard ride. Those who find a method to understand the material often begin to soak it up like a sponge. I love facilitating that ability. I know I’ve helped create a true lifetime learner when I foster that approach and attitude.
D: How do you use technology in the classroom with your students?
T: In my face-to-face classrooms, I insist my students actively participate rather than sit as passive listeners. To that end, I love using Learning Catalytics. It lets me both assess their understanding of specific information and trigger group discussions and team learning activities.
D: What is your “can’t live without” piece of technology?
T: Easy one. My screencasting software, ScreenFlow. It gives me an invaluable way to reach out to my students wherever they are. Each and every one gets to sit down at their computer and visit with me as if I were sitting down at the table with them.
I’m quite proud that we have spent almost a century making lives better in the Central Texas area.
D: One memorable teaching experience?
T: Dave was one of my favorite students. He joined my class about ten years ago and immediately latched onto two brothers as study partners. He was the ultimate shy, under-confident student. He did, however, have a little spark of enthusiasm and wasn’t afraid to answer questions I put to the class.
He started enjoying the encouragement I gave him when he answered correctly. Pretty soon Dave switched from counting on his study partners to leading their study group. As he moved from A&P1 into A&P2 I encouraged him to sign up for our on-campus tutoring program and asked him to help others. He went on to be our head tutor, then branched out and began helping tutor chemistry on campus as well.
He discovered he really loved biology and switched from his original major (which I believe was business). He went on to finish a four-year degree, to study microbiology. He still wasn’t satisfied with ending his educational career. I had the distinct pleasure this past Spring of congratulating Dave on his graduation from medical school in El Paso, TX.
D: How do you think technology will change higher education?
T: Ed tech is forever evolving the classroom. I remember when the most exciting advance was the rolling acetate roll on an overhead projector with multi-color erasable markers. I’ve come to eagerly anticipate what’s coming next from both publishers and the tech industry.
I implement a 45-second rule. No technology gets to be the purpose in the classroom. If any tech fails, it gets 45 seconds recovery time in my classroom. Seriously. If I can’t get it to behave in 45 seconds or less, that tech loses its spot for that day.
These days, technology is great at letting us bring pre-recorded video to explain our tough topics. We’re also on the verge of using it to bring students virtually to real-world, live situations such as active labs and remote field sites. They’ll be able to experience real research examples as they’re taking place.
Quite often my students are single mothers, struggling to make a better life. I love these students. They’ve certainly got the right motivation to succeed!
D: What will the classroom of 2050 look like?
T: That’s my ultimate dream. I’d love to think that what we’re doing now is laying the foundation for it.
I strongly suspect the concept of “classroom” will be largely decentralized by then. There will be at least as big a difference between what we call a class today vs. 2050 as between a 1990s “correspondence course” and a 2016 online course. What we’re doing today will seem cute and quaint.
So, all I’ve told you so far is what 2050 classes won’t be, right? What will they be?
My first instinct is to think virtual reality. Not in a “here, strap on this headset” way, but more Star Trek Holodeck. I’d expect an instructor to reach out to students, perhaps in real time, perhaps asynchronously in virtual space. Each individual may be in separate physical locations but using virtual reality to gather, discuss, and interact in a common “space.”
The instructor might then alter the scene to take students on a trip to whatever topic they’re discussing… perhaps a shrunken voyage through the brain they’re studying… perhaps a virtual tour of the ocean of Pluto discovered way back in 2016, now that the probe to investigate has landed in 2048.
D: What advice do you have for educators who want to become more tech savvy or to experiment with tech in the classroom?
T: Take baby steps. As you look at instructors around you who’ve put tech in place, don’t feel overwhelmed. Don’t let the “Oh wow, I could never do all that” feeling get you down. Pick one thing. Practice over the summer or Christmas break to get comfortable with that bit of tech.
For example, if you have an iPad®, download the app Doceri (and the companion app for your computer). This will let you use your iPad as a whiteboard, controlling and writing over your live in-class presentation. Get comfortable with this while you have time and no students in front of you. The worst thing you can do is try out new technology for the first time in front of a class full of students.
Once that piece of tech becomes familiar and productive in your classroom, reach out to something else.
Above all, make absolutely certain that each bit of tech you bring to the classroom actually adds to the learning process. Never be motivated by “tech for tech’s sake.”
D: Where can you be found outside of the classroom?
T: I love listening to audiobooks. I have for many years. I listen to about a 60/40 split of fiction and non-fiction, intended to entertain and enlighten. I also thrive on listening to ed tech podcasts, learning more every day about how technology can help in my classroom.
I also love to spend time on my Harley and in the kitchen… both incredibly good at helping me decompress.
I insist my students actively participate rather than sit as passive listeners.