Distance Teaching + 1-on-1 = …. Active Learning?

Recently I’ve begun doing some dissertation coaching while in a gap between positions. It’s all done remotely using a free videoconferencing service (more below). But here I am, videocalling with students I’ve never met, trying to step into an ongoing project and guide them out of whatever mess they (think they) are in. It’s an unusual form of teaching, but so far I like it a lot.

The experience has me thinking about what active learning really LOOKS like. Obviously, no simulations are going on here; no games either, or case studies, or other typical discussion materials. So how do you DO active learning when you’re one-on-one, geographically remote, and dealing primarily with the writing process? My approach so far has involved leveraging the power of the teleconferencing platform that I’m using, Zoom.us, to develop and deploy activities that tackle sticky bits of the writing process. Zoom is a free videoteleconferencing solution that allows for exceptionally convenient screen sharing, no-login access for participants, and includes an in-suite a digital whiteboard. With just two clicks, the student can share her screen with me. One student and I collaboratively outlined her theory chapter – twice – and debated which outline works better for her purposes. She now has both outlines saved on her computer to choose from later. Another student used my Abstract Worksheet to generate an outline for her introductory chapter, working through the sheet with me to get a feel for how it worked and how that would then translate into an introduction.

Another student worked out her causal mechanisms with me using the digital whiteboard. Writing and drawing with your mouse is clunky, so we both had some good chuckles over our attempts to write.  But the ability to interactively go through the construction process was valuable for her: she got the support of having me there asking questions to prompt her, but got to do the bulk of the heavy lifting herself – as it should be in a dissertation.

The experience of working with graduate students, teaching/coaching remotely, and teaching one-on-one are all fairly new to me, so I’m still feeling my way along in making this an active learning experience instead of simply an interactive one. I’m working, for example, to develop activities to convey important principles about time and project management rather than simply telling the students these things. Teaching writing skills isn’t the easiest under good circumstances, and these are somewhat challenging.

What tools and activities do you have for teaching writing, or active learning of writing skills?