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:


Because we don’t actually a stock
image of someone looking anxious

I have to admit to being rather anxious about this semester.

It’s not a feeling I usually have, even when taking on a new course or being given some additional duties in short order.

Indeed, I not sure I’ve felt like this since I started out, and even then I at least knew what the thing looked like, because I’d been sitting in those same classes only a short time beforehand.

But this? This is different.

All summer I’ve been working up my courses, attending seminars, talking with colleagues, creating content and triple-checking VLEs. And now I’m starting to get students to log into things, let me know about where they’ll be.

And still I worry.

I worry because this semester is going to be unlike any other I’ve had; even this spring won’t really be a patch on it. Now I’m going to be purposely and deliberately running online and in-class elements in parallel, trying to hit the same learning objectives but with different means and with students potentially moving back and forth between modes.

I’m not going to spell out why that’s worrisome, since your imagination is just as good as mine, but to hear colleagues elsewhere talk about outages, social distancing restrictions or short-order closures of campuses, there’s more than enough for lurid visions of How It Can All Go Wrong.

My own personal – and relatively minor – experience this week was finding that I am going to have to run a Masters-level version of my negotiation course alongside its usual undergraduate one, which means I’m having to rework a bunch of online spaces so that students can work together.

I’m sharing this with you because I think it’s important to acknowledge this.

When I give talks – as I am this week at Southampton – I do focus on why we shouldn’t worry too much, because we’ve got the tools already to hand to deal with it all. But that doesn’t mean we won’t worry in the first place.

So I’m not completely alright and you might not be completely alright, but that’s alright [sic] because we can help each other. Never have I been more thankful for the community of L&T specialists and enthusiasts as I have this year.

Together, we’ll get through all this (and then we can write blogs/journal articles about it all).

Back up, back up

Somewhere in these crates is a pile of acetates.

Since I’m older than I like to think about, I remember when data projectors were a new thing. When I started out , we would either use acetates, or write directly on to whiteboards/blackboards (and yes, I’ve certainly been in meetings/arguments about why we MUST KEEP BLACKBOARDS).

Even when I finally switched over to PowerPoint, I kept all my acetates up-to-date for a couple of years after, mostly because the technology wasn’t reliable: kit not working, laptops updating, the kind of thing you’ve probably not had trouble you of late.

But I mention it because we’re going through a similar thing now with the move to on-line/mixed models.

As the big Zoom outage last month showed us – as have various anecdotes from colleagues in recent days – we should always have a back-up plan for tech failures, especially if we’re using that tech across various locations.

Obviously acetates (let alone blackboards) aren’t the solution, but you need to be ready for any one bit of your plans not working as planned.

(and if it’s any help, listen to this on why we might take some different lessons from Murphy’s Law).

PS – you can ask me about how to cope with most of your office being in boxes for a year some other time.


But don’t let this image haunt you at all

Let’s assume that your teaching plans are intact for present and that you’ve not had to work through more changes just yet.

Let’s also assume that you’re the kind of person who can imagine having to change things around in the near future, because situations can change.

I’m certainly one of those people, which is fortunate for this blog, since otherwise I’d never have anything to write about.

So let’s just unpack how we might cope with a student body that’s moving between delivery modes; from in-class to online and (theoretically) the other way round.

The obvious cause of this is another Covid outbreak, locally or nationally, with institution-wide effects, but we shouldn’t ignore the smaller switches too, especially if our institution allows individuals move at will (grounded in changing circumstances/health).

Put more bluntly, we might find that some students chose to study online some weeks rather than come into class. It’d be like those weeks around assessment deadlines, when your classroom suddenly gets a lot less crowded, except students’ll nominally be continuing to do the same workload.

Continue reading “Flip-flops”

Improving Breakout Groups in Online Courses

For those of us holding synchronous online class sessions, you will probably end up using breakout groups at one point or another. Most of the major video conferencing platforms have some capacity for splitting participants simultaneously into separate virtual rooms, letting you hold small group discussions or facilitating other kinds of group interaction and work. Here are five tips for increasing the effectiveness of your breakout groups.

  1. Design concise prompts with clear instructions and outputs. More so than when in the physical classroom, it is really important to have very clear prompts so that students know exactly what it is they are supposed to be doing in the allotted time. The Transparent Teaching project calls on us to ensure students understand the purpose, required tasks, and criteria for success for any assignment, and this holds true for discussion prompts as well. In particular, make sure students know what output is expected, whether that is a collective answer to a question, a summary of their key discussion points, or a written product of some kind. Having an output will increase student focus on the prompt and motivate discussion.
  2. Excessively communicate your prompts. We’ve all been in the situation when an instructor asks us to do something, and after we move around or open the required software we realize we can’t quite recall the instructions. Breakout rooms are particularly susceptible to this, especially as it can take a couple of moments for everyone to transfer from the main video conference room to the breakout room. Simply telling students the prompt right before the move to the breakout groups, then, will likely result in many students being unclear on what they need to do. It is much better to over-communicate your prompts then the reverse. So, post the prompt on your LMS/VLE prior to or during class, so students can download it. Put it in the written chat. Share it on your screen while also explaining it to everyone. Pause and ask if anyone has questions about what they are supposed to do before you send them into their groups. And if you use Zoom or another program that lets you broadcast a message to everyone, do so 30 seconds after the breakout rooms start as one final reminder. This will make sure that students don’t spend the first two minutes of your breakout room trying to recall what they are supposed to do.
  3. Decide whether you want stable teams or constantly changing groups. Stable teams help students get to know each other as they work with the same small group again and again. That can be essential in a fully online course where building connection and community can be very difficult. Teams can name themselves and even compete with each other during the course. At the same time, if conflicts develop, students can feel stuck and isolated if they are always with the same group again and again. Plus if you can’t set breakout rooms in advance, you’ll have to manually assign each student to their correct team every session. One possible solution is to change teams up every few weeks. That lets students get the benefits of a stable group, but they also know that if they are unhappy they will have a new team soon. Alternatively, use teams but regularly poll your students to see whether they are happy or would like a change, so you can tailor groups to their preferences.
  4. Stay visible while the groups are running. In the physical classroom, you can look at into the room and get useful clues about who is doing well and who is struggling. You can easily see which groups are in animated discussion, and which ones are silent and looking confused. You can also easily wander from group to group. While you don’t get some of those clues in the virtual world, it is still important to check in regularly with your groups. You need to know that they understand the task, that the time you’ve given them is sufficient, and to give them the opportunity to easily ask you questions or get your input. Pretty much all breakout room platforms let the instructor jump from group to group. Do just that–pop into each group, stay for a couple of minutes and provide answers or assistance as needed, and then jump to the next.
  5. Use collaborative documents to capture the work of each group. One challenge with breakout groups is figuring out how to share the work of each group. In most platforms, students can access a whiteboard or share their screen, but they have to then save that document while still in the breakout group, and then figure out a way to share it with the rest of the class. A better idea (courtesy of Dr. Jennifer Cooper of Stonehill College) is to set up a single collaborative document that all the students can use to record their presentations or answers. Create a Google Slides presentation with a number of blank slides, labelled ‘Group 1’ ‘Group 2’ or with team names, if you are using teams. Share the link, allowing anyone with the link to edit the document. Ask students to record their prompt responses or other outputs in one of those blank slides. All the students can access and edit the slides at all times, meaning that every member of each group can record their thoughts or help build the team’s presentation. This also makes it very easy share their work with other groups, as everyone will already be looking at the same document. Once the synchronous session is over, they will still have access to it, which can be a helpful addition to their class notes.

There you go! Five tips that will improve your use of breakout groups. If you have additional tips, please share them in the comments!

A quick checklist for the autumn

I laugh at your measly three-point checklist!

Let’s skip over your summer, since I’m guessing your institution has been like mine: pushing for us to get Covid-ready for the new semester, while not being particularly certain what that might actually look like.

Upshot, a load of prep to be able to cope with a bunch of different and dynamic scenarios and the dawning realisation that whatever room we work in at home is going to become the star of a large number of videos on the local student network [do check what’s on your bookshelf BTW].

Since I’ve had the good fortune to actually get away from work properly for a couple of weeks (albeit only a hour’s drive from home), I’m coming back into this with a bunch of work and a need to get through it efficiently, so I’m going to share my plan of attack in the hope it’s of use to you.

Step 1: Be clear about your teaching obligations this semester. I’m lucky that I know what classes I’m teaching, what support I might be getting for seminars, rough numbers of students, and even a sense of my timetable. You might not be in that situation, so make this your first port of call. Even just some ballpark figures for the latter stuff matters in making some very basic choices about what choices you’ll be making in designing learning objectives and methods of teaching.

Step 2: Remind yourself what your institution’s new protocols are. Again, my university has produced both strategic and more operational guides on what is and isn’t allowed, so I’ve a good baseline to go on. Let’s assume your institution has created such documents in good (pedagogic) faith to optimise both student learning and Covid resilience, so working with these is a positive step forward; plus it keeps you in step with the rest of your colleagues in creating more consistent learning environments for students. Check you’re reading the latest version and whether your local unit has any additional elaborations and principles in place too.

Step 3: Build the overall learning environment for your course. As you’ll remember, it’s not the technology that should lead your designing, but the learning objectives. You have to be clear – with yourself as much as with students – about what you want them to gain from the course, so ensure that the entire package of that course allows them the opportunity to learn that. That includes online and offline, synchronous and asynchronous, group and individual elements.

Step 4: Adjust your design to institutional protocols where necessary, while still keeping your learning objectives clearly in sight. This is where I’m up to right now; doing things like breaking up pre-recorded video into smaller chunks and developing more asynchronous online elements that tessellate with in-class work. Talking about this with colleagues is super-useful, both because trying to explain your thoughts can unblock ideas and because your colleagues have some great ideas you can re-use.

Step 5: Do the donkey work for creating all the new content you need. I’m planning to get at least the first four weeks of the semester ready in its entirety for the time that students are due back, since I’m guessing that’s going to be the biggest stress point, as we all try to work stuff out. I’d say to do more if you can, but also remember you will need to carry out running modifications in-semester, so don’t sink too many costs that you can’t recover.

Step 6: Teach. All the other stuff is going to take you through the rest of the summer, so there’s nothing else to suggest than getting into it and then doing those running adaptations I just mentioned. Talk with students regularly and specifically about your course’s design and highlight to them how you’re using their input to modify what you do; that can begin from the second or third week, once everyone’s a bit less fraught and the initial shock of the new has worn off. Also talk with colleagues about how it’s all going too: their ideas are still great and they might be able to head off issues you can see looming in the distance.

And that’s is.

Still a long list, though, so time to crack on with it and remember you’ve got it covered.

Creating Community II: Class Notes

As promised in my last post on the subject, here is another way to create community in your online or hybrid course: collaborative note-taking.

There is some empirical evidence that collaborative note-taking benefits student learning, but rather than repeat the details, I’ll refer you to this 2015 study by Harold Orndorff. [Update: Brielle Harbin, assistant professor of political science at the U.S. Naval Academy shared her work — here and here — with me after reading today’s post.] Collaborative notes might also help resolve my perennial problem of students not taking notes during face-to-face classes. So, having decided that this change might be worth making, here is a synopsis of my thought process so far:

Step 1: Choose a platform

While many online collaboration platforms exist — Padlet, Slack, Microsoft Teams, to name a few — I wanted a tool that both I and my students are already familiar with, so I chose Google Docs.

Continue reading “Creating Community II: Class Notes”

Creating Community I: Reading Response Discussions

Per Amanda’s last post about platform options for online group projects, over the next several weeks I’ll throw out some of my plans for exercises that I hope will create community in the two fall undergraduate courses I’ll be teaching online. I’ll start simple and gradually get more complex.

In the physical classroom, I still use reading responses to generate discussion among students and minimize formal lecturing. Online, I’ll do this with breakout rooms. In the classroom, I typically ask each group of students to summarize for the rest of the class the consensus position it has reached on the reading response; the pattern that emerges from polling groups in this manner often leads to additional discussion. I think this process will be tedious for students in an online environment, so I will tell students that each breakout room needs to create a document with three bullet points that support its argument. I will randomly choose one group of students to present its conclusions to the rest of the class after the breakout discussions are completed. The group will display its three bullet points to the class via screen share. I can ask that other students submit questions or opposing points of view, perhaps through text chat, for follow-up after the presentation. Throughout the process I’ll be asking “Why?” in Socratic fashion.

Technology note: Zoom has had breakout rooms for a long time. Cisco says that an updated version of Webex with this capability will launch at some point in September. There is apparently a method of creating breakout rooms with Microsoft Teams, but to me it looks complicated.

Online Group Projects to Build Community: Platform Options

As the fall semester bears down on us and many schools are finally admitting that yes, there will be a substantial amount of online courses (either fully, blended, hybrid, hyflex, etc), I imagine many faculty are experiencing some amount of panic about having to once again suddenly move their courses online. In particular, faculty are concerned about building community in their classes. Online courses can feel very isolating; without physical interaction before and after class, students may not feel connected to either you as the instructor, or their fellow students. One way to combat this and build community is to use team-based learning, where you have set groups working throughout a term on one or a series of projects. This can give students a small group of people that they can come to know well, even if they only work asynchronously with those students. Whether you are interested in adopting a team-based learning model, or just want to use the occasional group project, it’s a good idea to look at what options we have to do this online. On general approaches, I will direct you to this article by Stephanie Smith Budhai in Faculty Focus; here, let’s stick to recommendations on platforms for group or team learning.

First, a caveat: you don’t have to always dictate what platform your students use to collaborate. If all you care about is the end-project or outcomes, then let them use whatever platform they feel comfortable with. Give them options, certainly, but don’t dictate–let them communicate in whatever way is going to make it easy for them to work together, whether that’s on a social media platform, texting, WhatsApp, or something else. The main reason to ask students to use a particular platform is if you want to be able to check in on their work in progress and to see how things are developing. Each of the below options would allow you to do that (although students may need to grant you access!). Just be sure to explain why you’ve chosen this platform, take some time to train students in how to use it, and be clear on how and why you’ll be dropping in to check on their progress.

Let’s talk about several platforms you can use for group collaboration or team-based learning.

Continue reading “Online Group Projects to Build Community: Platform Options”