Debrief yourself

“Of course I didn’t play online beer pong with the class: that would be ridiculous…” (image from Beer Boars)

I seem to remember being quite snarky back in the summer about my semester dates.

My institution started relatively late, so I got to watch lots of practical examples of how plans were and weren’t working, so I got to avoid those problems when I got back near to a classroom.

And made some entirely different errors instead.

Any way, the flipside of this is that it’s only now I’m thinking properly about how to capture the learning on our new teaching practice, to use for the new year, whereas you’re probably all over it already.

But just in case you’re not, let’s work together on it for a bit.

It’s one of the safer assumptions to make right now that we’ve all been on a pedagogic journey of rich discovery, even if that does amount to a reasonable level of confidence about the keyboard shortcut to unmute yourself.

Likewise, it’s also safe to assume that you’ve internalised a lot of that into what you do without great reflection, because you’re running at a hundred miles an hour and structured reflection hasn’t been a priority.

But now, at the end of semester, is just the moment to step back and draw all of that out of yourself, for three reasons.

Firstly, it’s good for your practice.

The incremental changes you’ve been making, week on week, are probably more substantial that you realise. In my case, I’ve gone back and forth on synchronous online elements and their relationship to everything else, mainly because certain opportunities presented themselves that I’d not foreseen.

You (and I) need to now step back and consider the arc of that journey, to inform our plans for next semester and more generally: I feel like I might never do another in-person lecture again as part of my standard delivery, regardless of whether there’s a raging pandemic, for example.

Even in the more modest perspective of next semester, if you can mainstream your learning, then you’re more likely to create a package that works better first time, which will be to your (and your students’) advantage, not least when it comes to making materials.

Secondly, it’s good for your pedagogic community.

I’m going sitting down (remotely) with my colleagues to do this reflection and debrief, rather than on my own. That’s partly because we like to natter, but mainly it’s because we’re all aware that we’ve done things in very different ways.

Already this semester I’ve seen some great ideas from others in my department and elsewhere and I want to be able to understand that better; to get the underlying logics behind the materials and activities. If nothing else, I’d welcome some tips on how to come across as less grumpy to students.

Collective discussion is also better from drawing reflection out of yourself: other people tend to ask questions that force you to articulate things (a bit like writing a blog, actually). Plus there’s the bonus that you might have something useful to share with someone else, whether you realise it or not.

And finally, it’s good for your well-being.

This has been both the busiest and most isolating semester of my personal experience: yesterday I bumped into a member of department who I’ve not seen in person since the spring, and I’m not in a big department.

Lockdowns and WFH-ing might be sound epidemiologic practice, but they’re terrible for our social practice. And it turns out that being an academic involves rather more working with, and being around, others than stereotypes might suggest. Sure, we all (apparently) love to be on our own, noses buried in a book, but really our’s is a business of exchange, of sharing ideas and building on them.

Just this thing I’m suggesting you do now.

So pull up a chair, fix yourself some coffee/a beer, and get talking with your colleagues. You’ll thank yourself and each other for it.

Using Wooclap in on- and offline teaching

This guest post comes from Patrick Bijsmans (Maastricht).

The ongoing Covid-19 crisis has forced us all to rethink our teaching, but not all innovation has to start from scratch. For instance, when you feel uncomfortable with recording a video for your lecture, you can also simply use the narrated slides option in your presentation software.

And when you want to stimulate student engagement and interaction during an online talk, existing audience response tools such as GoSoapBox, Kahoot!, Mentimeter and Wooclap are ready for online use.

I’m a frequent user of Wooclap myself, but also have experience using GoSoapBox and have trialed some other options too. My choice for Wooclap is partly one based on its user-friendliness – though the additional perks that come with Maastricht University’s subscription are welcome too. I’ve been using Wooclap offline for quite some time already, and I’ve continued using it when we went online.

Continue reading “Using Wooclap in on- and offline teaching”

Made(upia) to measure

Like any university, we’ve got some odd spaces that we use for teaching.

By odd here, I mean simply anything other than a rectangular room with some desks arranged somehow. Usually that’s intentional, because we need computer stations or lab desks or a big machine to do physics-y stuff so visiting schoolkids think STEM is cool.

But sometimes it’s just odd.

A case in point is the room I’ve been stuck a couple of times this semester, as part of someone’s project to see just how much of the campus I can visit with my students.

The room is flat, with individual desks in the middle (currently in a socially-distanced grid), plus a series of booths up each side, each with space for a couple of students.

I have no idea why it’s set up like that, but the key point is that it prompted me to make specific use of that space.

True, I also needed to make a new exercise because I couldn’t use any of my previous ones because of Covid, but it’s also good to refresh more fully from time to time.

The game scenario concerns power in a political system and you’re very welcome to use/modify the document for your own needs.

Here I will only note that I’ve made particular use of those booths and of social distancing requirements. Interestingly, on the latter point, while I thought that giving control to the government to manage movement around the space, their feedback was that it was actually rather anxiety-inducing, for fear of annoying people who might feel they had to wait too long to move.

However, the wider point here is that we can benefit from the constraints we operate under. Feedback on this exercise was very positive and we had a great debrief afterwards on the power dynamics and how it related to negotiation theory, so we hit our learning objectives big time.

I even got to use this as a basis of some work for the online students to consider what might be an optimal strategy to pursue: not quite the same as actually playing the scenario, but still a way into the key issues (and, incidentally, a starting point for a very constructive discussion with one student about what works for online students in this module).

The take home: they’re not constraints, they’re opportunities. Which is lucky, given that we’re all on the verge of getting some more opportunities dumped on us shortly.

Lighten up

Smiling on the inside

We’re nearly half-way through our semester here, so it’s been time to gather some feedback from students on how it’s all going.

For all the concerns I had (and have) about delivering our hybrid model of pre-recorded lectures and parallel in-class and online seminar activities, my students generally seem pretty positive.

Using online forms (Google Forms in this case) for a quick ABC mop-up of ideas, the main issue that came out was that using a ranked lecture theatre is really bad for student discussion (no matter how we’re sitting), which I’m still going to have to work on.

But beyond that, the mix of elements seemed to be alright and no obvious gaps in provision existed.

Which made me focus on the one-off comments.

To note, these are often the gold-dust of ABC reviews: the asides that open up some really big steps forward, by giving a different perspective. It’s also precisely why you should never give any cues about the type of comment you want back.

Two examples have jumped out so far this time.

One was a request that I put all the various deadlines into one place for my course, since they’re scattered across various pages and platforms. That seems reasonable and useful and I’d built the spreadsheet in a couple of minutes (and then written a note to everyone, so they could see I’d acted on the suggestion).

The other is a bit more tricky.

In response to “Give one example of something that you think isn’t working well in this module, that we should stop doing”, someone wrote “being so serious ALL the time.”

Hmmm.

I’ll readily admit that I initially took this as referring just to me, but as you can see from my photo, I’m always smiling and laughing, so that can’t be it.

Can it?

The socially-distanced classroom is a really odd space and I feel like we’re all still working it out. In particular, the face-coverings really hamper both communication and connection: I’m still mildly shocked that I’ve learnt any new names among my students these past weeks, especially since the request for name plates was only very patchily followed.

The suppression of natural debate and discussion among students has pushed me towards more transmission by me, even as I try to fight it off: that’s much easier with my negotiation students, to whom I can give an exercise, than it is for my European integration class, where I’ve gone for more collective discussion.

If nothing else, the scope for the humorous aside or comment (from students, not me, to be clear: I’m not funny and I (usually) know it) is much reduced in this space, so things are a bit more solemn.

Indeed, having remarked to my negotiation class how mild-mannered they all are this year, I do wonder if the rigidity of the seating format does play a role in that: This is not an environment that facilitates any kind of heightened emotion, positive or negative. Maybe some more clues will emerge as I mark they first efforts at reflective writing during the coming week.

As so often, this simultaneously bothers and heartens me.

I’m bothered that we’re missing out on something that can help to lubricate the process of learning: emotional engagement is a real positive in my book and certainly underpins a lot of my reasoning for pursuing active learning. Connecting with the affective level can potentially drive much stronger rational learning, by opening up students to new layers of appreciation of how they are and how they learn.

But the absence/weakening of this is also an opportunity, to consider how that affects what we do and how we do it. Just as I set exercises that are almost impossible to ‘solve’ or ‘win’, because I see a value in learning from frustration, so too can I get students to reflect on how this new environment impinges on their learning.

Indeed, several of the negotiation students have already asked about writing on the impact of Covid on their practice, which is precisely what I’d want from all this.

Of course, it’d be better if we could also have some time when we didn’t have to work in these conditions: that really would put a smile on my (already-happy) face.

Connecting in-class and online students

‘sssup?

I’m guessing that several of you find yourself in a position of having to offer teaching to a mix of students in person and online. Maybe, like me, you have to do that as part of your university’s delivery model; maybe you’re just a nice person trying to help students cope with the shifting sands of Covid restrictions.

Whatever your reason, I’m also going to assume you find it difficult to make those two groups interact seamlessly.

Certainly, if you’ve ever tried to open up a Zoom call while in class and get everyone to participate on a level footing, you’ll know it doesn’t work.

For that reason, I’ve spent a lot of time during the summer creating parallel tracks for my classes: shared pre-recording video lectures for all, then separate activities for those in-class and those online.

But it’s not been as simple as that.

The online students – a minority at present – want to have as much interaction as they can. So I’ve been trying some different things.

Firstly, I’ve been broadcasting most of my in-class sessions on Zoom, so the onliners can listen into the discussion. I say they can ask questions on the chat, but mostly it’s been one-way traffic. Where we’ve had activities, they often form their own group to try it out, aided by the need for the in-classers to use Teams to build joint documents.

Secondly, I’ve tried to ensure feedback to online students makes connections across all content, so any useful insights from class get shared with everyone. I record short (5 min) clips of video and post to our VLE each week, so there’s a bit more character to it than just some bullet-points.

Thirdly, my negotiation course is running a big, semester-long joint activity online. I’ve got all the students enrolled on the course to create and run a renegotiation of the WHO’s founding treaty, using Teams as a common platform and giving them a semi-structured reason to be in constant contact. That’s still quite early on, but they seem to be working pretty well, with the onliners all mixed up with inclassers within groups. I’ll write this up later in the semester.

Finally, I’ve been trying some other ways to make connections.

Last week I got my inclassers to produce a couple of collaborative documents; one each for the Trump and Biden campaigns about how to tackle a disputed vote in Ohio. Within class it was a good way for them to learn about how to prepare for interacting with others: the class was split in half, prepped one document, then swapped over to rework the other one.

I then sent the documents to the onliners, to add into their activity, relating to Trump-Senate interactions in the case of a disputed vote nationwide. They’d already written a first draft, but then were asked to revisit it in the light of the inclassers’ work.

This seemed to work pretty well, in terms of moving text through several stages and getting some appreciation of what others are doing.*

Of course, that was a one-off, and still I worry about keeping the links clear between the two tracks as we continue through the autumn.

But that might be the general take-home from all this: if we keep chipping away at it, maybe we’ll find something that works better. And that’s a pretty good ambition to have.

*- This reminds me of an idea I discussed some years ago about a shared chain of simulations: we never got that off the ground, but maybe we should come back to it some time soon.

Balls

Riiiight…

Writing as someone who’s spent three weeks trying to find the right seating pattern for his students, I’m not sure that I’m on top of the current situation.

Certainly, I am spending a very much larger proportion of my working week on teaching-related activity, despite having the same modules I taught in previous years and despite having spent the summer swotting-up on How Tos and webinars.

I don’t need to rehearse the arguments again about this, but instead I’m going to share some practices that have made it all a bit more manageable, in the hope they’re of use to you too.

To recap some important context, we’re running a hybrid model here, with pre-recorded lectures and in-person seminars. We’re also to provide fully online content for those unable to attend on campus. And since I wasn’t too confident about a number of things, I’d only prepared the first 3 weeks of semester prior to its start, so I could make running changes.

Well, we’re into our third week now, so it’s been time to generate more content.

And that’s been where keeping track really comes in.

In a typical week, I’m giving students: a pre-recorded lecture (or several, if I’m breaking it down); notes on what we’ll cover in class; an online activity for those, um, online only; guidance on tasks towards the next assessment; preparation for the following week; plus I’ll be sticking some more procedural items into the news feed and recording some video feedback for the online-only students.

You’ll not be too surprised to find out I have a spreadsheet for all of this. Plus many calendar reminders to release/check content.

This has really come into its own when thinking about the connections between weeks, helping me to build linkages in content (hyperlinks as much as verbal cues in lectures), so students can see the joins. It’s also (so far) helped me avoid forgetting to do something.

I’m also been much more assiduous about getting feedback.

Next week, I’ll be running my usual ABC exercises, but every class I’ve been asking about specific elements of what we’re doing, to see if it’s working for the students. As I told my class yesterday, it doesn’t matter that I think I’m doing all good stuff if it’s not clicking for them.

I’m also trying to get feedback outside of class, when I talk with students in office hours, plus the whole Department is sharing comments (constructively) that we pick up from students about other modules too. I’d like to say this is our normal practice (and it is), but I’m more conscious that we’re pushing for student input rather more.

And finally, I’m talking with people about my teaching as much as possible.

You can feel a modicum of pity for my daughter, who found herself caught in a rather long conversation this weekend about how we might run an activity on the theme of ‘power’ in my negotiation class. Just as I can be proud that it produced some good ideas that I’m working on now.

We spent a lot of time as a community talking about all these things during the summer, but it doesn’t (and shouldn’t) stop there. Our collective experiences are all the richer for actually putting our plans into action.

It’s a lot of stuff to keep in the air, but that’s exactly why we need to keep on trying.

Musical chairs

This week’s photo is my seminar classroom for the semester, for one of my modules. It’s a 300-seater lecture theatre, with about 20 of the 40 students taking the module. Those white straps close off seats, so everyone’s spaced out.

The question to you is: have I seated them correctly?

I ask because last week I let people sit where they would: that resulted in a scattering across the whole space. The result was some difficulty with them speaking to each other in small groups, plus some other difficulty in me being able to hear them speaking to me (I get a lapel mic: they don’t).

So, reflexive pedagogist that I am, this time I asked them to sit in that one section of the room.

Pretty clever, no? They’re closer to each other (while still being appropriately distanced), plus we have the option to talk as a single group more easily. Couple that to using group documents on Teams and surely we have a winner.

Right?

No, actually; we don’t.

While students liked being closer for discussion, they still found it hard to talk for two reasons. One (which I’m unable to change) is the ranked format of the room – it’s just really difficult to turn and interact.

The second problem I can deal with, namely the noise from the other groups. Students reported that they couldn’t really raise their voices much because they were aware that the group right to them might do the same and then they’d all be shouting. Quite apart from being epidemiologically bad, it’s also unnecessary in this room.

So here’s the plan for next week. I will be splitting the students up as they arrive, into one of four groups. Each group will have a block of the seating (maybe sitting near the front in block 1, nearer the back in block 2, etc), sitting as close as the strapping allows.

This way, they’ll have the proximity to each other, but without so much of the noise of the others.

Maybe this will work, although we’ll have to see what it does for general group conversation (which has hardly been free-flowing so far).

While this is my problem, I’d also emphasise that this has been about sharing that problem with students and getting their input: this plan is one I’ve talked about with them directly, since they know better than I do whether it’s a goer or not. I think that might be the bigger lesson in all this and is likely to be my big takeaway from this semester.

And what would you like me to do with this?

This is one of our classrooms right now.

It probably looks quite familiar, with its social distancing and its capture by Big Sticker (note all the notices on the wall, over to the left).

We’ve been given lots of guidance about working in such environments, including this video.

You’ll note that the video is entitled ‘Teaching in a Covid-secure environment’, but that there’s no actual teaching.

So perhaps we can think here about what the teaching element of all of this might look like.

[For those in a rush, the furniture can’t move and the instructor should be staying within their box at the front]

Option 1: lecture. The rooms are set up in a lecture format and this is the obvious route to take. Except we’re not supposed to lecture in person anymore (that all goes into asynchronous chunks on our VLE).

In practice, it’s hard not to revert to doing this. Partly that’s because of the layout, and partly because everyone’s wearing a mask. As a teacher I might have a mic to amplify my voice, but the students don’t get that, so standard voice interaction across the whole room becomes much harder.

So, option 2: small-group work. Students can be encouraged to talk with those nearby and then to feedback to the whole. Either that might involve talking on behalf of the group, or putting materials on a shared resource (e.g. Teams or Google Doc): all those whiteboards are out of action, remember.

This is the obvious way to get around the spacing, but then you’ll need to think about whether you need to mix up people between sessions, so it’s not always talking to the same mate each week. There’s also more difficulty in moving around the room to support groups that need help

Option 3 would be online, in-class. This is a bit like the Twitter game I’ve run in the past: everyone interacts online only, despite being in the same room. I’ll only note that I created that game to show how much harder it was to interact online.

But a softer version of this, with co-creation of online materials, supplemented by in-person conversation, could work, basically shifted the emphasis of option 2 to the online side. It’s certainly something I’ll be used a fair bit in this semester.

The main issue is that is does raise a question of why bother with the class bit if we’re all working online, but that’s something else.

Option 4 is student-led spaces. Here I mean asking students to come up with ways to organise themselves. In effect it’s a bit like a student presentation session, but with the bonus of them shaping the room’s interactions. That draws on their understanding of what’s working, and also helps them to see the limitations we’re operating under.

Presentations themselves are a bit tricky, unless your institution’s alright with individuals coming up to the front of the room to speak.

And beyond that I’ll confess I’m a bit at a loss.

Fish-bowling would be a struggle; any activity that involves physical materials (paper, lego, blindfolds, etc.) is out; Moving around the room is also a no-no.

So you have options, but less than you used to.

Suggestions would be very welcome.

Some reflections on hybrid vs online lectures

This guest post comes from Patrick Bijsmans (Maastricht).

We have just entered the third week of the new academic year here. With regards to the Covid-19 challenges, our faculty has decided that we should offer students one on-campus meeting per week. This particularly concerns our new BA and MA students, who want to help adapt to this new environment. Obviously, this comes with huge challenges as to how to organise teaching, including students who have simply not been able to come to Maastricht.

I myself am currently in the process of designing a new course and updating an old one. So far, I have given lectures in two different set-ups: once completely online and once in a hybrid setting with on-campus and online students.

I have experience with Zoom lectures and decided for a similar approach for my online lecture on interdisciplinarity for our new BA students. This included a short video introducing topic and initial questions for discussion. This worked well. Many students seemed to have prepared the questions, which resulted in some good ideas and suggestions (including some funny memes about academic research and writing):

The only real problem was that I was only co-hosting the session, which complicated things a bit as far as technicalities (breakout groups, integrating Wooclap) were concerned and which, hence, created a bit of fuss. Something to avoid in the future. Yet, with all students being at the other side of the screen, it was easy to engage with all of them in a  similar way.

My hybrid experience was vastly different, though. Engaging with students was just one of the problems.

Going hybrid

My hybrid lecture was part of our Research Master. The lecture took place in ‘Tent 1’ – the faculty has set up tents to allow for more on-campus activities. The acoustics were awful. And the A/C, despite making lots of noise, was unable to keep the temperature below boiling point…

This was a lecture that I have just inherited from a colleague, which meant I had to adapt it. This, together with the fact that some students would be online and some on-campus, made me opt for a plainer set-up. Following Chad’s experience with breakout rooms I decided not to use audience response tools. As the group was quite small, I thought it would also work to simply ask questions as we went along.

Unfortunately, response was slow and only came from on-campus students. The only comment raised online concerned an echo on the portable mic that I had been asked to use. The latter was not the only challenge resulting from the hybrid setting. As ‘Tent 1’ comes with an in-built laptop camera, I had to stay in front of that laptop. I couldn’t walk around – something that usually helps me to stimulate interaction – and using the (real-world) whiteboard was near impossible, as it meant having to juggle with the laptop camera.

But the most problematic thing of all was me overlooking the online students. When you have real people in front of you, this is whom you engage with. At first, I thought this might be due to the online students not having turned their camera on. I asked them to do so after the break, but, again, my attention drifted towards the on-campus students very quickly.

Lessons learned

I can imagine Simon being anxious towards teaching this semester. At any rate, my hybrid teaching experience was similar to Chad’s: quite terrible.

I will meet most of the Research Master students again from the end of October. At least one of them is unlikely to make it to Maastricht. Hence, given that this will be one of my own courses, I have decided to:

  • Do all lectures in Zoom – i.e. no hybrid lectures.
    • No one benefits from a hybrid setting. It creates extra fuzz, also for the experienced online lecturer.
    • Ask lecturers for short videos to introduce themselves and the topic so as to already raise a couple of questions for discussion.
  • Do all tutorials in a hybrid setting.
    • This should work because of the small group size and tutorials being student-driven and centred around discussion of literature.
    • Create additional online individual and collaborative assignments in Canvas and Wooclap to aid preparation and discussion.

But in any other setting I would certainly suggest not to go hybrid. This may mean having to split up students in on-campus and online groups. Yet, if resources allow you to do so, all students will benefit; either from your best on-campus teaching or from your best online teaching.

Improve Breakout Groups with Collaborative Document Editing in Google Slides or MS Teams

If you are teaching synchronous virtual classes on Zoom, Webex, or any other teleconference platform you are probably using breakout groups for small group discussions or student presentation preparation. Breakout groups are a great technique to break up a session and help build connections between small groups of students, but they suffer from three core problems:

  1. Students don’t remember or understand the prompt and take awhile to get started.
  2. Coordinating how to take notes or otherwise share the group’s work with other groups can be difficult and time-consuming, and may result in a single student doing most of that work.
  3. Students don’t get a quality set of notes from the presentations of other groups, reducing the likelihood that they will get much value from what other groups have done.

Collaborative document editing solves all three of these problems.

This idea is courtesy of Dr. Jenny Cooper of Stonehill College, who has found great success in creating a seamless breakout group experience in her classes. Instructors create a shared slide presentation in MS Teams or Google Slides that contains a slide with the prompt, instructions for the group work, and any expected output. This is followed by individual blank slides for each group to fill in, labeled ‘Group 1’ ‘Group 2’ etc. Share the link to the presentation with students, and then every member of each group can access and edit the document in real time during breakout groups, recording notes, images, or graphics in their assigned blank slide. The result is a single shared document that contains the work from each group, eliminating the need to share screens or additional files during presentations and ensuring that students have a complete set of notes they can review after the class.

This method can be used by anyone regardless of what teleconference system you are using. I advise that only those classes already using MS Teams should use the Teams method; everyone else should use Google Slides. This is easy to use for students: Google Slides does not require students to create an account to access or edit a document; all you have to do is send your students a link with editing privileges to the slide presentations, or post one in your LMS/VLE. They will click on the link and immediately be able to edit the document in either platform. As for faculty, if you have ever created a PowerPoint or other slide presentation, then this method will require minimal effort to adopt.

The only drawback is that there can be connectivity issues if a lot of people are accessing the same document at once. If you see that happening, you may want to ask a single student in each group to act as notetaker, and to share their screen within the breakout group so that their group mates can easily see what they are writing. In addition, students accessing Teams or Google Slides on a mobile or tablet may not have full editing functionality, so notetakers should generally be students using a computer.

Here is an in-depth guide with screenshots on how to do this in both MS Teams and Google Slides: