In my last post, I described how, from a hotel room across the world, I was getting ready to launch my “virtual discussion” in class the next day. Students had to complete an assigned reading before class and then spend class time in a Google Hangout (1) addressing a set of initial prompts in an open-ended discussion and (2) collaborating on a set of written responses in a Google Doc.
Overall, it was fascinating to have such a clear-eyed view of students’ responses to the reading. I enjoyed reading the Hangout transcripts more than I imagined. While performance varied across groups, I got deep insight into what makes for a successful chat: thoughtful initial responses that followed from a careful reading; inclusively bouncing ideas off of each other and responding to each other’s points; and staying on task and mindfully proceeding through the set of prompts. Groups who successfully did these things tended to also have more thorough and thoughtful answers to the collaborative questions. Groups who were less successful had some of the following issues:
- Some groups, going against the instructions and the criteria listed on the rubric, adopted a divide-and-conquer approach to responding to the collaborative discussion questions. These same groups tended to abandon the discussion in Google Hangout when they shifted to writing responses to the discussion questions.
- Some groups had uneven participation. One student failed to participate completely, while another group had one student deeply invested and two students unwilling to work hard during the class period or meet outside of class to finish the assignment.
- Some groups mismanaged their time and failed to address important prompts in the initial open-ended discussion. A couple of groups were late getting started due to confusion about how to start the Hangout, and this set them back for the entire period.
Feedback from students indicated that the discussion allowed them to better understand the reading and appreciate its insight. Unfortunately, however, due to constraints set by my travel, I was unable to read and grade the work before soliciting feedback. So I was not able to provide an immediate, meaningful debriefing session.
Overall, I was encouraged by this initial experience. I see five immediate steps that I should take to make the discussions universally more productive in future sessions:
- I should devote some class time to going over the instructions and the rubric.
- Since some students also indicated that there were unexpected challenges associated with communicating in a chat, I should develop a set of best practices for productive, inclusive and meaningful dialogue in Google Hangouts. At the top of this list will be advice to either write in short statements rather than long paragraphs, given the asynchronous nature of typing responses, or to let group members know when a long response is coming so that the discussion doesn’t pivot while someone is typing.
- While I was unable to be present during this class, in the future I will drop in on chats as they occur in real time to provide feedback, clear up misunderstandings, or highlight questions that may not have been adequately addressed.
- I should grade discussions immediately, and start the next class with a debrief to reinforce the main ideas and clear up common areas of misunderstanding.
- I should develop a more formal method of assessment.
I knew that learning-by-doing would be essential with this assignment, so I am pleased by the outcome of this initial attempt and hopeful that I can work out the kinks as I refine the assignment going forward.
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