Productive and Meaningful (Virtual) Class Discussions

My technology-fellows project involves setting up a platform for online discussions with collaborative responses. This endeavor is motivated by the practical goal of being able to hold productive class sessions when I am forced to be away from campus and the pedagogical goal of using digital technology to help students more deeply engage with course material.

Desk in my hotel room in Accra, Ghana

In fact, as I write this blog post, I am preparing for the launching of this assignment in a hotel room in Accra, Ghana. I have sent students the assignment’s instructions and rubric, and I have shared with their groups a Google Doc that provides them with the questions they have to discuss in the “virtual class.” Students will open to Google Doc at the start of class, connect with their group members on Google Hangout, and discuss the reading in two phases. First, they will broadly discuss the reading, responding in their Hangout to a set of prompts that I provide. Then, they will continue their discussion by addressing a second set of prompts. This second set includes more challenging thought questions, and requires students to build off of their initial discussion and collaborate on a set of written responses in paragraph form.

Students are encouraged (and, through the rubric, incentivized) to be inclusive; it is expected that all group members will contribute substantively. All group members will receive the same grade, hopefully making it clear that they should work as a team. Groups will be inviting me to their Hangout session, which will allow me to assess the degree to which discussions meet the criteria specified on the rubric. Typically, being invited to the Hangout sessions will allow me to “roam around,” much like I would do in a standard class setting in order to briefly listen to what groups are discussing.

Trying the assignment for the first time, I am not sure what I should expect. I hope to see thoughtful, thorough discussions with students engaging with each other and teaching each other when there are gaps in knowledge. I also hope to see collaborative answers that show mastery of the difficult concepts within this reading and a level of engagement with the reading that exceeds what I see in standard small-group discussion settings. But I am afraid that students will come to the discussion without having read critically, spend most of the time reviewing the surface details of the reading, and rush through the collaborative responses simply to get something written on the document. Stay tune for updates!

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