Back in Zoom

This semester, I am teaching a shortened, seven-week class for undergraduates that started in mid-October. Over the last month or so, I’ve found the class to be highly interactive and engaged. They’re a group of teacher candidates and, due to the cohort nature of our program, they spend a lot of time together as a group. By the time my course started, the group had already coalesced into a community. They knew each other and seemed to have their own inside jokes and back stories. During our first class together, I felt a little like an outsider who was late to a party that started weeks ago. But those feelings have subsided as the students have made space for me in their learning community.

When I say this class is highly interactive and engaged, I mean that there are times when I feel like I’m surfing a wave of conversation and discourse and I don’t always have complete control over where things will go. They’re a lively group with a lot to say. They’re working through their identities as beginning teachers and I’m grateful that they feel comfortable enough to use our classroom space to talk through their successes, their wonderings, and their challenges. Despite our short time together so far, I feel like I’ve really gotten to know this group of students and connect with them.

This week, I had to move our class online. After an entire academic year of teaching through Zoom, I wasn’t really that excited about teaching a synchronous class again. But I was interested to see how this class would interact in the Zoom space. For most of my classes last year, I didn’t have any prior experiences with the students. I met them through Zoom and relied on the Zoom space to support our communication and interaction. This experience would be different, though. I had already worked with this group for several weeks in a face-to-face environment. The students also knew each other well. I was hopeful that our online class would reflect the engaged classes we had during our face-to-face interactions.

I’d love to say that the class was as equally engaged and interactive, but that would be overstating reality. While the students were definitely involved, there were several times when I waited in silence for students to answer a question. I started the class with an ice breaker and with my regular Rose/Thorn/Bud check in. In our face-to-face class, these would prompt all sorts of conversations. Today, only a few students regularly contributed. Some students didn’t share their voices at all.

Just to be clear, I’m not blaming the students or myself. They’re a great group of students and I worked to engage them as much as possible. Even though I’m a proponent for online teaching, I believe we need to recognize that fostering community and engagement online is hard. We also can’t be confident that the rich and deep relationships we have with our students, colleagues, friends, and family will easily translate to other modes of interaction. That’s a harsh reality, but one of which I’m sure many teachers are becoming acutely aware.

Pacing and Timing

If you’re teaching in a face-to-face classroom again, I wonder whether you’re experiencing the same sort of dissonance that I am. After spending an academic year navigating online synchronous spaces, I’m back to figuring out how to teach in a physical one again. And I’m finding there is some relearning that’s been required. Let me explain.

Last fall, like many other educators, I was asked to move courses that I traditionally have taught in a face-to-face format online. And there were some growing pains. Since I already knew how to use most of the tools for online instruction, most of the technical aspects were easy. The challenge really came from my pacing and timing. I found that some activities that would take 30 minutes in a face-to-face classroom, now took a fraction of that time online. And some face-to-face activities that would take a few minutes of time, now took a lot longer. I know I’m speaking in general terms, so let me give an example. One strategy I use regularly in my face-to-face classroom is “think-pair-share.” If you haven’t heard of the strategy, the name basically describes it. A student turns to a partner. They spend a minute or two discussing a question or topic. After their discussion, one of the partners shares their conversation with the whole class or with another group. This is a quick active learning strategy that helps to engage students in the learning process and can foster larger discussions on course content.

While “think-pair-shares” are easy to implement in a face-to-face classroom, they’re harder to do in Zoom and much more time consuming. You have to set up the groups within Zoom and then send students to their groups. After a few classes of small group discussions, I learned that I couldn’t always depend on pairs of students to have rich conversations online without support. After some experimentation and discussions with colleagues, I found that students in small group, online settings worked better in groups of three and four, instead of in pairs. I also found that a lot of these discussions worked better if the students had to produce a collaborative artifact. So I started using Google Slides and Padlet for students to collaboratively author a document while they were engaged in their small group discussions. Which just added to the length of time this conversation would take. So, while a “think-pair-share” may take a few moments in a face-to-face class, they usually took five or ten minutes online.  If you’re interested, I wrote about some of my learning journey last fall in a post titled Learning about Active Learning Online.

Jump ahead to this fall and I’m back in a face-to-face classroom. I’m finding that the year of synchronous online instruction has really messed with my timing. A few weeks ago, I only got through about 60% of what I had planned for one class. In another class last week, an activity that I had estimated would take students twenty or thirty minutes to complete actually took the class less than fifteen minutes to complete. It’s still early in the semester and I’ll know I’ll get better with my timing and pacing. For now, I’m doing my best to learn and relearn. I just worry that if our institution needs to pivot back to online delivery due to increased COVID-19 infections that I’ll have to readjust again.

When I was first starting out teaching decades ago, a mentor told me that teaching was all about “monitoring and adjusting.” It became her mantra for me as I navigated the first few years of teaching. “Monitor and adjust. Monitor and adjust,” she’d say. I guess I never anticipated that I’d still be embracing those actions after decades of teaching.

Dealing with Due Dates

I teach online a lot. I know the pandemic forced many educators into online modes of instruction over the last year or so, but I taught my first online class over a decade ago. I don’t say that to be boastful or anything. I offer that information more as a way to explain how long I’ve been tweaking my classes and trying out different aspects of my courses. It’s been a decade-long journey of experimentation, reflection, and revision.

Most of my online classes are asynchronous in nature. Since I work a lot with adult learners who have family and work commitments, I recognize the flexibility that asynchronous classes offer. Students can work at their own pace and at times of the day that work best for them. Looking at student log-in data from my classes, I see that there are groups of students who prefer to complete coursework in the wee hours of the morning and other students who prefer to work late at night. It’s clear that asynchronous classes help to accommodate for students’ different work schedules and let them have some control over their pacing.

Over the last decade of online teaching, there’s one aspect of my asynchronous classes that I’m constantly questioning and revising: my use of due dates. I have some colleagues who release all of the modules at the start of the semester and allow students to work through course content completely on their own schedule. I have other colleagues who require their students to log into their online classes daily or have them complete daily assignments. If those are ends of a continuum, I would place myself someplace in the middle. I release new modules each week and usually break up each module into two due dates, one midweek and another at the end. My rationale with this structure is that I want to slowly scaffold course content over the course of the semester and don’t want to bombard students with content at the start of the semester. Also, despite their different work schedules, I still want to foster a learning community in the class. Having them discuss content together and share ideas with one another helps to build that larger learning community. The multiple due dates prompt students to engage more regularly in the course, but I’ve often wondered whether this is the right approach. Would it be better if I just released all of the modules at the start of the semester and allowed students to set their own deadlines? What impact would that have on student learning?

Traveling back from a beach vacation last week, I binged through a backlog of podcasts and discovered a research-based answer to my due date ponderings. In a recent episode of Hidden Brain, host Shankar Vendantam interviewed behavior scientist Katy Milkman about how we can use our minds to do what’s good for us. In the episode, Milkman shared research by Dan Ariely and Klaus Wertenbroch who studied the impact of deadlines on performance. In the first part of their research, Ariely and Wertenbroch studied groups of students enrolled in two sections of the same class. In one section, students were given fixed, evenly spaced due dates for three papers. In the other section, students were allowed to set their own deadlines which they had to schedule with the instructor early in the semester. Surprisingly, when given the choice to set their own due dates, most of the students spaced out their deadlines throughout the semester. Only about 25% of the students scheduled the due dates for all of three papers at the end of the semester. This demonstrated to the researchers that most of the students “are willing to self-impose deadlines to overcome procrastination.” While this seems promising from a self-regulation standpoint, what was the impact of the different deadlines processes on student learning? To study this, the researchers looked at students’ grades on papers and their grades on a final project that was scheduled at the end of the semester in both sections. In both cases, grades were significantly higher in the sections with instructor-imposed deadlines.

To examine the impact of deadlines on student performance a little more deeply, Ariely and Wertenbroch conducted a second study. The researchers sought student workers who were willing to act as proofreaders. Volunteers would be paid based on the number of errors they found in three selected papers. The novel aspect is that volunteers were broken into three groups. One group was required to proofread a single paper each week for three weeks. The second group were required to submit their work for all three papers at the end of three weeks. The third group were allowed to choose their own deadlines for the work during the three-week window. The researchers measured the number of errors the proofreaders in each group found and whether the volunteers missed any deadlines. Consistent with the findings from the first study, proofreaders in the group with assigned, regular deadlines outperformed the volunteers in the other groups. That groups also found more errors and missed fewer deadlines.

Considering the research from Ariely and Wertenbroch, I’m more confident that my due date choices are educationally beneficial to the students in asynchronous classes. It’s cool to find research to support a pedagogical decision that I just happened to stumble upon after years of tweaking and revising. Now I just need to find research on the hundreds of other pedagogical questions that bounce around in my brain.

References:

Ariely, D., & Wertenbroch, K. (2002). Procrastination, deadlines, and performance: Self-control by precommitment. Psychological science, 13(3), 219-224.

Making the Visible Invisible

There are a few books I’ve read and reread over the course of my life. I’ve probably read Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury five times. I’ve read Leaves of Grass by Walt Whitman at least four times. I can’t really remember how many times I’ve read Cat’s Cradle by Kurt Vonnegut. I’m sure it’s more than six. Just thinking about that book makes me want to reread it again. I’ll have to add it to my summer reading list.

Some people reading that last paragraph may wonder why anyone would want to read a book more than once. To me, I find that the circumstances of my life influences how I read and interpret the text. Some parts that stood out to me decades ago don’t resonate the same way. As I navigate my sixth decade on this planet (!), I’m realizing that I don’t read or see things the same way as when I was a teenager. I’m pretty sure my reading and literacy colleagues would say that’s how it’s supposed to work. Something like “the reader makes meaning of the text.” And while I’m reading the same text over and over, I’m making different meaning because I’m a different person and a different reader. But I’m diverging a good bit from the point of this post.

So, I reread Situated Cognition: Legitimate Peripheral Participation by Jean Lave and Etienne Wenger last week. My colleague, Scott McDonald, and I are doing a series of learning theory discussions on our podcast (Science in Between) and we both agreed to reread the book prior to our discussion. If you’re not familiar with the book, it’s where the concept of “communities of practice” took root. The authors present an in-depth look at how people are apprenticed into different communities of practices in different cultures. To solidify their perspectives, they share ethnographic studies of Yucatec midwives and Vai and Gola tailors. They draw on research studying naval quartermasters, butchers, and nondrinking alcoholics. While the book is small, it is dense with examples and thought-provoking ideas.

I first read the book almost twenty years ago. At the time, I was a high school science teacher and I remember reflecting on the types of practices I was structuring in my classes. While the authors intentionally avoid discussing formal classroom education, as a teacher, I couldn’t help but think about my teaching strategies and their “legitimacy.” Since then, I’ve read the book at least three more times prior to reading it last week.

Rather than drive to campus to grab my dog-eared and annotated copy, I downloaded a digital copy of the text and read it on a tablet. In a way, this was a fresh view of the text since I couldn’t see my notes from previous reads. As expected, different things stood out to me this time. Since I now do a lot more work with mentoring new faculty, parts from the text that address supporting newcomers and enculturating them into the community definitely stood out. But a section late in the book was the part that really made me think, especially about this online learning world that we’ve all navigated for the last fifteen months. On page 103, Lave and Wenger write:

A window’s invisibility is what makes it a window, that is, an object through which the world outside becomes visible. The very fact, however, that so many things can be seen through it makes the window itself highly visible, that is, very salient in a room, when compared to, say, a solid wall. Invisibility of mediating technologies is necessary for allowing focus on, and thus supporting visibility of, the sub­ject matter. Conversely, visibility of the significance of the technology is necessary for allowing its unproblematic – in­visible – use.”

I know that might be pretty esoteric stuff, so let me provide some context. We’ve had a lot of students who have struggled with online learning this year for a lot of different reasons. While larger societal issues are definitely at play, I think some of the student struggles can also be attributed to the technologies we use and how we use them. As teachers, we’ve navigated this pandemic by using “mediating technologies” like learning management systems (Canvas, D2L, Schoology, etc.) and synchronous tools (Zoom, Google Meet, Microsoft Teams, etc.). But did those tools always allow for “unproblematic, invisible use” for students to access content? Or did the tools unintentionally act more like a “solid wall” and limit the “visibility of the subject matter?” It’s hard to know for sure.

I’m reminded of a post I wrote in February 2020, almost a month before the pandemic hit. In the post, I discussed “the worst video game ever” and how it offered us a lens to inform the design of our online spaces. At the time, I wrote that we needed to “reduce that entropy” that may disorient online students. But I think Lave and Wenger offers us a better target for which we should strive: invisibility. Let’s work to design and use our “mediating technologies” so that act as invisible windows, helping students see without themselves being seen.

References:

Lave, J., & Wenger, E. (1991). Situated learning: Legitimate peripheral participation. Cambridge university press.

Learning from Dystopia

You probably know the books. Or maybe the movies.

The Hunger Games. Divergent. The Handmaid’s Tale.

Each of the stories are set in a dystopian world where some aspect of society falls apart. In one, teenage tributes are sent to fight to their death in a televised arena. In another, factions of the population are divided by their abilities. In the last, women become properties of the state and are forced into sexual servitude. While the books (movies?) are all entertaining in their own ways, they also present a troubling glimpse of what society could be.

But they also present a troubling glimpse of what society is. At least that was the conversation I shared with a couple of colleagues in a mini-book group we’ve organized to read The Manifesto of Teaching Online together. One of my colleagues teaches a dystopian literature course on campus and offered a unique perspective of what we can learn from reading these novels. Rather than just providing scary stories of some twisted possible world, she explained, the stories offer a lens to view the world we live in currently. When it’s done well, dystopian literature reveals the ills of society by distorting them and reflecting them back to the reader. But the distortions and reflections aren’t offered just for entertainment value alone. Instead, they’re offered as an educational tool. We can learn from dystopian fiction, or we can be doomed to experience it firsthand.

Clearly, I’m not an expert of dystopian literature. And that’s probably a huge oversimplification of our book group conversation. If you’re wondering how we got to books about dystopian worlds when we’ve gathered to discuss a book about online teaching, it actually wasn’t that much of a leap. Our discussion about online teaching led to a conversation about the global pandemic which eventually led to dystopian literature. See. It doesn’t seem THAT far-fetched. And like most of these conversations I have with my wicked-smart colleagues, this topic has bounced around in my head for the last week or so. Not that we’re living a dystopian world. Not really. There are no tributes fighting to their death on television. There are no groups of women walking around in red dresses and white hats. There are no zombies.

But it’s hard to argue that our current educational world isn’t kind of dystopian-like. Face-to-face classes have been largely canceled at most educational institutions. Few of us have stepped foot on our campuses in months. Most of our interactions with students and colleagues are mediated via a synchronous tool that a large segment of the population didn’t know existed twelve months ago.

Our students are struggling. Our colleagues are anxious. We all feel isolated.

So, what can we learn from this? Think about it. Eventually, we’re going to go back to some more normal version of things. Are we just going to hit the reset button to March 2020 and go back to teaching and learning exactly the way we’ve always had? Or are we going to see the distorted world that is being reflected back to us and learn from it?