As we begin to plan our fall semester classes, most of us don’t know whether we will be teaching in a face-to-face or a remote environment during part or all of the semester. This makes the course development process more challenging. In this episode, Dr. Darina Slattery joins us to discuss how e-tivities may be used to help support student learning in any course modality.
Darina is the Head of Technical Communication and Instructional Design at the University of Limerick. She is also the Vice President of the IEEE Professional Communication Society.
John: As we begin to plan our fall semester classes, most of us don’t know whether we will be teaching in a face-to-face or a remote environment during part or all of the fall semester. This makes the course development process more challenging. In this episode, we discuss how e-tivities may be used to help support student learning in any course modality.
John: Thanks for joining us for Tea for Teaching, an informal discussion of innovative and effective practices in teaching and learning.
Rebecca: This podcast series is hosted by John Kane, an economist…
John: …and Rebecca Mushtare, a graphic designer.
Rebecca: Together, we run the Center for Excellence in Learning and Teaching at the State University of New York at Oswego.
John: We should note that we recorded this podcast in early March before most campuses closed in response to the global pandemic. The content of this discussion, though, is at least as important now as it was at the time of the recording.
Rebecca: Our guest today is Dr. Darina Slattery. Darina is the Head of Technical Communication and Instructional Design at the University of Limerick. She is also the Vice President of the IEEE Professional Communication Society. Welcome, Darina.
John: It’s good to talk to you again.
Darina: Thank you very much John and Rebecca.
John: Our teas today are… are you drinking tea?
Darina: Not at this minute, but I do drink a lot of tea, just regular Irish tea.
John: You know, we should have done that.
Rebecca: I considered it this morning. And I was like, “Oh, I’m making a mortal sin this morning by choosing something very different.” But I have black currant tea today.
Darina: Oh, very nice. [LAUGHTER] I don’t drink coffee at all, even though most people here do but I just drink a lot of tea instead. We do too.
Rebecca: …all day long.
Darina: Very good.
John: And I have an apple spice chai tea today.
Darina: Oh, I’ve never tried that.
Rebecca: That’s unusual.
John: This is my first time trying it.
Darina: Good luck. [LAUGHTER]
Rebecca: Is it good?
John: I’ll know more… I just made it.
Rebecca: So, we invited you here today to discuss e-tivities. Can you explain to our listeners what is meant by an e-tivity.
Darina: Okay, so an e-tivity, basically, is a structured e-tivity that’s typically hosted on a discussion forum. So e-tivity is just really short for electronic e-tivity. But specifically, the concept of e-tivity came from Gilly Salmon. So, Gilly Salmon is famous for her work on the five stages that learners go through for teaching online. And she’s famous for coming up with this structure. It’s a very simple structure, but it’s a very useful one. So typically, e-tivities, as I said, they’re hosted in a discussion forum, but they don’t always have to be about discussion topics; an e-tivity can require a student to do anything. So, typically, an e-tivity… it’s instructions, and it starts off usually with some kind of a spark. So, the spark could be like a controversial statement that you want students to debate. It could be a relevant or a thought-provoking image, or it could even be a link to a YouTube case study or something. So, something that you just want to get them going with whatever the e-tivity is about. And then the second component then is the purpose. So that’s just essentially where you state the objective of the e-tivity. Then you’ve got the task, and this is the hardest part to write for an e-tivity. It’s where you give step-by-step instructions to students about what you want them to do, where you want them to do it, how, when, you might have a word count, what the deadline is. There could be multiple parts to the task. And then the fourth typical component is a respond section. And the term is a bit misleading, because it suggests that you don’t have to respond to the task. You do. But the respond part means respond to one of your peers based on what they submitted for the task. So, I wouldn’t always have that part. I don’t always have the collaborative element, even though all students can see each other’s responses because it’s posted or stored in the forum. So that’s essentially what it is. It’s just a very organized e-tivity that has certain components. And students very quickly then kind of become familiar with what an e-tivity looks like, and what’s expected of them.
John: And so you state explicitly the purpose so they see the motivation, then, as part of that?
Darina: Yes, in my case, not everybody does this, but I always grade my e-tivities as well. So, it’s always aligned with the objectives of the module. And they’re going to get grades for it as well. And it’s aligned, you know, aligned with the content that you’re teaching… the classes as well.
Rebecca: Can you give an example of an e-tivity?
Darina: Yes, I can give you lots of examples, actually. I’m just trying to think of some of the more useful ones. So, one that’s particularly useful that I use at the very start of my courses. So, the students I teach are online and on campus. So, I have both groups taking the same courses at the same time. So rather than have kind of one method of teaching one group and a different method for the on campus, I have them all accessing the same lecture materials and podcasts and so on. But also the way they engage is through e-tivities. So, whether they’re physically in the room in front of me or online, they’re all doing the same e-tivities. We have a program that teaches them about technical communication and e-learning. And a lot of the students in the program would be from very different backgrounds, they wouldn’t have any prior background in writing or teaching or anything like that. And for many of them as well, they’re mature students or postgraduate students, so they might not have ever used virtual learning environments before. So in the very first week of their program, I give them an e-tivity which asks them to do a learning style survey. Now I know there’s a lot of controversy about learning styles, and I’m not going to argue either way about that for now. But the purpose of it really is to get them into the VLE, to find an e-tivity in the right place and to respond in the right place. And it just happens to be an e-tivity that’s highly relevant to instructional design students, but it’s one that can be done by anybody. So they follow the instructions, the e-tivity, they go and do the learning style survey, they review the results. And then they have to write a small passage in the forum about whether or not they agree with the findings. So if it says that they’re a visual learner, and they don’t think they are, or they prefer text or whatever, they just have a bit of discussion about that. So it’s a really good way to engage them with the VLE very quickly. So by Friday of week one, they kind of know how we’re going to teach how we’re going to run the module. So it’s really very much of a kind of an icebreaker e-tivity. But then I have more elaborate ones then. So, my students have to design and develop an e-learning course. And so, in the instructional design course that they take with me, they have to propose a topic that they would like to develop. So it could be something that they’re personally interested in or something they know from industry that it’s needed. So they have to propose a topic, outline the characteristics of the audience, do an audience analysis (or a preliminary audience analysis), talk about what technology the audience might have, and then also provide some peer feedback to other people. Because it’s all in the forum, they can see each other’s contributions. And then they can decide, “Oh, I know a bit about what Mary proposed there, I got to give her some resources that might help her” or “John has said he wants to develop a course about safe cycling in the city. I have this brilliant book that he should have a look at,” and so on. So it’s a way of kind of structuring the tasks you might get them to do in a face-to-face tutorial, but it’s just that they read the instructions in the e-tivity in the forum, and that’s where they also reply, and everybody else can see the reply as well. So because it’s asynchronous as well, it’s really helpful because the quality of their answers tend to be better than they might be in a face-to-face classroom, for example. They’ve had a bit of time to consider them.
Rebecca: WEe were talking before we started this particular interview about COVID-19 and people moving to online learning and things like that. An e-tivity seems like an opportunity to transition quickly to online, potentially.
Rebecca: Are there tips for doing an e-tivity for the first time? Maybe things that faculty might not think about the first time out that we could help them think about the first time out? [LAUGHTER]
Darina: Yeah, well, certainly, I mean, I think the most important thing about the e-tivities is to know what the core components are. And like, I wouldn’t always have, for example, a spark from my e-tivity, I might just state the purpose of it. And then I put most of my effort into giving the step-by-step instructions. And what I often find is that my colleagues… in their head, they know what they want the student to do, or they know what the end product will look like. But when you actually have to write out the instructions, and you’re not physically present with the students, you suddenly realize, “Oh, I have to specify that and I have to specify that” and “Oh, I better tell them where do they reply to this message or do they reply in a different forum.” That’s really, for most people where the challenge is, that they don’t realize how much extra guidance they normally give face to face, or students email them, and they give them a bit more information, or the students stopped them in the corridor, and it gives them a bit more information. In an e-tivity, the work goes into being as clear as possible. And if you’re really clear, I guarantee you students will do the right thing in the right place. If you’re not clear, their answers could end up anywhere. They could end up being emailed to you, they could end up in the wrong forum, or whatever. So really, it’s about putting the effort into the task and having kind of a manageable task. Because I know when I think back to my early days of doing e-tivities, I had an e-tivity nearly every week, for example, you know. But they might need at least a week to do the tivity and to read around the topic before they can give a good answer. So over the years, I’ve kind of cut back and I’ve just kept the most critical e-tivities and I’ve spread them out a little bit more as well. What I really like about e-tivities is that anybody who’s moving into online, they almost definitely will have access to a forum in their VLE. And if you have access to a forum, then the only thing you have to do… there’s no technology to be installed or anything of that… is you just have to put some careful thought into what you want the students to do, where, why, when, and so on. So if there’s multiple parts, just think carefully about the dates of those, that if Part B is dependent on Part A being completed, you have to give enough time in between them. And bearing in mind that online students probably have other commitments during the day and so on. So it’s a great way to get your students engaging online without it being a technical challenge for you as an instructor. It’s really more of a kind of Instructional Design Challenge, really.
John: Going back a little bit to that first example you use. I’m a little concerned because we’ve had a number of podcasts where people have talked about learning styles as a myth. I’m wondering, should we maybe address that argument just a little bit
Darina: In terms of learning styles, what I do with the students, I want them to be aware of the challenges and the issues and the critiques of learning styles as well. So when I asked them to do the survey, I also give them links to some article about the issues with learning styles. And I make it very clear to them that I’m not pushing learning styles or insisting that they have to believe the results that come back. It’s an icebreaker activity, that it’s an activity that will get them at the very least to stop and think about how they think they learn. So even if they strongly disagree with the results, that’s fine. And I want them to actually say that it, you know what I mean? It’s not a mark for “Do you agree with this? And if you don’t, I have a problem with you.” And it’s very much about stop and think about how you’d like to learn, okay, and I’m giving you an e-tivity that just happens to be relevant to your study as well.
Rebecca: What I like about your icebreaker in this way is that it encourages students immediately not to have to be on the agree train, right? … like agree with everything the faculty has to say all the time. And that would seem like it gives them permission right from the first activity to disagree or have different perspectives, which I could imagine would be a really important thing to set up at the beginning of an online course.
Darina: It is, because we often say this to students, but most of the time they look at us as “Well, you’re the expert. And if I disagree with you it might affect my grades” and stuff like that. And they don’t realize maybe that you don’t mind if they disagree, and if they have a valid reason for disagreeing that that’s extremely valid. And so yeah, I do like that aspect of it, because it kind of sets the stage for even just making them a bit more critical of what they read. So like, MOOCs were all the rage of 2011, they were the worst thing ever in 2012. Now they’re back in, and then they’re gone again. And I need my students to think like that about, you know, whatever the latest trend is, might not even exist tomorrow. And the same goes for theories. You know, anytime somebody comes up with a new theory, it’s going to take a bit of time before people evaluate that theory and determine whether it’s really valid or not, and that that’s okay. Because they wouldn’t really be thinking like that when they come into our program. You know, they’ve probably been away from education for a long time. And in my experience in undergraduate programs, they don’t do a lot of critical thinking. So, this is the start of that, even if they’re not as aware as I am of why I’m doing it, you know. I’m trying to emphasize it anyway.
John: You’ve used the term VLE several times. Could you explain to our listeners what that means, because that term isn’t as commonly used in the U.S.
Darina: Virtual Learning Environment… sorry. I actually say LMS quite a lot. When I say LMS, other people say “What’s an LMS?” So VLE (virtual learning environment) or LMS (learning management system) are the same thing. Yes.
Rebecca: Can you talk a little bit about advantages of e-tivities over other strategies to use in online learning.
Darina: Yeah, of course. Well, one of the major draws for faculty is when I say to them, there’s no technical skill required. It doesn’t require you to have a more supercomputer to be able to install something. You don’t have to go out and buy any new equipment. If you have access to a VLE, you’ll have access to a forum. So it’s a simple, inexpensive way of engaging your students. One of the things that people often say to me is, you know, “That’s fine for you. You teach tech writing or instructional design. Of course, you can do that kind of stuff. I teach artificial intelligence or maths or science or whatever, how would I do an e-tivity for that?” if you can give students a piece of instruction about your topic, it can be turned into an e-tivity. Over the years I’ve tried to collate some activities from different disciplines, and I put them up on my website. The science engineering people are a bit slower to engage in professional development for teaching in general, but those who do, I have like supply chain management with a new masters in artificial intelligence. They’re using all e-tivities to engage their students, and their students are industry professionals working in AI and they are really loving the engagement with the e-tivities. I have colleagues who teach languages using it, management marketing are using it. It’s really about what do you want the students to do? Ask them to do it. And the important thing about an e-tivity is, the student’s response doesn’t have to be a text-based response in the forum. You put the e-tivity in the forum, they get used to going there for them. But sometimes the e-tivity will require them to go somewhere else and do something. So the e-tivity could say, go away and interview an expert in your field and come back and upload a file or tell us what you learned from that interview. Or I have an e-tivity, for example, that gets them to set up a Twitter account and then engage on Twitter for the rest of the semester. So they’re not actually using the forum every week to engage, the forum just tells them how to do it. They reply with their Twitter handle, but thereafter they’re actually engaging via Twitter. So they start off on the forum, but they end up somewhere else. It’s very important that you just think about that. That’s just kind of a house or home for the task, but the task itself does not have to be discussion based or forum based. And then I think you get a bit more buy-in from technical type subjects who say, “Okay, yeah, maybe I could see a way that we could use this.”
John: To put this in context. you mentioned that you were using this for students who are both online and face to face. Could you tell us just a little bit about your course in terms of the structure?
Darina: Yes, of course. So the students they’re all studying how to become technical writers, instructional designers, or e-learning content developers. So initially, the program was only available on campus, and towards the latter years, I was using e-tivities with the on-campus students. And then when I moved it online as well, it meant it was actually not so difficult for me because the e-tivities ported very well to the online students. Now we just have students, some of them physically come into my class and they attend lectures. They can download the podcasts afterwards, if they want to, the online students access the slides and the podcasts afterwards, but they all engage together in the discussion forums.
John: That sounds a lot like a HyFlex course where students are getting the same content and they can attend in person or remotely either synchronously or asynchronously,
Darina: Yes, it is. And it started off as being on campus only. I’ve read a little bit about your HyFlex and it wasn’t a term I was aware of, or I wasn’t familiar with that. A lot of my colleagues here in UL, because we are traditional on-campus institution, they tend to create a different version for the online students. But the way I see it is that you can end up with different learning outcomes if you’re giving different types of assignments to students, and so on. And if you’re smart about it, one activity can engage both groups. And it also increases the audience. It means that the on-campus students who might not have much experience actually get to engage with the online students who might have lots of experience. They wouldn’t otherwise interact with them, you know, they tend to interact with the other students in the classroom with them. So it kind of creates a bigger audience with a more varied skill set if they’re all engaging in the same e-tivities.
Rebecca: Can you talk a little bit about what the experience in the classroom is like when you’re using e-tivities for a face-to-face class? I understand that they’re all doing the same e-tivity as where they engage with each other, but what’s there in-class experience like?
Darina: The e-tivity doesn’t really impact the in-class experience. For some reason, when we set up the program, as I said, it was on campus only. And when we moved it online, we thought that almost everybody would want to be online, and that we wouldn’t have a need for on-campus lectures and so on. But most years, it’s about 50-50. It can vary a little bit, but some students still actually want to come in and have the lecture, a formal lecture, and other students can’t avail of that for whatever reason. So, the on-campus experience is very much students coming in and listening to a traditional lecture and asking questions and me answering them. We don’t tend to work on the e-tivities during the class time, because I would have to repurpose that engagement then and try and create another version of that for the online students. So, the on-campus delivery is the lecture. The online engagement of the class is really what happens through e-tivities. And it’s kind of irrelevant whether you are an online or an on-campus student then. That’s the kind of way that works for me anyway, and for my students.
John: And you mentioned that the online students listen to podcasts. So do you record the class presentations and share them as podcasts with the class?
Darina: No is the answer for the majority of times, though I have played around with different versions. It would obviously be a lot easier for me in one way if I just recorded the live lecture and posted it afterwards. But I often find I spend just as long editing this or thinking, “Oh, I didn’t really explain that very well, I’ll re-record it and so on. And that I’ve usually spent just as long editing afterwards as I have giving the session, and then I end up saying, I should have just done a proper separate podcast. So my default setting now is I give my live lecture, and then I come and do a podcast of the same lecture, but it’s just cleaner, I’m speaking better. Everybody has access to it, though, so it’s not like the online students only get that; everybody has it. So, if they do miss a lecture, for whatever reason, they can still get the podcast afterwards. And for some reason, students still come to class… not this week, it’s student fun week. But normally, I still get students coming to class and sometimes I do wonder why they’re coming to class when there is an alternative, they can still get the same material another way. But, some students, they like the fact that they have a dedicated time when they come and they focus on instructional design or e-learning, or whatever. And of course, sometimes I do group work during the lectures and so on. But I have to factor in that every way that I interact with the on-campus students, I have to be able to try and replicate that afterwards for the online. So, that’s why most of the interaction happens through the e-tivities. But, sometimes you do have to create supplementary materials because you did a group work exercise in class or whatever, you know?
Rebecca: I like the idea of doing the podcast afterwards, because then you know what questions were asked [LAUGHTER] and you can address all of those when you go to record.
Darina: …and quite often, it’s I think, I really didn’t explain that as well as I could have or I stumbled on that, or they didn’t seem to get it when I said in class. I’m going to explain it more clearly now in the podcast, and at least I know that everybody has access to that. So, I’m not giving a better version to the online students. They all have access. So, that works for me, even though it does feel like I’m double teaching sometimes.
Rebecca: Dress rehearsal and the final performance?
Darina: Yes, exactly. [LAUGHTER]
John: When I first started teaching online, I did the same thing. I was teaching a face-to-face class and an online class and I recorded videos for all of the online students, which I then shared with the face-to-face students…
John: …and an hour and 20 minute class became maybe two or three 10-minute videos because you could do it more concisely and a more focused presentation.
Darina: But the few times I have recorded the live sessions, maybe due to, you know, being under pressure at work, or whatever reason, they’ve complained. They get used to the higher quality podcast, and then they say, “Oh, I could hear somebody going in and out the door,” or “I couldn’t hear the questions they were asking.” So, if you go down that path of recording separate podcasts, you can’t really go back to recording a live session, because they’ll find them not sufficiently clear. So, it’s fine if you start with that. They won’t notice. They’ll be just thrilled to have access to the lecture materials, but it’s whatever kind of standard you set you kind of have to maintain it then, so. [LAUGHTER] But, it would be easier on me if I didn’t have to go and do it again, in lots of ways.[LAUGHTER]
John: We had a really similar experience when we first started the podcast. We created the intro, a very short introduction to the podcast, and we showed it to our advisory board that advises the teaching center. And one of the people there said, I think it was intended as a compliment that “It sounds so professional. It doesn’t sound like you at all.” [LAUGHTER]
Darina: Oh, definitely. My children said that to me, too. You sound weird in the podcast. I’m like, I’m just talking more slowly and I’m thinking about what I’m saying, rather than talking super fast in class, maybe, whatever. Yeah. I do pauses when I’m recording it. And I do go back and say that wasn’t good enough or your voice is a bit weak there, you know what I mean. So it is a better quality production. I would be very keen to emphasize to my colleagues and you don’t want to create a situation where you then give yourself five hours of editing work after every lecture, either. Your live lectures are not perfect, and it’s fine. But there’s nothing wrong with doing a little bit of editing, but I wouldn’t waste too much time on it either or you’ll just never upload it. That’s the other danger.
Rebecca: Can you talk a little bit more about the role of the instructor in the e-tivity. You talked about designing it and writing the instructions, but what happens afterwards? Can you describe that a little bit.?
Darina: Yes. So, as I said, in my case, all the e-tivities are graded. The first one, the icebreaker one this year, I decided not to give marks for it, because everybody was going to get full marks and it was kind of a bit too easy.[LAUGHTER] So I decided to only give marks if they didn’t do, which, which made them all do it. And the purpose of that was to get them to engage quickly. But, for all the other e-tivities, there are marks going forward. So it’s a couple of percent maybe for each part, it does involve me copying and pasting the forum based messages into a Word document and reading through them and annotating with little comments and then sharing it back with each individual student. So the feedback only goes back to the individual student, even though they’ve all seen each other’s submissions, say, right. So it’ll be a mixture then of quantitative and qualitative techniques. So, I might look at like, have they stuck to the word count I suggested. So they tend to be relatively short answers, you know, like 300 words max or something like that. So, have they adhered to that? Have they answered the question I asked, have they got some citations to relevant literature in the part where they have to respond to somebody else? Have they given them some useful suggestions? Are they just saying, “Oh, that’s a wonderful idea, Mary?” So the qualitative part takes a little bit more time. They are time consuming. My classes could be 20 to 35 students having two or three e-tivities in a semester is still plenty of work. I feel like I’m kind of grading all the time. But they really do engage them. And they have activities to do from early on, rather than than just every week logging in, listening to a podcast, reading all the readings, and then having a big assignment at the end. It does require them to do things more often. And as I said, I’m relying mostly on asynchronous interaction. So it has to be highly structured that they’re not wondering what they have to do. That’s why I mentioned thinking carefully about the task and what is actually manageable. I mean, just because I can do it in an hour this evening, they don’t know anything about the topic that you’ve just set them so they have to read all the readings, maybe listen to your podcasts, look at your slides, read what other people have said to get a feel for it, and then post their 300 words. So that could be a four-hour task for them. So, it’s a little bit of a trial and error thing, that the first time you issue an e-tivity you think it’s very doable, and you might realize it takes them way more time than you thought. And that’s why over the years I’ve pared back to the most essential e-tivities that I really just do not want to drop that I know engage them enough that it’s not just logging in and listening to a podcast every week. It’s important to engage them as well.
John: You mentioned that the students reply to each other’s contributions. Do you also reply to those? Or do you wait until the end to provide feedback?
Darina: Usually, I wait until the end. Now in the ideal world, when we’re teaching online, we would have tutors available to help us with this. I don’t have any tutors, so everything, all the VLE work, everything, you know, uploading materials, and all podcasting, and everything else is all done by me… possibly the same for you. But I have colleagues in other departments in my university who have education technologists who do a lot of that and who do a lot of the tedious things like downloading people’s forum postings, or saving them in documents and all that kind of thing. If I didn’t have to spend so much time on those kinds of things, I would probably engage more frequently with their contributions. But, there’s a relatively short time between when the e-tivity appears and when you have to contribute something and there may be two or three parts to it. So part A and part B might be due at the same day. And then Part C might be read over what other people said in A and B and give some of them feedback. Because I try and align them with one another, I do return the feedback for one e-tivity before the next e-tivity is due because it usually has a knock on effect on what they do the second time around. But I do find it’s very demanding on me. And every year I say I shouldn’t do this, even though it’s a good outcome for the students. So, that’s something you have to factor in as well is that if something is issued in week five, and due in week six, and then another one due in week seven, are you going to issue another one in week seven? They’re immediately going to be asking you “Well, how did I do and the last one I submitted last week.” So, you have to have factored in some grading time into your week six or seven schedule. So that’s just something else to kind of watch there. So yes, to answer your question, when they propose an e-learning course topic and they give me some details and the typical audience, I will give them feedback on that before the next e-tivity, which is to write the tasks they might teach in the course. So I might say to them “Well your topic is, too. broad” or “Have you looked at what other e-learning courses exist on that topic?” or “Have you thought about this and that?” That should impact the kind of tasks they write in the next e-tivity. So, it is important to get them feedback in between.
Rebecca: I also wondered if you could talk a little bit about how e-tivities fit into other coursework that students are doing, or are students just doing the e-tivities as part of your classes?
Darina: No. So, for example, the one where they propose the topic for an e-learning course, and the audience requirements and so on, and then later on, they propose some tasks that they would like to teach in that course. Let’s say it’s on safe cycling in the city. They would have to identify certain tasks that the learner would need to be able to do, you know, like pick appropriate equipment or clothing to wear when they’re cycling and buy the right lights for their bicycle or whatever it might be. So, they’d have to outline the tasks they would teach. The main assignment then for that module would be to develop a podcast that teaches the learner how to do one or more of those tasks. So, it could be a podcast on buying the right equipment for your bicycle or whatever. So, there’s an instructional design process integrated those e-tivities. And the same then for the other group where they have to work in a team. They’re only online students in another course I teach. They’re only online students, they have to develop an e-learning course as a group. So, they have to form a team, first of all. They don’t know each other, they’ve never met, they only have the forums to really interact. So they have to find other like-minded people via the forums, pick a topic, decide who’s going to do what, who is going to be the instructional designer, the editor, the writers, whatever, they have to identify what sources they’re going to use for the course they’re going to develop. These are all e-tivities, by the way, these are all different parts of e-tivities, and they have to come up with some sample interface designs. So, that might be only seven weeks into the term, they will have done all that. And I find the e-tivity’s really good for group work where I don’t know about you, but in my experience, when you ask students to get in groups or to form groups themselves, they could spend five weeks trying to find teammates, whereas if you give them a structured e-tivity where it says: By week two, you have to have found three other team members. By week three, you have to have decided who’s doing what. It’s a really great way of organizing them online because they’ve small, relatively easy deliverables, but they’re due and there’s marks going for them. Whereas if there’s kind of a, you have to have an e-learning course developed by week 12, they’ve 12 weeks to get their act together or, you know, they’ll manage it somehow. So it’s a very good way of organizing them, particularly when you’re talking about online students, because they have other commitments. So, all those small e-tivities all feed into the final project, which is to actually produce an e-learning course, based on all the submissions.
John: I have a question about that process of forming groups. I assigned a podcast assignment last term, I strongly encourage them to do it in groups of two or three, and there were only two pairs. I allowed them to do them individually, and most people did that, which meant a bit more work for them, and a whole lot more work for me.[LAUGHTER]
John: Do you use a discussion forum to get students to form the groups or is there some type of prompt that you’ve used to get students to effectively form those groups?
Darina: I know I sound like a broken record, now. But it’s actually the e-tivity. So the e-tivity is: use this particular forum by Friday of week one, you have to identify a group. I have a dedicated space for finding people. But that’s not where they respond with their team members. They respond to the e-tivity with their team members. I’m really amazed how this works, but it really does work. So you’ll have: “Hi, I’m John. I live in Dublin. I prefer to have somebody who lives near me in case we need to meet, but I’m happy to work with anyone. I’m thinking we could develop a course about safe cycling.” And then you’ll get some elsel say, “Yeah, I love cycling, too. I might go with you.” And that just happens in that casual forum space. But then once you’ve got four people who agree, straightaway, then they reply to the e-tivity with: “Here’s our group” and they list the four members and that’s it. That’s all I grade is the four names… have they got four names, rather than worrying about who’s interacting with who and how they finally got to that destination
Rebecca: In your e-tivity, then, do you describe to the students: “Use this finding-like forum to find each other and then report back?”
Darina: Yes, it’s very prescriptive. [LAUGHTER] It’s like you need to spell it out and Ieven give them links to: these are some of the challenges you will encounter as a team, you know, that kind of the forming, storming, stages and the characteristics of a good team, the kinds of things to watch out for. So, I just alert them to, these are likely things are going to happen your group this semester while you’re doing loads of other assignments at the same time and working and whatever else. So, they’re alert to it, they can choose whether or not they want to read those, but at least they know that there are possible challenges coming… but definitely breaking up those stages into smaller stages where they get 2% for finding a team, and they get 3% for dividing up the roles and agreeing on them by week three. It definitely works. It’s surprisingly productive.
John: I had tried that. I put together a discussion forum for them to find partners and to select their topics, but I didn’t make it mandatory that they had to, and so that discussion forum was used by one person [LAUGHTER] who suggested a topic and no one else responded and I should have probably started the assignment by requiring teams.
Darina: Yeah, well over the years I’ve tried the technique of “Wouldn’t it be great if students did these things voluntarily?” …and then always disappointed that only the really good students did it voluntarily. So, I pretty much tend to have 10 to 20% of every course is e-tivities. And the other 80% is for the bigger assignment, whether it’s a podcast or an e-learning course, or an e-portfolio, or whatever.
Rebecca: I think that scaffolding is something that students really want. And I think a lot of times when it’s just in a final project assignment…
Rebecca: …that like you should do this by this date. And this by this date, even though it’s scaffolded, in the way that you thought about it or designed it, the students don’t treat it like it’s scaffolded. [LAUGHTER]
Darina: No, [LAUGHTER] I’m sure you’ve had the same experience, where you write a seven-page document that clearly specifies all the things you want them to do and when and they’ll still not do things on those deadlines. So. this is the way of like, “Look, this is simple. Four people agree with each other by a certain date.” And it’s great because they’re doing interface designs in a group by week five or six when they would still be messing about and trying to find people to merge with. And then if I see there’s somebody leftover, who doesn’t have a team, I’ll say: “Well, this group only has three, you can go with them” or whatever, but they tend to get themselves sorted. Now I did use it with undergraduates, the final-year undergraduates and it worked with them as well. And they were on-campus students, but it mightn’t be as useful for maybe first years or second years or freshmen or whatever, but it certainly did work for more senior undergraduates.
John: Mine were freshmen, but I didn’t provide that requirement…
Rebecca: …that extra step… [LAUGHTER]
John: Next time I may do that, though, because many of them were very, very good, but the ones that were jointly done, were, in general,quite a bit better.
Darina: I find if I give students a choice about working together or on their own, they tend to pick on their own as well. And I think to be honest, if I was asked if it was an assignment, and it’s been graded, I would say, you know what, I think at least I don’t want to be cross at anyone else for not engaging. I’m just going to do this by myself. I won’t have to rely on anyone else. I know. It’s not how we work in the real world. But when there are marks at stake, you kind of want to have full responsibility for what you hand up. So I find it very hard to get people to voluntarily engage in groups.
Rebecca: How do you manage when you’re doing e-tivities that are collaborative? The question always comes up like does everyone get the same grade? Do people get different grades?
Darina: Well, bear in mind, now that there’s a very small number of marks going for each of these parts. So like if there’s 2% going for somebody in your group, the designated Team Leader uploading four names and your team, by Friday, they’ll all get the 2%. It’s simple. It takes me one minute to grade that. When it comes to maybe an interface design that’s proposed as a group, then they’ll all get the same marks, unless, and I’ll always have that disclaimer in there, that unless the rest of the group contact me to say that somebody is not engaging, then I’ll deal with it separately. I’ve done a lot of research on virtual teams and those kinds of challenges. The default is that they’ll all get the same mark unless they speak up about it. So if you don’t hear about it, then the onus is on you to accept that all your team members will get the same mark. If they were worth 30% each or something I think people might be a little bit more precious about “Well, I actually did more work than they did,” but they’re sufficiently small that if you’re not pulling your weight for an e-tivity, you’re probably not going to do very well on the big assignment either.
John: How have students responded to the use of e-tivities?
Darina: At no point have I asked students like, “Do you like e-tivities versus something else?” They just come in, they’re immersed in the e-tivities. Not all my colleagues use them now, so they don’t have them in every course that they’re studying. But the way I see it is, I mean, obviously, we get our courses evaluated every year, and there’s never anything they could have said about e-tivities. A lot of people would comment on how they liked the clear instructions, and they like how things are organized, and they know where to go and so on. I think the thing that speaks loudest for me is how people do the right thing in the right place, and that they don’t post their answer in the wrong place. And I think that says a lot about how clear my e-tivities are… that they’re not left wondering. So, I’ve seen e-tivities, written by other people, where I’m thinking, do I click reply here? Or do I have to email it? What’s the deadline? Or do I have to collaborate before I respond and so on. If they’re very clear, if you put all that work into refining them, and I intend to refine them every year, if I find a lot of questions about an e-tivity this year that I’ve issued several times before, I will make a note: “next year, make sure you explain this clearer” or whatever, you know, in my Word document. Something that’s very obvious to me some years just isn’t as obvious to my students. So, just keep refining them. And that’s one of the great things about them is it’s like a good assignment. You can reuse it every year. And each year, it should be even more perfect than the previous year.
John: Would you mind if we share a link to your collection of e-tivities on the show notes?
Darina: Yes, of course. And I have in addition to a list of links to e-tivities, I have a very long list of resources that people might use for teaching and learning, like blogging tools, collaborative authoring tools, rubrics for teaching online and so on. So, just one of the things in there is a list of some e-tivities by my colleagues. I’m trying to get more people on board to using e-tivities. But, as I get good e-tivities from colleagues, I add them. It’s not a huge collection of them, but it gives you a flavor for how different disciplines can use them.
Rebecca: Wonderful. We always end our wrap up by asking what’s next? ‘
Darina: Well, I suppose one of the things I do kind of in addition to my day job as a faculty member is I do a lot of professional development workshops kind of voluntarily with my colleagues. So trying to help them either just use technology more in their day-to-day teaching, or even to develop online programs as well. And in that, then, I try and encourage them to use e-tivities. You know, this is a really good tool. This is how I teach online all the time, it’s not some elaborate software system you have to install or anything like that. So that’s where the collection of activities we’re just talking about has come from… those workshops where people start developing their own e-tivities in class, they refine them every year, and then they find them really useful. So that that’s where the collection is coming from… doing a lot of professional development in the area and now with the talks. As we were talking earlier about the possible closures of universities and so on, I probably will have a lot more people using e-tivities in the next few weeks, then maybe we originally planned. So I’m going to continue my work with the professional development. I mean, we’re not trying to convert everybody into online, we just want to show them good ways of using technology that might make things they’re doing at the moment more user friendly, enjoyable, less time consuming, and so on. So it’s about appropriate use of technology rather than moving everything into the online space. Not everything should be delivered that way, not everything can be delivered that way, but a lot of things can. My focus in the next while will be on just making people more aware of what can be done, rather than focusing on specific tools and getting anxious about hardware and software and things like that.
John: Thank you. This has been wonderful.
Darina: Thank you very much John and Rebecca. I really enjoyed it.
Rebecca: Yeah. Thank you so much.
John: If you’ve enjoyed this podcast, please subscribe and leave a review on iTunes or your favorite podcast service. To continue the conversation, join us on our Tea for Teaching Facebook page.
Rebecca: You can find show notes, transcripts and other materials on teaforteaching.com. Music by Michael Gary Brewer. Editing assistance provided by Brittany Jones and Savannah Norton.