Learning about Active Learning Online

Regular readers know that I teach a lot online. I’ve been teaching online for the better part of the last fifteen years and have designed and taught online classes for most of that time. I co-authored a book on blended learning in the sciences and even acted as an external reviewer for a college who was starting a fully online program. I’ve also researched online teachers’ efficacy for teaching in online environments. Put a little differently, online learning is sort of my jam.

I’m not saying all of this to document my resume or to pat myself on the back or anything. More than that, I’m laying the foundation for the dissonance I’ve been experiencing lately. While I’ve taught online for years, most of that experience has been through asynchronous means. Sure, each semester, I’d teach a few synchronous classes, especially as part of my hybrid and blended courses. But now, I’m teaching several synchronous classes every week and that’s given me the opportunity to explore different strategies and learn more about the synchronous learning environment. Since I’m a big believer in the power of active learning in my face-to-face classrooms, I’ve been working to replicate those strategies in my synchronous space. As a college instructor, I’m a proponent of Chickering and Gamson, who write:

“Learning is not a spectator sport. Students do not learn much just by sitting in class listening to teachers, memorizing prepackaged assignments, and spitting out answers. They must talk about what they are learning, write about it, relate it to past experiences, apply it to their daily lives. They must make what they learn part of themselves.”

So, that has been my goal for my synchronous classes for the last nine or ten weeks. And here’s what I’ve learned about active learning online.

Synchronous spaces require extended wait time.
In my face-to-face classes, I found that the traditional 3-5 seconds of wait time was enough to prompt student response. Maybe with really challenging questions, I’d wait a little longer. But in my synchronous classes, I find I need to wait a lot longer to elicit a response. In some classes, I find myself waiting ten or more seconds before students will respond. And sometimes that doesn’t even work. In one class, I’ve even started using Wheel of Names to call on students randomly. It’s not ideal but it helps to keep students engaged in the active learning process.

Synchronous classes change how I group students.
For most of my face-to-face classes, I found that a group of 3-4 students was the ideal size for most tasks. A group that size promotes interaction and diverse thought while also diminishing the chances for students who are unwilling (or unprepared) to contribute. In my synchronous classes, I’m finding that five students is more optimal. With the technical challenges that some of my students are facing, smaller groups increase the likelihood that a student will be partnered with one or two students who can’t (or won’t) contribute. Which would really defeat the purpose of active learning if the student is in a three-person group.

Some active learning strategies don’t translate well to synchronous spaces.
I’ve given up using think-pair-shares in my synchronous classes this semester. While this was one of mt favorite ways to promote discussion in my face-to-face classes, it is cumbersome and ineffective in Zoom. The group size is too small (see above) and it takes too much time to orchestrate. But I’ve found other strategies work really well. For example, I’ve had a lot of success with jigsaw activities where different groups of students are assigned different readings before class. During class, I place students in breakout rooms where they first discuss the reading with other students who were assigned the same material. After a few minutes of discussion, I rearrange the breakout groups to partner students with peers who were assigned other readings. By design, jigsaws promote more interdependence which can help motivate students to prepare and be more engaged participants in class.

I’ve also found “popcorn” style discussions are pretty effective. In a popcorn activity, I call on a student to respond to a prompt.  After responding, that student calls on another who responds before calling on another student. And so on.  Since students are calling on their peers by name, it’s a great way to get more people involved and helps to foster community in class. Beyond active learning activities, “popcorns” are great ways to engage students in ice breaker discussions at the start of class.

In a synchronous space, students need to create artifacts collaboratively.
In a typical face-to-face class, I’d break the class into different student groups, give them a cognitive task to complete and tell them to be ready to respond when the return. Sometimes, I’d give the student groups markers and a poster board to create an artifact to share with the rest of the class. But in my synchronous classes, I’m finding I need to have them collaborate on a digital artifact with almost every group discussion. Most times, I create a Google Slide deck and assign each breakout group to a different slide to gather their ideas. Besides giving the students a space to gather their ideas, it also allows me to monitor each group’s progress. I can view the slides in “grid view” and see the work that each group is doing. I can then jump into breakout rooms that seem to be struggling with the task.

Two-way communication is critical.
In a typical face-to-face group discussion, I’d stop the groups midway through their conversations to ask about their progress and to see if they had questions. That’s really challenging in Zoom. I can broadcast a message to individual groups but they can’t respond back. They can “ask for help” but, unless I’m in their breakout rooms, they can’t talk with me. To correct this, I’ve set up a Back Channel chat which allows for constant back and forth conversation while the students are in breakout rooms. The tool also allows me to poll the groups and share files.

Check the Snark

I know it’s the middle of the semester for most institutions, but because of a unique schedule we use for some of our students, I had a class that started today. I just finished our first synchronous session and after three hours of discussions, break out rooms, active learning activities and presentations, I’m a little spent. But here I am blogging.

Since the class starts mid-semester and only meets seven times in total, I wanted to hit the ground running today. To prepare for our first class, I sent out an email a few weeks ago letting students know the books we’d be using and that there would be assignments due before our first meeting. I sent another email last week to remind students that we’d be meeting today and explained the assignments they’d be completing in more detail. I also opened the course shell in our learning management system last week so students could read a detailed overview of the assignments. But you can probably see where this is going….

Some students didn’t complete the assignments and weren’t prepared for our class today.

So, what do I do?

In these moments, I feel like I’m a character in a cartoon. I have a devil on one shoulder and an angel on the other. The devil is telling me to stand firm and to penalize students for their lack of preparation and planning. They had three weeks to buy the book. They had more than a week to complete the assignment. And I sent them multiple reminders.

But the angel is saying something different. The angel reminds me that there’s a pandemic raging and that we’re all being pushed to our limits. The angel reminds me about grace and empathy in teaching, during COVID times and otherwise. But more than that, the angel reminds me that it’s not enough to act with grace and empathy. I have to communicate with it, too. It’s almost like I hear an angelic voice whisper:

“Grace doesn’t come with sarcasm. Or with guilt. Empathy doesn’t get served with a side of snark or a heaping helping of putdowns.”

So, after class, I send emails to the students who hadn’t completed the assignments. I communicate that I know these are stressful times and that there’s a lot of things going on in our personal and professional lives. I also explain that despite missing the assignments, I’d still like them to be submitted. I tell them that I’m offering some grace during this first week and encourage them to try to stay on top of things moving forward. I close the email by offering my assistance.

And that’s it. No snark. No sarcasm. No guilt.

I don’t know if these are the right decisions or not. But I do know they feel right. I don’t know what these students are experiencing outside of my class. And I’ll do my best to listen to the “better angels” and lead and communicate with grace and empathy.

Um… Like.. Yeah… Right..

It’s mid-semester and my colleagues and I are staring down the remainder of the academic year being mostly online. Our university announced recently that spring courses would be offered in much the same way fall classes were. At our institution, over 80% of undergraduate courses were taught online through asynchronous and synchronous means. Face-to-face instruction was reserved for studio and lab-based classes that could not be easily replicated online. And so far, our campus has navigated the health issues pretty well. Except for a handful of cases across students, faculty and staff, our campus has been mostly COVID free.

Since my colleagues and I are teaching a lot online, it’s creating some interesting conversations on social media. Some are sharing engagement strategies that worked for their synchronous classes. Others are sharing challenges they’re facing with specific technologies or with difficult students. But a recent conversation thread stood out to me as deserving some unpacking here. Let me set the stage a bit.

Many of my colleagues are recording their synchronous lessons so they can be viewed by absent students. While this is a great way to support students who may be experiencing technical or health-related challenges, it is also creating some dissonance for my colleagues. Since they now have access to a recording of their lessons, they’re able to review and analyze their teaching practices. And their reactions are very interesting. One commented that they hated watching themselves teach. Another wrote that she didn’t realize she said “um” so many times, which created a whole thread where colleagues shared the verbal tics that they noticed in their recordings. “Yeah,” “right,” and “like” were definitely trending terms in that thread.

As I thought about the conversation some more, I realized that for some of my colleagues, this might have been the first time they had watched themselves teach. I know my colleagues are really reflective teachers and are motivated to help their students be successful, but I don’t know how many would have recorded their lessons prior to the pandemic. While this is a common practice in most teacher education programs, many of my colleagues were trained as academics. And now they may be viewing their teaching for the first time (or at least some online version of their teaching).

For me, the interesting part of a recorded lesson isn’t the cringe-inducing verbal tics that we all have. Instead, I think recorded lessons present an invaluable opportunity for each of us to examine the pedagogical approaches we’re taking and how effective they are. For example, when reviewing one of my recent synchronous lessons, I was struck by the discourse patterns that I was using in the class. I was taught to avoid initiate/response/evaluate (IRE) patterns of questioning. A teacher’s evaluation of a student’s response usually stifles  rich conversation and discussion. Instead, I was taught to string together IRF discourse chains where I avoid evaluating student responses and ask follow-up questions. This helps to stimulate longer conversations that gets more student voices involved.

At least that’s the plan. As I viewed the recording of my synchronous lesson, I was shocked to see how many times I responded with an evaluation after a student response. I’d say something like “Good job!” or “That’s a great answer.” And to me, that was more cringe-inducing than the “ums” and stammers I said. I’ve spent the last 25+ years in classrooms avoiding these types of responses in my face-to-face classroom spaces. But in my Zoom classroom, I’m so motivated to get any student response or reaction that I want to celebrate it. I also know that’s it’s not great teaching.

I’m going to try to not beat myself up over this. I know we’re all doing the best we can considering the circumstances under which we’re working and living and teaching and learning.  But I also know that every time I hear my recorded self evaluating a student response, I’m also evaluating my own teaching.

And I know I have to do better.

Decorating Rooms

In the spring, my wife and I went through a major remodeling project in our house. After living with an outdated and (mostly) dysfunctional kitchen, we decided it was time to tear down the entire room and start fresh. I’d like to say we did the work ourselves, but we don’t have the time, talent or patience for that kind of work. Instead, we hired a local contractor who worked with us to redesign the room so it could use the space better. Our house was built in the 1920’s and it has all sorts of “odd charm.” Odd charm is a nice way of saying that after almost 100 years of remodeling and DIY fixes, there are a multitude challenges and problems that can emerge. Thankfully, we hired a contractor who knew how to navigate those issues. Which left my wife and I time to focus on the other aspects of the kitchen redesign.

Since we were going to be living in this kitchen for the foreseeable future, we wanted to get it right. As we approached the design elements, we had to select cabinet colors, wall colors, drawer pulls, faucets, sinks and so much more. While I’m sure the physical aspects of the construction project were strenuous for our contractor, I found the design aspects to be stressful and tiring. My wife has an eye for color and we spent an entire week with paint swatches taped to walls next to different flooring samples and stained chunks of wood. She wanted to find the right color combinations by viewing them in different lighting and at different times of the day. But color combinations were just one hurdle. We also had to decide the right countertop materials and switch covers and … You get the picture. Let’s just say there was not a single element in the kitchen remodeling that didn’t involve a careful, intentional decision by my wife and me. And after living in the new kitchen for the last five months, I’m happy to report that we were really successful. Our careful, intentional decision-making paid off.

I was reminded of this process last week when I received a pretty awesome email from a former student. I worked with the student in a high school classroom over twenty years ago and he emailed me out of the blue. I won’t get into the details of the content, but it was easily the most thoughtful email I’ve ever received from a student. One line of his email has resonated with me for the last week. Reflecting on our time together, he writes:

“The moments I remember from that room are like postcards taped to the walls of my brain.”

That’s some pretty amazing imagery. And it also captures the inspiring (and terrifying?) role that we play as teachers. As we interact with students and make decisions in the moment, it’s like we’re decorating rooms in our students’ minds that will live in their memories forever. And that requires careful, intentional decision-making. Since our students are going to live with these memories for a long time, shouldn’t we get it right?

Science In-Between

I’m going to do something in this post that honestly makes me uncomfortable. I’m not really good at self-promotion and I know that it drives some people bananas when they encounter others who use their social media platforms for self-aggrandizement. To be honest, I’m actually one of those people. I stopped following a few colleagues on Twitter because their feeds turned into a self-promotion vehicle. I stopped listening to a pretty famous podcaster recently because he couldn’t stop promoting his book. I get that it’s part of the hustle and that people like to celebrate and promote what they’re working on. I’ve just never been good at it. And it also makes me really uncomfortable. But I might have mentioned that already.final SIB logo

So, I’m going to jump into that pool of discomfort to share a project that I’m collaborating with a colleague on. But first, some back story.

A month or two ago, I received a number of emails from local science teachers who were struggling with the remote/online/hybrid modalities that their districts were embracing in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. As a former science teacher who teaches a lot online, they felt I could offer some advice. I was happy to help. But in my conversations with these teachers, I realized that this was a challenge that many science teachers were probably facing. So I reached out to my colleague (and former doctoral advisor) Scott McDonald to confirm my suspicions. Scott is a professor at Penn State whose work also intersects the science, teaching and technology worlds. As we discussed the teachers we’d both been working with, we realized that we needed to offer broader support to the science education community during the pandemic.

So we started a podcast. It’s called Science In-Between and it is now available wherever you find podcasts. If you’re wondering where the name comes from, it actually has a dual meaning. With teachers working in remote, online and face-to-face worlds, they’re teaching “in between” traditional learning environments. So, the podcast is going to help others teach science “in between.”

But the name also references a concept I read about called Ma, which is the void between objects and people. When we think of gaps between things, we think about empty space. But emptiness depends on one’s perspective. “Ma is empty space that can be filled with any possibility. What you project into that space – an object, an intention, or an awareness or understanding – shapes the experience of anyone who enters into or engages with that space,” writes Alan Seale on his post titled The Power of the Space in Between. And Scott and I really liked that metaphor. While we’re struggling to work through the seemingly (empty) digital space of remote/online/hybrid instruction, we can also view that space as being filled with possibility and opportunity. We’re hoping to project that the space “in-between” can be also be a space of innovation.

Or at least that’s our plan. Like I said, the first handful of episodes are available wherever you find podcasts. Give it a listen. Or don’t. I offer no pressure. I also promise to return to my normal musings and self-deprecating insights next week.

Thanks for wading through this discomfort with me.