Preventing Zoombies

As the end of the semester approaches, I’m noticing fewer students signing into my synchronous online classes. I’m also noticing that some students sign in, don’t turn on webcams, and do not respond when asked verbally or in text chat to answer questions. These students log into Zoom and then completely ignore whatever might be happening in class.

How to increase student “presence” in a course? The usual solution — whether face-to-face or online — is to make attendance obligatory and penalize students when they are absent. Early in my teaching career I abandoned this type of policy because I got tired of deciphering students’ claims about “excused” absences. I have no interest in learning about students’ medical or other problems, and I don’t want sick students attending class only to avoid exceeding an allowed number of absences. I believe that legal adults get to set their own priorities and suffer the consequences of their decisions. And students who don’t regularly attend and participate in my classes invariably do poorly grade-wise anyway. That’s their choice.

But that was the pre-Covid era. Given the difficulty students had with the transition to online instruction last spring, there is a chance that the student with mediocre academic performance in the physical classroom is doing terribly as an online student, simply because their time management skills, motivation, and willingness to exert effort weren’t great to begin with.

So I’m starting to experiment with a few techniques that I’m hoping will increase student participation in my synchronous online courses next semester. I believe they will operate as positive reinforcement rather than as a punitive attendance policy.

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Changing Mid Stream

Some readers of this blog work at universities that have now shifted to online instruction after starting the semester with face-to-face classes — a repeat of what happened in March. You’re now faced with a very awkward transition. But as Simon, Amanda, and I wrote over the spring and summer, don’t try to wedge a square peg into a round hole. What works in the physical classroom often doesn’t function nearly as well online. And now is your opportunity to experiment.

Here is one simple suggestion: replace one day of synchronously-held class each week with a week-long asynchronous online discussion. Here is one rubric for designing and grading these discussions. Here is another. Drop from the syllabus upcoming assignments that are worth an equivalent amount toward the course grade. Inform students about your reasoning for doing this — whether it’s to reinforce their understanding of previously-studied concepts, to maintain a sense of community in the class, to lessen student stress at the end of the semester, or something else.

There are many other relatively simple adjustments that can be made that will simplify your life when teaching a course that has suddenly gone online.

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.

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:

Creating Community V: Final Touches

Some final attempts to build community into my courses before they start this week:

I scheduled a few Zoom meetings at different times so students could test their access and ask me questions. I had created a poll with the following questions as a way for them to assess their readiness (possible answers were “yes,” “no,” and “unsure”):

  1. I will have reliable and convenient internet access when the semester begins.
  2. I feel comfortable learning how to use Zoom.
  3. I am looking forward to the fall semester.
  4. I am worried about the possible effects of the Covid-19 pandemic on me or my family members.
  5. I am worried that non-academic demands on my time, such as employment or care for family members, might interfere with my studies.
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Creating Community IV: Access and Culture

Taking a step back from collaborative exercises and assignments, and in line with Simon’s recent post:

If students are to develop a sense of community in a course, they have to know how to access it and they need to be aware of its cultural norms. For us, both are obvious, because we designed the course. For students, neither might be immediately apparent. Since I’m teaching fully online, partially synchronous undergraduate courses for the first time this fall, I decided to create a pre-semester checklist to inform students about basic technological requirements and behavioral expectations. A template for you to use to create your own checklist is below. A specific example of what I’ll be sending students is here. Feel free to use both. As usual, the views expressed herein are my own and not those of my university; your needs may differ.

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Creating Community III: Memo Exercise

More on creating community in an online course (previous posts are here and here): a collaborative writing exercise.

For several years, I’ve used memos as an authentic writing assignment. Or tried to. Often the results haven’t met my expectations. I have had students write multiple complete memos in a course, all in the same format, assuming that they will apply my feedback from the previous memo to the next one. Instead, students repeat the same mistakes over and over again.

For the upcoming semester, I decided to turn memo writing into a group activity, on the chance that collaborating with peers might produce better results. As in previous semesters, I will provide source material and the prompt. In a graded individual assignment, each student will write only specific portions of a memo, described below in the sample instructions and rubric. Students will be able to use a new memo template and guidelines that will be available on Canvas.

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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!

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.

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Video Tutorial: Taking Simulations Online

Today we have a guest post, actually a guest video, from Sarah Federman, assistant professor in negotiations and conflict management for the College of Public Affairs, University of Baltimore. She can be contacted at sfederman [at] ubalt [dot] edu. 

Sarah has created this brief video tutorial on taking simulations online, especially those that involve negotiation and conflict. The video has much food for thought. For example, one should not necessarily assume that the online environment lessens the simulation experience for students. Online allows interaction between students who attend different universities and can also facilitate the ability of students to design their own simulations — resulting in less work for the instructor.