One of those very interesting things that has come from the forced synchronous hybrid model that we are now doing is that I have actually been able to experiment with something that I have been wanting to do for a long time. I have really been wanting to have a back channel for communication in my hybrid classes.
When I started teaching hybrid, I originally had it as a discussion-only class. The highest grade came from coming to class every day and talking out loud in class. As I came to realize that I was disadvantaging students who either could not or did not want to participate in an oral discussion, I have added an online discussion forum that runs along with the course. I first had just a single discussion forum that the students could use at any time in the semester. Since the pandemic, I have moved to weekly forums, but they are still open the whole semester. The weekly format allows each one to be topical rather than just a broad discussion that could include anything. That has solved the problem of giving a place for students who either can’t or won’t participate in an oral discussion.
What had been missing was a synchronous way for my students to participate in class without having to talk. I had considered some options, such as Discord or Slack, but I really didn’t want to add yet another technology for my students to have to manage. As well, I just wasn’t sure if I could manage students in class and a text chat at the same time. So, this had been an idea that had just been running in the back of my head for a while.
What has happened this semester with the new synchronous Zoom hybrid course is that I now have that back channel discussion. With the students on Zoom, they have the full capabilities of Zoom to play with. And, since many of them don’t want to have their cameras on, and it is hard to manage them talking along with the people in class talking, they have been using the chat to contribute in class. And, it has been great!
It is actually pretty easy for me to manage having about 1/3 of the students in class, while the rest are on Zoom. With most of them typing rather than talking, it actually is pretty easy to then manage the 2/3 on Zoom. I actually can call on the people in class by name more easily, and I have a better ability to memorize their names, as fewer are there. Then, with the ones typing in the Zoom chat, I also have a name associated with each one. So, I can read what they write out to everyone, and I can also call on them by name as well as get to them for follow-ups.
Even better, Zoom automatically sends you a transcript of the chat, so I don’t even have to keep track of who participates in the chat in real time, as I can get their names and what they said afterwards. That actually frees me up to pay more attention to the actual conversation, as I don’t have to worry about keeping track of participation from that part of the class.
So, in summary, this has been a bit of a blessing in disguise, as something that I had been looking to do just fell into my lap.
With this semester introducing the new mandate of all-synchronous hybrid courses, it has caused some changes to my teaching. As this was a decision made in the week prior to classes starting, there was not a lot of time to think about the various options, and so I settled in on what is one of the standards out there today – teaching simultaneously to students who are in class with me and with students who are on Zoom with me at the same time. We have an institutional subscription to Zoom, and so this was the most logical format to work with.
To do this, I had to split my classes. Back in October, when the schedule was built, we planned for 75% capacity for rooms. That meant that each of my hybrid courses was capped at 22 rather than the usual 30. I’m certainly not going to argue with that, as I have a very writing-intensive class, and 8 fewer students each across 3 hybrid sections is a nice little reduction in the number of written items that I am grading. However, as the spring semester actually started, the idea that we could have 75% capacity in rooms was something that just was not going to work. That meant that, in order to split my class, I had to divide them into two cohorts, with each cohort switching off as to when they would be in class versus on Zoom.
The process of splitting into cohorts went reasonably well, but the chaos of the first week of classes nearly messed everything up. Among my three classes, I had one that had its room moved in December, one that had its room moved in the week before classes, and one that ended up being double booked with another class. So, in the first two, I had students all over the place, depending on when they had last looked at their schedule. It took to the second week before I actually saw all of those students. The one that was double booked ended up with me having to find another room, which we did, but that was also a very chaotic start to the semester.
After all of that, I really felt like we were on a path to disaster this semester. If you had talked to me by the end of that week, you would have found me to be very worried and pessimistic that any of this was going to work out as the semester went on.
This is a completely discussion-based class, and so that worry was enhanced by worrying just how this was all going to work out.
However, as of week 5 of the semester, I would say that things have settled down nicely in this new format. I say week 5 because, even though we just finished up week 6, that week was lost to all of the ice, power outages, water outages, and the like here in Texas for that week.
To set up a completely discussion-based class as a synchronous hybrid was a logistical challenge, for sure. I have to get to classes early enough (especially hard when two of these are back-to-back in rooms in different buildings) to get everything set up to two simultaneous courses — one in person and one on Zoom. I have determined that the best way to have Zoom work with in-person classes is to have the Zoom classes projected on the screen in the classroom so that they are all part of the class together. Then, I have a microphone hooked up to my computer that is aimed out at the room, so that when people speak in class, they can be heard online. I also have a rotating camera on my computer so that I can turn it to the people in class so that the ones on Zoom can see who is speaking. I then have the computer hooked up to the speakers in the classroom so that when people speak on Zoom, they can be heard by those in class.
This set up seems to work ok. I get feedback each week from the group that was on Zoom the previous week, and it is going ok so far. I think I need a stronger microphone, as my little one isn’t great at picking up the whole room. However, we have now missed 3 class days in a row — the Thursday of week 5 and both Tuesday and Thursday of week 6 — due to weather, and so I have not had a chance to try out a stronger microphone.
In looking at how it has been working this semester, I would say that I am surprisingly pleased with how it is going. I have had some students who want to be on Zoom the whole semester and some who want to be in person all semester. What that has meant overall is that it is really varied as to how many I might have in class with me. I have had as few as 3 and as many as 12, just depending on the class and week.
It is actually nice to have the class split up this way. With the students on Zoom, I have all of the names there for me, allowing me to see exactly who is speaking. That also means there are fewer sitting in front of me, allowing me to have a simple seating chart that lets me also identify they by name easily. Most of the students choose to have their cameras off, especially knowing that they are being shown on the screen for everyone in the classroom to see. And, there are definitely some of them who are obviously just there and attending because they feel they need to be, as I never hear or see them at all.
The same goes for the in-class students. Some are just there because they have to be, but I am getting pretty decent participation out of them as well.
My conclusion? It’s not been nearly as bad as I was afraid it would be. It is challenging, but it has opened up some opportunities. I will talk about those opportunities in my next post.
Yes, this sounds like I am going to talk about my students failing this semester, and, to be honest, I will in a roundabout way. However, in reality, what I am writing about is my own failure this semester. I tried something new, as I do every semester. And, I can honestly say that it has not worked. I feel like I have failed the students, although, in reality what I have done is to make it easier for them to fail themselves. As there is so much pressure on us to help the students succeed, I certainly do feel that I have done them a disservice and made at least a few of my students less successful that they would have otherwise been.
What I did this semester was I did not assign weekly writing assignments to check and make sure the students were doing the work they were supposed to. To be clear, I did assign chapter readings and chapter work, so I was checking up on whether they were doing that part of the work. However, as a part of the hybrid-class model that I am using, the students have extra work each week, whether it be watching a documentary, reading some extra piece, or even completing a history game. Last year, I consistently had the students complete a response paper each week. This mostly was used to check on whether they had completed the work they were supposed to and provided a basis for a regular check and grade on their work each week. In the evaluation of the course last year, I heard back from students that, while they did not like writing something every week, they felt that it was helpful in making sure they were doing the work they were supposed to. The students said that they felt more prepared to discuss the material when they had been required to write a response paper about it.
With that said, it would seem stupid for me to not assign those response papers this semester, but, when it came down to what my weekly workload would look like, I chose to take them out. I was assigned an extra class at the last minute this semester, meaning that I am teaching 7 classes this semester. Five of those classes are online, and so they are not affected by this change. It is only in my two hybrid classes that I decided to try running the class without the weekly responses. I was afraid of what the teaching load would look like if I added those extra grading pieces each week, and so I left them out. In retrospect, this was a bad idea. For one, my students have been noticeably less prepared this semester than last year. I have had to send them away twice this semester when I did go and check on whether they had done the assigned work, only to discover that they had not. The other reason this was a bad idea is that I have not been as burdened this semester by an extra class as I thought I would be. So, I could have easily done the response papers with little consequence on my overall work load.
What this leaves me with is that fact that I made students less likely to succeed, despite both knowing that they would do better with regular checks on what they were doing and despite having the time for the resulting grading. This is why I see this as a failure on my part. The check that I had built into the semester for them doing the extra work to prepare for class was that they have a discussion grade for the class that counts for 25% of the overall grade. It turns out that this grade is too abstract for the students to care about on a weekly basis. The level of participation has been lower this semester, and the quality of participation has been low as well. Given the opportunity to have no checks on whether they have done the work or not, most students have chosen not to do the work and not be prepared for class. I know this should come as no surprise, and, if I had thought it through more, I would have easily realized this. This, again, is why I put the failure on myself. I did put out the rope for my students to either grab on to or hang themselves with, and most of my students chose the latter.
I do not know how this class will fall out at the end, but I have a feeling that my grades and pass rates are going to be horrendous for the hybrid classes this semester. Obviously, I know what to do to fix it next semester. However, it still sits heavily on me that I have let these students fail out when I could have done something to help them. Sigh.
I just finished up the first “week” of the hybrid class. The real first week was taken up with orienting the students to the class and introducing the format (as I detailed here). Since then, I have been seeing each of my sections for the first time with real work to do. I divided the class up so that each student only meets once a week, and, since Labor Day was last Monday, we just finished up the first round of classes today.
For this week, I had the students do the usual stuff – access my lectures and read the textbook. However, the activity in class centered around the students watching a video and then having a discussion in class. As this is the first half of American history, we concentrated in on the Spanish conquest and the motivations for coming to the New World. For that purpose, I chose a video that looks at the transformations that occurred on both sides of the exchange between cultures. I would have loved to have had the students watch the documentary Guns, Germs, and Steel, but that is not available for free and is not available streaming for my students. Even more, I would have loved to have them read the book, but that is even more impossible at this stage. So, I settled on one offered free and streaming through pbs called When Worlds Collide. It is not bad, although the narrator does get on my nerves a bit.
The actual class day went like this:
- Troubleshooting/check in on progress
- Student introductions (I waited for the smaller groups for this)
- Questions about lecture/textbook content and Uncle Tom’s Cabin
- Discussion on the documentary
The discussion went well in all four classes. Nothing spectacular, as expected for the first time out. And, as expected, only around a third of the students actively participated. Since the grade is almost completely participation based, I’m going to assume that some more might be participating the next time out. I also, since it was the first time out with this discussion model, let the students largely direct the discussion. I tried to ask as few questions as I could and let them go where they wanted. I started each discussion with the “What did you think? What did you learn new?” set of questions, and, for the most part, that’s the most guidance I needed to do. Because of the other things, we only had about 30-40 minutes for the discussions, but that seemed to work pretty well. What was interesting is how different the four different discussions were. Even though the material was the same, each class went in different directions. We did cover many of the same topics, but, instead of a lecture that dictates exactly what each student will hear, this more free-ranging approach allowed the students to concentrate in on what they found interesting.
Another very interesting aspect of this approach was the number of times that I was asked a question. When lecturing, I rarely ever get stopped and asked questions by my students. The very mode of a lecture can be fairly prohibitive of that. With this format, though, I was asked multiple questions by the students. While some were asking about things they did not understand, the majority of the questions were more along the lines of asking for further information about what they were interested in. In that way, I feel that the discussion model was a success.
The drawback that is quite apparent at this point is that only about a third of students are participating. The rest just sit there. This class cannot work with only a third participation, and grades for the rest are going to be quite low otherwise. I am going to see how this next set of assignments work, as it will involve some in-class group work. We shall see what happens then.
I had my second big test toward flipping my classroom today. For those of you who have not been following, I am in the process of experimenting with reducing the lecture component of the classroom and turning my class into a hybrid class where the primary activity in class will be student-centered activities. I’ve been taking the first steps toward that by designing two new activities this semester that plug into the regular face-to-face class.
Today’s activity built off of a set of videos on FDR that I had the students watch before class. This one was set up similarly to the Triangle Fire activity that I discussed in an earlier post. In this case, the students had to watch eight 2-3 minute videos highlighting different aspects of FDR’s life and politics. The other option was to have them watch the entire documentary available on him, but that was 4 hours long, and I decided not to push my luck there. They also had a few supplementary readings on FDR to enhance what I had talked about in class and what was available in the textbook.
I also filled in the students on why I was doing all of this, meaning I basically told them what I just wrote here. As well, I talked about why I chose to concentrate in on FDR for a full day. I talked about how influential he was, how he was elected an unprecedented 4 terms, and how he makes up a significant portion of the total time covered in the second half of an American history course. I have been trying to do this more, talk about why we are studying specific things and what my goals are. I have no idea if the students appreciate it or not, but it is important to me.
What I did not do, and I am disappointed in myself for this, was do much more than have them look at the material and then have a discussion about it. Yes, that’s fine, but that’s about where it stops. The discussion went well in the two classes that I had today, with the first one going very well and the second one being pretty good. I have one more tomorrow. I was just hoping to do more than just a discussion. I just feel that a discussion is just the default alternative to the lecture format. I know that it does invite more participation from the students, but it is still something largely led by me. It also lets a large number of students off the hook, as I do refuse to do the whole calling-on-people thing.
As I said, though, it feels lazy to just do a discussion. I wanted to do more, but I couldn’t really find the right themes in the videos to hold a debate or group work. I guess it’s also still something that is out of my comfort zone. I will have to get over that and get more adventurous in the future. I have also been distracted by our house hunt, which took up much of the weekend, so I did not get to prep as much as I would have liked to. Hopefully with a full semester of projects like this, I will be able to devote more time and be forced to be more creative, as a whole semester worth of discussions would just get boring after a while.
Anyway, I think it did go well, but I would have liked to do more. That’s the short version (the tl;dr version).
So, I had the opportunity on Tuesday to lead my first webinar. It is not something that I have done before, and it was an interesting new experience. I was working with McGraw-Hill for this one, helping them demonstrate Connect History to faculty members around the US. I can’t say we had a huge turnout, as there were only 4 faculty members on the webinar, although we had about twice as many McGraw-Hill employees there as well. My job was to talk for about 20 minutes and demonstrate how I use the Connect History platform. I was sharing my desktop in the process, so that the people there could see what I do with Connect History in my classroom. Then, I took questions for the rest of the time. As I said above, it was an interesting experience. I have participated in webinars before, but it was my first time leading one. It was not a particularly difficult thing to do, as it naturally feeds from the experience that we have as instructors anyway. It is just a different thing, as you are there with no direct audience, talking to a computer screen without being able to see anyone else. I do feel that I effectively communicated what I was supposed to, and I think the participants were satisfied (all except one who would never be satisfied, from what I can tell).
In a broader sense, the webinar format certainly makes me think about delivery of material online in general. I can’t help but think that some format like this would be great for an online course. The only problem is that it really does require everyone to be on at the same time to get the basic interaction down. Otherwise, you are just working with a static delivery of material anyway. If you could commit your students to being online all at a certain time to hear you lecture or discuss, you could do a lot and not take up classroom space at the same time. It is an interesting idea, scheduling an online course to take place at a certain time, even well outside the normal times that we would meet face-to-face. Certainly this does not get me past the lecture, as I have been talking about here, but I can’t help but see a more personalized experience like this being much better than the required time that a student has to come and sit in class. Of course, I would still be requiring the students to be there at a certain time anyway. I wonder about a running discussion or something like that, where students could come and go over the course of hours, and I would just be there to moderate and guide for that time. I wonder if that would be more effective that the old standby of a discussion forum.
What do you think? Have you taken any webinars? What do you think of the format? Could we do something like this as teachers and enhance/change the online experience?
OK, so the first major assignment is coming in, and so I am just starting to grade them. It’s always an interesting point when you get to see the first major set of assignments from a group of students. All they’ve had to this point are some chapter quizzes to keep them moderately honest in what work they are doing for the class, but here at the third of the way through point, the real stuff is coming due. I have multiple writing assignments over the course of the semester (6 for the online class and 8 for the hybrid class), and these are the first written ones. So, not only am I seeing their work for the first time, a lot of them are doing real work for me for the first time here. For each of us, this is the point where the class really starts. This is especially true for the class that I just finished grading. I teach the two halves of the American history survey, and so in the spring, I mostly teach the second half. However, I do have one online class that is the first half. Whereas many of the students in my second half class are ones that I’ve had before, all of those in my first half are new to me. So, it really is a new experience all the way around.
What they had to do was work through a Critical Mission within the Connect History system associated with our textbook. There were two written assignments out of that. The Critical Mission had them take on the role of an advisor to Moctezuma as Cortez and his men are approaching. The students have to advise Moctezuma on whether to take a militant approach to Cortez or whether to greet him peacefully. The students are given evidence to work with for it, and they have to put together an argument using the evidence. Anyway, the details aren’t all that relevant, but it does give you the idea of what the students are doing for me. So, I graded their two submissions and discussion forum over last night and this morning, getting all of those out to them early this morning.
It is interesting to see how it goes. First of all, there were 30 people in the class when we started. We are down to 26 now with drops by this point. Of those, 4 have not logged into the classroom in over 14 days, so they are also not really counted. Including those, 11 did not turn anything in for this project, despite multiple reminders throughout the weeks leading up to the project. So, of 30 that I started with, I actually graded 15 projects. The overall results were pretty good for a first assignment. I mean only one or two really hit the mark completely with regards to my expectations, but the results were good overall. What I was actually most impressed with was the discussion participation. I give them a couple of topic options to write on, and generally they give 2-3 sentences at most on the first time out in an online discussion. Instead, here I got long thoughtful discussions with replies that showed they actually had read the other person’s writing and had thought about it. It was impressive for a class of people that have not had me or known my expectations before this point.
I guess I really don’t know what else to say about it. Nothing all that profound here at all, just wanted to share what was a pretty decent feeling for me about an assignment. Yes, so many people didn’t do much of anything on it, but those who did participate actually turned out a good product. That is always gratifying, as it makes me feel like I put together a good class with good instructions if they were able to succeed like that.
P.S. I apologize if this is a bit rambling in nature. I’ve been doing a few other things and keep coming back and adding a sentence or two at a time. So, if it’s disconnected and disjointed, that’s the reason. I’m not going to go back and read over because I’m tired and ready for bed, so everyone will have to take this one as it is. Talk to you tomorrow.
Just a quick post today, as I need to get some grading done.
I had a spectacular discussion yesterday in one of my sections. We were working through the issues of a Critical Mission from the McGraw-Hill Connect History program. I started off the discussion by asking, “What did you think?” Then, an hour and fifteen minutes later, I ended the class. In other words, they talked for 75 minutes in a productive discussion with no further prompting from me except to interject some comments and call on people to make sure people got to talk. Rare but quite satisfying.
This week was my first experiment in something different in my classes. I have had discussion days before, so that was not the real difference here. What was different is that I had a day designed purely to explore a single topic in great detail with the students doing all of the preparation work outside of class and coming in simply to discuss that issue. In this case, I set up the material for the discussion by covering the three main tendrils of history that led into the topic — immigration, unionization, and Progressivism. Each of those had been covered in lecture in the days before this class, and so each student should have had a general idea of the historical context in which the incident took place.
In designing my “In-Class Activity” day, I had gone on the web to look at what resources were out there, as I wanted to give the students something that they would not access in a normal class. I did not want a traditional discussion where you have the students go out and read some primary sources and then come back and talk about them. I wanted something different, something that would engage the students in a different way, and yet accomplish the very goals that I always try to reach, having them connect the historical events to the modern age. As well, I wanted them to be confronted with an event that happened to people like them but 100 years earlier so that they could relate to them. Traditional “great man” history does not speak to them in many ways, but getting down to average Americans working hard just to get by speaks well to students, especially the non-traditional ones you find in a community college setting who have been out and worked in the real world.
What I had the students do was go out to the PBS website and watch the American Experience program on The Triangle Fire of 1911. They also were to access a couple of the other resources there, including an introductory essay, biographies of some of the participants, and a few informative pictures in a slideshow. The combination of that material was what they had to do before class, and it was open and available from the first day of class. To get into class on the day of the discussion, the students were required to bring a 1-2 page response to the material. I did not guide them in what they were to write specifically, but left it open to them as far as what they wrote.
It was an experiment in something new, and I really had no idea how it would go. Would they do the work ahead of time? Well, about 80-85% of the students who showed up brought a 1-2 page response. I did not let the rest stay in the class and told them to leave with a 0 for the day. Of those who had a response, I would estimate that about 10-15% of them really didn’t do much of the assigned work. On the other end, about 10-15% went well beyond the required viewings and did their own research. And, another 10-15% couldn’t get all of the resources to work for one reason or another. Of those, a gratifying few did go out and research on their own to find the information. One even told me that the same video was on Netflix streaming, which tells me I should check next time to offer that as a place for students to check.
The next question is, would they engage the material and have something to say about it? I say it was an unmitigated success in this regard. I began the discussion with the most general question possible, “What did you think about the video?” In both of the discussions I’ve had so far, people stopped having a response to that question after about 30 minutes. So, we had 30 minutes of discussion, with me saying quite little except for guiding who would speak next, on just a response to the video. I took notes during that time and did the rest of the discussion off of the topics that they brought up the most. We easily filled the rest of the class period (75 minutes total) with no problems and very few gaps where nobody had anything to say. Of course, some of that is because they were being graded on the discussion, but they really were responding well to the material and had a lot to say at all parts of the discussion. In both classes, I have the feeling that we could have filled much more time if we had it, but that we really did dissect the issues at the time well, while also relating the experiences from that time to the modern day well. I also get the feeling from the responses that I heard that they will remember this event and the discussion we had about it much longer than they probably will the individual things that I lecture on each day.
What do I take away from this? I consider it an overwhelming success on a thing that I wasn’t sure would work. The response was excellent, and students did the work ahead of time, which was something I was very worried about. But why did it work so well? I think some of it has to do with the form of media. There’s something about watching a documentary, especially when you can watch it on your own time rather than being forced to sit there in class and watch it that can be quite engaging. This was a very well done one, which does help as well. Also, it is not “traditional” history. One of the first responses I got, before I even really started the discussion was that almost all of the students had no knowledge of the incident before. They had never heard of it, but they were interested in it. The subject reflects on topics that are relevant in the lives of people who would be at a community college, in that it is primarily about working-age people, mostly women, who are struggling in a system that seems set up against them. The students brought up personal experiences a number of times as they attempted to relate what they had seen there to their own lives, and I did not have to guide them to do this. In fact, I like that word guide, as I felt much more like I was just a guide in the discussion then that I was a leader of the discussion.
I have one more section that will do the discussion tomorrow, and I hope it goes just as well. It’s days and assignments like this that energize me as a teacher and keep me going as an educator.