During the fall 2020 semester, many faculty will be working in a classroom environment in which they will be in a classroom using a video conferencing tool to work simultaneously with a mix of remote students online and masked and physically distanced face-to-face students. There are significant challenges in using active learning techniques in this environment. In this episode, Dr. Derek Bruff joins us to explore some active learning strategies that may work under these very unusual circumstances.
Derek is the Director of the Vanderbilt University Center for Teaching and a Principal Senior Lecturer in the Vanderbilt Department of Mathematics. He is the author of Teaching with Classroom Response Systems: Creating Active Learning Environments, as well as his most recent book on Intentional Tech: Principles to Guide the Use of Educational Technology in College Teaching. Derek is also a host of the Leading Lines podcast.
- Bruff, D. (2009). Teaching with classroom response systems: Creating active learning environments. John Wiley & Sons.
- Bruff, D. (2019). Intentional Tech: Principles to Guide the Use of Educational Technology in College Teaching. West Virginia University Press.
- Bruff, Derek (2020). Active Learning in Hybrid and Physically Distanced Classrooms. Vanderbilt University Center for Teaching. June 11.
- Leading Lines podcast
- Bruff, Derek (2019). Intentional Tech. Tea for Teaching podcast, May 15.
- Littlejohn, Judith (2019). HyFlex Courses. Tea for Teaching podcast. September 18.
- Jessamyn Neuhaus (2020). Pedagogies of Care: Nerd Edition. Tea for Teaching podcast. June 17. (The podcast episode that Derek referenced.)
John: During the fall 2020 semester, many faculty will be working in a classroom environment in which they will be in a classroom using a video conferencing tool to work simultaneously with a mix of remote students online and masked and physically distanced face-to-face students. There are significant challenges in using active learning techniques in this environment. In this episode, we explore some active learning strategies that may work under these very unusual circumstances.
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…
Rebecca: , 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: Our guest today is Dr. Derek Bruff. Derek is the Director of the Vanderbilt University Center for Teaching and a Principal Senior Lecturer in the Vanderbilt Department of Mathematics. He is the author of Teaching with Classroom Response Systems: Creating Active Learning Environments, as well as his most recent book on Intentional Tech: Principles to Guide the Use of Educational Technology in College Teaching, which we talked about in an earlier podcast. Derek is also a host of the Leading Lines podcast. Welcome back, Derek.
Derek: Thanks. I’m glad to be here. I’m glad to be back on the podcast. And I just want to say I’ve been very impressed at the work you two have been doing these past several months. I used to say Leading Lines comes out on the first and third Monday of every month. And now I say Leading Lines comes out when it comes out. [LAUGHTER] And so, keeping up the schedule that you guys have had with this podcast and bringing in so many great guests and having so many great interviews, it’s just been a really rich resource for me. And as someone who can’t keep up a regular podcasting schedule right now, I’m just very impressed at what you guys have been doing.
Rebecca: It’s all John.
John: We’ve gotten a lot of help from so many people, such as you, who have agreed to join us and share their thoughts in a really challenging time. And it’s been a really great resource for our faculty too, who are faced with all this uncertainty about the fall.
Rebecca: Me too, because I’m not teaching until the fall. I haven’t taught this spring. [LAUGHTER]
Derek: Now’s a good time to be on sabbatical.
Rebecca: So, today’s teas are. Are you drinking tea, Derek?
Derek: No, I have some dark roast coffee.
Rebecca: Caffeine. [LAUGHTER]
John: And I have ginger peach green tea today.
Rebecca: I have a summer berry green tea. See, I’m mixing it up, John.
John: That’s a new one.
Rebecca: I gotcha. I gotcha.
Derek: Yeah, sounds lovely.
Rebecca: Actually, you’d be very happy to know, John, that last time I was in Epcot. I got it. [LAUGHTER]
John: We’re recording this in July. It’ll be released probably in early August. And there’s a lot of uncertainty about the fall. Right now, probably most colleges and universities in the country, with a few notable exceptions, have announced that they’re planning to bring students back to campus for face-to-face instruction with reduced seating, with some students coming in remotely (typically through Zoom or some other video conference app), and you recently released a blog post that discuss options for maintaining active learning in this environment where some students will be there in the classroom, spread out to make it hard for them to be in contact with each other, as well as online with a video conference. Maybe you can talk a little bit about that sort of framework in terms of what possibilities there are for people to interact.
Derek: Sure. I wrote this blog post because I’ve been getting so many questions from my faculty at Vanderbilt, trying to imagine what the fall semester will be like. And I gave a presentation based on the blog post at a Vanderbilt faculty town hall the other week, and one of my slides said, “No one has ever done this before.” And I think that’s really important. So, what I’m imagining that a number of faculty will face this fall, and again, different campuses are making different decisions… and even within a single campus, there’s going to be a lot of different configurations… some faculty will be teaching fully online, some faculty will not… and so this is kind of what we’re trying to imagine is that if I’m teaching a class this fall and I’m back on campus, I’m in a classroom, I have some students there in the room with me, but because of social distancing requirements, they’re six feet apart from each other. Maybe we’re all wearing masks, maybe I have a face shield instead of a mask. There’s going to be some variability here. But some students will not be able to come to the classroom, either because the social distancing requirements mean that you can’t hold as many students in the classroom, or maybe they are unable to travel back to get on campus. A lot of our international students are not planning to come back on campus this fall for a variety of reasons. Or maybe you have a student who’s in quarantine, right? They’ve been exposed to COVID and they’re in quarantine for 14 days, and so they can’t come to the classroom. A lot of us teaching this fall. I don’t know how many, but a lot of us, are likely to have these classes where some of the students are in the classroom, but physically distanced and masked, and some students are participating at the same time, but virtually, perhaps through video conferencing tool like Zoom. And you may have some students who actually can’t do either of those. If they’re 12 time zones away, they may have to participate in your class asynchronously in some fashion. That’s a whole ‘nother level of challenge. In my blog post, I just focused on those first two groups of students, the in-person but physically distanced, and then the virtual students may be participating via Zoom. And I’ve been really careful in my terminology of how I describe this, and so I’m calling this a hybrid classroom, because hybrid is sufficiently generic [LAUGHTER] that it would apply to a situation like this. Hybrid typically means some combination of face-to-face and online activities. It’s not quite hyflex. So there’s this term you may have heard, hyflex, which I think means something more specific, where students really have a choice to participate in person, synchronously online, asynchronously online, and they may actually shift from those modalities over the length of the semester. The flex in Hyflex is the kind of student choice and the student autonomy piece and I’m not expecting we’re gonna have a lot of student autonomy this fall. We have some, certainly. Students are electing to be remote-only students or on-campus students, but it doesn’t feel like it’s quite hyflex in terms of the classic model there. That said, though, the folks who teach in a hyflex environment have developed teaching strategies that can work when you have students participating in the classroom and students participating online at the same time. That said, they haven’t had to deal with the physical distancing and the masks. That’s the part that really is novel, and I think it’s going to be important that we as instructors give ourselves a little bit of grace, knowing that literally no one has taught under these conditions in the past, this is new for us, it’s new for our colleagues at other institutions, it’s new for our students. This is going to be really weird and really challenging for them. And frankly, there are a lot who would argue that it might be easier to just teach fully online; that trying to kind of juggle the constraints in this kind of classroom is going to be really challenging for a lot of faculty. And I’ve talked to a lot of faculty who are like, I would just rather teach fully online this fall. And so I don’t want to speak too much into that choice. There’s a lot of factors that go into university decisions about kind of bringing folks back to campus this fall. Our work at the Center for Teaching, we’re trying to help faculty teach as well as they can in whatever conditions they find themselves. We don’t usually get to pick those conditions, right? And so, I just wanted to try to be helpful and so I wrote the blog posts because using technology to foster active learning in the classroom, that’s my jam. That’s what I’ve been writing about and speaking about for a decade and a half now. I wrote my book on teaching with classroom response systems back in 2009…. clickers and polling software… we have tools, actually. This classroom setup sounds really hard, and it will be hard. And there’s stuff about it that I can’t predict in terms of how hard it will be. But we do have some tools and technologies that can help foster more active learning in these types of environments. And so that’s what I wanted to lay out for my faculty colleagues, who couldn’t imagine how this could work at all. And I could see a few ways actually… a few tools that could make it functional. And so I wanted to share those strategies.
John: Before we talk about the specific strategies, maybe we could talk about some of the mechanics. One of the things you suggest is that you’re assuming that the people who are in the classroom will be able to see and hear the people speaking from outside over Zoom or some other videoconference tool, but what about voice going from the classroom to remote participants. Since the in-class students won’t be able to use their own microphones (to avoid possible feedback effects), how will students who are participating remotely be able to hear what other students say in the classroom?
Derek: Right? And that’s where I don’t know that there’s going to be a good answer to that. The audio piece is one of the more challenging pieces of this classroom environment… the students in the classroom getting to hear each other when they’re sitting far apart and wearing masks… but, even more so, the students who are participating virtually. How can they hear the students in the classroom? Presumably, the instructor will be running Zoom off of the classroom computer or their laptop, and they’ll have a webcam and a microphone. If I’m close to my computer when I’m running Zoom, people on the Zoom call can hear me. So, having the virtual students hear the instructor seems fairly straightforward, but the students in the classroom, they’re not going to come anywhere near that microphone. Now we have a few classrooms at Vanderbilt that have some ceiling mounted microphones that are going to help with that, and that will have some capability to pick up the student voices in the room. But, I’m anticipating that’s going to be a real challenge, actually. And so, again, I don’t have a silver bullet, but it does speak to the use of something like a backchannel tool. So like a text chat in a Zoom room or using a third party tool like Twitter, or GroupMe, or Slack, or Discord… a place where you can have a text conversation with all of your students during class. This is often called the backchannel. The front channel, it’s kind of you at the front of the room talking and having conversations with your students. But the backchannel is the text chat that kind of supplements that. And I’ve been doing stuff with backchannel for years. It’s a really interesting way to build community in the classroom, to give voices to more students to kind of create an on-the-fly closed captioning almost or documentation of the discussion that’s happening. It can be really powerful to have a good backchannel. It can also be really challenging. I think a lot of instructors who’ve dabbled with this have realized that when they are at the front of the room leading class, they don’t have the bandwidth to also pay attention to the text chat and see what’s happening there. And so what I’ve recommended is what I learned from Steve Gilbert and Steve Ehrmann years ago, doing webinars to have someone called the “voice of the chat.” Designate someone, maybe it’s a teaching assistant if you’ve got one of those, but it could be a student in the room, and it could rotate among students over time. Their job is to pay attention to the text chat, the backchannel, and then you as the instructor every so often, you would pause and turn it over to the voice of the chat and say, “What’s been happening in the chat? What are the questions that are emerging there? What are some ideas or comments that are really valuable?” Maybe the voice of the chat is someone on your Zoom call, one of your virtual students, because everyone will be able to hear that student. But that way the students who are in the room and the students who are participating virtually can engage in conversation during class, but in the text chat, and then you have these moments where you pull that conversation from the back channel to the front channel, using the voice of the chat. I’ve done this in a lot of online activities, and it works really well. [LAUGHTER] When I’m going to do an online webinar of some sort, I want to have a voice of the chat, someone who can play that role. And so this is actually a pretty proven technique. And I think it’s going to be fairly practical for our classes this fall. I’m glad you asked about this because class discussion. as we think of it in the generic sense, may be the hardest thing to do in this hybrid environment. For me to stand at the front of the room and show them how PowerPoint slides and lecture to my students, that’ll be relatively easy. That’s also something that you could do without students in the room, right? If you’re just gonna lecture then maybe that’s a pre-recorded something that you share with your students. That doesn’t have to be a live interaction of some sort. But the class discussion, the kind of student-to-student piece is going to be really challenging. And so back channel is one way to try to foster some of that in the classroom.
John: So, the students in the room would be encouraged to bring a mobile device to participate in the text chat and to avoid the feedback loop that would result if they were participating in the video chat using audio. That sounds like a really effective solution.
Rebecca: I think one of the other things that you had some interesting ideas about too was group work. One of the reasons why being in class could be appealing to someone is the idea of being able to collaborate or work on something together. But again, same problem as discussions.
Derek: Right. Yeah. So here’s where I’ve done this a couple of times, just because it was fun in my regular classes, is to use a Google sheet as a way to structure groups and their work and their reporting out. And so, years ago, in my stats course, we had an infographics project. So they had to do some data visualization. And so to get them ready for that, I had them look at some sample infographics. And I invited them to essentially crowdsource the rubric that we would use for the infographics they created. I set up a Google sheet that had across the top, it was kind of levels of quality from poor, acceptable, good, to excellent, and each row was blank. And the idea was that the students would work in small groups, they would look at these sample infographics and they would start to identify what are the components of a really good infographic, and each group would pick a different row on the Google spreadsheet and start to flesh out that component and how you would assess it from kind of poor to excellent. I think I had 100 students in the room when I was doing this. And they were working in groups of two or three, and there were all of these anonymous aardvarks all over the Google sheet, adding their ideas for the rubric and it was a little chaotic, but what I wanted from them was more than just a polling question, this wasn’t a multiple choice question. I wanted them to produce something. It was free response, but not just free response, it was a kind of structured free response. And so the Google sheet was a really nice tool for doing this. And so this is what I’m imagining doing thi fall. You can do this in a fully online, kind of a Zoom session, class. Or if you’ve got this kind of hybrid situation, imagine giving your students three questions to discuss in their small groups. You set up a Google sheet, put those questions at the top, one in each column, share that Google sheet with your students, and then send them off to do their small group discussion. As students in the room…. hopefully, this is part of the unknown… if you have two or three students in the classroom, six feet apart from each other wearing masks, will they be able to have a useful discussion as a small group? I hope so. Again, that’s part of the reason for being in the same place at the same time is to have that kind of student-to-student interaction. I don’t know that I would try groups of size six this fall, I might do groups of size two or size three. And the idea is, they would work in small groups. Meanwhile, on Zoom, your students are probably in breakout rooms, again in groups of size two or three, and they’re talking about the questions that you’ve given them, and they are reporting out, each group on a different row of the Google spreadsheet. Now this does a few things. One is you can monitor the Google spreadsheet as students are putting their responses in there. And that allows you to get a sense of how fast they’re moving through the work, when they’re starting to wrap up…. Oh, most of the students have answered questions one and two, but they’re really slowing down on question three. This is helpful information. You can also start to preview their responses and see what ideas are they bringing to the conversation, and that’ll set you up for whatever you do after the group work, to have a sense of what they’re saying. But, I’m also imagining, it’s a nice structured way for the groups to report out, to share, maybe even to focus. It may be that in the classroom, it’s hard for students to hear each other a little bit. And so you could even imagine, if we’ve got three people in our group and three questions, that each of us will draft a response to one question, and then we’ll rotate and revise each other’s drafts. And you can do that right there in the Google doc. This will take some creativity, it may take a little more coordination than you’re used to needing to do for in-class group work. But it’s also nice that, in this case, the Google sheet as a reporting structure would be the same structure for both your in-person and your online students. And so that simplifies things a little bit. And so, I can imagine that kind of technique working pretty well. Again, there’s a bit of an unknown about the students in the classroom and how well they’ll be able to hear each other. But, that would enable a form of group work that I think would be pretty functional. And it wouldn’t have to be a Google sheet. There’s lots of other online collaborative tools that you could use to have students report out in some fashion. There’s these kind of Whiteboard apps where you’ve kind of put sticky notes all over the board. So it could be something more like that. Or maybe they create a PowerPoint or a Google slides, each group has a different slide where they’re gonna put their answers, they’re gonna put their deliverable of some sort. Again, this is not maybe how we want to do group work, but I think it would be functional in the settings that we’re looking at this fall.
Rebecca: I think one thing that you mentioned in your article, which I also strongly advocate for is if you’re going to use some group work techniques, if you establish something that’s consistent so that you don’t have so much startup cost every time you do group work, that that might help too, for that consistency, and then you might get better responses I would imagine over the course of the semester when there’s less cost in terms of figuring out how to do the thing.
Derek: Absolutely. The first couple of times you do it, it’ll be awkward and hard and slow. But after your students have done it a few times, then it’ll be a lot easier to just kind of slide into this mode with your students.
John: You mentioned the use of polling. And when we moved to remote instruction, I continued that using Zoom, but we were completely remote. The way I did it, and I think this was something you recommended, something Erik Mazur had done, is you poll students with challenging questions, and then you have them work in small groups. In Zoom, that’s pretty easy. You send them into breakout rooms with groups of two (or maybe three, if you have an odd number of students.) How would you do that same type of thing in a classroom setting where you want people to engage in active discussions? Might that be a little challenging in the physical room where everyone can hear everyone else, given that they’re spread equidistant apart somehow?
Derek: Yeah. And so you know, I can imagine doing a polling question, having all of your students respond using the same polling tool. And again, this would assume that your in-person students have a device with them that they’re going to use to participate. Now it may be hard for them to do that via Zoom. You’d have to make sure everyone in the room had their microphones turned off and their audio muted because otherwise you’d have too much audio feedback. But if the students in the room were also in Zoom, but kind of silenced and muted, they could participate in the Zoom polling questions. Or you could go to another tool like TopHat or Poll Everywhere, something that lives outside of Zoom and do all of your polling there in parallel to your Zoom session. Either way, this does not seem to be the semester where you want to put a laptop ban in your classroom, we’re gonna need those tools. And you guys know, I’ve been advocating for years for effective intentional use of digital devices in the classroom. [LAUGHTER] So, we’re gonna need it, we’re not gonna have a choice. But now, let’s say you want to have your students turn to their neighbor and chat about the question. Again, in a normal classroom situation, that’s one of the easiest things you can do to build some active learning into your classroom. Give them a good hard question, have them answer it via the poll, then turn to their neighbor and talk it out together, see if they can put their heads together and get the right answer, and then maybe do a second round on the poll and see where things have shifted. It’s a great pedagogical structure. In the hybrid classroom, the turn to your neighbor and chat is going to be challenging, and so you could try to send your online students to breakout rooms and have them talk there and your in-person students pair up and talk to each other six feet apart. Again, until we do some more testing, I don’t know how practical that’s going to be in the classroom, I’m hopeful that it’ll kind of work. It may be that, what in a normal classroom, you might have them turn to their neighbor and talk for 60 seconds, and then move on, that may be too hard to do. And so if you’re going to have them do group work, you’re going to have them spend 10 minutes doing group work because they’re moving to a Google sheet or they’re doing something kind of bigger and more structured. The kind of quick informal pair work may be too challenging. One option that someone suggested to me that I thought was kind of interesting, though, was to have your students in the room, if you have paired them up with your virtual students, you can have the student in the room pull out their phone, put in their earbuds, and FaceTime with their virtual student partner to talk about the question. Again, the first time you do it, there’s a matching problem there, there’s logistics, there’s audio to figure out. The third or fourth time you do it, this may be a lot more fluid and an easier way to have students chat about the question at hand. It also has the added benefit of connecting your virtual students with your in-person students in more intentional ways. And so that could be really helpful for social presence and things like that. Again, a lot of this is going to be trial and error this fall and figuring out what works and what doesn’t work.
John: Since you won’t necessarily have the same number of students online or remote, and it may be difficult to do that pairing, the pairing could work no matter where the other student was. If you’re in a lecture hall that seats 400, and you’ve got 100 people there or 80 people there, they might call someone 100 feet away… 200 feet away…
Derek: Sure. [LAUGHTER]
John: …which could work in the same way as if they were calling someone remotely.
Derek: Yeah. Right. [LAUGHTER] I’m in the southwest corner of the room and my partner is in the northeast corner. Sure. That could work.
Rebecca: We’re far away.
Derek: Right. I want to circle back to this question of why aren’t we just teaching online to begin with? And I think that’s a legitimate question. And I think it’s something that faculty and administrators have to really struggle with. What’s the value pedagogically of classrooms like this? Because a lot of it’s going to be really hard and awkward and, shall we say, sub-optimal. These are not the ways that we want to foster active learning and, like I said, the folks who aren’t fostering active learning, the folks who were just kind of, as the literature says, practicing continuous exposition by the teacher…. That, actually, is going to work no matter what you do this fall. If you’re fully online, if you’re hybrid, if you’re just going to do that, I would argue that that kind of instruction can work just fine online. And maybe that’s not a reason to have people in the room. So, why would you have people in the room? What is the kind of value added there? And one piece, I think, is that we’re all in this together, that this is challenging. I think we’re going to find some students this fall, who don’t want to be in the classroom, taking a health risk of some sort, encountering their instructors or fellow peers, and they’re going to really embrace the online option. I think you’re going to have some students who don’t want to have to stay where they are this fall, they need to come back to campus where they have reliable internet access and laptops that they can access and a library that they can access. We have a lot of students who, when they’re home, are not in conditions that are really conducive to teaching and learning. And so for some students, they’re going to actually welcome the chance to be back on campus and to be a part of that learning community again. And this is hard to talk about, because I think a lot of faculty have very strong reactions and opinions about what the fall is, and being required to teach online or being required to teach in person. But, I just want to put it out there, that I think our students are going to come at this from different perspectives. And so for some students that chance to come into class and awkwardly communicate a little bit with some peers may actually help them feel like they’re more engaged and more part of the learning community. I would also argue that, if we look at not just the individual class session, which may have this weird hybrid, physically distanced quality to it, but if you look at the semester, this fall, a lot of universities are announcing different calendars for the fall, they’re starting later, or they’re starting earlier. They’re finishing by Thanksgiving, they’re not doing fall breaks. We don’t really know what’s going to come this fall. And there’s pretty good odds that at some point, some campuses may need to pivot back fully online. And so if you think about designing a course for this fall, where you’ll have some virtual students, you may have students in vastly different time zones, you may have to pack the whole thing up and move it online at some point during the fall semester. Maybe you’re not assigned to teach the course online, but it’s still, I think, helpful to think about it as an online course, if you could design the course to really function well as a fully online course, and then treat your face-to-face component as a kind of add on, as a supplement, almost like a recitation section. So, there’s a little bit of this in a big lecture hall where you don’t have a lot of kind of student-faculty interaction, anyway. The recitation section is the kind of smaller space where you get to actually engage with peers more and talk about the stuff. And so if you’ve got a course that functions well, so that your assignments are online, a lot of your course communication is online, your key learning activities are online, but the face-to-face components, in this weird hybrid modality, are useful to that and supplemental to that, but if you had to give them up the course wouldn’t fall apart. I think that’s the way to think about this fall: as kind of online first, and then using the face to face to enhance what you can of the learning experience. Build the learning community, have that social interaction, give students a chance to practice and reflect on what they’re learning That’s still super useful. The other way to think about it, I would say, is maybe you’re not willing to kind of think about your entire course moving online right now. But, are there some key elements of your course that you can go ahead and move online at the start of the semester, so that if you have to move the rest of it online later, you’re in a better position. So, I think it was on your podcast that Jessamyn Neuhaus talked about having to learn how to do online assignment submission this spring; that she’d actually never gotten around to learning how to do that, which is fine. It was fine to have paper assignment submission up until the spring but then it became a requirement to do online. So this fall, make sure that you know how to use the assignment submission tool in your course management system and go ahead and plan on having students submit assignments that way. Make sure that you’ve got a good communication pathway with your students using email or the course management system or another tool like Slack or GroupMe, something where you can connect with students, maybe more informally. Go ahead and start using those tools from the beginning, so that if you do have to pivot fully online this fall, you’ve already got some essential components there.
John: That’s basically the approach we taken with our workshops here, and we’ve tried to help sell that to faculty, because it’s a bit of a lift for people who’ve only taught face to face before, by saying anything you create now is going to be something that you can use as a basis for future semesters of your course; that if you have these elements there, you can do a more flipped environment in your classroom, you can use your classroom for more active learning activities, and to the extent to which it results in more possibilities for active learning in the future, I think that’s going to be helpful.
Derek: Yeah, and I’ll add, we’ve been running an Online Course Design Institute at my teaching center all summer… every two weeks, all summer. We’re up over 300 participants in it at this point. A lot of faculty this spring figured out that online wasn’t necessarily as terrible as they thought it might be. They were able to connect with their students in meaningful ways and continue teaching in spite of the circumstance. And so we had a lot of faculty who woke up to some of the possibilities of online teaching this spring and then we’ve been working with faculty. he’ll spend two weeks with us in a pretty intensive institute, learning how to teach online, and a lot of them have a big shift in their opinion about online instruction over the course of those two weeks. They were initially skeptical that it could work nearly as well as face-to-face instruction. and they end the institute thinking, “Okay, this could be pretty exciting, actually, I see a lot of potential here.” And so that’s the other thing that I would suggest, that faculty keep an open mind about really the potential of online teaching. A really well designed online course can work just as well, sometimes even better, than a really well designed face-to-face course. And so it’s okay to kind of lean into that. And to let that be a bigger part of your kind of teaching toolbox this fall.
Rebecca: I think one of the things that you mentioned a little bit earlier in our conversation is like, why are you in person in the first place? What motivates being in person, I think you’re right about the social connection. even seeing other people who are also dedicating time to learning a particular thing could be useful, even if they’re not interacting with each other, and just in the same space at the same time. But also just if you’re there for equipment or other reasons, there might be ways of teaching using a lot of online techniques with the opportunity to have access to tools that they might not have otherwise. And it might be down to like access to a laptop or higher end technology or something that is in a lab or… I teach in a design studio, so some of the more expensive software, faster computers or things like that. So, we’re thinking through the ways that, maybe we don’t really need to be teaching so much, like there could be a lot of learning happening in the classroom at that time and not necessarily a lot of teaching… maybe some coaching and some interactions. But those interactions might actually be happening virtually,
Derek: Right. And you can imagine more of a kind of flipped model where some of the heavy lifting in terms of the teaching, the first exposure to the content is going to happen fully online through pre-recorded lectures or videos of some sort or other resources. And then that class time, as awkward as it is, is still an important part of having students apply things, practice things, get some feedback from someone else. That’s going to be a good model for the fall, I think.
John: Going back to something else you said earlier, the issue of the students who can’t be physically present during class time, there’s also the related issue of students who may not be able to be present virtually during class time if they become ill, or are remote and have limited computer access or bandwidth, or are in a different time zone. Would you recommend that faculty also start thinking about what types of asynchronous activities they can use to provide equivalent learning experiences for those students?
Derek: Yeah, that’s a good question. And again, I think this is the other thing that we’ve seen our faculty, most of our faculty don’t teach online. Our school of nursing has a really robust online program, but outside of that school, most of our faculty don’t have a ton of experience teaching online. So this has been kind of new territory for them. And one of the takeaways that many of them have from our Online Course Design Institute is realizing that you can do a lot of really valuable learning asynchronously online. For a lot of faculty this spring, online meant they had Zoom sessions with their students that essentially replicated what they would have done in the classroom face to face. But if you look at the last 20 years of online higher education, most of that work in higher ed has been asynchronous online learning. You build your course to work well asynchronously. And it’s only in the last couple of years that we’ve had the video conferencing technology that would make a synchronous online component something that you could really lean into in an online course And so thinking about some of your major learning activities and assignments and assessments, not just being online, but being asynchronous online, that’s a really good model to think about. I think one of the impulses is to say, “Well, I’m going to teach in this weird hybrid modality this fall, I’m going to have students in the room, I’m going to have students on Zoom at the same time, some of my students can’t make it during that time, so we’re going to record the Zoom session, and they can watch it later.” And that’s better than nothing, certainly, but watching someone else participate in class is not nearly as effective as participating in class yourself. And so I wouldn’t want faculty to just do that. That’s fine to do. But, I would want them to add something else intentionally to help those asynchronous students engage with the material. And it could be as simple as saying, “I want you to watch this Zoom session. And here are three questions I want you to answer by the end of that 50 minutes.” It could be a different set of questions than the students in the classroom are given to discuss… something a little more active to help them draw out some learning from those recordings. But again, it’s also fine to say, you know what, for this piece of learning, for this module, for this unit, the core learning is going to happen online asynchronously first. And for those who can attend the synchronous session, either in person or via Zoom we’ll do this supplemental piece. And so that’s okay, too. I just keep giving lots of options here. And I’m hoping that helpful. Faculty are gonna have to figure out what’s going to work for them and their students and their comfort zone. I also think faculty are going to have to learn to do new things this fall. During my town hall, I said, “This is going to be an exceptional semester. And so we are going to make some exceptional teaching choices. And that’s okay.” I think for most of us, 2020 has been suboptimal. There’s been massive disappointments in lots of ways and life has gotten harder in so many ways. And yet, we can either stay in bed and not try, or we can get out and try to make it a little bit better somehow. It’s this growth mindset. I think we need to approach the fall semester with a growth mindset to say: “This is gonna be hard. This is gonna be challenging. I’m gonna have to learn some new skills as a teacher. I may have to learn some new technologies. I’m going to try to do that in a way that doesn’t overwhelm me.” Don’t try to take on too much, too fast. But you’ll have to take on some new stuff this fall. And whether that’s active learning with technology in a hybrid classroom, or that’s designing an online course, or using some part of your course management system that you’ve never touched before, but might actually be helpful this fall, we’re all going to be stretching out of our comfort zones this fall. And that’s okay. It’s going to be hard work, but I think if we collaborate and lean on each other a little bit, we’ll be fine.
Rebecca: And it won’t be perfect. And that’ll be fine, too.
Derek: Right. It’s never perfect the first time out.
John: But with all these new tools, it can improve teaching effectiveness in the future. And that’s something we keep reminding people, that, yes, this is a challenge, but you’re learning a lot of new tools that have value beyond this. It’s not just for this one-time emergency, that this could result in some significant improvements in the effectiveness of your teaching later, even though it will be tough.
Derek: Yes, so one of the tools that we’ve been showing people this summer in our online course design institute is a social annotation tool like Hypothesis or Perusall. And it’s mostly our humanities faculty, but they love it. They are just over the moon with what they can do with these social annotation tools. And most of them just haven’t seen it before. It wasn’t on their radar. And it’s super useful in an online course. But, a lot of them are saying, “Oh, I’m just gonna make this a regular part of my courses going forward no matter how I’m teaching, because having students engaged with the text this way, where they’re annotating collaboratively and discussing it in the sidebar, that’s just a really useful learning process that I want to build into all of my courses no matter how I teach them.” So, we’re finding lots of things that we didn’t know were there that we’re going to make use of in 2021, and 21-22. These are going to be permanent parts of our teaching toolbox.
John: In our course redesign workshop for faculty, we included some samples and documents with Hypothesis, and people have been really impressed by the ability to engage and share and give feedback to each other. And I think we’ve got quite a few people who plan to be using it this fall. It’s a great tool. One of the things you recommend in this document is the use of a fishbowl technique. Could you talk a little bit about how that might work in this sort of hybrid environment.
Derek: Sure. And this is a technique that’s been in the literature for a long time, a way to foster discussion in the classroom. And someone mentioned this as a possibility for the hybrid classroom. And I was like, “Oh, yes, actually, that’s a perfect match.” The fishbowl technique classically works like this. You have a small group of students who have a discussion about whatever the topic is. They’re in the fishbowl. The rest of the students are observing from the outside and they’re quiet during the discussion. They’re taking notes, they’re observing. And then after the discussion, you then ask something of the observers, ask them to summarize what they heard or reflect on what they heard. And it can be really helpful if everyone in the fishbowl is advocating for one point of view. And then the folks who are observing have to then kind of summarize that, even if they don’t agree with it. It can really foster intentional listening. There’s lots of things you could do with the fishbowl, but when I thought about the audio context of these hybrid classrooms this fall, having some of your virtual students be in the fishbowl is totally practical. They’re the ones that are going to be easiest to hear across the entire class. You can have five or six students on Zoom, be the fishbowl, have the conversation, the rest of your virtual students and all of your in-person students are then the observers. They’re listening. They’re taking notes. They’re summarizing. I think that’s gonna work really well, actually. And as I’ve shared that idea with a number of faculty here, they’ve been excited to say, “Oh, yeah, that actually fits this context quite well as a structure for discussion.” And especially on some campuses, the virtual students and the face-to-face students are going to flip flop from day to day, there’ll be some students who come to class on Mondays and they do virtual on Wednesdays and the rest of the students are vice versa. And so you could have most of your students have an opportunity to be in the fishbowl at one point or another with this technique. And that way, you get to have some of the richness of that student-to-student discussion. It wouldn’t involve everyone at the same time. But, if you’re really intentional about what you ask the observing students to do with the discussion, I think it can be really productive. Because frankly, if you’ve got 40 students in the classroom, it’s hard to hear from all of them, anyway. You’re only going to hear from five to eight students in a typical discussion. This just centers them in a way and then guides the other students to participate well, in that type of small-group discussion.
Rebecca: I think what you’re pointing out here is the different ways people can participate in speaking isn’t the only way to participate.
Derek: Yeah, or like collaborative notetaking. This is something that a lot of faculty do as a matter of course, anyway, is have students have some shared document where some of the students in the classroom are taking notes on the class discussion. So their role in the discussion is different. They are not there to participate verbally, they are there to do the note taking piece. And that’s an important role. And that would work just fine in this hybrid classroom as well. And so part of this is thinking intentionally about how you want different groups of students to participate in the learning activities, and it’s okay to give them different roles and guide them to different ways to be meaningful participants.
John: You did mention collaborative note taking, wondering how that might be structured in a class of three or four or 500 students. Would it be reasonable perhaps to do that within your LMS using a groups tool to create that, having a shared google doc or something where you share it with a copy link?
Derek: I think if you’ve got 400 students in your class, that’s just a very different teaching context, and it is something about moving online. So I would say that having 75 students in a classroom and 300 students in the classroom, pedagogically, you’re going to use very similar techniques. If you want to foster active learning, then you’re going to have a lot of think-pair-share, a lot of peer instruction, you’ll have some polling. Anything over 50 is going to kind of look the same, pedagogically at least. Some of the logistics change when you have hundreds of students in the room. But, the kind of pedagogical moves that you’re making, I think are somewhat similar. Once you move online, I think there’s a much bigger difference between 50 students online and 300 students online. And so there’s almost a bit of the kind of MOOC mania that may be useful here. Right. So when we had massively open online courses that had thousands of students, there’s less difference between 300 students and 1000 students. And so we might even look to the MOOCs to see what are some techniques that work well at that kind of scale. And that’s where I think having an asynchronously design course makes a lot of sense. If you’ve got 400 students in the course getting them all together on Zoom is going to be a technical nightmare anyway. Let’s just make this course work well as an asynchronous course. The other piece that I would say that if you’ve got a big class and this gets to your point about collaborative note taking or other group structures that you might use, is that social presence is going to be really challenging. When you’ve got that many students, it’s going to be hard for students to feel connected. In the physical classroom, if you’ve got 400 students, at the very least, a given student has the five or six students they sit near every day to form a bit of a local learning community. And even if you don’t ask them to talk to their neighbor about something, they’re still going to talk to each other after class. And so there’s a bit of social presence, social identity, that comes just by virtue of the seating arrangements. In the online class, you’re not going to have that to fall back on. And I would advise instructors that have big classes to really think intentionally about permanent small groups, and to build in some learning activities and maybe even some assessment activities that leverage those permanent small groups. If you put students in groups of five or six students each and they’re going to meet with that same group every week, doing something useful during the semester, they’re gonna feel connected to the course a lot more than if they didn’t have that small group to lean on. We’ve seen this even in our Online Course Design Institute where we have 70 or 75 faculty participate over a two-week period, but we put them all in cohorts of size five or six. And you really get to know your cohort members, and what their courses are, what they’re teaching. And so that would be my recommendation for the bigger classes. And it could be collaborative notetaking. It could be every time you do a small group activity in class, you send them to the same groups so that they begin to develop working relationships with those group members, those are going to be really important for online classes that are large.
John: And you can always create Zoom rooms that have the same groups that you have within your LMS. So that way, the same students would be working together in both environments, synchronously and asynchronously.
Derek: Yeah, absolutely. You will have to learn how to do that. And again, we’re all going to be learning new tools this fall. I totally know that’s a thing you can do. I don’t know how to do that myself yet, but I would have to figure it out.
John: I haven’t done it yet, either. But I am preparing for one of those large classes in the fall. There’s a lot of questions I still have. One of the things I’ve been wondering about is perhaps the use of peer evaluation. I had done some of that earlier, but we had another tool that was specific for that. I’m not quite sure how well that will work within the LMS. And it’s a little scary at this point. But it’s something I am going to explore.
Rebecca: That’s something when I’ve taken a MOOC, even if I don’t feel overly connected to other people, there’s still some sort of peer evaluation piece where you feel like you’re getting peer-to-peer feedback, at least, even if it’s anonymous feedback, essentially, because you don’t know those individuals. And that can be effective in at least feeling like you’re learning with other people who are also learning. It’s not as effective as some other things, but it still does it a little.
Derek: Yeah, it does.
Rebecca: So we always wrap up by asking what’s next? [LAUGHTER] …and I don’t know, John seems to have me asking that question more frequently, because it feels really stressful to ask someone that right now. [LAUGHTER]
Derek: Well, I keep making the joke that it feels like March 97th. [LAUGHTER] Like, this has just been one long March. There was life before March, and now there’s life now… and time and space have no meaning anymore. So, next is a little ambiguous. What’s next? August…. August is next, right? [LAUGHTER] I can predict that. I think we’re going to have an August this year. [LAUGHTER] It’s really hard to kind of look beyond that. I would say, we’re focusing at my center on getting our faculty ready for the start of the fall semester. And what’s going to happen in the first three weeks of this fall semester, like, we don’t have that figured out yet. We don’t know what kind of programming we’re going to offer. We don’t know what kind of responsiveness we’re going to need. It’s been a lot this summer just to kind of do what we’re doing. And so it’s really hard to look very far out. I will say that, among many other complexities in the year 2020, it’s an election year in the United States, and more generally, we have a lot of protests that happened across the United States and across the world earlier this spring. There’s a lot of hard conversations that people are having right now, whether they’re pandemic related or not. And I don’t think that’s going to go away. I’ve been in triage mode all summer, trying to get faculty ready to teach online or hybrid. And so its been hard to think about all the things that may be challenging about this fall semester, but I do think the hard conversations that we need to have with our students and to help our students have productive hard conversations. That’s something that we’re going to spend at least a little time on in my teaching center in August, trying to help faculty get ready for what will likely be a contentious semester, regardless of the kind of modalities, the online, the hybrid, all that kind of stuff. Just the kinds of conversations that we want to have our students are going to be really challenging this fall. And so I think getting ready to do that well, it’s going to be an important component of what’s next for us.
Rebecca: And I don’t think any of us will be bored. There will be an August, and we will not be bored. [LAUGHTER]
Derek: Yes, those seem like certainties.
John: Well, thank you. It’s been wonderful talking to you and, we really appreciated the blog post as well as all the very many resources that you share on your website.
Rebecca: Yeah, thank you so much.
Derek: You’re quite welcome. We have a great team at the Vanderbilt Center for Teaching and I’m glad to be the Director and to get to share all the great work that my staff do all the time. So, thanks for that.
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Rebecca: You can find show notes, transcripts and other materials on teaforteaching.com. Music by Michael Gary Brewer.