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

Building a New Approach to Online Discussions

working-in-snow-620x826Earlier this semester, I experimented with a “virtual class” on a day when snow closed down the college. Had there been class, students would have discussed a reading in small groups. Typically during these sessions, students spend roughly 2/3 of the class period working through discussion questions. The final 1/3 is spent debriefing with the entire class, hearing from the groups directly and collectively filling in the blanks. On the snow day, I figured that students could use GChat and Google Docs to collaboratively answer these same discussion questions, allowing me to use this time productively and not have to push my course schedule back. Students connected with their groups over GChat and typed answers on a Google document that was shared with me.

Jumping ahead in time, I am currently putting together the first midterm in this course. As I debate the set of questions to put on the exam, I am reflecting on what was actually accomplished during this virtual class. It was a way to get something out of this brief period of time when I knew that students could get together, and it enabled me to keep the course on schedule. But what did the activity accomplish aside from these basic goals? Could I be confident that students understood the key components of the reading? Could I know who was driving the discussion, who contributed to the final answers, and who simply was passively along for the ride?

Upon reflection, I cannot answer any of these questions. While the activity was not a total waste, it did not successfully mimic the learning that would have occurred in a regular class; it did not allow me to assess the degree to which students understood and appreciated the reading. As a result, I do not feel comfortable including questions about this reading on the exam.

I know that I, with the help of technology, can do much better. I am seeking to substantially enhance my approach to online discussions, with the dual goals of “snow-day-proofing” my courses and creating modular discussion-based assignments that can take place in, or out of, class. In the initial stages, I am taking a content-free approach, thinking about general best practices, methods of instruction and tools of assessment that help me think through the various challenges and strategies for dealing with them. How can I assess relative contributions? How can I develop ground rules, and provide instructions to encourage full participation and successful collaboration? How can I use chat transcripts to help me answer these questions without being overly intrusive? What would a successful transcript look like, and how can I model successful collaboration for students at the start of a semester? What kind of rubric can I use to set expectations?

The sheer number of these important questions (all of which have to be answered if this approach is to reach its potential) tells me that this journey will not be an easy one. But the payoffs are potentially high enough to make an initial time commitment well worth it.

Image Credit: Susan Dickerson-Lange