In episode 17, “Online Learning to Bridge Cultural Divides,” Dr. Rhianna Rogers, associate professor at SUNY Empire State College and Ernest Boyer Presidential Fellow at the Rockefeller Institute, calls in via video conferencing software to illustrate how online learning can be structured to improve student engagement. Rogers explains the importance of breaking down barriers to higher education access, such as the cost of textbooks and computer programs. Rogers, who is leading the Spring 2020 Center for Law and Policy Solutions (CLPS) Internship Program, identifies her background—living abroad in multiple countries and a lifelong learner—as an influence on her teaching methods, which are focused on bridging cultural divides through active learning and engagement.


Rhianna Rogers, Associate Professor of Interdisciplinary Studies, SUNY Empire State College and Ernest Boyer Presidential Fellow, Rockefeller Institute of Government

  • Transcript

    Transcript was generated using AI software and may contain errors. 

    Alexander Morse 00:06

    Online learning is changing the way students can access higher education. The days of lecture halls and three hour classes might find themselves replaced by virtual instruction and online discussion boards. But using the same instruction model and just substituting the location might not be enough to fully realize the power of online learning. Welcome to Policy Outsider. I’m your host, Alex Morse. On today’s episode, we’re going to dive into the role of online learning and how we can use it to break down access barriers and help bridge cultural divides. We will be videoconferencing with our guest, Dr. Rhianna Rogers, who will explain the powers and benefits of online learning and why it’s important to be a lifelong learner, even as a professor. Rhianna also will discuss how she plans to utilize her past experiences and teaching expertise to work with the Rockefeller Institute’s Center for Law and Policy Solutions’ internship program, and what work she expects to accomplish with the 2020 spring semester class.

    Alexander Morse 01:24

    Okay, so I’ve got my computer open and everything plugged in trying to connect with Rhianna. Oh, there you are. But I can’t hear you yet. Maybe if I press Join Audio. Are we on?

    Rhianna Rogers 01:40

    Yes, we’re on.

    Alexander Morse 01:42

    Great. How are you today?

    Rhianna Rogers 01:43

    Good. How are you doing?

    Alexander Morse 01:44

    I’m doing well, thank you. As I mentioned at the top of the podcast, I’m videoconferencing with Dr. Rhianna Rogers, an associate professor of interdisciplinary studies at Empire State College’s western New York campus. Rhianna has started a number of projects involving data collection and surveying, including the Buffalo Project, which we’ll get into later, and how she will use that in conjunction with the Rockefeller Institute’s Center for Law and Policy Solutions’ internship program, CLPS for short. We’ll also talk about how Rhianna uses online software and platforms to help educate students across the state, across the country, and even across the globe. Before we jump into online learning, the Buffalo Project, and your role for the spring CLPs class, why don’t you tell us a bit about yourself?

    Rhianna Rogers 02:30

    Thanks for having me here, Alex. I’m excited to be talking about the Buffalo Project as well as the CLPS internship at the Rockefeller. My background is pretty eclectic. I have multiple degrees in multiple areas. Specifically, my bachelor’s degree is in multidisciplinary studies, I didn’t know what I wanted to be when I grew up, so I did a little bit of everything. Studied political science, anthropology, sociology, education. I knew when I was growing up that I always wanted to be diverse and look at different things from different vantage points. As a person growing up in a multiracial family, I actually speak four languages.

    Alexander Morse 03:10

    What languages are those?

    Rhianna Rogers 03:11

    German, Spanish, Yucatec Maya, and English. I also am learning Cajun Creole. I’m also learning Arabic because that’s the language that my students currently speak where I teach in Lebanon.

    Alexander Morse 03:27

    How many of those languages intersect with each other?

    Rhianna Rogers 03:30

    Some of them do. The Romance languages like Spanish, French Cajun Creole, which is a French derivative. English and German are a Germanic languages, so those link together. The outliers are Maya, which is based on an Asiatic root language, and Arabic, which is its own language family. So those are really hard. Four different language families.

    Alexander Morse 03:52

    I was actually watching one of your lectures and you were talking about how much of a challenge learning Arabic is because it’s different from all the other languages that you’ve just listed. So how’s that going?

    Rhianna Rogers 04:02

    We’re still working on the point-and-tell-me the word and then I repeat, that’s where I’m at with my students.

    Alexander Morse 04:09

    That’s so interesting that you’ve traveled across the world, lived in several different countries, and you’re picking up cultures and ideas from where you’ve been. How does that influence you today?

    Rhianna Rogers 04:18

    Well, as you just mentioned, living in four countries, I’m originally from California, I moved to New York from Florida. I lived there for 11 years and I lived in Pennsylvania for a year. But I also have lived in Ecuador and Mexico, and I’m a huge backpacker. So literally I came back not too long ago from France from backpacking there. I believe that the ability to go and enter into another country and understand the differences that they have to offer, you can learn from each other. There’s a term that comes out of my own research that I call mutual reciprocity, which I tell my students a lot. That means that you can gain respect and knowledge from each other by treating each other as equals not as lesser or lower. A perfect example goes to the Buffalo Project RAs. In academia, we usually call research assistants, research assistants, which puts them on a lower level than the professor. I don’t like that word. I say research associate because I want them to think that they’re partners with me in this process. Students today are more interested in being a partner with you and learning from you and sharing back with you than they are about a sage on a stage where you’re talking down to them.

    Alexander Morse 05:26

    That was the primary mode of instruction when I was an undergrad. The three hour long lectures. By the time I was in grad school, it was much different. Classes were still three hours long, but it was much more seminar based. It was inclusive, engaging, and I feel like I got much more out of my education during grad school compared to when I was 18 and being lectured to.

    Rhianna Rogers 05:47

    Yes, or talked at, right? I’ll give you an example of my frame of teaching, which I feel very, very privileged to have won quite a few awards for my unique approach to teaching, including the Chancellor’s Award for Teaching Excellence in SUNY in 2017. It has to do with the fact that I like to be an innovator and not continue to follow patterns. I asked students what they want and then I change what I do. I’m a constant, lifelong learner. I’ll give you a perfect example, if you were to come into my classroom, all of my classrooms are flipped. Ninety-nine percent of my classrooms use open educational resources and open sources. I don’t like textbooks. We all know how expensive they are today and how it’s alienating certain populations. If you notice on some of the information that we’ve talked about before, I’m a fellow at SUNY and teaching others to be this kind of forward-thinking, inclusive about the way that they structure their courses. I’ve written many articles and done a lot of presentations about how can I make online learning or blended learning or nontraditional types of learning styles engaging to students? And really, you ask them. You don’t assume. That’s the number one thing. You ask, “What did you like about this?” You survey them. “Hey, we just adopted this new thing into the course. Did you like it? Was it effective? Do you think it was cumbersome?” If it is, then you get rid of it. The kind of humility that comes with progressive teaching styles, where you’re not putting yourself as the only knowledge keeper in the room, allows you to really gain new insights and it makes your class exciting for everybody who’s participating,

    Alexander Morse 07:24

    It reminds me of that cartoon comparison of a boss versus a leader. In one frame, you have a boss sitting atop their desk shouting directives at employees. In the next frame, the leader isn’t on the desk but is on the ground with the employees participating, collaborating, helping, leading.

    Rhianna Rogers 07:41

    Well, if you came to my office, I actually have a desk sitting in my office, and I tell this to my students come to my office, there’s no chair on the opposite side of my desk because that is power positioning. When you come into my office and you’re a student, I have a roundtable that we’re sitting at the same level, in the same chair, and we have our conversation. I tell them that. I’ve thought that through and I planned that out because I want students to understand, you can teach me as much as I can teach you.

    Alexander Morse 08:06

    That makes sense. You’re encouraging students to feel that they’re part of a team involved in the process. I buy that.

    Rhianna Rogers 08:14

    That’s part of the piece about opening even my online courses. I’ll give you an example. I’m very, very tech savvy. The irony is I wasn’t. When I was in Florida, I was a traditional professor. I never taught online. I was 100 percent that person talking with students. I had that flipped classroom mindset, where I would involve students and share resources before, but then we would get together and do group work. The first thing I thought when I came to Empire State College, since over 60 percent of our courses are online, I didn’t want to lose the type of professor that I was in Florida. Where this is the thing that excites me, I actually won a very big award in Florida for teaching in face-to-face classes. I was like, okay, now I’m in a new environment. How do I make sure that I’m still that engaging professor that I used to be? That’s actually what transitioned me into learning all these technologies was that I wanted to find softwares that were easy to use, simple to adopt, and open to everyone so that they would be able to engage with me on a regular basis. For example, Zoom, let me give you the reason why I use this. I’ve gone through many software programs that allow you to do interfacing, videoconferencing. But our international students say Skype or some of these other things require you to download things. Most of our students, a lot of them don’t have computers, they’re using their smartphones. This means you’re using up your data plan for the month. That means just by downloading one software tool, you can’t call your friends, you can’t call your family, you are not going to be able to do this because I’ve required you to use something that’s using your whole data. So I started doing a search, what was something that wasn’t going to do this and we found out Zoom didn’t and we piloted it with students and students said, “I have my phone again.” And we’re like, “Great, then we’re going to use this.”

    Alexander Morse 10:00

    I’m glad that you brought up that you were originally not tech savvy, and that we’re talking about barriers and access to these programs. I know I’m not exactly tech savvy. I’m not a technophobe, but sometimes my patience level with tech is pretty low. But I will have to say, using this web-based videoconference to chat with you. It’s easy. You emailed me a link, I clicked on it, and here we are. When prepping for this interview, I wanted to challenge you about what we’re doing would be an additional barrier. But based on this experience and the fact surveyed students preferred this method, I’m not so sure I need to. This is pretty easy to do.

    Rhianna Rogers 10:36

    But here’s the example, as I just mentioned, I piloted a lot of things. I had to be willing to learn about technologies so that I could, just like my subject matter, that I would become the expert in case something happens. So go back to the original issue we had turning on the mics, I was very common, I knew how to resolve it, and I knew how to tell you exactly what to do and type out. Imagine if I came unprepared with that technological knowledge and I wasn’t an expert. That means that I would be inhibiting the knowledge that you could gain from me because I wouldn’t know how to even use this technology.

    Alexander Morse 11:11

    Right, and then I would probably be disinterested and discouraged, and then you’ve lost me. At least my attention for that day.

    Rhianna Rogers 11:17

    Exactly. Even with all my meetings, we actually have a general housekeeping I share for the all the interns, a Zoom tutorial before they even came to Zoom for their first meeting. Zoom offers these tutorials and it was like a two minute tutorial about what Zoom is, so they could familiarize themselves. Here’s the other thing I would say too, we have a misnomer in our culture that we assume that somebody who’s younger means that they have more technological skills and we call them digital natives. I would argue against that. I would say that the younger generations are front-end users. That doesn’t mean they understand the technologies they’re using. If we make these assumptions that these “younger” users are going to automatically be digitally native, it’s just like in a traditional classroom, where you have a whole bunch of different age groups and you assume that they all have read US history. You can’t make that assumption. Your role as the instructor and educator is to say, “I don’t know where they are. The only way for me to know is to ask them questions and then to build from that.” That constructivist model is literally at the baseline of my teaching. I always ask my students questions, so that I can know what could the limitations be in this learning process? How can I help them so that the content is the focus of what they’re doing, not the technologies?

    Rhianna Rogers 11:26

    Before you mentioned it was when you got to Empire State College that you really got invested in online learning and using it as a powerful tool? When was that?

    Rhianna Rogers 12:48

    I came in 2010. I have to tell you an interesting story that led up to it. Most people don’t know this, it takes like nine months to go through the process of getting a professorship. I already knew I wasn’t living here from Florida, but I still lived in Florida. I knew nothing about New York. I’m not a New Yorker, I’m a Californian. This is not my background. My family’s not from here. And Western New York, I knew even less about. I knew about New York City and that was probably about it. I didn’t even know how big the state was in the concepts of like New York. I didn’t know. So one of the things that I did, and this is my first foray going into technology, I joined a whole bunch of online social media groups when I lived in Florida for six months before I moved here, across categories, whether it be hiking to eating to this, because I’m an anthropologist at my core. I love data. I wanted to know, what do Western New Yorkers like? What are the impingements that could be great touch points for me to bring in? I’ll give you an example. Whenever I tell people that I’m from Southern California, I live in Western New York, there’s myths about Buffalo being like the snowiest city here. It’s actually not data-wise. Syracuse is. But the myth is that Buffalo is really all these things, all these things. I knew that perception by going on these social media groups. I found that out six months before, so I said, “Okay, people like California. If I walk into the room teaching and I tell people I’m Californian or Floridian, they’re going to instantly say one of two things. Why are you here? Are you prepared for snow?” So preemptively, this is what I did, I told them about the study I did online. I told them the questions that I knew that they were going to say and it broke down barriers instantly because they weren’t assuming anything about me. I already knew what their assumptions might be based on my data. That kind of data collection, which I build into all of my classes and I encourage students to do, is one way that I think has really helped me in the Rockefeller. As I mentioned early on, we’re talking about politics and right now you know that a lot of people jump to assumptions on all sides of the political perspectives without actually having any data. It’s an impingement for why we have so many silos and a lot of emotions that are dictating politics today. Because people aren’t looking at the data, they’re actually assuming things based on a limited amount of knowledge. One of the things I say about even technology, we talked about assuming younger people know more versus an older person, the same can be said about any facet of life. If we assume first and we don’t ask questions first, that’s when we start running into problems. That’s when we create divides. If we go back to that idea of technology, if I tell people I know people are going to be technophobic, I know people are going to be digital natives, but I don’t ascribe that they’re going to be young or old. I don’t make any of those assumptions. I ask you to say, where do you think about data? What do you think about technology? That means that I’m collecting data from you and then I’m no longer making assumptions about you. Then it empowers you in the process, because I’m actually giving you your real voice, rather than assuming what your voice is based on my limited amount of knowledge.

    Alexander Morse 16:04

    That’s a great segue into the Buffalo Project. Let’s take a quick break and jump into it when we get back.

    Alexander Morse 16:10

    The collective student debt balance in the United States is approximately $1.5 trillion. Some research suggests that acquiring debt affects life decisions, such as whether or not to stay in college, postponing homeownership, and delaying childbirth. Although we’re aware of how some students respond to debt, how do students approached debt before and while they are in college? The 2019 fall CLPS internship class went to college campuses to find out exactly that. The CLPS students organized focus groups that included students, high school guidance counselors, college financial aid officers, and policy experts, in an effort to find out whether students felt prepared to take on the responsibility of paying for college. The class presented their research at a Rockefeller Institute forum in December and we are now in the midst of publishing a five part blog post series written by the CLPS students. You can check out their impressive research by visiting Be sure to keep checking out our website for more updates from the CLPS class.

    Alexander Morse 17:27

    Welcome back to Policy Outsider. I’m your host, Alex Morse. And I am with guest, Dr. Rhianna Rogers. Just before the break, we were talking about data collection and surveying and how that inspired you to work on the Buffalo Project. Why don’t you share with us what the Buffalo Project is?

    Rhianna Rogers 17:41

    This ties back to what I said about that original data collection. This actually started from that original thing I did in 2009, when I was collecting six months before I came in 2010 and it has never stopped. Technically, there’s a baby pilot of six months in Florida, and then 10 years now since I’ve been here. Basically, what the Buffalo Project is, is it does exactly what I’m talking about. I make zero assumptions. I am not a native of New York and I cannot assume that I would know things about New York. I could lose so much interesting information if I did. Rather than making any assumptions I have people inform me about what things I should know are important. The study, which is a formalized survey that actually spans more than one SUNY school, so it originally started at SUNY Empire State College in Western New York and I surveyed a bunch of students in a class. This actually started as a classroom assignment. There used to be a course called “US History Through Ethnology,” and it’s now called “American Cultural History,” but basically there was no midterm or final, it was an online course. I created a little mini-survey of six questions. They had to go into the community. They weren’t allowed to interview friends or family. They had to go into a different neighborhood and ask them what culture meant to them. Over the course of two years, I collected all this data from all my students and I started seeing trends about what people knew about each other, about what groups were speaking to each other, and what groups weren’t. I realized that this was so enriching and students enjoyed this class. It was my most popular class at the time. I said, “You know what, this should be a real project with real students really working this all the time.” 2012 is when it became a formal project. Now, my first research assistant, this is interesting about how this breaks down cultural divides, she’s 50. She was 50 at the time. She had just come back from raising children and she wanted to go to school. She had never lived outside of Western New York. She had very limited knowledge of other cultural groups. She lived in an area that’s called North Tonawanda. I just want to explain something about this, she had no idea that there were certain derogatory terms that exist for cultural groups that weren’t being used anymore because she had never seen them in real life. I said, you’re the first person that’s going to be working on this project. I need to know your story because it’s going to inform what we do. So she started asking questions. Well, I don’t know anything about this and I read this in your book and then this class, I want to know about other neighborhoods. So we started mapping out neighborhoods. That led to “let’s co-create a formalized study.” We already have this little six question survey. Let’s make more. We got a 25 questions survey. We went out and we started interviewing, some things offline some things online. That was our first data collection for two years. 2014 was the end of it, so 2012 to 2014. Basically what happened was, we said, “Wow, we have all this information.” One of the biggest things we learned from that first survey that students felt isolated because Empire State College is a distributed campus and they felt they didn’t have a lot of touch points to reach out to each other. The first thing that Maria wanted to do was create a student club, Empire State College had no student clubs on that side of the state. It had never existed in its 40 years.

    Alexander Morse 20:50


    Rhianna Rogers 20:50

    Never had any. So I was like, “Alright, I’m going to help you start the first club.” Maria created the second ever club at Empire State College. We now have 25 clubs, 10 years later, across the entire state. The bylaws that Maria created are the baseline bylaws of all clubs at the college. Think about that empowerment. She was like, “I read this data, this is what they said, this is my idea.” I’m like, “Go for it. This is what you’re interested in doing, I’m going to help you do it.” That’s basically been the format that I’ve carried throughout the last 10 years. When students, it’s interesting, join this project, they’re like, “Well, what do you want me to do?” And I’m like, “What do you want to do? What’s your interest? And how is this going to help you in your future? Professional career and academic pursuits?” That’s what I’m interested in.

    Alexander Morse 21:38

    That’s really interesting that you’re sourcing inspiration from the students. But what do you do when you run into a student that doesn’t have that kind of passion project? They’re more of a generalist and don’t want to specialize in any one area of study? Or maybe they just don’t know what they want to study? How do you communicate? How do you work with the students?

    Rhianna Rogers 21:58

    Just like myself, remember I mentioned, as an undergraduate, I didn’t know what I wanted to be when I grew up. I did a little bit of everything. I understand that idea of not wanting to be pigeonholed. I actually have an unpaid research associate on the project right now who we just had a phone call earlier today. He’s like, “I want to do this, and this and this.” I said, “Okay, you’re going to be working with me for 14 weeks. For these six weeks, you’re going to do this. For this, two weeks, you’re going to do this. And for this, you’re going to do this, and then you’re going to report out about each of the things you learn.”

    Alexander Morse 22:31

    That way they can collect data from themselves, find out what they might want to do, and hopefully find inspiration that serves as a launching pad.

    Rhianna Rogers 22:39


    Alexander Morse 22:41

    That also plays really well into the idea that you prefer open material, excuse me open source material over textbooks, because you don’t want to dictate what other people are trying to do or trying to learn.

    Rhianna Rogers 22:51

    Exactly. There’s a couple key words that I always use when I talk about the Buffalo Project. It’s about mutual reciprocity, respect. It’s about wondering about each other and asking questions. And it’s really about empowering the individuals and giving voice to the people involved. Whether it be the people that are being surveyed giving voice to them or the people who are actually guiding the project as research associates or now as Rockefeller CLPS interns.

    Alexander Morse 23:17

    That’s a great transition to CLPS. How do you anticipate implementing your work, your mode of work, with the 2020 spring class?

    Rhianna Rogers 23:26

    I’m pretty ambitious. Since I have a couple of projects that are already linked to the Buffalo Project, I’ll highlight a few for you to see this. We’ll come back to talking about assignments of people and some of the tasks that they’re doing, because it’s pretty fun already. I’ll give you some examples. One of the things that I wanted to show is, I cocreated this concept of virtual residencies at Empire State College. The theme of the CLPS internship this semester is building communities in times of social unrest. Here’s the thing about being timely and relevant, the topic came from surveying people. What was the most interesting topic that most people voted on for us to do this semester, which was, we have social unrest in the United States? How do we fix this? This is where the theme came from. It was sourcing data that I had already collected and then using that to inform the development of the course. I’m going to give you another example. The course itself that’s being offered to CLPS interns, I first offered it to a Buffalo Project research associate. They helped me build the curriculum in it. Her name is Nay Farber. She’s actually still on the project right now. She piloted it and now the students that are in the CLPS internship, I told them to reach out to Nay. She can actually explain to you what she went through this. She helped build this. Again, that empowering piece. I said, a student built this with me. They’re taking a course that’s influenced by other people. You’re taking a concept that’s building communities in times of social unrest that a bunch of people said would be a great idea. On top of it, there’s three pieces from the Buffalo Project that are within the CLPS internship: virtual residencies, which I’ll explain that in a second, deliberative conversations, and a diversity, equity, and inclusion presentation. Virtual residencies, which I was talking about, this grew out of a partnership that I have with international education. I mentioned I teach internationally. I’m really passionate about cultures and traveling places. How could I not teach internationally? It’s one of those things where I knew as soon as I came to the college, I’m going to get into international programs. When I joined, we had an experience that led off on this. I actually did an interview a little while ago that talked about this. I teach in Lebanon and as we know, there’s a lot of turmoil happening in the Middle East. One of the first years that I was working, so it’s about three years that I’ve been teaching in Lebanon, and there was political unrest that was happening in Lebanon, and I couldn’t travel to go to Beirut, which is what I usually had been doing. We had to brainstorm as faculty and as administrators about how can we still have a robust, engaging experience now that we’re going to have to do it all online. That was our very first virtual residency. We had a week to come up with an idea of a model that would be engaging, that would not bore students, that we’re not talking at them. So we found out and I told you, I like Zoom a lot. There’s a feature in Zoom, that’s called breakout rooms, which you actually have a main classroom, you as the moderator, which would be me in this case. I can assign people that are in a group of like 20 to smaller classrooms and they can have little mini-discussions, like they’re breaking off into groups. I, as a faculty member, can jump from these little mini-groups. It was great. We also looked at the data and said, “How long does it take for students to get bored? What’s that cutoff point?” Five to 10 minutes. We broke up our classes into these small mini-blocks, where we would change things from whether it’d be a video that they watched, a breakout session that they were going to do, an online game, which there’s an example that you see that I’m sharing with you on your screen, it’s called Ayiti: The Cost of Life. You are pretending to be a person who lives on the island of Haiti. If you choose to prioritize education, food, family, what would happen if you go down that path based on you choosing these points. All students were required to play this in this particular game that I was teaching, flip classrooms, so they had to play it first. Then they came back in to discuss what did they learn if they went down these different paths. These groups were comprised of students that are from international countries, as well as from the United States. Imagine you playing a game and you have a perspective from this country versus this country talking about the same subject. It was a lot of fun. I actually had issues trying to get them to come back to class because all they wanted to do was just talk to each other. That’s an example. That’s virtual residency. The students that are in the CLPS internship are going to be joining a virtual residency this semester for three weeks, with seven institutions, one from the Dominican Republic, two from Lebanon, and possibly one well, I have a couple students from the from Prague, as well as nine courses from the United States. Imagine this. We’re expecting about 150 students that are from all these different perspectives, these courses that are affiliated with this virtual residency. They’re there in different disciplines, some are undergrads, some are grad. So imagine, but they’re all coming around a particular subject matter, which is “building community in times of social unrest.” It’ll be exciting. You’re just talking about all these different points and how different people can talk to each other. That’s one cross-cultural experience that they’re going to be doing. Another one is deliberative conversations. Now this is a really fun one that’s going to be happening with CLPS. Deliberative conversation grew out of political science. Basically, what this is, you get a group of people with different perspectives in the room. This is the rule, it’s not about focusing on differences. It’s about finding common ground and creating a solution. We’ve had many of these conversations, CLPS students and Buffalo Project RAs are required to attend some of the deliberative conversations I’m hosting this semester. Then the CLPS interns have to create their own at the end of the semester. That’s their final exam.

    Alexander Morse 29:18

    When you’re breaking off the students into these deliberative conversations, are you purposely finding people with opposing viewpoints or different perspectives and encouraging them to find resolutions? Or do you assign a sort of devil’s advocate?

    Rhianna Rogers 29:33

    One of the things of a moderator that that I play in this role, because I actually have formal training to be able to be that kind of impartial person. When I moderate these sessions, I’m not being Rhianna. I’m being Dr. Rogers, who knows that there’s a whole bunch of people in the room that have different viewpoints. If I see a conversation leaning towards one way or the other, then I play devil’s advocate and I pull us back to the middle. So there’s that one. The other thing is we have guiding documents that frame the conversation that I usually develop or we do in conjunction with some other folks. Where I intentionally put, what’s this side? What’s this side? And what’s this side? I provide resources and framing questions that are impartial that I’ll say, “Do you agree or disagree with facts,” so that any perspective can be collected. When we first started the deliberative conversation pilot two years ago, we started it small and I went out of my way to go around and ask colleagues, do you know if somebody who represents a conservative perspective? Can I invite them to this panel? Do you know somebody who represents a moderate perspective? Do you know somebody who represents a liberal perspective? I did that on purpose, so that my group would be diverse. Now that these are established at Empire State College, we open it up to anybody who wants to come. One of the great things is at the very end of each deliberative conversation, I asked students to send me their ideas for the next one. Again, that same idea of the Buffalo Project, every conversation is inspired by student voices. They’re the ones who are choosing our next topic.

    Alexander Morse 31:06

    You’ve built your own network and it appears the students want to invest in that network, paying it forward.

    Rhianna Rogers 31:12

    Exactly. The final one, and I’ll just tell you, the one that’s coming up that we’re dealing with is “Gentrification in New York State: Reframing the Conversation.” One of my Buffalo Project research associates lives close to New York City. She collected information from gentrification in New York. Some of my research assistants live in the Capital Region, so they’ve collected some information. Then we’ve collected information from Western New York. Then we’ve opened this literally up to anybody in the state, which means we’ve posed questions like, “If you’re not represented in the guiding document, tell us about it in the questions when we break out into these groups.” That way, we’re collecting all of this. Here’s the cool thing about at the end, I don’t let anybody leave. We have about two hours to do this. I say we have to come up with some type of solution together. They all report out. I collect that all into the finalized guiding document. Then I publish it and I send it out to everybody. If you go to my website, all of those published guiding documents are online, forward facing so that people can see. I am a very big proponent of not collecting data just to collect data for data’s sake. I’m very big on participatory action research, which means I take that data and we really do something with it.

    Alexander Morse 32:27

    I really like what you said about if a student’s position isn’t represented in the guiding document, you still want to source their input. I think that’s a really creative way to engage everyone and learn from the process. Following up on student engagement, I know with my experience with online learning, it is nothing like what we’re doing now. I would typically have to read a chapter, watch a lecture video, and then post some prepared answers to a discussion board all within a week’s time frame. However, I felt that in this type of learning environment, I was giving and getting less. What are your thoughts on the traditional online learning model?

    Rhianna Rogers 33:06

    I don’t particularly like it. I mean, I wrote an article, probably early on in this process. I was a very early adopter of open educational resources. Actually, SUNY system says I’m an OER pioneer because I started so long ago now. That’s the reason why I became a fellow very, very early on. One of the things that I wrote in a very early article was in order to really be an effective and excel as an online educator, you have to be willing to learn as much as your students. Some professors aren’t. Some professors have been stuck in their mode forever. They don’t value the input of their students. Unfortunately, that’s hindering higher education today in many ways, especially as we’re moving more online. You cannot instantly adopt a brick-and-mortar teaching model and expect it to be effective, which many people when they move online do. They’ll just post a PowerPoint and they’ll say talk about my PowerPoint. Now, if you came into my class, and I can actually show you an example of a class in a second by taking a look at a screen, I’m teaching a graduate course this semester on advocacy. I compiled a whole bunch of resources. Here’s what I told students to do in the discussion, choose two to three resources from this list that relate to your particular interests and talk about it. Make sure you list what that name is, because your other classmates are probably not going to choose the same documents. Or if you find something online that I haven’t highlighted, share that document and summarize it for us and share the link. Again, it goes back to empowerment. It goes back to opportunity. I’m not requiring all the students to read the 30 documents I put in there. I’m requiring you to read two to three of them or add another one. When students add another one, it adds to my list that’s in that discussion forum. That means I actually put their name next to it too and I say contributed by X student on this date.

    Alexander Morse 35:01

    Yes, it’s such a collaborative model, everything is reinvested back into, I don’t want to say your work, but everyone’s work.

    Rhianna Rogers 35:09

    Exactly. Which goes back to the reason why I call the Buffalo Project the Buffalo Project. Some people have talked to me before, they’re like, “Oh, your project.” And I said, “No, no, no. This is not me. This is a group of individuals who have come together, like-minded individuals who want to make the world better by empowering each other.”

    Alexander Morse 35:26

    I want to return to something you said just a moment ago, you mentioned that higher education is lagging. I have a quote here from one of your presentations: “Higher education is a bit behind in the technological revolution, which is hindering its ability to stay relevant to younger generations.” What do you mean by that?

    Rhianna Rogers 35:46

    Let’s give a perfect example. Sometimes people adopt technologies and apply for grants because they want to be flashy and incorporate bells and whistles. Even if there’s no sustainability plan or a strategic plan about its adoption, we need to start moving away from that. We need to start thinking about maybe this is the flashiest idea or concept but it’s not the best thing for my course. Even if you get a grant or you write a paper about it that doesn’t mean you should keep it. You should be willing to say great, it didn’t work out. Let’s move on and go to something else. We have been trained in academia, I’ll give you this as an example, to think about the concept of publications, of articles, and traditional journals. There are still scholars today that don’t accept any open source materials as being valid. Even if scholars are publishing. I remember when I was a graduate student, my very first publication was an online journal. My professors were so anti that they said, “Oh, you just wasted all this research.” I said, “You know what, if you flash forward today, that research that I’m talking about on Aztec women, which I published, is my most cited source today, because it’s all around the world. Because it’s been out there online for almost two decades.” Imagine a traditional resource that’s in a book and it’s sitting in a library that maybe six people have ever seen. Or it costs thousands of dollars to get a journal subscription to that journal, which even limits it based on socioeconomic status. I think that’s the issue. We have to recognize that the world today is not the day of the ivory tower of before. People today care about education and the way that it empowers them to be successful in their lives. It’s not about coming to see that sage on the stage. It’s about I’m doing this because I don’t want to work three jobs anymore. I’m doing this because I want to provide for my family. That validation, this goes back to the Buffalo Project, I collected all the, I asked them, what are your hindrances? The number one question that I think has been the best of the Buffalo Project: What’s the number one hindrance to you being successful in higher education? Open-ended question. I’ve collected so much information and developed so much programming based on that question alone.

    Alexander Morse 38:00

    What are some highlights?

    Rhianna Rogers 38:01

    Textbooks are too expensive. Number one thing, I jumped on OARs instantly. Another example, I don’t own a computer. I mentioned that earlier. I know that our students are using their smartphones, because they told me that. So I said, “You know what, why aren’t we partnering with people to give them computers? Why don’t we have a library checkout for a computer? Why not?” That’s those kinds of community partnerships. “Okay, you’re telling me this is a reason you can’t go to school. Let’s take this barrier away. You’re telling me this is a reason why you’re not successful while you’re in school and you’re not being retained, let’s take this barrier way.” More professors, I would say, need to think along those lines when they’re educating students in today’s 21st century globalized world. I wanted to mention one more thing too, because here’s another example of diversifying. We talked about how do you engage people and effectively engage them online. You can’t just give them a PowerPoint and a discussion forum and expect that that’s going to be great. They’re going to come in and out all the time. I mentioned that we have a diversity forum, but we also have a series of required events that students have to attend. I have provided information about all these events. Not only are these events required for the CLPS interns in the course, but they’re also required for the Buffalo Project research associates. However, I also care about the rest of the world, so I opened this up to anybody who wants to attend. We publicly pump out this information about these presentations in marketing and I share the Zoom link because you can actually host up to 350 people on Zoom if you want. Imagine this, not only am I encouraging people to come to these online conversations on Zoom and they’re required as their course, it breaks up the mode of learning by having different conversations happen, by bringing in and out different people, by having something happen in-person and online. One of the cool things about a deliberative conversation, for example, I do both on and offline components of this. The last one that we had last term, we had seat spaces across the state. One was in Buffalo, one was in Syracuse, one was in Long Island, where you could actually come into a physical building and look at the video stream that we were projecting it and be around people. If that was what you wanted, because some of our students said they wanted that. They wanted to be physically around people. I made that space for them. Then there were some people that lived really, really, really far away and they weren’t able to come to the physical locations, I didn’t want to alienate them either. That’s why we had Zoom, so that they can also participate even if they don’t have the luxury of having a car or transportation to get them to this conversation. That their voice still matters.

    Alexander Morse 40:39

    Inclusion is so necessary. It’s so important to empower everyone. For the upcoming 2020 Spring CLPS class, what do you anticipate being the research component? We’ve been talking a lot about sourcing ideas from your students, do you plan on doing the same thing here?

    Rhianna Rogers 40:55

    I do. Yesterday, we had our sourcing meeting where students were asked at the very beginning of the semester, just before it started, to read through materials related to the Buffalo Project and send me a list of three to five ideas of areas of interests, so I could think about where they could fit. Their deadline was yesterday, to really tell me in the virtual meeting, where their areas of interest work. In the kickoff meeting that I had with all the Buffalo Project, research associates and the CLPS interns, I also have two colleagues who are doing micro-studies that are affiliated with the Buffalo Project. One of the micro-studies has to do with cyberbullying. The other micro-study has to do with immigration and refugees. The main project of the Buffalo Project three pronouns. We’re in the third iteration of the data collection. I’m now interviewing community partnerships that I’ve established. One of the partnerships is with a theater community here. I’m actually giving it out specifically to theater folks and the people who attend theater. I’m also giving it out to a wealthy retirement community, because it’s another voice that’s very different. I’ve already set up a series of four to five more communities that we’re also going to be interviewing. There’s a data collection piece. I told students that are in the CLPS internship: Are you interested in data processing? Do you want to do something with social media and talking out in the community? Would you like to develop the survey? Do you want to cover information from a previously recorded session, whether it be a deliberative conversation that’s posted online, a guiding document, a diversity forum? They all had to review those materials, and they came together and told me what they wanted to do. I can tell you the five interns this semester, I have one intern who’s working on a micro-study of immigration, I have another student who decided I like the micro-study of immigration but I’m going to do that for half the term. The other half the term, I want to do data processing for the Buffalo Project. I have two students who said, you know, what I really am interested in is this deliberative conversation you had about the reentry of incarcerated people’s into higher education, so there’s two students working on that. Ironically, I just published an article and in the same journal that I published in, a person had just written an article about incarceration in New York State. I just sent it to those two students today. I was like, incorporate this into what you’re doing. A few years ago, there was another student on the Buffalo Project, who started to build a website about reentry of incarcerated people. I just passed that website off to those two students.

    Alexander Morse 43:27

    Everything is reinvested.

    Rhianna Rogers 43:28

    Exactly. So I said, “Look, you guys are going to add your data to this website that other students already built.” Then I have another student who has just decided that they want to do data processing, but they want to do data processing on the new data. I have one student who’s working on Buffalo Project 1.0 and 2.0. And another one working on Buffalo Project 3.0.

    Alexander Morse 43:47

    What are the average years for these students?

    Rhianna Rogers 43:49

    They range tremendously. Well, let me tell you, my youngest student just turned 18, my oldest student is 52. My youngest student is 11 weeks into college, just graduated high school, my oldest student is getting her second master’s degree.

    Alexander Morse 44:06

    That’s incredible. Incredible, not just because of the program’s diversity, but also because of your ability to communicate across those different ages, cultures, and demographics.

    Rhianna Rogers 44:16

    I think the big piece of me not assuming and letting people have their own voice allows them to say I’m entering at X point. It creates safe space. I’ll give you an example. After all the students met each other, my youngest student gave me a call and said, “You know, I realized after hearing everybody, I’m the least experienced on this group.” And I said, “Listen, I saw something in you and your application. I knew you were young. But here you have this opportunity to be exposed to so many people in different phases of their career. Imagine this opportunity.” I said, “Look at it that way. Don’t be afraid and ask me, I’m here to help you.” She’s sent me emails every day now, I’m so excited. I’m so excited and she’s brand new to college and imagine this opportunity, having this just entering. The other piece I would say too, is I have to be willing to expose myself to my students. That means I tell them stories about my own excitement and pitfalls of my own career. I don’t put myself up here at this higher level, where I’m talking down to them. I say, “You know what, I got a D in anthropology and I’ve got my doctorate and in anthropology.” It’s a true story. I said, “Look, you are your only hindrance to being successful. Use your resources around you.”

    Alexander Morse 45:28

    Rhianna, you’re very inspirational. I wish I had you as one of my professors. But who inspires you?

    Rhianna Rogers 45:33

    Usually I tell students this, so I’m going to say this here, one of the biggest inspirations I have is anthropologist, Margaret Mead. She made a statement, which impacted me when I was an undergraduate, so I always share it. I’m just going to read it to you now. “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.” I also end every class so there will be no exception when we are in this class. Students who are watching any of this video, you’re going to get a little foresight into what I always say. There is only 7 percent of the world population that has the privilege to go to college. Your exposure to getting this opportunity of education beyond high school or secondary or whatever, it’s a privilege. You have a social responsibility to share that knowledge with those less privileged. If you approach every class that you take everything that you read or learn, and you think, wow, I have a privilege that the person next to me might not have. If I asked them, and then I share with them, and we have that mutual reciprocity, we could go back to what I said is choosing. We could all make the world a better place.

    Alexander Morse 46:48

    Rhianna, thank you so much for talking with us today.

    Rhianna Rogers 46:50

    Thank you.

    Alexander Morse 46:51

    I’d like to thank Dr. Rhianna Rogers once again for joining us and showing us how tech friendly online learning can be and how we can use these methods to improve education and help empower students, which can only serve to benefit students as they embark on their future careers. As always, I encourage you to follow along with Rockefeller Institute on social media. That’s Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and LinkedIn. And by visiting our website I’m Alex Morse. Until next time.

    Alexander Morse 47:47

    Policy Outsider is presented by the Rockefeller Institute of Government, the public policy research arm of the State University of New York. The Institute conducts cutting edge nonpartisan public policy research and analysis to inform lasting solutions to the challenges facing New York State in the nation. Learn more at or by following at RockefellerInst on social media. Have a question, comment, or idea? Email us at [email protected].

Policy Outsider

Policy Outsider” from the Rockefeller Institute of Government takes you outside the halls of power to understand how decisions of law and policy shape our everyday lives.

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