Online Lesson Planning for Suddenly Teaching Seminars Online

I know many of us are struggling with having to learn how to teach online in a very short period of time. For those of you about to turn your small discussion seminar into an online class, I thought it might be useful to go over some basics of online lesson planning.

Online seminars should, whenever possible, include a combination of synchronous and asynchronous approaches.  I want to help you build lesson plans that maximize the benefits of each approach to online learning. Even if you don’t have the ability to use synchronous tools, you should still find this useful.

The choice between what kind of activities to choose for your suddenly online class should be driven by content needs, learning outcome priorities, and efficient use of limited time for interaction during live online discussions.  If an activity can be done asynchronously without sacrificing quality, then do it. For example, if you normally start class by asking students to identify something they found surprising or interesting about the week’s readings, keep doing that! Just have them answer in a blog or discussion forum before class, then concentrate on the points of common interest during the synchronous discussion.

Asynchronous Activities

Students complete asynchronous activities on their own time, before, during, or after a synchronous class session. You give students a window of time in which they need to complete the activity, and they do so at their convenience within that window, not necessarily at the same time as their classmates. 

These activities should meet at least one of the following needs:

  • Prepare students for a discussion or presentation (individual or group)
  • Check student understanding of a specific term, concept, theory, case, or idea.
  • Follow-up on a discussion topic that needed more time
  • Initiate discussion on a topic there wasn’t time to cover at all.
  • Reduce the amount of time needed to deliver content synchronously
  • Give students meaningful work that will enhance their understanding of key content.

Synchronous Session Activities

Synchronous activities occur within a voice conferencing style virtual classroom. In these sessions, everyone meets live online at the same time for class. In some cases they will directly follow or precede an asynchronous activity, as the two types of activities should complement each other.

These activities should be used to meet one or more of the following needs:

  • Host a discussion that is well-suited to instantaneous response.
  • Review points of confusion in the readings, lectures, or asynchronous discussions
  • Student presentations and small group problem-solving
  • Introduce, discuss or review particularly complex topics, procedures, or ideas.
  • Identify and assess key take home points for the week and build bridges and connections to previous or future material
  • Give students meaningful work that will enhance their understanding of key content.

Example Activities

This is not an exhaustive list by any means and while they are written as paired lessons, faculty should be creative in how they build their class sessions. But for those just getting started, feel free to draw from this list and combine activities as you see fit.

Samples Lessons Combining Asynchronous and Synchronous Activities
Asynchronous ActivitiesSynchronous Activities
Quiz on prerecorded lectures and readings before class to check understanding using a quiz function like Google Forms.Discuss common points of confusion and focus on those to ensure understanding of key terms. 
Ask students to propose discussion questions for the next session on a discussion boardPick a handful of the discussion questions, have the student explain their question and invite responses.
Ask students to work in small groups before class to complete a prompt or activity.Have each group present their work and invite other students to critique and offer counter arguments. If the group work requires a short period of collaboration, use the breakout group function in your VTC.
After class, post a couple of discussion questions for students to answer on topics that you were unable to cover in class. Ask students to respond substantively to one or more questions by the next day and to offer a counterargument to another classmate by the day after that.During the class session, cover as many discussion topics as you like, but recognize that you may not have the time to achieve the desired depth and breadth. Stop discussions as needed to move on to the next topic, but provide a forum for them to continue the conversation after class.
Upload a short lecture on content that needs to be delivered. Alternatively, send them a link to a video. Ask students to post questions, take a quiz, or respond to a prompt in their LMS blog before class.Address any student questions about the lecture or video and highlight a couple of key points before initiating discussion on a related topic. Poll students using the chat function or ‘reactions’ within the VTC to check understanding. 
Ask students to annotate or analyze a key reading. They can annotate in the free software Perusall, or ask them to create a single slide that notes key points.Compare student key points or annotations and make sure that everyone has consensus on the takeaways. Apply the concepts or lessons to a case.
Have students use the Wiki function in the LMS in teams to collaborate and build an entry on a key theory, process, concept, or case.Challenge students on elements of their wiki, including assumptions, missing information, questionable conclusions, or other points of improvement.

One final piece of advice:When designing lessons, be clear in your own minds and communicate to students about the purpose of asynchronous activities. Provide feedback to students (individually or as a group, in writing or during a synchronous session) on their performance so they know their work has value. Estimate how much time a particular activity will take, and make sure you aren’t overburdening them with assignments when you also account for time spent in synchronous sessions.

What ideas do you have for lessons that combine synchronous and asynchronous tools?

What tools are we using? And why Discord should be one of them.

I’m really curious as to how different institutions are managing the sudden transition to online learning. For some, they are trying to maximize the use of synchronous learning with the use of video conferencing software such as Zoom, webex, or Blackboard Collaborate Ultra. For others, asynchronous tools like discussion boards, blogs, and social media are the main option, perhaps because synchronous is impractical or out of reach, perhaps because that’s how online teaching is already done there and that’s where people have expertise. I imagine many schools are using a mix of both.

We have asked faculty to include a significant synchronous component using Blackboard Collaborate Ultra to most closely recreate the in-residence experience. We have a number of advantages in doing so that other institutions don’t have–our students are all adults and paid to be here, and we already had the software in place. Devices may vary and home-based internet connections can be spotty, but we are well positioned to continue classes at their regular times without interruption. The biggest issues are those everyone is facing–quickly training up faculty and students.

For asynchronous tools, we benefit from having access to the Microsoft 365 suite–so things like Tools, Sharepoint, and Forms are available in addition to Blackboard’s discussion forums, blogs, and journals and Panopto for lecture recording. But I’m always on the lookout for other useful tools that can recreate multiple features at once. I’m not talking about Audacity for podcasts or Perusall for document annotation–I mean something that can do discussion boards and chat and voice discussion and allow for file sharing.

What I want to use is Discord.

For those not familiar, Discord is a free to use social media platform originally used by gamers to communicate with their fellow players and fans. Many content creators use it as a community-building space, particularly podcasts, but the platform would work very well for educational purposes. You have to be invited into a particular server, and then once in, you have access to a series of channels dedicated to discussion on particular topics. The channels can be text only or voice-based, restricted access or open to everyone in the server, and you can upload images and share links. The creator controls who can delete comments, create new channels, and can set up something called ‘slow mode’ which prevents a single person from dominating a conversation. Combined with a google drive to store documents, Discord could be a powerful space to connect students and faculty, many of whom may be scattered by time zones around now.

This is a sample server I created. The left side bar shows all the available text and voice channels. The right side bar shows who is currently online. In the center is the chat within a particular channel. Its easy to scroll up or down through messages or do a search, and you can ‘pin’ messages that are particularly important. You can also make channels read-only to communicate important information.

I’ve used Discord to connect with fans of various podcasts, but never for a class. I think it could work very well, though. Its pretty user-friendly and students will pick up on it quickly. The server creator has a lot of ability to customize settings to control who can access what, so it would be easy to build a channel and hide it while you are working on adding content, then let everyone see it. Group work is a breeze–you can assign students different roles, such as ‘Group 1’, and then give that group its own chat and voice channel. Sure, Discord doesn’t have video access or screen sharing, but voice-only access puts less of a strain on the system and doesn’t leave out students that don’t have cameras. Combine this with links to documents (in a google drive or shared one drive or dropbox), and I think Discord will do everything you need it to communicate with students and have high quality discussions.

I’m not teaching right now so I can’t try this out myself, but if someone else wants to take this idea and run with it, please do. I can walk you through the server set up and how to invite your students. All I ask is that you tell me how it goes!

More Tips for Moving Instruction Online

What a time to come back to ALPS! I’ve been absent the last few months as I started my new job as Associate Director of the Teaching Excellence Center at the US Naval War College. But with the sudden move to online teaching due to the coronavirus, I wanted to stop by and offer my top five things for faculty to consider as you make the move to online.

#1 Accept we can’t do everything we had planned. This is okay. We are ALWAYS making choices about what content to cut, as we know there is always greater breadth or depth we can bring to the table. A US Politics course has already cut content on Congress to one week, when they know they could offer an entire course on it. So, be brutal, focus on essentials, and cut back as needed. 

#2: Build in redundancy if you are using synchronous tools. Students may have trouble connecting from home, so if you are using Zoom or BB Collaborate Ultra or any other web-conferencing to hold classes, record the session and allow students to participate via chat, Teams, discussion boards, social media, etc.

#3 Remember that suddenly teaching online is not the same as fully online education. Those courses have months of prep and are intentionally designed for an online environment. We still have to deliver courses in as high a quality as we can, but don’t worry about making everything look pretty or be overwhelmed by most online advice you see online.

#4 Use the tools you already know, and then practice with 1 or two more that are needed to keep the course going. Its okay to record a podcast style lesson with the free and easy-to-use Audacity rather than learn Panopto. Hold virtual office hours before class if you are doing synchronous classes. This will give students a chance to check their equipment set up, troubleshoot problems, and familiarize both professors and student swith the platform.

#5 Communicate extensively with your students about changes, assignments, due dates, etc. Give them a space to talk about what is going on and to socialize. Physical social distancing doesn’t have to mean there’s no human contact, so give them that space.

These are tough times, but its when those of us who care about pedagogy can be useful resources to our students and colleagues. Help where you can, and take care of yourselves.

Study: Students feel they learn more from lecture…but don’t.

Everyone should check out this important study by Deslauriers et al, published recently in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences and currently open access. It outlines an experiment at Harvard that tested direct learning in an introductory physics class compared to indirect reports of learning. The takeaway is that students reported they learned more during the lecture—but performed better on quizzes taken following active learning sessions. This has tremendous implications for how we do active learning research–and shows the dangers of relying on student reports of how they learn.

In the experiment, students attended 11 weeks of the introductory course together, and then in the 12th week were randomly assigned to two groups–one with an instructor giving a compelling lecture, and the other with a instructor running a session using active learning techniques. The instructors were both well versed in active learning approaches and had experience in giving great lectures. Students took a survey afterward reporting on their learning along with a 12 question quiz on the material (created by a different instructor to prevent teaching to the test). In the following session the instructors changed their method, so each set of students experienced both a lecture session and an active learning session. The material in the lecture and active learning sessions was identical, as was the handout. In the lecture, the instructor worked through slides based on the handout and solved problems with students passively observing and filling in the answers, while in the active learning session students worked in small groups to solve the same set of problems with the instructor offering assistance as needed. As the authors say “students in both groups received the exact same information from the handouts and the instructor, and only active engagement with the material was toggled on and off” (2).

Students reported greater frustration with the more disjointed nature of the active learning exercise, and thought they learned better from the flow of the lectures, but the researchers found that students performed better on the quiz instrument on the material in their active learning sessions.

We’ve often noted when reviewing research on active learning techniques that indirect measures of learning–that is, student reports on their learning–are not ideal, but this study shows us one of the dangers of relying on such instruments. Less than stellar support by students can derail efforts to increase active learning in a particular institution. We need to be more cautious, then, in how we examine and evaluate evidence that supports–or opposes–the use of active learning in the classroom.

Audio Feedback and Transparency as Teaching Interventions

This is a review of “Enhancing formative assessment as the way of boosting students’ performance and achieving learning outcomes.” Chapter 8 of Early Career Academics’ Reflections on Learning to Teach in Central Europe, by Nikita Minin, Masaryk University.

Nikita Minin of Masaryk University is motivated by a goal we can all appreciate: ensuring that his students achieve the learning outcomes of his course.  In his case, the course is a graduate seminar on theories of IR and energy security and the learning outcomes include improving student skills in critical thinking and writing.  He noticed that students in his class did not seem to really improve on these skills during the class, and introduced three teaching interventions in an attempt to fix this. 

First, Minin provided more intense instruction on the writing assignments at the start of the course, providing a grading rubric and examples of successful student work. Second, he gave students audio rather than written feedback on their papers.  Finally, using a sequential assessment system, the instructor gave formative feedback first and grades much later in the course. Minin assessed the impact of these three interventions, comparing course sections with and without them, and concluded that the first two interventions achieved the objective of improving student achievement of the learning outcomes.

The interventions described in the chapter are in line with current thinking regarding in-course assessment. While Minin does not use the language of transparent teaching, his first intervention falls exactly in line with the Transparency in Teaching and Learning Project’s (TILT)approach. Transparency calls on instructors to openly communicate about the purpose of an assignment, the tasks they are to complete, and the criteria for success, and Minin does exactly that in this first intervention.  Given the data so far on the TILT project, it is not surprising that Minin saw some success by taking this approach. Likewise, now-ubiquitous learning management systems allow for giving feedback in multiple platforms, including audio and video. For years now, advocates for audio-based feedback claim that this can be a more effective tool than written feedback. Minin’s observations therefore, also fit nicely in line with existing work.

Where the chapter falls short, then, is not in the design of its interventions, but in the claims made based on the available data. The sample sizes are tiny, with just five students receiving the interventions. With final grades used as the primary dependent variable, it is difficult to tease out the independent impact of each of the three changes. Using final grades is also an issue when the experimenter is also the person who assigns grades, as it is more difficult to avoid bias than when more objective or blind items are used. Lang’s (2016) bookSmall Teaching: Everyday Lessons from the Science of Learningtells us that engaging in self-reflection is itself an intervention, and Minin’s use of minute-paper style self-reflections to assess the impact of feedback, while itself an interesting and potentially useful idea, mean that a fourth intervention was used in the course.  While I do not doubt Minin’s observations that his interventions had a positive impact, as they are backed by existing research, the evidence in the chapter does not strongly advance our confidence in those findings.

However, I have never been one to dismiss good teaching ideas simply because of a lack of strong evidence from a particular instructor.  Minin highlights a crucial concern—that we should never assume that our courses are teaching what we intend them to teach, and that ‘time and effort’ do not necessarily achieve the desired results, even for graduate students. Reflecting on this, seeking out innovative solutions, and then assessing the impact is a process we should all be following, and Minin sets a great example.

Reminder: International Teaching and Learning Conference proposals due Monday

Just a reminder that the joint International Teaching and Learning Conference proposal deadline is this Monday, 19 November. The conference  will be held in Brighton, United Kingdom, 17-19 June and will focus on teaching politics in an era of populism. It is jointly sponsored by APSA, PSA, BISA, and ECPR. All kinds of proposals are welcome, including panels, papers, individuals for roundtables, lightning talks, workshops, and any other innovative pedagogical approach you want to propose.  For more information, head to the PSA conference website. 

(Trans)formative Assessment in Teaching

Today I’m attending ISA’s inaugural Innovative Pedagogy Conference in St. Louis.  Victor and I are doing a workshop on using games and simulations to teach political violence, showcasing activities like Survive or Die!, Prisoner’s DilemmaModel Diplomacy, identity exercise, and others.  But I’m most interested in reflecting on the session offered by Matthew Krain and Kent Kille of the College of Wooster on Assessment and Effectiveness in Active Teaching in International Studies. Their framework for formative assessment (that can, in fact, be transformative) is very helpful as an overall approach to teaching.

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Teaching Election Results

The 2018 midterm elections are over in the US, and it was a night of mixed results.  The Democratic Party took control of the House of Representatives, winning at least 27 seats previously held by the Republican Party, while the GOP increased their majority in the Senate, toppling North Dakota’s Heidi Heitkamp and my own state of Missouri’s Claire McCaskill.  

While clearly not as momentous an election as 2016, or the Brexit referendum, or many other elections, the midterms were still an important point to take stock of the impact of Trumpism on American politics, and whether Democrats who were somewhat over-confident in the fall of 2016 could manage to overcome pro-Trump sentiment, a strong economy, congressional district gerrymandering, voter suppression efforts, and the other structural reasons why succeeding at the polls can be difficult. 

Teaching the results of American elections is a frustrating enterprise.

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Unexpected Teachable Moments

I had two unexpected moments in the last week completely outside of the classroom that led to (or will, in the future lead to) great teaching moments.

Last week I was recording a script I’d written in a studio, for a project I’ve been working on for two years.  In the lecture I was reviewing cross tabulation tables, and the example I had looked at 2016 presidential vote choice and gender.  Unbeknownst to me, someone in the control room changed the text on the teleprompter so that every time I used the words ‘man’ or ‘women’ they used ‘male’ and ‘female’.  Rather than stop the recording, I just started changing the words back as I spoke, which led to some awkwardness (man-Clinton voter does not roll off the tongue the same as ‘male Clinton voter’).  Finally the folks in the control group stopped me, and I explained that the original text used man and woman deliberately, and that changing it without speaking to me was an issue. I was talking about gender, not sex, and I wanted it to stay consistent.  This paused the recording for a few minutes, and during the lull I explained to the camera operators why this was important enough to stop for. We had a really nice conversation on the difference between sex and gender, and this turned into what we sometimes call ‘teachable moments’.  Script corrected, I continued recording.

The second moment was completely different.  Today I had jury duty. For those of you outside the US, this is when we get called to the courthouse to sit and wait until you are called into jury selection for a trial.  Sometimes you just sit in the waiting area for a day or two and are dismissed; other times you get put on a case right away, and spend the next day or two answering questions from the attorneys while they pick and choose who to put on the jury itself.  Sometimes they case will settle or be dismissed while jury selection is going on

I don’t mind jury duty.  Its one of the only things asked of me as a citizen, and I do see it as a civic duty. Since I teach American politics, I’d like to have the experience of actually serving on a jury, but that has yet to happen, and many of my legal friends indicate it’s unlikely to ever happen. Since I already had guest lecturers lined up this week for my daytime class, I didn’t request a postponement, and headed downtown this morning to serve.

Walking into the building, right after I passed through security, a police officer noted that I was carrying a heavy bag, and I stopped and chatted with him for awhile.  It turned out this was the sheriff himself, and he used to be a public school teacher in his early career.  Soon we were exchanging business cards, and he agreed to come talk to my students during our lesson on the judiciary next semester.  Did I teach him anything in our short conversation this morning? No.  But I’ll be able to create a great teachable moment for my students in a few months, all because I stopped to chat with someone rather than doing what I normally do, which is plug in my headphones and hurry on my way.  I’m not going to suddenly change my ways or anything, but sometimes an unexpected but nice conversation can serve as a reminder of the good things in this world.

Badges and recognizing success

Badges are not exactly a new concept, but like many ideas that come from games, they are still not widely known in the world of higher education and learning.  As many of us know from playing sports or participating in Scouts-style programs as children, badges are physical marks of achievement given to those that show competency at a particular skill or for doing well in a competition. In video games like World of Warcraft, meeting a particular goal is called an ‘achievement’.  Each achievement you earn flashes across the public chat, allowing for recognition, and some of them come with special items or titles in the game.  Defeat the Lich King, and you not only get to bask in the glory of victory, but you earn the title ‘Kingslayer’. While typically meant as a form of visible recognition for an achievement, earning achievements or badges can motivate behavior and can be seen as credentials in their own right.

Motivation, recognition, and credentialing skills–sounds like what we want to do in the classroom, right?