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    Students – willing and able

    By Mira Vogel, on 30 September 2014

    Synchronised swimmers underwater

    I’ve attended a couple of very interesting UCL Arena Gateway workshops. Their purpose is to familiarise postgraduates who teach with the culture and practices of teaching at UCL. The session was primarily concerned with classroom activities so here’s a bit more about the opportunities technologies can bring. I was there to contribute some ideas as an E-Learning Facilitator with SLASH departments, but the ideas below are relevant to other disciplines too.

    We discussed how much material a tutor should to prepare for a seminar. Inviting students to generate questions in advance both gives a steer to the tutor and also makes clear to students the expectation that they will arrive prepared to discuss the texts. There are plenty of alternatives for this, but Moodle Hot Question allows (optionally anonymous) students to post questions and to vote up others’.  This is a well-defined and simple (if deceptively so) request to make of students but where there are doubts that they will participate, monitoring attendance for the activity can send a clear signal. Making sure that students know that their tutor takes an interest in whether or not they do the activity should also encourage them. Also on Moodle, Forum allows for questions and discussions in advance –  again students will need to understand what is expected of them and why. Getting students to join in may be a delicate matter, but well worth calibrating  – this ‘Why aren’t my students participating on the discussion board‘ guide is worth a look, as is this piece on constructing your questions. Beyond Moodle, groups of students could be asked to prepare by creating a Moodle Database, timeline, map or infographic of key aspects – Alan Liu keeps a trove of links to free digital humanities tools which could serve here, and Jane Hart surveys the education and training community annually to surface the most popular tools. Finally, Moodle Quiz can help both students and tutors gauge the level of students’ knowledge and clearly communicate expectations for the session. Quiz works well where there is objective knowledge to test, because the responses can be automatically marked with differential feedback provided. Quiz does allow for more subjective responses, but the marking can’t be automated.

    Another question was how students can be encouraged  to contribute in discussions and groupwork.  That depends on why they are reticent. In the case of under-preparation the suggestions above can help in advance of the session. Setting each student group to work on different aspects of the topic could feed into the jigsaw cooperative activity we discussed. Moodle makes it straightforward to either put students into groups or let them form their own (though be aware that higher-achieving students tend to group together given the chance). Groups can then be applied to any of the activities on Moodle, creating a potentially less daunting sphere.  If it’s more of a case of students needing to get to know each other better, an early online social icebreaker could help by implicitly giving a licence for playful exchanges. In their recent book TEC-VARIETY, Curt Bonk and Elaine Khoo describe an activity in which everyone posts to a discussion forum eight nouns which best describe themselves. This helps students to understand the backgrounds of others on the course and provides an early occasion for conversations and affinity connections. For more like this see Chapter 4 of the book.

    If the diffidence relates either to the topic under discussion or to worries about their level of knowledge, the anonymity provided by, say, UCL’s e-voting system, Forum or HotQuestion may draw students out. Although there shouldn’t be pressure on staff or students to set up accounts on third party platforms, strategically displaying a Twitter feed from a course or event hashtag on, say, a Moodle course area front page can signpost a further place for students to connect around their course. While almost all students who use Facebook use it for academic purposes, here has been some recent attention on the importance of who controls the inevitable course Facebook page, so it’s worth putting out some feelers to find out how it’s going in there. Attempts by institutions to colonise student-run spaces are probably destined for failure, but in Chapter 1 of the Fieldnotes on 21st Century Literacies book referenced below Cathy Davis tasks her students with co-authoring their collective guidelines for engagement. She observes how “[a] group of strangers was transformed into something like a community by the very process of asking what its own rules might be and establishing those rules”.

    Another commonly encountered problem is that students are disengaged because they are social networking off-topic during the session. Media Studies professor Clay Shirky wrote recently about his decision to discourage laptop use while he was teaching, saying “Allowing laptop use in class is like allowing boombox use in class — it lets each person choose whether to degrade the experience of those around them”.  Howard Rheingold, who also teaches about social media, takes a different view:

    In an earlier work on attention and other 21st century literacies he describes some measures to promote focus.  What Shirky and Rheingold are both clear about is that this doesn’t happen on its own. It’s important to be absolutely clear and explicit with students about what is at stake.

    We also discussed uneven participation – some students dominating while others are silent. Different communication channels could meet the needs of more introverted students by offering a less pressured means to communicate their ideas. For example a lecturer deploying the Ten-Two activity discussed in the workshop could solicit questions through a channel such as Twitter or some of the Moodle activities above, or by pausing to ask students to vote on a prepared opinion poll (Moodle Choice works well here and Moodle is mobile friendlier these days – there’s also PollEverywhere or Participoll to name a few). In all discussion activities students need to feel comfortable, be clear about the purpose, and understand what difference it makes if they themselves join in or don’t.

    Photo credit: AgenciaAndes via photopin cc

    Further reading

    Free and open.

    Bonk, C. and Khoo, E., 2014. Adding some TEC-VARIETY: 100+ Activities for Motivating and Retaining Learners Online. Available from

    Damasceno, C., Daouk, O., Davidson, C.N., Davis, J.E., Patrick Thomas, M., Peddycord III, B., Pitts, E.A., Stratton, J., 2013. Field Notes for 21st Century Literacies: A Guide to New Theories, Methods, and Practices for Open Peer Teaching and Learning. Humanities, Arts, Sciences and Technology Alliance and Collaboratory. Available from: