Center of Excellence for Teaching & Learning

CETL Podcast - Episode 6 - Matt Nickerson

Tony Pellegrini: Good afternoon, good afternoon learners! Tony Pellegrini here with another session of teaching and learning at SUU. Just very tickled that we've got Matt Nickerson visiting with us today and addressing some of his background and experience and vision, connection with Southern Utah University and the teaching and learning that goes on here. Matt, could you take a couple moments and give us a little background information about yourself, introduce yourself a little bit, tell us a little about your history? I'd be personally interested in knowing how long (I know you've been here a long time) how long you've been here and some of the interesting things that you've been engaged with over your tenure here at SUU.

Matt Nickerson: Excellent. I started at SUU in 1990, so this is my 28th year at Southern Utah University. I think some of the interesting things about my experiences here—and it has to do with the size and type of school, which I love being here which is why I'm still here after so long—is all of the opportunities I've had as a teacher to be engaged in all kinds of teaching and learning both based on my own background and also on the different technologies and best practices that have come and gone over 20 years in higher education. I'm someone who doesn't teach from their old yellowed legal pad, but I'm always trying to both add to the content that I teach and also adding to the pedagogical tools that I use to make my doing my teaching and hopefully improve the learning of my students as I go. So I've taught in three different, four different colleges, I've taught lots of different courses, and I've used lots of different teaching tools and practices both in the classroom and in my preparation and in my presentation; in all those years I've done lots of things.

TP: Matt, talk to us for a moment or two about those, maybe some of those tools specifically, that you see. Maybe looking to the future as we have new faculty coming. If you were to be a part of a selection committee, how would you encourage teachers with some of the tools that you've experimented with and used?

MN: That is such a great question! So I've been here so long that I was here when we were still word processing on a mainframe computer, so one of the things I've seen come and go and develop and go in lots of directions is the technology that we use to teach. Everything from the technology of a piece of chalk and a blackboard, up through PowerPoint and other presentation software's that we use in a mediated classroom, we can project images and sounds to share with our learners that are in the room with us. And then all the way into taking technologies or taking best practices out of the classroom and into spaces that are off of campus.

So I started in my technology journey way back when the governor of Utah saw an opportunity to reach out to learners that may not be in major urban areas, that may be missing out on some of the opportunities that urban high schools were getting. And so I had the opportunity to teach on live television. So I was teaching to four or five different small rural high schools all across Utah through a fiber-optic network and I had, you know, five classrooms on TVs in the back of my classroom, and I was trying to reach and keep engaged with students all over Utah when all I had really was this technological connection. And I'm a pretty animated teacher and I was always able to engage my students just with my personality and my craziness in their presence, and I had to find other ways to maybe help catch their attention.

One of the things I learned through teaching that process is all the different kinds of learners there are and what are the different ways I could approach them using technology. So one of the things I would be looking at hiring new teachers or interviewing teachers: are they aware of the different kind of learners that are out there in the world and the different pedagogical and teaching tools that we can use in classrooms every day to try to reach as many of those kind of learners that may exist in our classroom on any given day in any given classroom? I think that's really important.

And a little trick that I started using in that class which really has helped me, that I still use in my classes today, is I wanted to keep the student engaged, and I also wanted to be fair in the way I engage with students. And so I just created a stack of cards with the names of the students in the classroom, and I would ask a question and I would put my hand on that card, stack of cards. And I learned that the TV students out in all parts of Utah, once they heard the question and they saw my hand go to that stack of cards, they would start thinking, "what am I going to do if he calls on me?" That turned out to be a great learning tool in my classes still today. So every student is either thinking about what answer they're gonna give if I call on them, which helps each of them answer that question in their own minds, or they're thinking, "Oh my gosh! I hope he doesn't call on me because I'm not prepared today." And so the more often I use that and—the first two or three weeks of class, everybody knows by then that I take the reading assignment seriously; I'm not one of the teachers that when they come to class I just tell them what they're what they read. But I come to expound on what their reading assignment was, not to repeat it to them. And that's good because it's also helped me not call on the outgoing students; I don't call just on the female students or just the smart students, I spread my questions out, and that can be that can be a classroom management tool that some people fall into that helps me overcome that as well.

TP: Powerful, powerful teaching tool! Matt, let me kind of flip to the other side of the coin maybe and ask you: now, if the president said, "recruit some students for us to come to SUU." I love your theme, and your passion, your vision about these technologies that we have to use, particularly because we're at such a distance from maybe some of the major metropolitan areas in the state. But talk to me about as if I were maybe a student coming here: what technologies could I expect to see in your classroom, or in other classrooms that you've been engaged with within the University?

MN: I think we're a pretty technologically adept campus. Since I don't teach in the hard sciences (I teach mostly now in the humanities, and I've also taught in the theater department and I've taught in education), but I think to turn that back on its head—I mean, we use a lot of technologies in classes. And I still teach in the realm of humanities and I use a lot of technology in class to share images, to share music, because I'm teaching about the progress of Western culture throughout time.

But one of the things we're trying to use more and more is the technology that the students bring with them. I'm very concerned, and disappointed in some way, in the amount of time that my students are spending on their personal technologies, and namely their phones in my classroom, not doing things that are pertinent to what we were doing in class. And talking to them sternly, giving them speeches about screen time, and sharing with them peer-reviewed articles about splitting their time and energies, talking about how much their tuition is—I cannot get students to put away their phones for an hour when they can be with me, a live person, and all the technology that's going on in the classroom as far as the learning process goes.

So some of the technologies we are beginning to use is to turn them back to their phones as often as we can, both asking them to do research through their phones through databases or through the internet to engage in the conversation, and we also use them sometimes to run technological polls in the classroom. So I can have them all quickly go to an app on their phone and we can answer questions live in classroom and see their responses come up in graphical form on the screen. So we can quickly poll the class on a question about the Roman Empire, or a question about fake news and current events and see what did they think was going on as a class. So that's a technology we use.

I'm still someone who really believes in using the technology of just listening and being with humans as well. I think that's important to the students that are here: to realize that learning still mostly happens between people and between humans. And I'm looking for students who are anxious to learn. I would be recruiting students who want to use all the learning at their disposal, but also being, really, take advantage—we are such a privileged culture here in America, privileged in the West, privileged in Utah. Just to be able to come and learn in a free society and engage with so many great students around you and so many professors and instructors and staff that are here that just want to make us better citizens, make us better people.

And I'd be looking for students who want to be here who want to learn and are interested in engaging across disciplines and across students and across cultures. That's going to be so important in the 21st century: to understand that we're a global community, we need to be able to understand, communicate, empathize with all kinds of people and help them see our point of view and be able to listen and understand the point of view of others. Not necessarily to change them or to change ourselves, but to understand. I'd definitely be looking for those kind of students because the questions that are going to be solved in the 21st century are very difficult and they're going to be solved across cultures and across disciplines. I'd like to see students who can solve problems, who can think critically, and can connect ideas from a wide variety of disciplines.

TP: And you've addressed this, but one thing I just absolutely love about you, Matt, is your passion. Could you—and it's infectious and I think students are going to can't walk away from an experience with you without that passion to learn—can you describe for our learners how they will benefit from coming to SUU as a human being? You talked about that a little bit here with this worldwide focus, but could you take a moment or two and talk about the benefits that they'll receive by being a better human by coming here to SUU?

MN: Oh man, that is such a big question! I'm an administrator now and I get to teach less and less, and that's just my own personal struggle. But I love—I came to SUU, I came to higher education to be a teacher and to be in the classroom. And what is the class I ended up teaching? The only one I still teach is Humanities 1010, it's the history of Western culture. And I start my class by saying, "Hey, what do we learn in a biology class? We learn to be biologists. What we learn in an education class? We learn to be educators. And in psychology, we learn to be psychologists." So I'm gonna ask my students, "What do we learn in a humanities class?" And most of them stare at me for a while and don't quite know the answer to that until I say, "What we learn here is how to be human—how to be a better human."

And in my class I we study big questions, and I think that's, and all of education—you don't have to take a humanities class to become a better human; I think that's what all education does. What makes us unique in the animal world of humans is our mind, is our cerebral cortex, is our ability to think and ponder, to look at ourselves, to look at the world around us, to change the world, to be empathetic to other people. I mean, that's all of what education does, is just helps us to better understand ourselves as humans and to understand the people around us as humans. And that doesn't matter if you're in an accounting class, or a music class, psychology, you can be in a PE class, you can be in a ballet class—education is just a way to expand our understanding of who we are and where we are.

Socrates said, "The unexamined life is not worth living." And I just want, in an education, what I want to give students in my class is, the passion I'm trying to give them, is to have the tools and the ammunition to examine the world around them in whatever way they like, and whatever turns them on, whatever they need to understand it. You know, we need an examined life, and I want their life to be full and to be worth living; not just walking like zombies in the world, not just taking what comes to them, but going out and being a part of the world and appreciating the biological world, the educational world, the psychological world, the artistic world. We as humans live in such a rich environment, both created by nature and created by ourselves. And that's why you come to school, K-12 or higher education, to better understand yourself and to better understand the planet.

TP: The metaphor that you make me think of is SUU is kind of like that magnifying glass: to be able to explore and look deeply into those deep questions. Matt, thank you so much for taking your time, ten minutes, for me today. Learners, if you have a chance to take a class from Matt, you're going to be passionate about what you learn. Thank you so very much for your participation and I look forward to listening and reading the transcript in our podcast. Thanks so much Matt.

MN: I look forward to having some of your learners in my classroom. I hope I see you in there.

TP: I appreciate you Matt, thank you so very much.

MN: You're welcome.

TP: Bye-bye now.