As is typical in the Fall semesters, I am teaching a section of our first year, project-based course Tackling a Wicked Problem. Back before we knew the extent of the COVID-19 crisis, we knew that there were going to be at least some students who wanted to take all of their courses online. Some of these students would be first year students and we didn’t want to have to tell them that they couldn’t enroll in some of this required first year course so we decided that we needed to offer at least one section of it fully online. At the time, we were only really talking about fully online asychronous courses and so I volunteered to pilot a section in that modality.
I have written about Tackling a Wicked Problemmany times before, particularly in this post: What is Tackling a Wicked Problem? Through the evolution of this course, we developed the idea of cluster pedagogy or what we are now calling cluster learning. In particular, the course provides students with the opportunity to engage in interdisciplinary, integrative, project-based learning experiences using open education strategies. This means that students will work in groups on challenging projects that have potentially significant implications outside of the classroom. In order to do this work, students need to look at the problems they are approaching from a variety of standpoints using knowledge from multiple disciplines. In order to effectively work on these kinds of projects, students must collaborate closely with each other and potentially with people outside of the classroom.
I have taught many online, asynchronous classes in the past and have come away from those experiences feeling as though I have taught each student in an individual enrollment. In these classes, I tried to get students to interact with each other via the Discussion Forums in the Learning Management System (LMS) which was always artificial and didn’t lead to very many natural interactions among the students, even when they were supposed to be working on projects together. Anyone who has ever tried to use the LMS to collaborate for committee work knows how static the Discussion Forums feel. And how they actually somehow inhibit meaningful interaction. If you can’t have meaningful interaction, there is no way to truly collaborate.
I have also taught face-to-face classes in which we utilized the Microsoft collaboration tools that we had at the time. For example, a few years ago, I taught a section of Media and Cultural Studies in which I asked students to begin the development of an OER for the class. They wrote chapters together. To facilitate that work, I set up a OneDrive space for the class and created folders for each group where they could collaborate on as many documents (Word, Powerpoint, other tools) as they needed. Once they had a polished draft of their chapter, I copied and pasted it to our OER. This process worked pretty well because 1. the students had a shared online space where they could easily share their work with each other, and, 2. I gave them time in class to engage in face-to-face collaboration. They didn’t have to rely on our LMS to discuss their work together.
So for this semester, I knew that I was going to use something similar to the OneDrive space for the students to be able to easily share their work with each other. But I needed some online tool(s) to replace the face-to-face collaboration that students have done in the past. Since I last taught Media and Cultural Studies, PSU has gone all-in with our Office 365 tools. In particular, we have implemented MS Teams, which is a chat-based workspace in Office 365 that makes it easy to have conversations, share files and collaborate on documents, and get work done with teams across the organization. Within MS Teams, there is a chat tool, a video conferencing tool, space for conversations within the group, and a space for storing, sharing, and working collaboratively on documents (Word, Powerpoint, Excel, etc.). MS Teams also allows embedding of other apps into the Team for ease of use. MS Teams runs on multiple platforms–on the web within a browser, in a desktop app, and/or in a mobile app. Because most of our PSU service work this summer was remote, we used MS Teams extensively and it works pretty well although it has a couple of annoying bugs.
As I was beginning to plan my course for this semester, I read “Introducing the Tri-layered Student Online Experience Framework: Moving from file repository to narrative journey,” by Eager, Lehman, and Scollard. I wrote about the article back in May. The TL;DR of the article is that students view the online educational materials of a class as a “value-added investment in exchange for their time.” In other words, students ask themselves “Why should I engage with this online material?” When we put the educational materials into a typical LMS, the list of materials looks like an undifferentiated list–a file repository. The framework that Eager, et all propose puts educational materials into a context (a narrative journey) that helps students answer the question of why they should engage with each online resource. By implementing this framework, the designer of the LMS-based class helps students begin to understand how engaging with each of the educational resources contributes to the learning goals of the class.
In my early interactions with students this semester, several told me that they really like how the Moodle course is set up because they understand what they need to do, when they need to do it, and why they need to it. That’s validating but the idea that the primary purpose of the LMS is to facilitate the storage and dissemination of educational materials helped me to understand why I have always found the discussion forums provided in the LMS to be too static for authentic interaction among the students. The LMS is designed for the exchange of static documents and text and it does that job really well. But it isn’t designed for conversations or sustained multi-way interactions among individuals. That is exactly what a tool like Microsoft (MS) Teams is designed for, however. So I decided that I would use Moodle, our LMS, in my class this fall for the things that it was designed to do well. And I would integrate that with MS Teams for the things that it was designed to do well.
I set up my Moodle class as I normally would, with weekly schedules, copies of and links to various educational materials, and places for the students to submit assignments that are for my eyes only. Moodle shows up for students in their My Courses tab on our University portal so they are able to find it easily. I also put a link in the Moodle class to a MS Team for our class. so that students would also always be able to easily find it. To give students access to the Team, I had to manually add each student because there is no way (that I know of) to import a roster. Whenever there is an activity or an assignment that asks students to interact with each other, I point out from Moodle to our MS Team. I set the Team up with a number of channels so that conversations would be easier to follow and engage in.
For example, an assignment for the first week was for students to introduce themselves to the class. So I created a channel called Introductions. Students chose the medium they wanted to use for their introductions. Some typed an introduction directly into the Posts tab of the Introductions channel. Some uploaded a video introduction. Some created a Powerpoint and uploaded the file. The second part of the assignment asked students to comment on at least 4 of their classmates introduction with a question, a comment about something they found interesting, a comment about something they had in common, and so on. I have used this assignment in every online class that I have ever taught but in the past, I used the Discussion Forums in the LMS but I was always disappointed in how stilted the interactions between students seemed. In Teams, I immediately saw a difference. When students received comments or questions on their introduction post, they responded. And then the other student responded. And then they were asking each other for their xBox login names so they could play video games together. This happened many times in this introduction channel. The students were having actual conversations.
As I said, Tackling a Wicked Problem is a project-based class in which students work in teams on a project that tries to address some aspect of the wicked problem. I was most worried about how to facilitate the group projects given that the class is online asynchronous. I was hopeful that MS Teams would facilitate the team interactions in ways that I have never seen work on the LMS. So for each group, I set up a private channel and added the members to the channel. Each channel has two tabs, a Posts tab and a Files tab. I created a video to explain that the Posts tab can be used for conversation while the Files tab is a space where the students can store documents that they are collaborating on. To get them started on the first activity of their project, I put an annotated bibliography template in the File space for each group. At first, the interaction was slow but as they have worked on this project (it isn’t due for another couple of weeks), each group is using Teams more and more. They are having conversations, sometimes asking me questions. Because I have Teams both on my computer and my phone, I get notified when there’s something that needs my attention and I can jump in immediately (if I want). Even more exciting is when they answer each other’s questions which happens regularly. Their annotated bibliographies were due on Sunday of this past week. They posted them in the Files tab of their group and I was able to provide feedback right in the document for them all to see. I can also see who contributed what to the various documents.
At the start of the semester, I also set up a “Ask Questions Here” channel for students to ask any questions they might have. In my introductory materials for the class, I encouraged them to answer any of the questions that they might see in that channel if they knew the answer. The first time that a student answered a question here, I positively acknowledged the answer and again encouraged them to jump in if they know the answers. Students now regularly post questions and answer each other’s questions in this channel. That’s an exciting development.
MS Teams has a chat feature and students regularly chat me there. Finally, MS Teams has a “Meet Now” video conferencing tool built in and several of the groups are regularly using that feature to talk about their projects.
The set up of the MS Team for my class can be seen in the featured image on this post. I also included an anonymized conversation among a group of students. We are still early in the semester but I am very encouraged about using MS Teams in this online asynchronous class to facilitate group projects.
Image Credit: screenshot of the MS Team for the Fall 2020 offering IS1115.01.
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 game studies, digital literacies, open pedagogies, and generally how technology impacts our culture.