Monday, September 29, 2014

Using Padlet to initiate in-class (and out-of-class) discussions

I knew they had questions.

There had only been four class meetings and less than two weeks for us to get comfortable with the class structure and one another.  Plus, our first stretch of online activities for our hybrid class was quickly approaching.  Despite all of this, the discussion area on D2L reserved for general Q&A remained quiet.  Zero posts.

Addressing questions, concerns, and requests was likely to alleviate some of the uncertainty that can accompany the initial “online days” in a hybrid class, especially on a campus like ours in which hybrid (blended) courses still are not all that common.  On a whim, I set up a Padlet page for questions – any kind of questions, no names attached – and set aside three minutes near the beginning of class for the students to chat and post questions.  Within those three minutes, we had a whole collection of things to address, with each group posting at least one question and some posting four or five.  I spent the next few minutes directly addressing a handful of the posted questions, focusing on the ones that were likely to benefit most from the students’ input (e.g., a question about assignment due dates) or repeating an important message (e.g., yes, asking questions and contacting me via email during our online stretch are both part of the deal).

A glimpse (screen shot) of just part of our questions page on the Padlet site.
Three things I love most about Padlet include: 
  •    The ease of setting up a page with just a moment’s notice.
  •      The fact that no login is required for students to post and/or view – I just have to provide them with the URL.  Double-clicking on the background is all it takes to add a post once you are on the page.
  •       Its collaborative nature, especially when students can see the other posts appearing as they make their own contribution.
Maybe it is the third item that really wins me over - there is something reassuring about putting yourself out on a limb when you can see others doing the same!  Padlet is like a wiki-meets-online-bulletin-board that is just plain easy to use.  It seems much more organic than the discussion area available in the LMS (which has its own usefulness), and I appreciate that the conversation can continue outside of class too.  Several questions were added to the board after class was over, and I was able to go back and post responses to the questions we didn't have time to elaborate on while in the classroom.  Once this was accomplished, I simply re-posted the URL as part of an announcement alerting the students to the updates.

I have no doubt that we will be using Padlet to jump start in-class conversation again in the near future!  In the meantime, I will be looking around for ideas of how others are using Padlet for teaching and learning.

Monday, September 8, 2014

What I learned from my first week teaching in an active learning classroom

In short: The active learning room changes almost everything.

I listened to our instructors who shared their experiences last semester, and I heard what they were saying, including:

  • The environment is great for students working in small groups. 
  • Even better if the students have something to do/work on together.
  • Planning, organization, and clear instructions are a must for activities (and takes a lot of prep time!).
  • Groups finish at different rates so need to have something planned for those who finish earlier.
  • The teacher station being located in the middle of the room is a new experience to get used to.
  • Students' attention is focused inward to what is happening at or in their groups/pods.
  • Giving a lecture, even a mini one, can be a challenge (see all of the above for explanation as to why!).

I never doubted a word of this feedback, but it is a completely new thing to experience them myself.  I took these to heart when planning for the first day, and it went well.  Overall we used just about everything available to us - technology, group workstations, whiteboards, open space (for our mixer); we brainstormed, discussed, located info, reported out.  It felt like we pretty much did it all and that it went smoothly.

And then there was Day 2.

Let's just say that things didn't go according to plan.  A mixture of things contributed to Day 2 not living up to my expectations, and I have been mulling it all over since 12:50pm on Friday.  Here are what I believe to be some contributing factors (sharing just in case it becomes useful for others):

  • Too much was planned for a 50-minute period.
  • The questions I posed to the class were too many and not strategic enough.
  • A pod computer died in the midst of a group activity, leaving one group stranded since the activity relied on each group being able to display on the monitor located at the pod.  This threw off the rhythm more than I expected it too.
  • A student's input seemed to be a conversation killer following what was otherwise a useful brainstorming session.  (And in hindsight, of course, I realize I could have recovered better!)
I spent the weekend brainstorming ideas of my own: structure for class meeting times, classroom management, clearer ways to present instructions.  I know that it is possible for an active learning-based class to run smoothly - luckily I have insights from colleagues here on campus and my own first day experience to build on.  I am convinced that the planning and organizing is key.  Maybe I had fallen out of practice with doing this because my classes had hit a rhythm of sorts over the past few years; often times I could walk into the classroom armed with a couple of old standby _____ (fill in the blank here: applications, problems to solve, news headlines to analyze, data set to manipulate) and go with the flow.  Perhaps part of me figured that it is still the same content and structure (hybrid/blended) so this semester would be more about ramping up the student engagement and involvement that I have been working to incorporate over the past few years.  It is so much more.  In some ways I feel like I am new to teaching again even though it has been nearly ten years since I started.  (The level of detail I am now planning out reminds me of the days when I used to note when to use the overhead projector vs. chalkboard - just 5-6 years ago! - and how to transition.)  It is very possible that the Day 2 experience is exactly what I needed - a swift kick in the pants to make the rest of the semester as successful as possible.

Today, Day 3, was better.  Back on the upswing.  Days 4 and 5 will be even better.  It takes time to get a feel for what works best in the space during our allotted class time.  I will share a bit more about what worked (and what didn't) during Week 2 once it is complete.

*It is worth noting that if I would have reacted as if Day 2 was how it was always going to be in an active learning-based class, with group work, in that particular classroom, it wouldn't be very appealing to continue.  I am convinced that all days don't have to be like Day 2.  For me, at this time, it is worth it to keep trying, to find the balance between planning out class meetings - every activity (well, every 5 minutes of class time, really) - and going with the flow.  

Monday, August 25, 2014

Checking course resources & welcoming students

One week to go!  Summer always seems to accelerate as the start of the semester nears.  Good intentions are not always enough... I am combining the recommendations for two weeks and one week until the first day of class here - the days just got away from me.  Curious as to what I had potentially glazed over at the two week mark, I am relieved to see that the recommendations from McKeachie's Teaching Tips includes checking resources and starting a teaching portfolio or journal.  (I admit I had a slightly adverse reaction to the second recommendation until I realized that these blog entries could count as a journal of sorts.)  

Checking Resources
This is a good time to double-check the availability readings, video clips, etc. that students will need to access this semester.  I am also a fan of the suggestion to visit the classroom(s) in advance.  The visit will provide an opportunity to see the physical layout of the room, whether or not the tables and chairs are able to be moved, and to try out the technology (at the teacher station, for example) to make sure it is working as expected.  The advance visit can be important even for those of us who are scheduled for the same classrooms every term because room details can change.  One of my go-to classrooms, for example, received an upgrade this summer, and I will be making a trip over to see the new setup this afternoon.   

A welcome message greeting students in D2L.
Welcoming Students to the Course
A welcome message of some kind can help to set the stage for the upcoming semester.  The welcome message can be posted as an announcement in D2L (or whatever your LMS or online course environment happens to be) or sent via email.  A friendly tone goes a long way, and if you have any expectations for how things should happen at the start of the semester, this is an opportunity to communicate those expectations with students.  If D2L or the online environment will be used throughout the semester, setting up a discussion area, for example, and prompt that encourages students to introduce themselves is also an option.  According to Boettcher and Conrad (2010):
"Social presence, that is, getting to know each other as three-dimensional people, is the foundation of building trust and presence for the teaching and learning experiences.  Getting acquainted at the social level creates a trusting and understanding environment for reaching out and risking beliefs in the content discussions" (p.51).
Even though the authors are speaking explicitly to the beginning of an online course, I tend to agree with this outlook for teaching and learning in any course whether it is online, face-to-face, or hybrid.  Building this social presence and foundation of trust is one of the things I am constantly working on as an instructor; it requires balancing a variety of things, but I keep working at it because I believe that it adds a great deal of value to the learning environment.

McKeachie, W. J., & Svinicki, M. (2011). McKeachie's teaching tips: Strategies, research, and theory for college and university teachers (13th ed.). Belmont, CA: Wadsworth.
 Boettcher, J. V., & Conrad, R. The online teaching survival guide: Simple and practical pedagogical tips. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.