Every Fall I teach a class called Tackling a Wicked Problem (TWP) for first year students at Plymouth State University. A major goal of this class is for students to design and implement a project with their classmates that addresses some aspect of a wicked problem and makes a difference in the world. This is a tall order in the best of times and I knew that this Fall semester was not going to be the best of times. We were (and, of course, continue to be) in the middle of a pandemic. To add to the challenges, the students who were registering for my particular section for this class were choosing to learn online asynchronously for a lot of different reasons. Online asynchronous learning requires a significant amount of independence and self-motivation on the part of learners and my experience with first year students made me worry that many might not yet have developed the the skills needed to succeed in that environment. But because there was demand for online asynchronous sections of first year courses, I volunteered to pilot a section of TWP. I think the design of the course that I came up with is mostly good and facilitated some excellent collaboration but the class was not without its challenges for both me and the students.
Plymouth State University (PSU) uses Moodle as its learning management system. Like all tools, it has some good features and some (very) bad features but its main advantage is students see links to the automatically created Moodle sites for all of their classes when they log into the PSU portal which is called myPlymouth. Because of this I determined early in my planning that I would use the Moodle site to provide a weekly schedule of assigned work. In addition, I would use the Moodle site to store documents, videos, etc. that they need in order to complete the course.
I read an excellent article early in my planning of the course that pushed me to think about the LMS differently than I had in the past. I wrote about the key points of “Introducing the Tri-Layered Student Online Experience Framework” back in May as I was planning my class. The major epiphany for me from the article is highlighted in the subtitle: “Moving from File Repository to Narrative Journey.” The key affordance of most learning management systems is their function as a place to store files, documents, videos, and other educational resources. In fact, I said in the previous paragraph that this is exactly why I chose to use Moodle. The article points out, however, that explaining to students why they will want to view, read, engage with the educational materials, how those educational materials will help them meet the goals of the class turns the course’s LMS into a guide for the students regarding the educational journey they will take through the semester. Providing this narrative journey for students helps them to understand why they should engage with the educational materials and not just jump right to assignments and other pieces of the course that somehow “count” in their minds (and often in ours). The key idea of the article is that we need to explain to students why the educational materials count, why they matter.
Here is a screenshot of part of Week 1 of the course where you can see how I explain what the students will get out of engaging with each of the educational resources in the class.
You’ll notice a couple of other things in the screenshot. I provided estimates of the amount of time I thought each activity should take students. I did this for two reasons. First, I think it’s helpful for students to have some idea of the expectations. Second, I think it’s helpful for us as instructors to force us to think about the amount of work we are assigning our students. I asked students to tell me if my estimates were off and none of them ever suggested that they were. The other thing you will notice is an empty box next to each activity that I wanted the students to engage in. I set Moodle up so that students could check off the activities they had completed to help them keep track of where they were in the class. The students seemed to use this feature extensively but there was some confusion about it for some students. When you use this feature, Moodle shows students a graphic that indicates how much of the course they have completed. A couple of students thought this graphic was showing them their current grade. So a little more than halfway through the class, one student asked me how she could improve her grade because she only had a 60-something percent. It took me a while to figure out that she was misunderstanding this graphic.
One of the main things that I was worried about was the collaborative, project-based nature of the class. In particular, I wanted to be sure to include online activities using a collaborative tool that would help students build community even though they were first year students and mostly not on campus. I chose to use Microsoft Teams for this because we are a Microsoft campus and the tool is readily available to students. I had been using Teams all summer for all of my committee work and found it mostly helpful and easy to use. I created a Team and added all of the students to it. I then created a link in Moodle directly to that Team so that students would always be able to find it. The image below shows the main page of my Moodle course with weekly tabs and the Teams link always visible.
Any work that was for my eyes only was submitted on Moodle while anything that students should see of each others’ work or collaborate on was done on Teams. For example, I asked the students to write reflective essays about their development of the Habits of Mind. Those reflections were for my eyes only so students submitted them on Moodle. I also asked the students to create some sort of introduction to themselves–an introductory video, Powerpoint, essay, one-pager, drawing. They posted these introductions on Teams (in a channel called Introductions) so that they could get to know each other. I have used this sort of assignment in online asynchronous courses in the past with students posting their introductory materials in a discussion forum. I have never been satisfied with this assignment on Moodle because the students haven’t seemed to really engage with each other. As I said in my mid-semester reflection, something magical started to happen on Teams. Students began to engage in spontaneous conversations with each other about love of sports, sharing xBox handles, and so on. I think Teams just feels more alive for this kind of conversation. It looks much more like a modern social media tool than Moodle does. I also think the fact that there is a Teams app that you can install on your mobile device makes a difference. I often checked Teams and chatted with my students via my phone. In addition, I could “listen in” on the students’ conversation via the Posts section of the channel.
Teams was also the place where students collaborated on projects. Their first project, for example, required them to investigate a claim about climate change and write an article together that came to a conclusion about the veracity of the claim. I created a private channel for each group and then posted the templates for the various stages of the project (annotated bibliography, first draft of article, etc.) in the Files section of the channel. Teams allows students to collaborate on documents in the File section in a way similar to Google Docs. Students were able to figure it out pretty quickly. I could see the version history of each document in the Files section to see who had changed what in the file.
The image below shows the set up of the various channels for the class on the left side along with some of the posts from one of the groups working on their final project. Of course, I have removed the names of all of the students.
In their final reflections for the semester, some students indicated that they had actually made friends in the class even though they were at home and feeling pretty disconnected from PSU as an actual, physical place. I think the use of Teams facilitated this connection. Teams has a mechanism for students to set up video conferences right in the tool and many of the groups took advantage of this feature. There is also a chat feature which they used extensively with me and so I assume they used it with each other as well. Some groups used the Posts to determine a completely different communication tool (like Snapchat) for their work. Teams seemed to foster authentic connection.
I was in a meeting recently where I described these final reflections, that they had made some friends, and then said I thought the use of Teams was moderately successful. Several people pushed back to say that this seems like a huge success. The issue for me is that other students, even some students who had been really engaged all semester, said that they felt disconnected from the class, that it was difficult to stay motivated to do the work when everything is online. So the use of Teams worked for some students but it didn’t work for others. That seems like a moderate success. When I get a bit more distance from this crazy semester, I’ll reflect more on this issue.
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.