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.

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:

Keeping Students on Track

Regardless of how well our autumn checklists prepared us for autumn teaching, there is a good chance the unexpected will introduce the need for change. Or, to paraphrase a philosopher, everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth. A few tips on how to minimize the pain:

Build an asynchronous component into a synchronous course. If your campus is evacuated, technology fails, or you have to shelter in place, there is at least one part of the course that continues to operate. You can use it as a foundation upon which to construct substitutes for the other parts that are no longer working.

Create routine using repeated cycles of the same activities. For example, I have one undergraduate course meeting twice per week. On Tuesdays, class begins with students discussing an assignment in small groups. A randomly chosen group then reports its findings to the whole class. Then I give a brief lecture. On Thursdays, students take a quiz, work on team projects, and meet with me individually. That’s the pattern for almost the entire semester.

Narrow each class session to teaching a single big idea, preferably one directly related to a course learning outcome. Get rid of the peripheral “it would be nice if students also knew about . . .” content, because it confuses students — they aren’t as good as you are at identifying what they should focus on. If the unexpected disrupts class, the clarity of the lesson will make it easier for you to quickly develop an alternative method of delivery.

Regularly remind students what is headed their way. I’m now sending out “agenda for the coming week” announcements. My intent is simply to reinforce the messages in the syllabus and in the schedule of assignments in the LMS/VLE. Again, if there is an unplanned interruption in any particular week, I can conveniently refer back to that week’s agenda to inform students what is changing and how.

Tweeting for better living

Obviously, it’s a bad move to go for the clickbaiting title when you’re going to write about a discussion that decried clickbait, but how else would I be getting you to read this?

It’s a dilemma, isn’t it: how to make an impression when you feel you have no weigh to impress with?

This was part of the discussion we had yesterday as part of the on-going UACES virtual conference, when I got some of the leading lights of the #TradeTwitter community – Anna Jezewska, David Henig and Dmitry Grozoubinski to come and talk about how Twitter figured in their work.

Guided by the equally talented Katy Hayward, the panellists covered a lot of ground about the hows and whys of the platform, which I’ve tried to capture in some live-tweeting here:

The big take-home for me was that engaging in social media can be a big boost to your work, but it takes time and effort.

Certainly, my own experience was that it took a long time to find how I could use Twitter to good effect in improving my understanding and then in being a means to share what I could contribute, but it’s been a central part of my work for many years now.

Like anything else we do in our professional practice, we don’t arrive fully-formed: we need to grow and develop what we do, and to accept that we’ll make missteps on the way.

As the panel have all shown, building up a reputation for informed and impartial insights on the things they know about (laced with the occasional GIF or two) pays off over time. Unless you’re already a household name, then that’s not going to drop in your lap (and maybe not even then), so you need to work at it.

If you’re stuck on how that might look, then the four of them make a great set of contrasts, so why not give them a follow?

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.

Flip-flops

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!

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”