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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Google into Moodle

About a year ago, I shifted my course syllabi to Google Docs as a strategy for more nimbly handling the inevitable hiccups and improvisational changes to scheduled meetings during the semester: snow days; opportunistic class visits by colleagues and other scholars; newly published research addressing course topics; etc..  As a result, any updates to syllabi are immediately available to students and other course participants.  You can read more about this here.

For similar reasons, I’ve since shifted to using Google Docs for all of my lab and other assignment instructions.  Whenever I correct a typo or tweak an assignment parameter, the changes are rendered in real time, and I don’t have to convert the doc into a PDF, upload to Moodle, and delete or replace the old version.  Fewer steps, fewer keystrokes, fewer headaches. Huzzah.

I might even consider shifting my courses entirely to Google Drive – for example, check out Ari Rotramel’s approach – but I’m a huge fan of Moodle’s online submission tools, gradebook, and quickmail features; I find all indispensable to my pursuit of less paperwork, less email, and a streamlined workflow during the semester.  But Google Drive and Moodle can happily play together.  Links to Google Docs, Sheets, and Maps are easily curated on Moodle with other course content and, when properly framed, all of these apps facilitate and enhance student collaborations in ways that are seldom afforded by other software.

Recently, in a moment of glorious nerdiness, I figured out how to take this simpatico relationship one step further, or how to display the contents of a Google Doc in Moodle.  My simple goal was to have my Google Doc syllabus display – not as a link but, rather, the actual contents – near the top of a course Moodle page.  In effect, the syllabus becomes the digital center of all digital content and workflow while retaining its autonomy as a document that can be shared with colleagues or added to a tenure or promotion file.

The path to embedding the Google Doc into Moodle is not overly complicated, but it does require a dive into various menu commands and a minor tweak to some HTML code provided by Google.  For those who take the plunge, here’s a brief video tutorial as well as some step-by-step instructions and notes:

  1. Open up your Google Doc in one tab of your browser and your course Moodle page in another.
  2. Make sure that your Google Doc is shared or, at minimum, viewable by anyone who has the link.
  3. In your Google Doc app, select “File” from the menu bar, and then select “Publish to the web”.  (Make sure you’re selecting from the menu in the Google Docs app and not the upper menu bar that belongs to your browser.)
  4. Click on the “Embed” tab in the window that opens and copy the link. If no code is displayed, press the blue “Publish” button. Copy the code, and then close this window with the “X” in the upper right.
  5. In Moodle, turn editing on, and then select “Edit topic” for one of the major topic sections of your Moodle page.
  6. You might name this section “Syllabus”.
  7. In the Summary box below, select the “<>” button which allows you to edit the HTML source code.
  8. Paste the code you copied from Google.  

Some tips and code for making more screen real estate, making the document editable in Moodle, and for loading up on bookmarked pages in the embedded Google Doc below.

Don’t Yuck Anyone’s Yum*: Using Google Drive and Moodle for Courses

venceslao_gennaio_castello_buonconsiglio_trento_c1400_detailIn 2017, many faculty use an online platform to provide their students with course content and engage with them in or outside of the classroom.  At Conn, we have two major ways to organize such work – Moodle and Google Drive.  As I started to use Google Drive to organize my work from job applications and budgets to collaborating on conference proposals with colleagues across the country, I was drawn to it as a potential course platform.  Its limits could serve my need for simplicity, and while there have been  updates to Google Docs or Forms, I was able to get my approach to using these tools locked down quickly.  For this post, I have been in conversation with colleagues to identify and share some key elements of Google Drive and Moodle, sharing what draws us to one option over another when considering 1) student communication, 2) organizing content, and 3) grading.

Student Communication
Online professor-student contact has become a regular part of class-related work, from updating students about an assignment or snowday plans to fielding questions about a reading.  Sending out messages efficiently is easily handled by Moodle’s quickmail function that sends a message to the entire class.  Working with Google requires more set-up initially, but provides further flexibility.  At the start of the semester, I set up a student e-mail list through Groups.  One cheat is to use the mail students function on Camelweb to grab the set of e-mails.  Once set up, I can have the ability to use Boomerang to send a message to students later or have a repeat message sent their way.  Other functions to explore on Moodle and Google Drive include chat functions, including chatting on a Google Document as students work through an assignment or collaborate on in-class research.

Organizing Content
With the advent of LMSs and websites, faculty now have the opportunity to organize course content in much more complex manner than a syllabus, texts or reader.  With Moodle’s sections, it is simple to create a readings section so students can easily find upcoming readings and download or print them easily.  With Google Drive, it is possible to move or copy a folder’s worth of readings for students to similarly access.  I appreciate the ability to link readings in my syllabus (a shared Google Doc) either to a reading in a Google Folder or to the library’s site to support the tracking of usage of our online journals.  tudents or I set up folders and documents for collaboration or individual work throughout the course.  

Grading
Moodle and Google offer distinctly different opportunities for grading-related work. Moodle’s Assignment activity includes the ability to create rubrics for grading and the gradebook has a wide array of grade calculation functions, it also has a marking guide that you can use to set categories and provide comments. I prefer using a paper rubric that I either upload from my desktop or edit online for paper assessment.  For exams, I create a spreadsheet rubric that I similarly edit and upload to my students’ folders.  These methods are more or less the same ones that I have used for ten years, allowing me to document and back up my grading process in case there are any points of contention.  Moreover, if I find that I am spending too much time staring at my computer screen, I can print out rubrics and/or papers and grade by hand easily.  For the semester’s-worth of grading, I keep a spreadsheet with an attendance page and a total grade page that simply calculates the percentages I have given to different assignments. The limitation of this approach is that students are not able to keep tabs on what grades and attendance have been recorded for them over the course of the semester through the platform. The Moodle gradebook and Attendance modules offer functionality for those faculty who prefer for their grade records to be more transparent to students, including attendance, rather than asking students to track and calculate the value of their own assignments. Through Google, a professor could also use a shared grading spreadsheet with students that is updated throughout the semester if they wanted to provide similar transparency.

Overall, both platforms have something to offer faculty seeking to streamline their online engagement with students. A final factor that has drawn me to Google Drive is that it has value for students embarking on internships or post-graduation jobs, as they will have at least navigated for a semester this platform and learned how to use some of its key components. Meanwhile, as Moodle is our College-wide Learning Management System (LMS), utilizing this platform ensures that students have more ease accessing all materials from the first day of classes.  

*I think it’s a beautiful edict, on par at least with the Golden Rule, and it simply means that no one in that safe space should attack or tear down what brings joy to someone else and which also doesn’t hurt anyone else.

Thank you for input from Diane Creede, Jessica McCullough, Anthony Graesch, and Lyndsay Bratton!