Designing Breakout Rooms for Maximum Engagement

Despite (or perhaps because of) the pandemic summer, I was provided with numerous opportunities to facilitate online courses and professional development, as well as one chance to work with a digital writing summer camp for middle school students. There were many models for these sessions, from a one-day event where we hosted about 60 participants to a two-week institute in which we worked with nearly 30 educators for just over three hours each morning to a one-week institute with a facilitation team of over a dozen and nearly 150 participants.

For the most part — both because I am a bit of a control freak when it comes to managing webinars and (at least I would like to think) because my main goal for working with other educators is to smooth out the roadblocks and provide space for others to lead — I was in charge of making many, many breakout rooms via Zoom. And, for many participants, being whisked away to (and back from) a Zoom breakout room still feels a bit like techno-magic (mostly, I would assume, because they are usually in the “attendee” role in a meeting, not the “host” role). Throughout the summer I made rooms of 2 or 3 based on Zoom’s random assignment all the way to rooms of 20+ where participants “renamed” themselves with room numbers and chose the session they wanted.

And, with nearly every session, as I collaborated with numerous colleagues this summer, the question was repeated many times: “Troy, how did you do that?”

Preparing to Move to Breakout Rooms: Technical and Teaching Considerations

There are, as with most inquiries about teaching with technology, two answers to that question. The technical answer, once one has had some experience in the “host” role of the Zoom meeting, is relatively straight-forward, and their help desk article (with video) is actually quite instructive. There are also many, many videos on YouTube that show you the logistics of how to set up and control the rooms, from an educator’s perspective, including this one from Simpletivity that shows some of the additional features for hosts as they set up and move from room-to-room (from about 6:00 to the end). For the technical answers, I would encourage you to look to these resources from others who have answered the questions in a much clearer manner than I could do so again here.

These technical steps, however, are not what I think most teachers are asking about. Instead, they are likely asking about how we prepare for, move to, facilitate, and return from the rooms, setting up a brief instructional arc that relies on collaborative learning and protocols to guide group activity and discussion. Many other talented educators are puzzling through this same set of questions, including the Stanford Teaching Commons, Elizabeth Stone, Catlin Tucker, and Tricia Ebarvia. Also, early in the pandemic, I was directed to Mural’s “Definitive Guide To Facilitating Remote Workshops,” which has some good tips. From all these educators, I add to the common theme: before even considering small group work, especially in virtual settings, we need to have clear structures in place, both for the entire class session and for what happens in breakout rooms.

Sometimes these rooms are assigned randomly, especially for low-stakes tasks where I want participants to talk with someone they likely would not choose to work with otherwise. Sometimes these rooms are assigned, strategically, by me, without much input from them at all (and, perhaps, I might even tell them that the assignments were random!). Finally, there are times where I want participants to make a choice and let me know where they would prefer to go, offering them a voice in their learning.

Two quick tips for having participants choose rooms (or, suggest where they want to go). First, you can have a shared Google Doc for notetaking and, when it is time for them to choose rooms, insert a table for the number of rooms you plan to assign, and have participants write their name in the preferred cell of the table. Second, if you have enabled the capability in your host settings, participants can “rename” themselves to put a room number or name in front of their own name. In fact, I would make the case that having participants rename themselves with their preferred number makes the assigning of breakout rooms much easier for the host, and this is quickly becoming my preferred method.

With these logistics for moving them to rooms in mind, we now consider the tasks in which we would want them to engage.

Tasks for Successful Breakout Room Contributions

All of these options require successful teaching strategies to be in place, and two of my go-to resources for finding protocols for getting students to wrestle with ideas include the National School Reform Faculty’s Protocols and Harvard Project Zero’s Visible Thinking Routines. Being familiar with a number of these strategies — and being able to adapt them quickly in virtual settings — is helpful. They can be adapted in many ways, and groups can work in shared GDocs or GSlides, or Padlet walls, or through other collaborative tools, sometimes with some pre-session setup, yet often on-the-fly, depending on student needs.

There are a few considerations that I keep in mind as a prepare to engage learners in breakout sessions. First, please note that  my audience of learners typically includes college undergraduates, graduate students, and educators. So, these strategies would need to be adjusted for younger students, especially elementary and middle school students, who may need fewer, more direct instructions as well as shorter time frames in the breakout rooms.

With all that in mind, here are a few activities that I use as it relates to setting up breakout rooms for different kinds of groups and for different durations. I think that they are flexible, and useful for learners at various age levels with appropriate scaffolding. To keep it simple, I separate them into quadrants, though there certainly can be some flexibility and overlap.

Structuring Real Time Activities in Video Conference Sessions

Structuring Real Time Activities in Video Conference Sessions (August 2020)

Activities for Any Group, with a Shorter Duration (5-8 Minutes)

To get conversations started, you might try:

Activities for Established Groups, with a Shorter Duration (5-8 minutes)

For groups that have some rapport and community established, you can jump right in with:

Activities for New Groups, with a Shorter Duration (5-8 minutes)

For groups that you are trying to build community, you can have them watch a brief video or read a short text, and then engage in:

Activities for Established Groups, with a Longer Duration (10-15 Minutes)

For groups that have worked together and are moving into deeper conversation or inquiry, they can use protocols like:

Activities for New Groups, with a Longer Duration (10-15 Minutes)

And, to continue building community and to engage participants in activities that will help them move into more substantive conversations:

Of course, protocols by their very nature are all designed to be flexible, and could be used for a variety of purposes with both new and established groups, in durations short and long. Still, with the list above, my hope is that these resources are helpful for many educators, especially those working with high school and college students, in real time video chat sessions.

Closing Thoughts

Given the many reasons why it is challenging to simply get us all in the same virtual space at the same time, we need to make the precious minutes that we spend together in these sessions valuable. As Stone notes in her post for Inside Higher Ed,

[O]ur students have made it clear they want to learn, and they want connections with one another and with us as we continue to live through these uncertain and disruptive times. And I’ve found that in classes like mine, Zoom, far from fatiguing, can be both an energizer and a bridge.

Indeed, if we use our time in Zoom (or WebEx, or Google Meets, or Microsoft Teams, or BlueJeans, or BigBlueButton, or even in a face-to-face classroom), to engage students in meaningful dialogue and collaboration, we are in many ways just following the advice of all those who have been promoting active learning strategies for many years.

More than just providing a standard lecture in a convenient, online format, we have opportunities to be more dialogic, collaborative, and engaging this fall than, perhaps, we have ever had before.


Troy Hicks PortraitDr. Troy Hicks is a professor of English and education at Central Michigan University. He directs the Chippewa River Writing Project and, previously, the Master of Arts in Learning, Design & Technology program. A former middle school teacher, Dr. Hicks has earned CMU’s Excellence in Teaching Award, is an ISTE Certified Educator, and has authored numerous books, articles, chapters, blog posts, and other resources broadly related to the teaching of literacy in our digital age. Follow him on Twitter: @hickstro

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Appreciating Writing Assistance Technologies… Finally?

This post originally appeared on the National Writing Project’s “Ahead of the Code” blog on Medium on August 22, 2020.


Appreciating Writing Assistance Technologies… Finally?

You would think that, as English teachers, we would have been more appreciative.

Even from the founding of our major professional organization, the National Council of Teachers of English, we have been concerned with (or simply complaining about) the overwhelming amount of writing that we need to grade and provide feedback upon.

As Edwin M. Hopkins, an English professor and one of the founding members of NCTE asked on the first page in the first issue of English Journal way back in 1912, “Can Good Composition Teaching Be Done under Present Conditions?

His concise answer: “No.”

Screenshot of Edwin H. Hopkins’ article, “Can Good Composition Teaching Be Done Under Present Conditions” from 1912.
Screenshot of Hopkins’ article, “Can Good Composition Teaching Be Done Under Present Conditions?” with his response highlighted in yellow.

And, this just about sums it up.

Even then, we knew that the work for English teachers was immense. And, 100+ years later, it remains so. Reading and responding to dozens, if not hundreds, of student compositions on any given week remains a consistent challenge for educators at all levels, from kindergarten through college.

Fast forward from Hopkins’ blunt assessment of how well any one English teacher could actually keep up with the volume of writing he or she must manage, and we land in 1966. It is at this moment when Ellis B. Page proposed in the pages of The Phi Delta Kappan that “We will soon be grading essays by computer, and this development will have astonishing impact on the educational world” (emphasis in original).

There is more history to unpack here, which I hope to do in future blog posts, yet the mid-century pivot in which one former English teacher turned educational psychologist, Page, set the stage for a debate that would still be under discussion fifty years later is clear. English people started taking sides in the computer scoring game. And, to be fair, it seems as though this was mission-driven work for Page, as he concluded that “[a]s for the classroom teacher, the computer grading of essays might considerably humanize his [sic] job.”

Tracing My Own History with Automated Essay Scoring

Over the decades, as Wikipedia describes it, “automated essay scoring” has moved in many directions, with both proponents and critics. These are a few angles I hope to explore in my posts this year for the “Ahead of the Code” project. As a middle school language arts educator, I never had opportunity to use systems for automated feedback in the late 1990s and early 2000s. As a college composition teacher in the mid-2000s, I eschewed plagiarism detection services and scoffed at the grammar-checkers built into word processing programs. This carries me to my more recent history, and I want to touch on the two ways in which I have, recently, been critiquing and connecting with automated essay scoring, with hopes that this year’s project will continue to move my thinking in new directions.

With that, there are two stories to tell.

Story 1: It was in early 2013 that I was approached to be part of the committee that ultimately produced NCTE’s “Position Statement on Machine Scoring.” Released on April 20, 2013, and followed by a press release from NCTE itself and an article in Inside Higher Ed, the statement was more of an outright critique than a deep analysis of the research literature. Perhaps we could have done better work. And, to be honest, I am not quite clear on what the additional response to this statement was (as its Google Scholar page here in 2020 shows only four citations). Still, it planted NCTE’s flag in the battle on computer scoring (and, in addition to outright scoring, much of this stemmed from an NCTE constituent group’s major concern about plagiarism detection and retention of student writing).

Still, I know that I felt strongly at the time that our conclusion: “[f]or a fraction of the cost in time and money of building a new generation of machine assessments, we can invest in rigorous assessment and teaching processes that enrich, rather than interrupt, high-quality instruction.” And, in many ways, I still do. My experience with NWP’s Analytic Writing Continuum (and the professional learning that surrounds it), as well as the work that I do with dozens of writers each year (from middle schoolers in a virtual summer camp last July to my undergraduate, masters, and doctoral students I am teaching right now) suggests to me that talking with writers and engaging my colleagues in substantive dialogue about student writing still matters. Computers still cannot replace a thoughtful teacher.

Story 2: It was later in 2013, and I had recently met Heidi Perry through her work with Subtext (now part of Renaissance Learning). This was an annotation tool, and I was curious about it in the context of working on my research related to Connected Reading. She and I talked a bit here and there over the years. The conversation rekindled in 2016, when Heidi and her team had moved on from Subtext and were founding a new company, Writable. Soon after, I became their academic advisor and wrote a white paper about the power of peer feedback. While Heidi, the Writable team, and I have had robust conversations about if and how there should be automated feedback and other writing assistance technologies into their product, I ultimately do not make the decisions; I only advise. (For full disclosure: I do earn consulting fees from Writable, though I am not directly employed by the company, and Writable has been a sponsor of NWP-related events.)

One of my main contributions to the early development of Writable was the addition of “comment stems” for peer reviewers. While not automated feedback?—?in fact, somewhat the opposite of it?—?the goal for asking students to provide peer review responses with the scaffolded support of sentence stems was so they would, indeed, engage more intently with their classmates’ writing… with a little help. In the early stages of Writable, we actually focused quite intently on self-, peer-, and teacher-review.

To do so, I worked with them to build out comment stems, which still play a major role in the product. As shown in the screenshot below, when a student clicks on a “star rating” to offer his or her peer a rubric score, an additional link appears, offering the responder the opportunity to “Add Comment.” Once they there, as the Writable help desk article notes, “Students should click on a comment stem (or “No thanks, I’ll write my own”) and complete the comment.” This is where the instructional magic happens.

Instead of simply offering the star rating (the online equivalent of a face-to-face “good job,” or “I like it”), the responder needs to elaborate on his or her thoughts about the piece of writing. For instance, in the screenshot below, we see stems that prompt the responder to be more specific, with suggestions for adding comments about, in this case, the writer’s conclusion such as “You could reflect the content event more clearly if you say something about…” as well as “Your conclusion was insightful because you…” These stems prompt the kind of peer feedback as ethical practice, that I have described with my colleagues Derek Miller and Susan Golab.

A screenshot of the “comment stem” interface in Writable. (Image from Writable)
Screenshot of the “comment stems” that appear in Writable’s peer response interface (Image courtesy of Writable)

And, though in the past few years the Writable team has (for market-based reasons) moved in the direction of adding Revision Aid (and other writing assistance technologies), I can’t argue with them. It does make good business sense and?—?as they have convinced me more and more?—?writing assistance technologies can help teachers and students. My thoughts on all of this continue to evolve, as my recent podcast interview with the founder of Ecree, Jamey Heit, demonstrates. In short, looking at how I have changed since 2013, I am beginning to think that there is room for these technologies in writing instruction.

Back to the Future of Automated Essay Scoring

So, as I try to capture my thoughts related to writing assistance technologies, here at the beginning of the 2020–21 academic year, I use the oft-cited relationship status from our (least?) favorite social media company: “It’s complicated.”

Do I agree with Hopkins, who believes that teaching English and responding to writing is still unsustainable. Yes, and…

Do I agree with Page, who suggests that automated scoring can be humanizing (for the teacher, and perhaps the student)? Yes, and…

Do I still feel that writing assistance technologies can interrupt instruction and cause a rift in the teacher/student relationship? Yes, and…

Do I think that integrating peer response stems and automated revision aid into Writable are both valuable? Yes, and…

Do I think that all of this is problematic? Yes, and…

I am still learning. And, yes, you would think that, as English teachers, we would have been more appreciative of having tools that would alleviate the workload. So, why the resistance? I want to understand more about why, both by exploring the history of writing assistance technologies as well as what it looks like, what it feels like, for teachers and students.

As part of the work this year, I will be using Writable with my Chippewa River Writing Project colleagues and, later this semester, my own students at Central Michigan University. In that process, I hope to have more substantive answers to these questions, and to push myself to better articulate when, why, and how I will employ writing assistance technologies?—?and when I will not. Like any writer making an authorial decision, I want to make the best choice possible, given my audience, purpose, and context.

And, in the process, perhaps, I will give up on some of the previous concerns about writing assistance technologies. In doing so, I will learn to be just a little bit more appreciative as I keep moving forward, hoping to remain ahead of the code.


Troy Hicks PortraitDr. Troy Hicks is a professor of English and education at Central Michigan University. He directs the Chippewa River Writing Project and, previously, the Master of Arts in Learning, Design & Technology program. A former middle school teacher, Dr. Hicks has earned CMU’s Excellence in Teaching Award, is an ISTE Certified Educator, and has authored numerous books, articles, chapters, blog posts, and other resources broadly related to the teaching of literacy in our digital age. Follow him on Twitter: @hickstro

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Pandemic Pedagogy: Some Questions About Being “Successful” and Getting it “Right”

Introduction

With the midpoint of the summer and the July 4th Holiday weekend in the rear view, and states (like our own home of Michigan) now releasing plans for a “safe return to school” in August, we feel it is worth taking time to pause.  

As parents and teacher educators, as well as long-time colleagues and friends, the two of us have had many conversations in the past month as educators in the state of Michigan and around the world have moved to “remote learning” in K-12 and higher education.

In thinking about ways we can productively talk about complicated issues, we have been informed by our experiences in the National Writing Project, and the use of protocols, or guided discussion models, for moving forward through difficult conversations. 

In a recent chat, we used the “What? So What? Now What?” protocol to share our thoughts and feelings related to “pandemic pedagogy,” “getting remote learning ‘right,’” and other phrases that capture the COVID-19 zeitgeist. 

This blog post summarizes our current thinking and, we hope, will serve as a time capsule for questions we need to ask in the weeks, months, and years ahead. 

What? 

Humans, by nature, want to help others. Our willingness to do so is, most often, well-intentioned. Since the outbreak of COVID-19 and both higher education and K-12 schools moving to “remote” instruction, there have been a number of companies that have offered their products for free (or at reduced cost) so that teachers and students can use them.  Moreover, professional organizations have shared K-12 resources through blogs, podcasts, webinars, lesson plans, and countless social media posts. We believe teachers and their students are doing the best they can, given the circumstances. We also trust that parents and guardians are doing the best they can. Humans are navigating uncertain futures and as we do so, we must help ourselves and our children navigate what is, indeed, a brave new world.

That said, in the past few months — and even more so in as we reflect on “remote learning” successes and failures from the end of the 2019-20 academic year — there have been hundreds, if not thousands, of such resources that have been distributed to support a “continuity of learning.” Again, all well-intentioned, and many useful. 

However, when we see headlines like “getting remote learning right” or “successful strategies for online teaching,” we wonder what “right” or “successful” (or, for that matter, “teaching”) even means. While we do have empirical evidence about “what works” for nearly all students in typical school settings (e.g., IES What Works Clearinghouse), which are still in and of themselves contextual, we don’t yet know what works for all teachers and students when teaching and learning remotely. We also don’t yet know the full impact of social distancing on teachers’ and students’ learning and emotional well-being.

We are left with many questions, few answers, and a great deal of uncertainty. 

So What?

Despite the terrible, tragic circumstances in which we find ourselves, one of the silver linings, perhaps even a gift, of this pandemic for educators —  if we dare call it a gift — is the opportunity to re-think what has been considered the standard parts of teaching and learning for decades, if not centuries. As educational professionals, if we want to take advantage of what we’re learning and experiencing in this COVID-19 era, we must be willing to ask (and, eventually, answer) some important questions.  So, as we consider the days, months, and years ahead, we believe that it will be imperative to create time and space for conversations about what we’ve experienced and learned. 

In other words, as the world is experiencing a pandemic,  what is “right” or “successful” for one remote school or class may not actually be “right” or “successful” for another. And, we believe that part of getting it “right” — or achieving “success” —  extends well beyond the immediate needs and outcomes of the upcoming 2020-21 academic year. 

Indeed, the ways we prepare ourselves for 2020-21 matters in many, many ways. Thus,  framing questions for the conversations we have now — both about what we’re experiencing and learning as well as  how we can use what we learn to help us move forward in the future — is critical. 

Now What?

As noted above, there are already countless resources available for remote teaching and learning. 

We are not dispensing more advice or resources in this post. There are so many of us — individual teachers, entire school faculties, district administrators, teacher educators, policy makers, the business community, and, of course parents and caregivers of our youth — all of whom have questions. And, we’re all trying to figure things out. 

Instead, we want to pivot and pose some questions that, right now, can’t be fully answered here as we are still trying to plan for August. Whatever happens in a few weeks, when schools “re-open” for the fall, we know that it will still be an era of pandemic pedagogy. 

In fact, we consider this a “time capsule” of sorts, and these questions, we hope, can guide our own thinking as well as our PK-12 and higher education colleagues as we transition into a post-COVID, socially un-distanced world. Whether we are face-to-face, online, or both — and whether we are talking about one day of instruction, one week, one month, or a whole year — we wonder…

For educators:

  • What is essential for your students to learn, in terms of content and skills? 
  • What is essential for your students to do as they learn to communicate with one another? 
  • What were the “rhythms” of the school week for each of you? What was the workflow? When did you meet with students? How did you support students’ emotional and academic needs?
  • What communication media (text, image, video, audio), methods (through an LMS, via text message, via email), audiences (one student, small group, whole class), and frequency (hourly, daily, weekly) are effective? 
  • What content needs to be “delivered,” asynchronously, and what, instead, might need to be “modeled” and “coached,” synchronously? 
  • What should be the [new] norms of online meetings with students? 
  • In this time of remote learning, what practices have you developed that could be carried forward, in hybrid or fully online courses?
  • What have you learned about yourself, your teaching style, and what you really value as an educator?
  • How might this entire experience frame your pedagogy and practice moving forward? 
  • How much synchronicity is necessary? For full classes? For small groups? For individual tutorials? 
  • What ways did you see students be creative as they developed their thinking and expressed what they learned? How might they have used “old” and “new” technologies to meet these goals? 

For administrators:

  • What worked best for communicating with your staff? For providing feedback and direction? For maintaining relationships and supporting one another?
  • What might have worked well in the past for organizing faculty meetings, curriculum, assessments, PLCs, etc.? How did these change and, perhaps, become more [or less] efficient? 
  • For online meetings with other adults/colleagues, what norms did you establish and how did these facilitate communication and teamwork? 
  • Based on your experiences supporting teachers during remote teaching and learning, what changes do you hope/expect to make when you return to brick and mortar buildings and classrooms?
  • How did you partner with and/or support students and their families?
  • What success(es) should be celebrated?

For business and community members:

  • In our efforts to create a 21st-century workforce — and with the changes that have been made in your places of work over the past two months — what should educators know about what it means to prepare their students for the workforce in months and years ahead? Given potential past efforts connected to volunteerism and mentorship opportunities for employees to work with K-12 students, what might you need to reconsider when planning for future opportunities?
  • Even in light of the economic impact that all businesses are sure to face, what role do we all play in providing equitable access to broadband or mobile internet, as well as low-cost laptops or devices for family use, both for K-12 students as well as their caregivers who may be reskilling for a new job? 
  • What new partnerships could be developed with local K-12 schools to support students’ learning and connect their learning to the community? 

For higher education faculty, administrators, and teacher educators: 

  • How do we effectively prepare preservice teachers for all the realities of teaching and learning, including future remote teaching and learning?
  • How can teacher educators clearly model high-leverage teaching and learning practices for preservice teachers?
  • How can colleges/schools and departments of education more directly support our communities’ schools, including their teachers and students as well as parents and caregivers?
  • How can we better advocate for and partner with local K-12 districts and schools when integrating technology?
  • What new partnerships, programs, and models could be forged to partner universities and K-12 schools (e.g., traditional models of student teaching and field placements, dictating required observation/teaching hours, etc.)?

For parents, guardians, and caregivers: 

  • What are your children passionate about? How did you help them follow those passions in this time of staying home and staying safe?
  • On the flip side, what led our kids to distraction (and/or ourselves)? What did we do to help them learn and/or practice self-regulation and to follow their interests?
  • What kinds of topics, subject areas, and questions did they follow?
  • What did you notice about their use of various learning technologies and modalities such as video, audio, and text, as well as virtual interactions with others?
  • How did you and/or your child[ren] process the “loss” of the remainder of the school year?
  • What do your children need as they head back to a regular school building and schedule, whenever that might be? 
  • What do you, as a parent/guardian, need as you send your child[ren] back to a regular school building and schedule, whenever that might be? 
  • What was most helpful, in terms of the way(s) your school/district responded to the COVID-19 pandemic?
  • What was least helpful, in terms of the way(s) your school/district responded to the COVID-19 pandemic?

For legislators: 

  • What laws perpetuate inequality for public education and how can we change these to ensure all students have access, no matter the location of learning and/or the modes/methods?
  • What needs to change, at the state and/or national levels, so that K-12 administrators and educators can quickly and effectively respond to current needs and environments, including the need for remote teaching and learning?
  • What role does technology play in providing “equal access for all” K-12 students?
  • What do you need/want to learn from K-12 teachers as well as their students and families about their experiences with remote teaching/learning during this crisis? 
  • Beyond increasing teachers’ pay, how might we recognize the contributions that educators and schools/districts made to students’ learning, both intellectual and socio-emotional, during this difficult time?
  • What can we do to recruit new teachers to join/stay in the profession, and prepare them for new modes of instruction?
  • What can we do to keep current teachers in the profession and how can we prepare and support them for new modes of instruction?

(A Few) Essential Questions as We Move Forward

These are a lot of questions and necessitate conversations over time. As we conclude, we close with a few questions for us all:

  • What might a typical school day (week) look like in the years ahead? 
  • How might we build remote/online learning into our normal patterns of work?
  • How will we maximize synchronous learning times, whether face-to-face or remote? 
  • What content can be “delivered” asynchronously and what platforms/delivery works best for asynchronous delivery?
  • How will we engage all students in substantive learning, inviting them to create — and not just consume — content?

These are more questions, we know, than can be answered right now.  However, in addition to responding and reacting to immediate needs and contents, we must also deliberately think about what we’re doing, why we’re doing it, and its impact on students’ learning and development. 

We are, indeed, in the midst of a pandemic pedagogy and while we’re all hard at work, our success and ability to “get it right” depends not only on what we do right now but also what we do moving forward.

We hope you’ll consider joining the conversation that these questions invite.


Erica R. HamiltonDr. Erica R. Hamilton, Grand Valley State University, Grand Rapids, MI

Erica R. Hamilton works with pre-service and in-service teachers and serves as a K-12 teacher coach and professional development provider. Erica’s teaching focuses on helping teachers support and extend K-12 students’ literacy and learning. Committed to professional service, Erica currently serves on GVSU’s Online Education Council and GVSU’s IRB committee. She is a peer reviewer for various journals and organizations and is active in West Michigan schools. Her research interests focus on teacher learning and professional development, place-based education, literacy, and educational technology. Connect with her on Twitter @ericarhamilton.

Troy Hicks Portrait

Dr. Troy Hicks, Central Michigan University, Mt. Pleasant, MI

Dr. Troy Hicks is Professor of English and Education at Central Michigan University (CMU). He directs the Chippewa River Writing Project and, previously, the Master of Arts in Learning, Design & Technology program. A former middle school teacher, he collaborates with K–12 colleagues and explores how they implement newer literacies in their classrooms. Since beginning work at CMU in 2007, he has earned numerous distinctions including the Michigan Council of Teachers of English Charles Carpenter Fries Award (2008), CMU’s Provost’s Award for junior faculty who demonstrate outstanding achievement in research and creative activity (2011), the Richard A. Meade Award for scholarship in English Education (2014), the Michigan Reading Association’s Teacher Educator Award (2018), CMU’s Excellence in Teaching Award (2020), and the Initiative for 21st Century Literacies Research’s Divergent Award for Excellence (2020). An ISTE Certified Educator, Dr. Hicks has authored numerous books, articles, chapters, blog posts, and other resources broadly related to the teaching of literacy in our digital age. Follow him on Twitter: @hickstro


Photo by Charles Deluvio on Unsplash

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Pledge to Support #EducatorEquity

So much has been said in the past few weeks since the death of George Floyd that any additional words would be wasted. So, let me get to the point.

As we see protests in America and around the world, I feel the need to act.

To that end, I am personally committing to three items.

I am, as suggested by Cait Hutsell, going to begin doing this work in public. And, I am taking a stance similar to those offered by many professional organizations to which I belong including the National Council of Teachers of English, the Michigan Council of Teachers of English, the National Writing Project, the International Society for Technology in Education, and the International Literacy Association. I also just joined (for free) and made a donation to Teaching Tolerance through the Southern Poverty Law Center.

First, as a white educator who has enjoyed privileges brought from institutional racism, I will join this call to action from my colleagues Shawna Coppola and Kate Roberts to support #EducatorEquity. This echos a similar call from Shelbie Witte, and is imperative as we consider the voices of educators of color.

In all future PD contracts for events that include multiple speakers, such as literacy conferences or webinar series, I will ask the organizers to ensure that they have contracted with at least one other educator of color, and will recommend colleagues from this list, “#POCPD: People of Color in Education PD Directory,” curated by my Educator Collaborative colleague, Julia Torres.

Second, in addition to taking up this pledge, I will begin sessions — even virtual ones — with an indigenous land acknowledgement like this one from my employer, Central Michigan University, and read the introduction from this NCTE blog post, “Being an Anti-Racist Educator Is a Verb.” These two actions will take only moments, yet will continually reaffirm my commitment to social justice education and a stance of anti-racism.

Third, I have signed on to our CMU Faculty Association’s call to commit to anti-racism, led by my English Department colleagues Carlin Borsheim-Black and April Burke. Both of these educators were schedule to deliver talks at a Chippewa River Writing Project (CRWP) event this spring, which was cancelled due to COVID closures, and I will work to get them reconnected with our site’s work as soon as possible.

That’s all.

For now.

We all have work to do, and I need to get started. This morning is our first CRWP event now that I have taken this pledge, and I need to prepare my opening words before we begin writing into the day.


Photo by Joan Villalon on Unsplash

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Book Review: Learning First Technology Second in Practice by Liz Kolb

Learning First, Technology Second in Practice Book Cover (Courtesy of ISTE)
Learning First, Technology Second in Practice Book Cover (Courtesy of ISTE)

In my work with undergraduate pre-service teachers, graduate students in master’s and doctoral educational technology programs, and with teachers through webinars and workshops, a consistent question resonates — “I know I am supposed to use technology in my teaching, but I don’t exactly know how. What can I do?”

And, for well over a decade, Liz Kolb has been trying to answer that question, first with her books about cell phones and in the encouragement to use these devices as learning tools, and then with her innovative Triple E Framework, outlined thoroughly on her openly available website as well as in her 2017 book, Learning First, Technology Second: The Educator’s Guide to Designing Authentic Lessons. For my students, the Triple E framework has become part of numerous class assignments as well as final project evaluations, stretching from undergraduate methods courses to my doctoral seminars. And, they have all found the Triple E to be insightful and practical, helping them think through their choices for when, why, and how to use technology. 

Thus, Kolb’s approach is quite accessible to teachers. Throughout her work, she consistently foregrounds the need for purposeful lesson design, opportunities for student collaboration, and the use of educational technologies for creating content, not just consuming it. This message resonates with educators who are themselves learning how to use technology in a more effective manner, even the most reluctant who fear that students’ learning can quickly be subsumed by glitzy apps, programs, and websites. Her message remains clear: technology should be used to engage, enhance, and extend student learning, and never for its own sake.

She continues this line of work with her most recent publication, Learning First, Technology Second in Practice: New Strategies, Research and Tools for Student Success. In the Introduction, she contends that “this book should open up conversations with teachers, coaches, and administrators around the choices educators are making with technology tools in their classroom teaching,” and I would concur. Indeed, the book will be a conversation-starter among colleagues, coaches, curriculum directors, and others. Set to be released this July, I was afforded the opportunity to preview the book* and offer some reflections on how Kolb’s work with the Triple E Framework – as well as with dozens of educators – has continued to grow in the past few years. 

In the introduction, she describes the ways in which her thinking has moved in the past few years, providing the reader with insights and updates on the Triple E Framework and its many uses. Then, in Chapter 1, following a pattern that I have observed her using in presentations and webinars for educators, the reader is presented with a number of “myths and realities” related to educational technology (e.g., the myth outlined on page 18 that “Computer use in any form will always enhance underserved or at-risk students’ learning experiences,” followed by a detailed explanation of how these myths are not necessarily true. This model appeals to educators, and helps give them talking points of their own for conversations with students, colleagues, and administrators. 

Then, as the reader moves into Chapters 2, 3, and 4, Kolb reiterates many of the key points about the three pillars of the Triple E Framework: engagement, enhancement, and extension. These chapters are centered, as always, on effective learning models (e.g., social, collaborative interactions and bridging school learning to everyday life). My only minor criticism about the book is that — for anyone already familiar with her previous work — Kolb does seem to spend a great deal of time reiterating key elements from each of the three pillars of engagement, enhancement, and extension. Specifically, chapters 2, 3, and 4 of the new book feel very similar to chapters 3, 4, and 5 of her previous one. She even uses a similar model of describing numerous teaching scenarios and analyzing them with the framework, and much of this is also (to her credit) available on her website. 

Still, this book does take the approach that she used in the first a step further by adding a deeper, more thorough analysis (and ratings) of lesson ideas using the Triple E Framework, then describing very specific ways in which an educator could revise a lesson by changing the instructional strategies, the technology, or both. To that end, while some of these three chapters felt a little repetitive, she did work to bring a new angle of analysis using the framework, and I appreciate these new ways for thinking about how to help other educators use the framework themselves. 

The most important contributions from this new book come throughout the second half of it, which includes Chapter 5’s focus on exemplary lessons from K-12 educators, Chapter 6 which articulates fifteen steps to Triple E integration that can be used by tech coaches and instructional designers, and Chapter 7, a model for implementing the Triple E through district-wide PD. In these chapters, there are many gems, including many examples of teachers’ and students’ work and “the fifteen steps,” which I find to be most useful for my own work. 

For instance, she describes ways in which we can crosswalk another popular ed tech framework, TPACK, with the Triple E, and she offers a specific protocol for analyzing an existing lesson using the Triple E Framework. In that practical PD session, she suggests that teachers or coaches use an adaptation of the lesson study model, scoring a lesson with the Triple E framework and offering specific suggestions for improvement. She encourages the reader (who would become the facilitator) to 

[A]sk coaches what advice they would give to the teacher of this lesson for improvement (if it needs it). The advice should either be a tool change or pedagogical changes around the tool. Sometimes a lesson may need both! (191). 

As I consider my own needs — as a teacher educator and professional development consultant — this protocol for discussion with the Triple E (as well as her good-natured advice), is all helpful, reminding me of the power of protocols to help educators move through discussions in purposeful ways. 

And, as one final bonus, Dr. Kolb invites readers to her new Triple E PLN, available as yet another free resource for educators who want to examine — and share — lessons that meet the criteria of the Triple E Framework. Here, “[e]ducators are invited to register, evaluate their own lessons, share their lessons, and discuss ways to improve the lessons based on the Triple E Framework.” Again, Dr. Kolb’s educational ethos leans towards openly-available, immediately useful resources, and she models this through the websites and communities that she creates. 

In sum, and especially with the chapters for coaches and district-wide professional learning models, with Learning First, Technology Second in Practice, Kolb has provided us with another book that can genuinely guide educators as they are “making instructional choices with technology based on the learning goal and the science of good learning practices” (xiv). With many new examples and specific suggestions, Kolb continues to serve the educational community as a leader who models the kinds of teaching and learning with technology she wants to see in classrooms, from kindergarten through college, and in face-to-face, hybrid, and online contexts. It is a worth read, and will help any educator deepen their thinking about teaching and learning with technology.  

*Note: I was invited by ISTE to review this book, and provided a free PDF version of it. Additionally, over the past 10 years, I have worked with Dr. Kolb on a number of short-term projects, invited her to be a reviewer of our master’s degree program and a guest speaker, and have required students to purchase her books for some of my courses. 


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Resources for ETA NSW

This list of curated resources represents work that I have produced from March to May of 2020, all aimed at helping educators as they transitioned to remote learning during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The full article. “Critical, creative, and compassionate: Resources for teaching English in an era of COVID-19” appears in Australia’s English Teachers Association NSW’s journal, mETAphor (openly available through their website and as a PDF here).

The links here are presented in the order that they appear in the article, which I will provide a link to (once the issue is published online).

March 2020

April 2020

May 2020

Summer 2020

Books

Updated on June 30, 2020 to include article link.


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Podcast with Ivy Ewell Eldridge on “Writing with Digital Tools”

While attending the California Association of Teachers of English (CATE) conference in February, I was invited to speak with CNUSDEdChat. My thanks to the entire CNUSDEdChat team — Ivy Ewell-Eldridge, Annemarie Cortez, Kim Kemmer, Jenny Cordura, and Kate Jackson — for welcoming me to this conversation. Follow more of their work via their homepage, Soundcloud and Twitter. Enjoy the podcast!

Dr. Ivy Ewell Eldridge chats with Central Michigan University professor and author, Troy Hicks, a super advocate of ways to teach and enhance the process of writing through the use of digital tools. He encourages educators to nurture our students’ curiosity, openness, flexibility, persistence, engagement, and responsibility as they engage in the writing process.


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Ideas from Instagram Live Conversation: “Online Teaching and Learning English”

Edited Post: Video added on May 30, 2020.


Instagram Advertisement - Online Teaching and Learning EnglishEarlier today, I was honored to be invited by Alireza Qadiri Hedeshi, Dean of Foreign Languages Department at Mehryar Institution of Higher Education, for an Instagram Live conversation. Here are some of the questions that he and his colleagues shared, as well as some brief responses that I wrote to prepare for our conversation.


1. You have titled one of your scholarly works “Because Digital Writing Matters”. What do you mean with digital writing? Is it different from ordinary or academic writing?

As we argue in the book, digital writing can be defined as “compositions created with, and oftentimes for reading or viewing on, a computer of other device connected to the Internet.” While that definition was written just as the iPhone and touchscreen devices were being introduced to the consumer market, it still holds up today. Digital writing, in this sense, is writing that can be composed, stylistically/rhetorically as well as technically, for the screen. Hyperlinks, embedded media, and interactivity are hallmarks of digital writing.

And, yes, while traditional academic writing is typically seen as thesis-driven essays with outside citations from reputable, peer-reviewed sources, we are coming to new understandings — as scholars and educators — about what “counts” as a thoughtful, rigorous argument. Intellectuals can present their work in critical and creative ways, employing the tools of digital writing like alphabetic text, of course, as well as photos, graphs, maps, timelines, videos, and other “born digital” artifacts. These artifacts are created for others to engage with them, and can be effective uses of digital writing tools/skills to support academic goals.

At the International Literacy Association Conference last fall, I shared some more ideas about how digital writing and best practices in writing instruction intersect, and here is the handout for that session.


2. How can we improve interaction over online methods of teaching language?

AND

13. In respect with real classroom environments, how can we make effective use of technology in providing learners with feedback?

There are ways that we interact with individual writers, as well as our entire classrooms.

First, with individual writers, there are strategies we can use. In a recent blog post, I argue that, even in times of remote learning, “we can teach writers. And, we can teach them online. To paraphrase Lucy Calkins’ oft-cited advice, we teach the writer first, then we teach the writing.” I offer, in that post, three main practices that we want to continue doing: connecting, conferring, and responding. In another recent webinar, for CCCC/TYCA, I went into more detail and offered a list of tools that could be helpful in that process.

With entire classes, we need to make sure that we are using synchronous video sessions with our students to their full effect. To do that, we need to think about what happens before, during, and after a video class session. When I consider that I might only have an hour of focused time with all my students — and what I want them to do with one another during that time — I think through the types of collaborative activities they might do to talk about their own writing, give one another feedback, and grow their knowledge about language. I may model a writing process for them, using sentence templates and engaging in effective web search and evaluation strategies, then invite them to do the same.

Finally, as we interact from session-to-session, we can think about tools to build continuity and collegiality amongst our students, outside of the normal learning management systems. This is not just a “discussion forum” in the classic sense, but a space for students to engage around course content in an informal manner. For my adult learners, Voxer has been effective for this, however there are many other options that exist.


3. How can we encourage learners to take online medium as serious as real classroom environment?

AND

4. How can teachers keep their authority over online classroom environment?

AND

6. Many ESL teachers find speaking the most challenging skill to teach online as learners tend to be passive listeners in online classes. What can we do to cope with this issue?

When we remain consistent in our approach — regular announcements, effectively run class sessions, brief and engaging instructional screencasts as needed, timely and goal-oriented feedback — students will know that we are taking our teaching seriously, and this will raise their level of expectations. We model the kinds of behavior that we would expect of them by staying organized and efficient, since we can’t rely on regular, face-to-face class sessions for informal conversation and last-minute reminders.

From our webinar the other day, Jessie Borgman (Arizona State University), and Casey McArdle (Michigan State University) shared their Online Writing Instruction Community with many ideas, including their “PARS” approach (Personal, Accessible, Responsive, and Strategic). Another great set of resources for effective online instruction is Global Society of Online Literacy Educators (GSOLE), and their “Online Literacy Instruction Principles and Tenets.” By thinking through these principles, we can design our own online philosophy for teaching, and make it clear to students.

For our actual online sessions, we need to learn how to be strategic in our use of time, as well as become familiar with controls in our video conferencing software. While designed for business people in training sessions, this guide for facilitating remote workshops has some helpful ideas for helping move online meetings along in productive ways. Also, we can use tools like Flippity to share an on-screen tool that will randomly pick student names, so we can let them know that they will be called on soon to take the microphone and turn on the camera. In a worst case, we can mute them, turn off their camera, or kick them out of the remote room.

We can also invite students to use tools like Voxer, mentioned above, or Vocaroo to record their voice and share with one another or the teacher. Also, they could use Flipgrid to have one-to-one, or small group, conversations. This can be done at their own pace, and if they make a mistake, they can rerecord themselves, avoiding embarrassment that would happen in class.


5. How do you suggest learners/teachers to use social networks effectively as means of language acquisition?

AND

7. A big problem is that during online classes, some learners confuse the learning process with chatting language. For example, they use the language developed for chatting (e.g. Thx for thanks or L8 for late). Do you think we should worry about the way they are using the language or regard it as a way of enriching the language?

AND

8. Some learners are unwilling to take part in online classes, as they believe this deprives them of socialization opportunities provided in real classroom environment. Is this claim true? Is there any way through which online world improves their social skills?

We can ask students to think about the tone and style that they might use in social networks and how they need to code switch as they move across different online/social media spaces, as well as communicate in more academic settings. Helping them see that they use a different register of language in these different spaces — and to reflect on why they do so — is one step to making these spaces useful.

Also, we can have them think about how they might use these tools and what they offer (like “streaks” in Snapchat) to stay in touch with another person trying to learn the language. They can communicate with one another each day, and try to maintain their “streaks” in the process.

We could also ask them to think about how they would “translate” a message from one social media form to another. For instance, what would a tweet (without an accompanying image, and using hashtags) look like in Facebook (with use of fonts and colors) or on Instagram (an image with a caption). How would you have to change the style (and amount) of words? What about fonts and colors? These conversations can be helpful for them as they think about the audience, purpose, and media being used.


9. How can we reduce distraction while learning English online?

Teaching our students — and ourselves — to self-regulate is a challenge, no doubt. And, different people have different tolerances for working at their own pace (or in a way other than traditional face-to-face schedules), so we all need to figure out ways to manage our time and attention. I think that it can be done, yes, though there is no single answer that works for everyone.

To that end, I would encourage students to adjust some of their web browser settings and install extensions, turning on ad blockers and using tools to block distracting sites. On their mobile devices, they can turn on “do not disturb” settings (or simply put their devices in another room) while studying. Also, they can set up times to study with classmates, holding one another accountable for getting work done and sharing their progress, as well as more intensive studying. They can also use apps like Duolingo, which “gamifies” the process of learning, if that is motivating for them.

Ultimately, our students need to self-regulate. While we would like to think that they are 100% focused and on-task when they are in our classrooms, we know that is not true. The same is true when they are at home, on their devices. They will not be 100% focused for an entire learning session, whether looking at asynchronous material or in a synchronous video class. We need to acknowledge that, plan for interactive and useful lessons (as noted above), and encourage them to self-regulate and stay motivated in the ways that work best for them.


11. Is it effective to devise a mixed/combinatory method with some skills being taught online and some others in real classroom? (If so, what skills do you suggest to work online?

AND

10. Generally do you think it is possible to learn English via online tools without the help of a tutor?

As I have noted throughout, I think that there are times and places, ebbs and flows, in the learning process. Sometimes, we can accomplish a lot by having our entire class work together, sometimes we meet with them individually or in small groups. Sometimes, we provide a video lesson for them to watch ahead of time, and then we work on something together during class time. Sometimes we set up individual conferences with writers. Whether we are partially or fully online, we need to consider the many ways in which we move back and forth between realtime communication with students and other tasks that can happen over time.

To put this in more concrete terms, and from a student perspective, my writing/language class might look like this over the course of a week:

  • Day 1: My instructor sends me a 10 minute video lesson and the assignment for the week; I start my writing and speaking tasks and communicate with my study parter via Skype for 30 minutes.
  • Day 2: My instructor hosts a one-hour video chat, and has us working in small groups to share our writing. I give feedback to three classmates as we work together for about 15 minutes in a breakout room, then we come back together and my instructor points out good examples of writing from a few classmates. We ask questions in the last few minutes to clarify our assignment for the week.
  • Day 3: Today is an independent work day. My instructor asks us to send a screenshot of what we have accomplished on Duolingo, and I share a voice message on Voxer. I work on my paper, and add comments to my partner’s paper.
  • Day 4: We have our second, one-hour video chat of the week, and our instructor demonstrates how to revise our thesis statements. We watch as he shares his word processing screen, and talks about how he is making revision decisions. We then go into breakout rooms to rework our thesis statements with our small groups, and give one another feedback.
  • Day 5: My instructor has asked us to sign up for 20 minute video conferences, and I shared my draft with him the day before. On the video chat, I tell him about what I am doing with my thesis, and he recommends a few changes. I leave with a good idea of how to revise, and spend the rest of my study time making changes.

As you can see, the student is moving back and forth between synchronous and asynchronous learning, with the whole class and a partner, as well as independently. Having the consistency — yet flexibility — is powerful, and keeps students connected, motivated, and on track to complete their work with support and feedback.


12. Except for saving time and energy, does online teaching/learning have any privileges over real classroom environment?

Well, honestly, I don’t know that teaching online saves time!

As you can see from the example above, my week as an instructor would be spent planning the two, one-hour synchronous class sessions so they are highly engaging and useful. I am also creating a weekly video lesson, and pointing my students to other resources. I am providing written and audio (and, perhaps, video) feedback, and meeting with students in brief video chats. So, I am spending quite a bit of time being intentional about making connections and supporting students.

We can rely on the thousands of things that are already out there to help our students understand grammar and engage in basic writing skills, including websites, videos, online games, flashcards, AI built into word processors, and other resources. They can use those resources, if we guide them in smart ways.

What they need from us is our time and encouragement. That is what we provide when we teach in a manner like the one that I described above. Students have consistent schedules and expectations, and are accountable to us, as teachers, as well as their classmates. They feel connected and valued, and are likely to stay engaged.

This is about more than just pointing them to pre-recorded lessons, online quizzes, and correcting their papers. This is about building relationships, and making their voices heard as writers. It is difficult work, but it is possible if we rethink what it means to be an online teacher of English and to invite our students into meaningful language learning.


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Resources and Reflections from “Online Environments and Your Students: Strategies to Inform Writing Instruction Webinar”

4Cs Online Writing Instruction Webinar AdEarlier this afternoon, I was pleased to be on a webinar, “Online Environments and Your Students: Strategies to Inform Writing Instruction” (Archived Video) with Jessie Borgman (Arizona State University), and Casey McArdle (Michigan State University). Hosted by Brett Griffiths, Director of Reading and Writing Studios at Macomb Community College, we covered a good deal of ground.

For my segment, we discussed tools for conferring and responding to student writers. Building from my experience in writing centers, NWP, K-12 teaching, college composition, and mentoring graduate students, I consider conferring to be the single most important activity in writing instruction. In the context of online learning (and our current “remote learning” scenarios), I am referring to “conferring” as scheduled meetings with students, via phone or video conferencing. This involves planning the conference, interacting during the conference, and follow-up after the conference.

Again, building from my experiences, I contend that timely, specific, and goal-oriented response helps writer move forward. When conferring is not an option, responding in an efficient and effective manner is second best. I work from the writing center-influenced ideas of responding first to higher order concerns, yet I am also willing to break protocol and offer directed feedback on lower order concerns. Responding can take the form of text, image, audio, or video and can happen at any stage of the writing process. Here are links to the tools that I shared:

Updated on May 17, 2020, with a link back to program page on NCTE’s website and a link to the archived video recording.


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On COVID-19 (and the Moving of Courses from Campus to Cloud)

Photo of man typing on laptop, wearing a surgical face mask by Dimitri Karastelev on UnsplashAfter conversations with colleagues and family in the past few days — and awkward pauses during a conference on Friday, moments which would have normally been filled with handshakes and hugs — I, too, felt compelled to write about the topic everyone is talking about.

As we (collectively, read “we” here as “the education community”) make decisions about how we might cancel face-to-face courses/school sessions and move them online for the remainder of the 2019-20 academic year, I urge a bit of pedagogical caution.

That is, I hope that we don’t simply try to push teaching and learning practices that are often evident in poorly designed instructional settings (both face-to-face and online) in front of students, from kindergarten to graduate school, who may not be interested in, let alone prepared to, learn online.

For those who would encourage me not to bury the lead, here are my three main ideas that we need to keep at the forefront of planning online instruction:

  • Plan for less time consuming content, and more time for students to create it.
  • Invite genuine dialogue with students, and listen intently to their responses.
  • Establish and strengthen relationships with students by communicating clearly and providing feedback in a timely manner.

And, before going any further into this post, I need to acknowledge those who have lost loved ones, and those who are first responders and medical staff on the front lines of managing the crisis. Empathy and appreciation are in order for all.

And, for those who are in positions of power at schools, colleges, and universities (among other institutions), each dealing with COVID-19 in profound ways, both personal and public. The fact that so many universities and K-12 schools around the world (and now beginning here in the US) are thinking about how to continue educating our students in a time of emerging crisis shows their deep dedication to these students and our society’s common good, even in a time when panic could be the default. For that, I thank all of you, and know that we share the goal of continuing to educate our students

Yet, we need to do this in a productive, engaging way.

As we hear announcements (as well as rumors) that some schools and colleges might tell their students to stay home after spring break (and, indeed, some already have), this creates major implications for teaching and learning. If we are going to move our courses, quite literally overnight, from the classroom/campus to the cloud, there are a number of important things for us to consider. Here are just three, all of which deserve more attention as a way to think through what we will do in the days, weeks, and months to come.

Point 1: Poor Teaching in Face-to-Face Settings is Even Worse Online

First, we know that the vast majority of “online learning experiences” are designed to meet only the basic needs of content delivery, effectively keeping students’ learning at the lower levels of Bloom’s Taxonomy and not fully engaging them in the critical and creative capabilities that technology has to offer. This is why “lecture capture” technology has always bothered me. If we are just capturing screen recordings of didactic lectures, what are we really doing to help engage students with technology in substantive ways?

Put another way, whether content is created and delivered synchronously or asynchronously, the more important question is this: what do we want students to do with what they are learning? If we might be asking students to sit in front of their screens for hours and hours, consuming educational content, what will we ask them, in turn to do to demonstrate their learning in meaningful ways, possibly employing collaborative learning and principles of effective instructional design?

In other words, we don’t just want us pushing streaming video content, screencasts of slideshow presentations, and multiple choice quizzes at our students. We need to see them create, which connects to point number two.

Point 2: Students Must Have a Voice

Second, even though students may not be the ultimate decision makers in this, please take the lessons we have been learning over the past few years about how important it is to listen and invite dialogue from everyone. All voices matter.

Additionally, there is nothing worse than simply inviting dialogue and summarily dismissing it. If you are moving classes online, then consider what students want (and need), which may likely include time and tools for engaging in conversation about the content they should be learning (as well as how they are feeling about the outbreak itself, the effects it is having on society, and the effects it is having on them and their families).

So, while going through the process of making the decision to close schools and move online, at the very least I would encourage school leaders to welcome conversation on social media, to take a survey of parents’/students’ needs and wants, and to think critically and creatively about how to help students and educators who are new to learning/teaching (or reluctant to go) online.

This is a real concern, as I can point to colleagues at my own university who still refuse to teach online, in any capacity, and I have heard many stories that echo this sentiment from my K-12 colleagues. Also, I hear horror stories of students who basically clicked their way through terribly-designed online courses, only to still end up with an “A” at the end and nothing to show for their learning.

Even if the institution has made the decision to go online, then we all need to figure out ways to keep the conversation with students and stakeholders going.

Again, this needs to be genuine dialogue and, eventually, will likely mean that people come together face-to-face as soon as it is safe to do so. While this may not be for everyone, and it may only be for a short time, if the risk-to-benefit ratio for reconnecting is significantly higher than the possibility of illness, then we need to learn all we can about the psychological effects of pandemics and how to mitigate them for our own students.

Going online for learning, if someone really is hoping to be in a face-to-face environment, needs to acknowledge students’ humanity, and respond appropriately.

Point 3: Relationships, Relationships, Relationships

Perhaps as a way to summarize the two points above, I reiterate a theme that I often share when people ask me some version of the question, “What is it like to teach online?” Depending on how the question is phrased, my pat responses are usually something to the effect of “It’s all about relationships,” or “relationships, relationships, relationships.” This is just as true in face-to-face settings as it is online, of course, yet online relationships take a different kind of effort for educators.

No matter what we do as educators, we need to act as leaders and facilitators, helping our students see the goals we have set for them through our activities and assignments while, at the same time, listening to their ideas, needs, and wants. We need to give them timely, specific, and goal-oriented feedback. We need, in short, to be present in all the ways that matter.

Moreover, we know that not all students are interested in or eager to learn online. Even for those who are, they may not know how best to manage their time and ensure that they are staying focused.

To that end, we need to engage in a variety of practices to open lines of communication and stay connected. For me, whether teaching face-to-face or online, I use a few consistent practices to help students know what I am thinking and to invite their questions. Each week, I aim to:

  • Provide a substantive announcement, pointing to new course content and readings as well as reminding them of upcoming deadlines.
  • Send at least one individual email or message (using Voxer this semester, though other tools could do the same) to students at least once every two weeks, either providing feedback on an assignment or praising them for participation in class activities. This might also be a “check in” message if I haven’t heard from them.
  • Update my appointment calendar so students can connect with me (without a series of “are you available” and “how about one of these times” emails). Personally, I pay a subscription fee of about $120 a year for a service like this because my university doesn’t offer it, and it is worth every penny in terms of the connections I can build (and time I can save).

Conclusion

This is all just a bit of thinking on a weekend as I catch up on headlines from the week, scan my education-related newsletters and blogs, see what’s happening on the Edu-Twitterverse, and reflect on conversations with my wife and colleagues.

Of course, I am still learning how to be a better teacher each day, and my hope is that we can use this specific conversation about school and university closures as a means to move broader conversations about what it means to teach and learn in a digital, interconnected world.

We owe it to our students to do this work well, and even more so in a time of crisis and confusion. If we are, indeed, going to move our classes online in response to the crisis, then we still need to engage in the scholarship of teaching and learning, ensuring that we are meeting students’ educational, social, and emotional needs in the process.


Update on March 12, 2020: Typographical error corrected.


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