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?

Creative Commons License

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

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

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.