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”

Some evidence on online conferences

Retro niche reference

Last month, I helped run the 4th EuroTLC, which we’d switched from Amsterdam to a sofa near you. Fewer canals, but also none of that rolling-your-R nonsense.

Any way, as well as that various posts that have sprung from that, I thought it’d also be useful to share some of the conference feedback that we received. A big thank you to ECPR for letting us use this publicly.

As you might have guessed from this post’s existence, the impression on participants was very positive indeed. It’d be good to pull up some big problems, as talking points, but they really didn’t occur.

From our survey of nearly 70 delegates (of c.250 signed up), there was almost no-one who rated the organisation, communication, technology as unsatisfactory.

Technology is maybe a good place to start on this, since it’s the obvious new challenge as compared to what has come before. A few people reported tech issues, although these were mostly about their local connectivity, which sometimes ended up kicking you out of Zoom sessions. The phrasing of the comments seems pretty understanding, but equally it’s clear that this will become more problematic for those not in a position to get more stable internet connections, which will matter if we want people to get interacting online in such events. Equally clearly, there’s no much we can do about these problems, except keep it in mind when we plan: do we need everything to be synchronous?

Organisationally, we had tried to put a lot of thought into how we could make this event work for participants. That meant breaking up sessions with lots of breaks, and keeping any one part to a maximum of an hour (well-received), plus mixing up formats so that it wasn’t always the same thing, all day long.

As mentioned, the feedback was very positive about all this, although once again I’d note that some of the participants grounded this by saying it was their first such experience of an online conference: that worked in our favour (Zoom burn-out was mentioned more than once during the event), but as we move to do more of this, then expectations might well shift.

One things we’d explored was trying to get materials shared online, both beforehand and during the event. While ratings were very positive for the organisers (both on the academic programme and the more practical aspects handled by ECPR’s very efficient office), there were some comments from people about not knowing where to look for those resources. This rather falls into “what else could we have done?”, since we’d mentioned it multiple times across all our pre-event comms and during the sessions. Maybe the relative novelty of the model is part of this, but as every event organiser knows, there’s never enough comms to be done.

Maybe a bit more of an issue was the difficulty of maintaining the flow of discussion beyond individual sessions. I’ve discussed this before, but I also noticed a couple of comments to this effect here too. I still have no good idea about how to address this, since any online space requires active decisions by individuals to move into them and stay in them, so the (semi-accidental) chat in the corridor outside the panel just doesn’t happen. As a case in point, having mentioned in that post that I’d seen a load of people that I’d like to have caught up, I’ve done nothing about it, because it’s not been in mind long enough to action by pinging off an email or text. Yes, I’m a bit lazy, but we also know that friction to action online is very high: each step we add, there’s a huge drop-out of people (which is why the bingo thing didn’t work).

Any way, that lack of networking opportunities did come out with much more ambivalent survey results (including the only occasion when more than two people chose ‘unsatisfactory’ (but still only 12%)).

It’s also worth noting that we didn’t charge for the event: EuroTLC has always been been either free or with minimal fees to keep it open. Several people noted that being free and online meant they could finally attend: previously, the cost of travel and accommodation had made that impossible. From our side, it also meant we could put together a lunchtime with people from three continents in a way that our resources wouldn’t have allowed beforehand, so online does come with some upsides for all involved.

Opinion was rather split on whether people would have paid to attend this event: those saying no pointed towards tightened budgets and precarious financial situations, while others felt the quality of what they got from it all was worth paying to access. Clearly, while online events are without the costs of dealing with physical spaces, they do still come with personnel costs that have to be covered somehow, so we’re not at the end of that particular discussion.

Also pertinent to note is that EuroTLC has been only every other year, so the suggestion from one person that we alternate online/real-world events is something to consider (although not necessarily an option for others). That said, there did seem to be interest in maintaining a more substantial online presence even with a real-world event, to allow those unwilling/unable to attend in person to still access things.

I’ll glide over the comment that we had too many women in the sessions that one respondent attended, on the basis that perhaps this might heighten awareness of the still-too-common phenomenon of manels and instead focus on the very positive comments across the board for all those who presented work during the two days: as one person wrote “everyone worked hard and did their utmost best”, a sentiment I fully endorse.

So what to take from all of this?

Firstly, just as online teaching isn’t just teaching online, the same is true for conferences. It’s important to think carefully about the objectives that you’re trying to achieve from the event and then work out the best way to hit them, which might not be the same as in face-to-face formats. I think we did a very good job on the sharing of ideas, but less well on the networking/soft community aspects, so this was definitely a learning experience.

Secondly, we have to careful about the assumptions we make. Here that includes access to stable internet, how much people have internalised all the messaging about specifics and why people do/n’t attend conferences. The barriers are all pretty obvious, but that doesn’t mean we’ve taken them fully into account, or that we can necessarily solve them; however, we can try.

And that’s a final point – nothing’s settled yet, so there’s good reason to keep trying new things. I leave this event wanting to try out a pile of other options with future events, because I want to see if they can provide improved opportunities for all involved. This was a good start, but together we can make it even better.

Teaching with practitioners

This guest post comes from Giulia Tercovich of Vesalius University.

The number of non-tenure-track teachers that are employed because of their significant expertise in their non-academic domain is growing.

On the one hand, these practitioners represent an opportunity for higher education institutions. They add exciting insights to the course, they add a human-element to policy-making, they represent an opportunity for students to think about their future careers and increase the institution’s visibility.

On the other hand, they often lack pedagogical training, they are not familiar with the academic environment and its administration, and the amount of information they can share depends on the rules imposed by their employer.

This post draws on my own experience as Coordinator for student learning and faculty support, and it benefited from several discussions with colleagues from my institution and the inputs received during the workshop recently hosted during the EuroTLC conference.

In my experience, when a practitioner (co-)teach an academic course, four actors are actively involved in the process: the students, the practitioner him/herself, the administration and the co-teacher or mentor. This complex relationship between these four actors is not always easy to navigate. Therefore, I would like to share with you the five lessons I have learned in the past years to make the co-teaching with a practitioner running more smoothly.

Continue reading “Teaching with practitioners”

A stitch in time

One of the recurringly useful ideas that I discuss with students is the notion of concept stretching.

Ironically, I find uses for it all over the place, even as I think I’m being true to the definitional core of its meaning.

I was reminded of this when I found myself offering up an agenda of ‘leaning in’ at a Learning & Teaching event last week.

As you’ll recall, the phrase ‘lean in’ comes from Sheryl Sandberg’s 2013 book of the same name – exhorting women to do this to overcome the barriers they face – an idea that has come under increased critique, not least because it got stretched out to a bunch of stuff that it was never originally intended for.

And sure enough, I wasn’t talking about women or structural inequalities in the workplace, but rather about how to get your teaching ready for the autumn.

I mention all of this because it’s important to think about how we communicate our practice to others, not just in teaching but more generally. In the deathless subtitle of Luntz’s book ‘Words that work‘, it’s not what you say, but what people hear.

One of the challenges that I’ve skirted around in previous posts has been the question of institutional pressures. How much of what you’re going to be doing this autumn is your choice and how much is stuff being imposed on you?

Of course, this tension is always present – you always to work around the timetable, or the rooming, or the student numbers, or the university regulations on X, Y and Z. But this case is one where you’re going to feel a much bigger potential effect, not least because it’s all so novel and uncertain.

I’m happy to say that my department has found live in the re-organising world relatively simple. We drew up strategic plans some months ahead of the university, shared them around, made sure those making decisions above us knew about it all, our local L&T leads producing detailed materials and operationalisations very early on, precisely so that no one is on our back.

I’m going to guess that most of you are in a similar situation, if only because you’re the kind of person that reads L&T blogs and so are relatively motivated.

But imagine – if you can – a colleague who doesn’t really place their teaching in a position of any priority. Given that they will have to provide a different package of teaching in a few months, because the university requires it, then one of two things is going to be happening. Either they’ll do a bare minimum – probably to the detriment of their students’ learning opportunities – or someone else will make some changes for them – probably again to students’ detriment. In both cases, that colleague has lost the opportunity to make something positive of the moment, and probably reinforces higher levels of the administration to become more interventionist across the board.

Generally, my impression is that colleagues prefer to sort out their work in their own ways, whether that’s teaching or research (or even running meetings), rather than wanting others to do it for them.

And that’s why it’s important that you lean in on this: the more you do – and, critically, the more you show you do – the less others will be on your back about this.

The flipside of all the uncertainty of these times is that management has got a lot on its plate right now, so the threshold for them to feel confident that you’ve got things is relatively low. But that is only a passing situation.

As semester comes closer, the more there will be a desire to present a full package to students, regulators, journalists and all the rest. And once semester starts, the price of failures of practice will increase significantly and continuously: what good, reputationally-speaking, is a institution built to learning that can’t learn itself?

So, the short version of this is the same thing we tell our students – a bit of work now will save you a lot of work down the line.

Maybe that message will carry more weight if we demonstrate it in our own practice.

Link your chunks: some principles to help this autumn

Pretty things

As well as the technical side of things, EuroTLC was a great opportunity to think more about the pedagogic way forward in what I’m going to call our Leap Online.

Like you, recent months have been a mass of institutional briefings and meetings, plus many, many webinars about good online practice. And how what we’re going to be doing it not actually fully online, because we hope we’ll be getting most of our students back into classes come the autumn.

This hope is tempered by, well, evidence that COVID-19 isn’t going to be disappearing from our lives any time soon, so plans have to be made with some flexibility and resilience.

For us, that’s meant a ‘hybrid model’, with much content online and scope to become fully online as and when we need to. That’s reasonable enough given the circumstances, even if it means having to accept students moving between modes (in class or online) within semesters, with all the issues that creates for ensuring equity of learning opportunities for all.

At its heart, this perfectly captures a medium-term dilemma.

Short-term, we can – and have – make huge changes to our practice, because conditions require us to and because everyone involved is understanding and accommodating of that. I don’t think anyone thought this past semester was very pretty, pedagogically, but we got through it.

Long-term, we can also make big changes, becauses we can work through proper planning and consultation and trialling and all the other things we do to make effective learning spaces happen. Indeed, it’s probably our usual way of doing things.

The problem is the bit in between. We have now a situation that imposes major new constraints on us, while also being of indeterminate duration. If wherever we happen to work gets a vaccine, or an effective test and trace system, then we could return to something very close to the past (or February, as it’s also known); without those things, we might be looking at years.

Continue reading “Link your chunks: some principles to help this autumn”

Simulating Covid-19 Classroom Conditions

[Updated: This post describes my experience delivering a simulated classroom lesson, part of my university’s effort to evaluate potential solutions to the challenges posed by the upcoming fall semester — a process that is, or should be, occurring on your campus as well. Testing is a necessary part of the design process, and the process of evaluating potential solutions rarely goes as expected in its initial iterations.]

Last week I simulated fall semester teaching with some students in the physical classroom and others connected remotely via Webex. My main objective for the demo was to identify possible points of failure in the technology that my university is thinking about purchasing, and in this I succeeded beyond my wildest expectations.

The lesson was organized as follows:

Continue reading “Simulating Covid-19 Classroom Conditions”

That’s a wrap: Reflections on the process of teaching and learning video production

This guest post comes from Patrick Bijsmans (Maastricht University), offering some practical insights from his use of video in L&T.

During these strange months in cyber-space, I personally was keen on using videos to support my students’ learning; something I already considered doing pre-Corona, but never actually came round to trying. Now I had to redesign several lectures that were ideal for introducing video.

Overall, I was very satisfied and this experience makes me want to use more videos in the future to contribute to (but not replace) my lectures, also when on-campus teaching resumes. There are a couple of challenges, of course. Here are a few things that I’ve learned:

Continue reading “That’s a wrap: Reflections on the process of teaching and learning video production”

How deep is your hole?

Tidier than most

One of the more unnerving aspects of All This – professionally speaking – is the coupling of highly localised concerns – how will I teach my class? – with very general ones – will the HE sector survive?

Much as we grumble about the former, and spend hours in webinars and talking with colleagues about tips and options, the latter tends to get less attention. Mainly because it raises all kinds of unpleasant visions and because it’s beyond our control.

However, it’s still useful to reflect a bit on how the big stuff might trickle down to our pedagogic practice.

The main part of this is the impact on student numbers.

As a working assumption, there’s going to be a contraction of numbers next academic year: international students might not be allowed to travel, especially to countries with high Covid-19 infection rates; and students from all locations might decide that going to a place with lots of sweaty teenagers isn’t the best look for staying well. And that’s going to include returning students as well as new ones.

Which is all a bit of a kick in the teeth to any university (or country) that charged down the internationalisation path over the past decade or two.

With international students typically paying higher fees, and all student income subsidising the other stuff that universities do (um, research), not least because students pay lots of money beyond fees (accommodation, food, drink, ents, etc), the question becomes one of how big the budget gap is going to be.

(There’s a very good piece on Tortoise about this in the UK BTW. Recent data from the British Council suggest we still have a lot of uncertain overseas students).

Of course, that funding shortfall also means the sound of belts being tightened.

I’ll assume your institution has reviewed whether provision can be trimmed to keep costs down – not recruiting for smaller programmes, getting rid of the unpopular modules/courses – and maybe it’s also started acting on staff costs – recruitment freezes, non-renewals of short-term contracts, redundancies.

That increased precarity obviously does not help in the effort to concentrate on developing good pedagogic practice for a distanced classroom.

But uncertainty over student numbers is also an issue more directly, in planning what one might do with one’s classes at all.

Usually at this stage in the year, I’d have a good sense of how many people I’d be teaching in the autumn semester and I’d be planning accordingly. This year? Less so. And that’s for programmes that haven’t got that many non-domestic students on them, so our variability is probably less than for others.

And this is even before we consider whether a more local student body means we’ll be losing some of the diversity of experiences and insights that so often generates valuable debate in the class.

Or whether those students that do attend end up being even more likely to have to work to support themselves through university because their families haven’t got the means they once did, in turn reducing students’ study time and focus.

Or whether the increased use of online teaching elements reinforces differences of learning opportunities for those less able to afford suitable equipment or internet connections.

As ever, I haven’t got the answers to these things, but I can suggest that we do need to think about the knock-on effects on our teaching and learning practice.

Good luck, as they say, with that.

More Looking Backward

Continuing with my recent theme of evaluating my teaching over the previous semester:

My courses on comparative politics and Asia both concluded with simulations. I’ll discuss the latter in a future post. As I mentioned last month, I heavily modified my old Gerkhania exercise for comparative politics. The changes were based on a brilliant democratic government simulation that Kristina Flores-Victor of CSU-Sacramento presented at the 2020 APSA Teaching & Learning Conference.

As in previous versions of Gerkhania, students each received fictional identities as members of a newly-formed legislature in a multi-ethnic country with a history of civil strife (think Afghanistan). Over a series of three Webex sessions, I fed the class nine legislative proposals. Action on each proposal caused students to earn or lose political constituency points (representing support from voters) and political capital points (influence within the legislature). These effects varied in ways that corresponded to the identity of each participant.

At the opening and closing of each session, students could exchange constituency points at a 2:1 ratio for either political capital points or reward points that could contribute toward their course grades. Political capital points could be used to remove a proposal from the agenda, to prevent the legislators from voting on it, or to return it to the agenda. Students took a trivia quiz before the simulation began and prior to the second session so that they could acquire constituency and capital points to work with.

Every proposal that was voted down increased the probability that Gerkhania returned to a state of civil war at the end of the simulation by 1:18. If civil war occurred, legislators would lose all accumulated reward points.

Considerations for the future:

The effects of each successive legislative proposal, in terms of point changes, increased as the simulation progressed. The stakes associated with the initial proposals turned out to be too small to generate contention among students and need to be increased. The second trivia quiz can be scrapped for this reason.

I had built a very complicated Excel spreadsheet to track each student’s points as the simulation progressed. Using this spreadsheet for the first time, for a simulation that I had originally intended to run in the classroom, proved slightly problematic. I found it difficult to always correctly update spreadsheet cells with my eyeballs bouncing between windows on two different monitors. Also editing webpages so that students could track developments created delays during which students were idle.

A larger problem: although the simulation’s online environment seemed to negatively affect the amount of interaction between students, I think the small size of the class was the major contributing factor. As I’ve discussed before, these kinds of exercises seem to require a critical mass of participants, which this class didn’t have.

The pandemic most likely also had consequences. Campus classes ended at spring break, students scattered hither and yon, and the semester was extended by an extra week to make up for time lost in the transition to online instruction. By the last week, many students were probably just trying to finish the semester, had other concerns, and may not have been motivated to become heavily invested in the simulation.

Carpe lectionem

Don’t ask me…

Well. This is fun, isn’t it?

Talking with family, friends and colleagues, I get the distinct impression that we’ve moved to the second phase of lockdown: boredom.

Those first weeks of frantic adjustment, of adding an extra tin or one into our shop (because none of us stockpile), of working out the un-mute keyboard shortcut for Zoom, of deciding whether the walk to go shop should also count as the walk for exercise, all those are done.

Now, it’s routine. You probably even know what day of the week it is.

That’s good, because it’s now the time to get focused on what’s still to come.

I’ve written before about the autumn/fall semester, which is going to be a global challenge for HE: there will almost certainly be massive disruption on student recruitment, both in terms of overall numbers and of their location, plus lockdown elements are going to linger for a long time yet, so we have to assume that we’ll all be doing some form of online instruction.

Right now, my impression is that this is still a bit up in the air. Partly that’s because this situation is too fluid to encourage much strategic planning; partly it’s because we habour hopes that this will all be a distant memory by September; and partly it’s because we’re all up to our eyeballs in stuff right now.

It’s that last element I want to focus on this time.

Many of us still have a few weeks of teaching left, which is why we’re so busy. But that’s also an opportunity.

If we are going to have to sort ourselves out for the autumn, when we’ll need to have a much more robust offering to students, then we’ll want to have as much confidence as possible in different approaches.

That’s why this period, right now, is really useful. It’s a time to try out ideas we might want to pursue more further down the line.

It’s with that in mind that me and my colleagues here at Surrey are trying to be a bit more systematic about this.

For context, we’ve already worked up a draft plan for the autumn, with both general principles for delivery of our provision for both online and onsite students, as well as worked examples of different types of courses.

The aim is to ensure all colleagues have a robust, and evidenced basis for transforming their teaching, to ensure all students can access the same high-quality learning environments, not matter how they participate.

The next step is now to work on some more specific activities, to get a proper feel for them. That includes some remote simulations, groupwork exercises and asynchronous presentations.

When our semester ends, we’re all going to write up [OK, we’ve asked everyone to write up, so, you know] these trials, with practicalities, strengths and weaknesses and options for adaptation. Just short, one-pagers to capture the essentials.

That will give us a more grounded sense of how things work in remote settings and allow us to think more clearly about these can relate to in-class work that might be in parallel.

It’s not a perfect process and we’re still going to make some missteps on the way – which is why we’re also going to have lots of running reviews now and in the autumn – but it’s an effort to make our lives easier this summer.

As a student of politics, I’ll also note it keeps us ahead of the institutional process that’s unfurling for us (and for you), so we’re more likely to see our plans (which are not particularly disciplinary) getting picked up by others, rather than us having to cleave to other people’s ideas.

It’s been one of the more enjoyable aspects of all this that L&T has plonked itself in the centre of people’s attentions, but now we need to make the most of that opportunity right now, before it passes.

And, as always, if you have an idea you’d like to share with a global audience, then just drop us a line here at ALPS blog.