Two Views of the Fall Semester, New Hopes for the Spring

This week and next, many students head back to college here in Michigan (though, for at least the first week, those classes will be virtual due to an order from the state department of health). Even without a consistent, real time video class session, inviting students to connect at least a few times in the semester can be powerful.

This week and next, many students head back to college here in Michigan (though, for at least the first week, those classes will be virtual due to an order from the state department of health).

So, as I am posting my syllabi for my (long-planned and prepared) online courses this spring, and with some encouragement from Bryan Alexander, I share a few insights from two students I know well — my daughters — and their experiences last fall.

From what I understand about the ways that many colleges and universities operated last semester, I think that their experiences offer us some insights into how we might better prepare for spring.

Student 1: Sophomore at a Residential University

Our eldest daughter was, in the fall of her sophomore year, able to live on a residential campus that offered a “concurrent” or “hy flex” model for all regularly-scheduled face-to-face classes (allowing students to attend in the socially distanced classroom or join via live video stream). For the early part of the semester she (and, from what she described) most students (which I would imagine is about 50-75%) were making a regular effort to attend class face-to-face. This concurs with what I learned from one colleague at that same university who was teaching face-to-face, as she watched attendance in face-to-face sections dwindle, moving more and more online (though all of this is anecdotal). Still, it did suggest that the option for being in person was working well for some time, for some students, yet their enthusiasm to go to a physical classroom faded, even when they were living on campus.

In particular, as my daughter described it, from mid-October until the end of the term (at Thanksgiving) things began to change. She (and from what she said, her friends) would play the trick of “attending” class (with their camera off, of course, paying partial attention or working on other tasks entirely), and would then watch the recording later, at 1.5 or 2x speed to go over notes. Having the slides ahead of time was, in many ways, a disincentive for being fully attentive during the real time class sessions.

The colleague that I talked to who were teaching on campus expressed similar drop-offs in attendance. This colleague talked about teaching to a webcam, and at least a few times, standing in front of an empty classroom (she finally chose to move the class entirely online, after confirming with students that it would be OK with that). Since she had a classroom structure that was very much discussion-centered, this was challenging for her, but she adapted and was able to use virtual breakout rooms effectively.

My eldest daughter’s single class that was scheduled to be all online anyway, a second semester composition corse, was not a very good experience… but would have been without the pandemic. It was a series of highly scripted assignments, with little room for exploration or inquiry. The class was supposed to have opportunities for peer review, yet the entire class was asynchronous and comments from peers were perfunctory. Feedback from the instructor, too, was less than desirable. So, this was a case of a poorly designed and taught online class, and not just an effect of pandemic pedagogy.

A few other elements of campus life were strange, too. Grab and go food, socially distanced public spaces, and other accommodations did become more normal by the end of the semester. There was a quarantine dorm, and a strange system of notifications that students and instructors would get if they had potentially been in contact with someone.The university’s regular “rah rah” types of emails and daily health checks felt a bit repetitive to her by the end of the semester. Still, somehow the campus stayed open as long as it had planned, and even with the Michigan health order to close and go virtual right before Thanksgiving, the semester that had been pushed up by a few weeks came to a close as planned.

She was glad to have been on campus, even if not “in person” for most of the time she was there.

Student 2: First Year Student at a Residential University that Went Fully Online

Our second daughter — having gone through the strangeness of the graduating in the spring of 2020 — was beginning her first year with hopes of moving into the dorm, and all that campus life would offer. Yet, that was not to be, as the university made the decision to be fully online. Even with a full summer of “prep” time for faculty to know that they would all be online, there was not a very robust set of remote teaching practices enacted for her.

Only a few live class sessions happened for her four classes, and one course was completely asynchronous. One instructor kept sending out announcements over and over about how difficult it was for him to teach at home, and only did two live Zoom sessions (where it was really about having students find their new group mates for a “collaborative” project, that was not very well scaffolded). On a bright note, her math class (which had regular Zoom sessions each week) was one of her favorites, and she took advantage of office hours, too. She felt connected to that instructor, which was key.

Considering the entirety of her semester, she felt OK about it though — as has been noted in more scholarly and research-based ways — she felt the clear lines that were drawn around an online experience as compared to being on campus. She is a kid that was primed to go to campus and begin her life at college. The emotional let down of an online fall, and the lack of opportunities to socialize with new classmates, was palpable.

She, too, will be back online for the winter/spring. She is hopeful that she will get to have a first-year kind of experience this fall when (and if) campus reopens and, in the mean time, did look for classes this semester that will have regular Zoom meetings scheduled (which she found two out of four). While the campus has opened up a few courses for face-to-face instruction — and she was hoping to drive from our home to campus a few days a week to attend them — she found nothing available for students in their early years, as most are upper division courses. My hope is that she can get some of those connections through these Zoom classes, and encourage all higher ed faculty to keep this in mind as they consider when, how, and why they will offer (at least a few) real time class meetings.

Moving Forward in 2021

As I consider the design of my own online courses this semester, I am again made aware of how important instructor presence is to students. Both my daughters reiterated this, in slightly different ways. The takeaway for me is that the sense of presence that an instructor projects is crucial. If you set reasonable expectations, communicate with regularity, provide opportunities to connect with you via email, phone, chat, and/or video calls, and get feedback to them in a timely manner, those practices provide a kind of consistency that makes the entire online learning experience better.

Even without a consistent, real time video class session, inviting students to connect at least a few times in the semester can be powerful. For instance, in one of my eight week courses, I will offer an opening “welcome webinar,” and then have students work with “accountability partners” throughout the abbreviated semester. They are not working on the same project as collaborators; rather, they are planning at least two phone/video calls to provide one another feedback. They will also plan one phone/video call with me to discuss their project. Finally, in the last week, students will have the option to present their work in a “closing webinar,” or record a screencast to share. These are small moves — in addition to participation in a discussion forum — that I think helps us build community.

In sum, as we all head into this semester, I know that the challenges remain constant (as summarized recently by PBS NewsHour, among others). Instructors who are working to make their teaching timely, relevant, and engaging are also still figuring out the nuances of fully online, concurrent/hy flex, and socially-distanced, in-person practices. Students are still figuring things out, too, working to maintain their academic, professional, and personal lives.

Let’s continue to think strategically about our teaching through continued conversation, such as through this webinar next week that I am co-hosting with my colleague Kristen Turner, “Cameras on… or off? Engaging Students through Conversation, Writing-to- Learn, and Relationship-Building in Remote Learning.” Also, I encourage readers to review my post from last August, “Designing Breakout Rooms for Maximum Engagement.” I encourage us all to think about how we can work effectively to build connections with our students.

All the best for a strong start to the new semester.

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Cameras On… or Off? Engaging Students through Conversation, Writing-to- Learn, and Relationship-Building in Remote Learning

What does it mean to engage students in real time, video class sessions? During the hour-long webinar, we will model active learning strategies that can be implemented in middle school, high school, and higher ed remote learning contexts.

What does it mean to engage students in real time, video class sessions? Some people think that simply having “cameras on” is the answer to student engagement. However, engagement comes when students are cognitively involved, emotionally connected, and participating actively.

Join Kristen Hawley Turner and Troy Hicks as they model strategies for building relationships with learners, implementing writing-to-learn strategies, and prompting breakout room activities with effective protocols for discussion, collaboration, and accountability.

During the hour-long webinar, we will model active learning strategies that can be implemented in middle school, high school, and higher ed remote learning contexts.

Register here: https://tinyurl.com/cameraonoroff

Examining Instructional Models for Online Instruction

Depending on the course that I was teaching, I was flexing the kinds of time I was spending (and asking students to spend) in Zoom rooms, with online discussion forums, and in various forms of partner and group projects. How many hours of video class sessions are you hosting, each week, for a typical three-credit course and what, in addition, are you asking your students to do as part of their on-going participation?

Image by Simon Abrams on Unsplash

As has been said, many times and many ways, this was a semester like no other.

With many campuses facing what Bryan Alexander called “toggle terms,” and many more being fully online, it has been a unique moment in the history of higher education. As we close 2020, I am finally at a point with all other projects where I can pause and reflect on some of the comments that my students provided me from the spring, summer, and fall semesters.

Given that all of my classes in spring and summer were scheduled to be online to begin with — and with the one class I was scheduled to teach face-to-face in the fall I was granted permission to move online — the experience of online teaching is not new for me. And, as Larry Cuban reminded us all earlier this fall, “pandemic-driven remote instruction” is something different from what has been variously called “online” or “virtual” instruction. In fact, that is part of what I wanted to capture in writing this post. Depending on the course that I was teaching, I was flexing the kinds of time I was spending (and asking students to spend) in Zoom rooms, with online discussion forums, and in various forms of partner and group projects.

So, let me begin by offering a few models of what my courses look like, in either 8- or 16-week terms, and then share some of the student comments that are guiding me as I look to the semester ahead. To keep it simple, I am following a simple “5Ws and H” format, though I may want to do some more thinking about how to accurately represent these ideas in a graphic of some kind or another.

Model 1: Full Semester, Undergraduate First-Year Seminar

  • Who: 19 first-year honors undergraduate students
  • What: 3-credit course, “Our Digital Selves: Living and Learning in a Multimodal World”
  • When: In lieu of a weekly 2 hour 45 minute course meeting in-person, we moved to a 1 hour 45 minute session and ~1 hour of participation in discussion forums and peer reviews.
  • Where: Synchronous meetings in Zoom each week; discussions in Packback; peer review in Writable.
  • Why: Because the goal of the first-year seminar is for students to develop the habits of mind toward scholarly inquiry and build community with one another, I felt that the weekly class meetings were an essential component of the overall experience. Also, I had at least two 30-minute meetings with each student during the semester to help guide them on two separate projects.
  • How: Class sessions generally moved in three to four chunks of 20 to 30 minutes each, including mini-lectures, collaborative tasks in breakout rooms, and time for writing-to-learn activities; guest speakers presented during three separate weeks of class sessions.
  • Comments from students: While I haven’t received formal end-of-class reports yet, anecdotal comments from students suggest that they appreciated the interactive nature of our video-class sessions (even though most kept their cameras off in the main room). Because the writing-to-learn activities led to more in-depth assignments, some students noted that they appreciated the time and space to talk with classmates during our class sessions, too.

Model 2.1: Abbreviated Semester, Masters Ed Tech Class

  • Who: 15-25 masters students, most of whom are K-12 educators
  • What: 3-credit courses in our ed tech program, each condensed into 8 weeks
  • When: No expectation of synchronous meetings, though I would offer at least one “welcome webinar” and would have open office hours as well as optional appointments.
  • Where: Across various platforms, mostly Blackboard (for announcements and grades) and Google Docs/Sites (to share content and invite collaboration). Also, we used Voxer for an on-going, informal backchannel conversation.
  • Why: Because these educators are preparing to infuse ed tech into their own classrooms, I wanted to provide them with a very UDL-like experience that integrated the ISTE standards in thoughtful ways.
  • How: Each week, students would explore a series of “pathway tasks” that they could then select from. In any given week, students would choose three shorter activities, or one short activity and one longer one, resulting in products that they could use in their own classrooms.
  • Comments from students: “I liked being able to explore and play with new learning materials each week. As a learner, I felt like actually practicing working with materials I could use in the classroom was a lot more beneficial than just reading and doing a reflection every week.”
  • “I appreciated how you structured the course shell. It was organized by weeks. Teachers in the past made the course shell more like a scavenger hunt, which is super irritating when you have to spend so much time and energy just trying to locate an assignment. Also, I really like using Voxer. It was nice being able to ask questions and receive immediate feedback.”
  • “I really enjoyed that I could chose each week which pathway I wanted to complete. I liked that the work could be tailored to what I needed.”

Model 2.2: Abbreviated Semester, Masters Ed Tech Class, Cohort-Based

  • Who: 15-25 masters students affiliated with community colleges as instructors or support staff
  • What: 3-credit course as an introduction to ed tech within a general education masters program
  • When: 1.5 hour meeting in Zoom, once per week for eight weeks; additional material to be explored in an asynchronous manner.
  • Where: F2F class shifted to online, across various platforms, mostly Blackboard (for announcements and grades) and Google Docs/Sites (to share content and invite collaboration); Slack for backchannel.
  • Why: With an audience of both community college instructors (from various disciplines) as well as staff (in admissions, financial aid, and other departments), the course needed to be flexible enough to focus on classroom integration of ed tech as well as how to use ed tech for delivering online training to other faculty and students.
  • How: Each week, students would listen to a podcast or webinar (not mine, from outside source) about the topic at hand, as well as read materials from the course text book. During the class sessions, we would engage in “quick fire” style challenges to explore the topics under discussion for the week by using different ed tech tools (Google Sites, Canva, H5P, etc).
  • Comments from students: “Troy provided time for engaging learning activities during class time. The learning activities were well connected to the learning objectives and assigned reading. It helped make the connections from theory to practice. Troy used the breakout method to help us connect in smaller groups and learn together. This was great for building community and encouraging collaboration… Troy’s weekly emails with reminders on readings and what to expect in the upcoming class was also really great for preparing for class.”
  • “The opportunity to learn, apply knowledge and have a hands-on experience was evident in this course. Troy introduced various concepts and tools, explicitly applied them throughout the semester and regularly encouraged students to use various techniques and relevant online tools, including screencast, etc.”

Model 3: Full Semester, Doctoral Ed Tech Class

  • Who: 12-15 doctoral students in an ed tech program, most of whom are educational professionals though some are from other industries
  • What: 3-credit course as an overview of ed tech tools and critical theories of ed tech
  • When: 1 hour Zoom meetings, every other week (8 meetings over 16 week semester); individual appointments to support student projects; meeting with collaborative groups for their projects, too.
  • Where: Across various platforms, mostly Blackboard (for announcements and grades) and Google Docs/Sites (to share content and invite collaboration); use of WhatsApp for on-going, informal “backchannel” dialogue with entire class.
  • Why: To help these doctoral students become more critical consumers of ed tech and to also help them prepare to lead professional learning for others, the course was designed to help them question their (mostly positive) assumptions about ed tech and how it could and should be used in school and training settings.
  • How: In addition to readings and on-going discussions, students went through three cycles of creating a brief review, a full review, and an instructional screencast; they also worked with partners to write a research paper and present a one-hour webinar on an ed tech tool.
  • Comments from students: “I feel that I became stronger at presenting a critical review over various tech tools due to the “workshop” style review process that Dr. Hicks brought us through.”
  • “We had group sessions every two weeks; group assignments via collaboration tools such as Kami, OneNote, NowComment, and others; ongoing discussions held via Whatsapp; additional reading materials for further discussions; and Dr. Hicks was at our disposal via email, individual appointments, and phone.”

Looking Toward 2021

Figuring out how many “hours” should go into a three-credit hour course seems to be a constant challenge for me (and all of higher education, according to the US DOE and this piece from IHE).

So, what I continue to ask what I should do as I look at the “What was the total number of hours you spent on activities related to this course?” stats that my students have filled out in their end-of-course surveys. Most of my students in the past year seem to hit the “sweet spot” (45-64 hours), with some leaning slightly more (65-84 hours). There are a few outliers, of course, on both the high and low end, yet I feel like the idea that most are “in the zone” seems appropriate, given the overall feedback that I get on course design, assignment complexity, and expectations for interaction.

Still, as I consider what I might do for the courses I will be teaching here in a few weeks (two doctoral, two masters), I am again rethinking what it is that I want to do with expectations for video class sessions (as compared to other “seat time” tasks such as discussion forums, partner or group projects, individual meetings with me as the instructor, or similar tasks). I need to puzzle through this a bit more, considering how often I feel students would be interested in/willing to participate in class sessions, as well as the types of activities I would plan for us to participate in during our limited times.

And, perhaps it should go without saying, but I will anyway. I do not record video lectures. I will, on occasion, create a video announcement in the form of a screencast, especially as a tour of the Blackboard shell at the beginning of the semester. Beyond that, any “content” that I deliver comes in the form of other content that has been found online, or in feedback to students (written, recorded, or through conferences). For the classes that do meet on Zoom, I record them and ask that students who were absent watch the main segments and write a brief reflection (this expectation is built into the syllabus).

As I keep telling my colleagues, when we say that “I don’t have time to do X” in my classes, what that really means is that “I don’t choose to use time to do X.” In fact, as educators, it is not a lack of time that should drive our motivations. Instead, I argue that time is, indeed, all that we have. How we choose to use that time is of the utmost importance.

So, as I begin revising my syllabi for the spring semester, I will be considering some new patterns for my courses and would be curious to hear from others: how many hours of video class sessions are you hosting, each week, for a typical three-credit course and what, in addition, are you asking your students to do as part of their on-going participation?

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