Because of the uncertainty about the Fall 2020 semester, my university has decided that if a first year student wants to take all of their classes online, we would have a set of General Education classes for them. To accommodate this, we have created a couple of online sections of Composition and at least one first year Math class. I also volunteered to pilot an online section of Tackling a Wicked Problem (TWP). My first step in thinking about how to teach the class online is to identify what I think are the critical components.
I have written about TWP in the past. The major goal of the class is to give students the opportunity to practice the Habits of Mind (purposeful communication, problem-solving, integrated perspective, and self-regulated learning). For me, self-regulated learning is the most important Habit of Mind. It is also the Habit of Mind that I think can most profoundly challenge faculty to change their practices in the classroom. What do we faculty need to do in a class to give students authentic opportunities to truly take charge of their own educational journey, to set goals for themselves, to manage their time, to understand themselves as individual learners? It is here that my practices in past, face-to-face offerings of TWP that I directly engaged with project-based learning and open educational practices.
In order for students to be willing to engage in project-based learning and to trust that I really do want them to set their own goals and to take risks, I spend a lot of time in my face-to-face class working on building our learning community. The face-to-face-ness of the class feels like it plays a huge role in my strategy for building community. I hadn’t spent a lot of time thinking about how much I rely on a smile as I hand out materials or talking before class about the results of their soccer game or jumping on a student’s computer to show a small group how to use a particular tool. Last Fall, my students commented on how well my first day of class activity worked to help them think about what an environment conducive to learning looks like. The activity involved playing with yoyos and teaching each other how to do things with them and then working together to create a yoyo trick. Obviously, this activity won’t work online and as I think through last Fall’s class, I see that many of the strategies I relied on will not work online.
So as I’m planning for the upcoming Fall semester, I really need to think about how to build a learning community online. Luckily, Jesse Stommel gave a keynote recently which addresses this topic. I will keep all six of his theses in mind as I develop my class but the two that I’m most focused on right now are: “1. Stop conflating on-ground and online learning models, which require different pedagogies, administration, economies, curricula, and communities.” And, “5. Our ability to develop community will depend on our willingness to acknowledge trauma that members of our community have and will experience.”
The staff of Teaching Tolerance wrote an article with some guidance that I think will be helpful as I plan. The first piece of advice is: “Establishing a routine and maintaining clear communication are crucial.” I’m planning to use Moodle and Teams for all of my communication. This guideline reminds me that my Moodle site needs to have an explanation of how I plan to use these tools and how students can find the information they are looking for. I plan to develop a FAQ that has both written and video answers to questions. The second piece of advice is: “Relationships and well-being can take priority over assignment and behavioral compliance.” I think this is something that I have a pretty good handle on from our Spring pivot to online. Students in my Creating Games class commented in the course evaluations on the fact that I asked about their families and how they were doing and that I was flexible and helped them figure out how to engage with the class in ways that were meaningful in the face of the chaos of going online. My big worry with this guideline, however, is that I had already established a 7-week relationship with the Creating Games students while we were face-to-face before Spring Break. I won’t have that opportunity with students in TWP this Fall. The article has ideas for how to help students feel safe and connected, some of which I think will fit nicely into my class.
Another thing I did on the first day of class last Fall to start to build community was a survey. It was mostly a learning needs survey in which I asked questions like: “Are there any potential concerns you have about the classroom space? For example, are you distracted by sounds, movement, open window blinds, music, loud conversations, buzzing lights, bright lights, etc? Feel free to expand on these examples or write ‘no’ in the blank below.” But I also asked things like: “What do you prefer to be called?” and “What are you interested in studying (not necessarily just your major) at Plymouth State?” I don’t think students expected me to take this survey seriously because on the second day of class, one student expressed surprise that I called him by his preferred name, asking me how I knew that is what he liked to be called. In the firehose of information spewed at him in the early days of the semester, he had forgotten that he told me on the survey. I will plan to do a similar survey at the start of the Fall 2020 semester but I worry a bit about student participation in an online survey. So I will need to think about how to bring their attention to this work early on.
I’m also thinking a lot about the fact that the students in my class will be the ones who have chosen to spend their first semester away from campus and take their classes online. I think for many students, the act of going away to college is the start of them thinking of themselves in new ways. The physical move marks their transition from high school student to college student. The newness of life on a college campus is an experience that many first year students share and so is a natural commonality that can start the community-building process. The students in my class will have missed out on a lot of the things that often marks a transition to college: they won’t have had a high school graduation, they won’t have moved to college, and they won’t experience the physicality of the campus with the student union and the green and the academic classrooms. Instead, they will be continuing to take classes in the same way that they finished out their high school careers. So how can I help them start to see themselves as college students? Can we build some infrastructure online that will give students a sense of a place? For example, I need to think about the tools I use for the class not just as places where I put stuff for the students to consume. Instead, these tools represent sites of activity, sites for community building. This is part of the reason I have decided to use Teams in addition to Moodle. I’m using Moodle to help with clear communication since their other classes should be using Moodle as well. Teams, on the other hand, feels much less static to me than Moodle does. I need to build out these tools as community spaces that facilitate learning. The students need to be able to interact with me, with each other, and with the world outside of our class in meaningful, necessary ways. The students need to be able to contribute to and modify our working spaces to make them their own. I’m planning to make use of the ability to embed apps in Teams to facilitate that shared development of our spaces. For example, I’ve been playing with Flipgrid embedded in Teams as a possibility for students to be able to easily record and share videos. I’m planning to give students an option to either record an introductory video or write a short introductory paragraph telling us about themselves and I’d like both options to be available to as many students as possible.
I’m both excited and scared thinking about developing an online learning environment in which students can engage in collaborative project-based learning and start to see themselves as active agents in the world, even as they are dealing with the trauma of this pandemic.
Image Credit: I took this photo of the current learning spaces for my online section of TWP on May 24, 2020.
I am currently Professor of Digital Media at Plymouth State University in Plymouth, NH. I am also the current Coordinator of General Education at the University. I am interested in astrophotography, game studies, digital literacies, open pedagogies, and generally how technology impacts our culture.