Deconstructing out-of-class discussions

This post will be an expansion on my earlier thoughts on developing a platform for out-of-class, discussion-based assignments. To quickly review, my goal is to “snow-day-proof” my classes and also create a framework for online discussion that I can use for planned or impromptu out-of-class assignments. I envision a three-step process for these assignments: (1) initial reading, (2) on-line reflection through GChat, and (3) collaborative responses to questions on a Google Doc. My goal with this post is to deconstruct the assignment’s various components (listed below), and raise questions to force myself to confront the scope of what it will take to prepare this assignment for actual use.

  1. Content
    While my goal is to develop this assignment in a content-free way, I still have to consider the types of content that I can use. Since I plan to use this activity both for discussions of assigned readings (which will tend to be more challenging and complex, and require advanced reading on students’ own time) and for impromptu snow days that arise unexpectedly (for which readings must be short and easily digestible), I must structure the activity with both of these readings in mind. But will any of the questions that I consider here have different answers depending on which of these two types of readings will be discussed? I must keep this question in mind as I proceed through the rest of the list.
  1. Group formation
    I have recently begun to think more and more about how to optimally put together groups for discussions in class, so I am wondering whether similar (or different) questions have to be asked when it comes to forming groups for online discussion out of class. Should I use the same degree of caution when attempting to achieve gender balance or aptitude balance? Should I use stable groups across multiple meetings or reconfigure groups each time? Specifically, if I want to get the most out of online discussion, would it be problematic, or helpful, to put people together who have never worked together? What are the advantages and disadvantages associated with the tradeoff between familiarity and novelty?
  1. Length of time for the assignment
    To facilitate communication across students in groups, the assignment must have a finite time to be completed. For snow-day-replacement classes, the length of time would naturally be one class period. For discussions of external readings, longer periods of time (but probably not much longer given coordination challenges) might be desirable. But how long is too long? And how will the construction of specific assignments change depending on how long I set aside for the discussion?
  1. Instructions
    The instructions will play a critical role in setting expectations, motivating students and setting the ground rules. What needs to be included in them in order to make the assignment meaningful and facilitate learning? What ground rules need to be established? How can I model successful GChat transcripts and answers to discussion questions?What do students need to be told in order to get them to take the assignment seriously and interact thoughtfully and respectfully with their group members? What do I need to tell them about what I expect the final product to look like, and how should I convey information with respect to how I will be grading it?
  1. Grading
    Speaking of grading, how can I assess the quality of the group’s overall work? What criteria can I use to judge both the final product (the ultimate answers to discussion questions) and the intermediate inputs that lead up to it (the chat dialogue that preceded the ultimate answers)? How can I assess the quality of relative contributions, both in terms of making my own judgment of the work and having students rate their own and their group members’ contributions? I envision a rubric that makes my approach to grading explicit, which will be provided to students along with the assignment’s instructions.
  1. Providing feedback to students
    After collecting the assignments, what feedback should I provide, both with respect to the work produced and the quality of the discussion? Should I spend class time debriefing? Should I provide written feedback and, if so, should it be specific to each group or general? Should I share specific responses to the entire class? Will the answers to these questions depend on specific readings?
  1. Learning and adjusting
    Once the work is collected and graded, how can I assess the quality of the assignment? How will I know whether learning goals were achieved? How will I know whether changes need to be made? Given successful and unsuccessful experiences, what should I be looking for in terms of readings that I can use for this assignment in the future? Reflecting on all of the questions, from all of the topics in this list, how will I know if there are things I can do to improve across all of these areas?

In future posts, I will turn my attention toward answering these questions. But this preliminary exercise has made me realize that I have my work cut out for me, and that I could benefit immensely from other tech fellows’ perspectives on these questions. So any help would be much appreciated!

“Clear Vision” flickr photo by C.P.Storm shared under a Creative Commons (BY) license


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