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.

More on Designing for Cognitive Load

A follow-up to my last post about cognitive load:

I remember a few conversations over the years — once during a job interview — on whether it’s better to give students a concept first and specific examples second, or to provide examples first and then the concept. Bokan and Goodboy (2020)* studied this question with an interesting experiment.

Focus on the triangles’ colors for now; I’ll explain how it relates to something called democratic peace theory later.

They randomly assigned 275 students to one of two conditions in which the order of information in a narrative instructional text moved either from (a) concrete examples to abstract definitions or from (b) abstract definitions to concrete examples. Students reported their perceived cognitive burden during the experiment. Bokan’s and Goodboy’s underlying hypothesis was that poorly designed instructional materials increase students’ extraneous cognitive burden, leading to working memory overload and decreased learning.

They found that placing concrete examples after abstract definitions in an assigned text resulted in higher scores on tests of information recall, retention, and application, even when controlling for students’ prior familiarity with the subject and grade point average. Students “scored almost a whole letter grade lower for every point they reported facing a higher working memory overload.” The authors concluded that the order in which information is presented matters for students reading instructional materials, perhaps because people have a “natural tendency to look for organizing principles before they move on to study more detailed information.” When specific examples are presented before the larger concepts to which they pertain, people are forced to keep detailed information in their minds while simultaneously attempting to categorize it.

*San Bolkan & Alan K. Goodboy (2020) Instruction, example order, and student
learning: reducing extraneous cognitive load by providing structure for elaborated examples,
Communication Education, 69:3, 300-316, DOI: 10.1080/03634523.2019.1701196.

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.

Designing for Cognitive Load

Cognitive load theory is one perspective on learning that can be applied to teaching in this unusual time. The theory sees working memory — the part of the mind that temporarily stores and manipulates information — as a constraint on learning, because it can only manage a few pieces of information at once. Placing a load on working memory is like trying to push water through a pipe with a constant diameter; you can shove only so much water through the pipe at any given time at a given pressure. If the water’s pressure exceeds what the pipe is able to withstand, you get a flooded basement.

What is the square root of 1,137?

There are three types of cognitive load: intrinsic, germane, and extraneous. Intrinsic load represents the essential actions that occur when learning information that is specific to a topic or task. The load varies according to the information’s inherent level of difficulty for the learner, which makes it partially a function of prior learning: the more one has practiced using the information, the less the effort that needs to be expended the next time it’s encountered. Tying shoelaces requires our full concentration when we are in kindergarten; as adults we perform the task almost automatically and can attend equally well to other cognitive demands at the same time.

Germane cognitive load consists of the work of converting the information in working memory to permanent knowledge, or what the psychologists refer to as a schema. You can think of germane cognitive load as the physical actions of a bank employee storing your shoebox full of cash in the bank’s vault for you to retrieve when needed at some future time. Germane cognitive load is the mental effort that occurs when something is actually “learned.”

Continue reading “Designing for Cognitive Load”

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.

And They’re Off

We are now nearly three full weeks into our fall semester. My teaching duties include two fully online synchronous undergraduate courses that contain a total of fifty-five students. I reformulated these courses for online delivery because of the pandemic; in-person instruction has been, until now, the norm for undergraduate education at my university. Here are a few early-semester observations:

Given the faces that appear on my screen and Zoom usage reports, class sessions have been well-attended. I do see a few students connecting from their beds; obviously they are not fully awake. One student is connecting from her workplace, while on the job. But while some students might be less engaged than they are in a physical classroom, at minimum they are “present.” I regularly teach early in the morning, and for face-to-face classes, typically 5-10% of my students are absent on any given day.

I’m a believer in assessing early and often. I provide all assignments and deadlines to students at the start of the semester — via the syllabus and the LMS. Both of my courses have had five assignments due so far. Five out of the fifty-five students chose not to submit at least one assignment by its deadline. Four students did not submit two assignments. Three did not submit three, and one student chose not to complete any of the five. This matches what happens when I teach face-to-face. My courses often end up with a bimodal grade distribution; while it’s really hard for students to achieve D and F grades, a few always manage to succeed, and they are invariably the ones who do poorly at the beginning of the semester. Probably this pattern is consistent regardless of instructional delivery method.

Learned helplessness seems to have increased compared to past semesters, but only slightly, so I don’t know whether this is associated with online instruction. I’m getting the usual excuses: I can’t submit an assignment to the LMS. I can’t upload a photo to an asynchronous online discussion. I didn’t know the class was on Zoom rather than Webex even though you sent three emails with instructions before the semester started. As I state in my syllabi, these are not my problems. Figure it out.

In sum, my experience so far this semester hasn’t been that different than previous semesters. Yes, there have been a few technical glitches on my end, and there are some new complexities that I’m still learning how to manage. But at least from my perspective (which might be different from that of my students), things are going ok.

We would like to hear what you’re encountering this semester, especially if you are in a “hy-flex” environment simultaneously teaching in-person and remotely-connected students. How is it going? Send us a potential guest post at alps@activelearningps.com.

Never forget

The jacket was this pattern. I wore it nowhere near as stylishly.

I was going to write about why you should never try to run a simultaneous in-class/online session, but if you’ve not already learnt that from this and this, then really it’s going to have to be personal experience that teaches you. Enjoy.

Instead, since it’s Induction Week here, I’d share my memories of my first days at University, because it’s easy to forget what it’s like.

The first morning in our halls of residence I strode into the canteen, dressed my smartest clothes: certainly there was a jacket, possibly even a tie involved.

Five minutes later I was back in my room, changing into the jeans and t-shirt that everyone was wearing.

And then…

Well, I remember nothing else from my first week. I assume I had various induction sessions, and that I got to know a bit about others on my course, and I’d be very surprised if I didn’t end up in the student union at some point.

But still, the overriding thing that I took from starting university was that it wasn’t like I’d thought it would be. Not so much because I had some family-/friend-based telling of it all, or because I’d watched movies set in universities, but because I’d not really thought about it too much.

All of this came back to me again yesterday, as I introduced myself to our first-years and then took some of them around campus.

The only advice I could offer them was to talk with others, because it’s a lot to take in. Now, much more than my first year, we pile up huge amounts of policy, procedure and learning contracts, even before we get to the world of infection control.

Put it like this, my happiest moment was being asked to point out where the loos can be found on campus: super mundane, but obviously important to everyone.

So just remember how it felt when you started out, think about all that your students are dealing with right now, and try to keep the lines of communication open permanently: we never stop learning about being at university.

As I found out when I pointed the student to the wrong place for a wee.

Caveat Emptor

An open letter to current and potential future graduate students:

The bottom has now completely fallen out of the academic labor market in the USA. Over the last several years, I’ve written about the deteriorating financial situation of many U.S. colleges and universities. At the micro scale, two for four institutions profiled in that post have closed. At the macro scale, there is this 2013 overview of pending structural change in higher education by a former provost. The SARS-CoV-2 pandemic has simply accelerated the process.

I have also discussed what this means for people planning on a career in academia. The outlook has gone from very bad to worse. The University of Pennsylvania has reacted responsibly by suspending admission to its graduate programs in arts and sciences. More universities should do the same. But they probably won’t, because graduate tuition and labor are part of the university business model. My advice? Don’t enter a graduate program with expectations of becoming a professor unless you are granted full funding for the length of the program.

What should current graduate students do? Become proficient in skills that have been and will continue to be in demand outside of academia — statistics, data visualization, coding, and writing for policymakers and the public rather than the dozen people who might read your journal article. Also, a master’s degree in instructional design is a very useful credential. Note that political science graduate programs often don’t provide students with formal, effective training in any of these skills. That’s because they are preparing people for a career that, statistically-speaking, no longer exists.

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.