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Tip: Thinking About Engagement in Online Discussion
What does attention look like without body language and eye contact? How can instructors & students be more fully present in our online classroom spaces?
In this EdSurge podcast episode, Students Are Distracted. What Can Educators Do About It? Jeffrey Young and James Lang talk about instructor presence and how instructors often limit themselves to a narrow physical space at the front of the classroom; the more limited this “instructor space,” the more likely it was that students would be off-task.
When instructors were more willing to come out into the seats and to move around and command the whole room, that made it more challenging for students. It kind of awakened them when an instructor was…making more use of the physical space of the classroom, being more fully present in the whole space.
So part of what we have to do as teachers is be aware of that ebb and flow [of attention] and recognize: When do I need to make an intervention here to try to get students back into the room with me?
I think this is particularly interesting to consider as we teach in new (to us) online and hybrid/HyFlex delivery modes. What does attention look like without body language and eye contact? How can we as instructors be more fully present in our online classroom spaces, and can this help our students to learn new ways of being present? As we all grapple with thinking about engagement in our online spaces - whether live class sessions, asynchronous discussions, or some combination - I thought it would be useful to articulate some strategies for encouraging active participation, with a focus on live (synchronous) interactions.
Start small. Build momentum by having students answer “easy” prompts first - a short quiz, an anonymous poll, a “thumbs up/thumbs down” - these interactions prime students to participate more by getting their attention and allowing them to interact in very low-stakes ways.
Solicit student-generated prompts. Ask students to come up with questions related to the topic, with no pressure to have an answer, and post them in the chat. Use their own questions as discussion starters. You could even have the class vote on which question to lead off with.
Have students do + discuss. Ask students to do something during a discussion - here is where I like using collaborative docs - like taking notes, adding to a list or mind map, or annotating a shared diagram or reading.
Ask for non-verbal feedback. Use the chat or reaction emojis to get quick feedback (“Type a plus sign if you’re here and following, type a minus sign if you need me to review/recap what we just talked about”).
Assign group roles. Use breakout rooms thoughtfully, giving groups a specific plan for what they should accomplish, and group members a specific role (more on POGIL model of groupwork and group assignments).
Give students something to react to. When discussion is particularly stalled, I’ve put students into their own breakout room, assigned them a short task (a microlecture to review, a video to watch, or a short reading to complete), and brought everyone back together 15-20 minutes later. Taking time away for some independent work gets everyone on the same page and helps to even out differences between who completed the preparation work at home and who did not.
Turn videos off. As much as we hear instructors lamenting about teaching to a sea of little black boxes, I think there’s value not only in not asking students to turn their videos on, but in normalizing putting the focus on looking together at something (an image, a document, the whiteboard) rather than looking at each other. Mark Makino has a great video (click image below) about how Zoom space is different than classroom space, and what that means for live interactions.
Happy Election Day (United States) & consider these tips for election-focused discussions this week.
For more reading…
For some general thoughts on "HyFlex" - Hybrid Flexible blended models and a model for how to adapt a typical group of assignments for online delivery
Think about offering more choice for students to accommodate their different contexts - "ZoomFlex" & Flexible Design Strategies
Flower Darby’s article on online discussions encourages instructors to help student apply concepts to their own lives through structured but organic asynchronous discussions
Jennifer Gonzalez’ discussion of the “fisheye” issue of class discussions - in short, believing that a discussion is engaging but in reality only a small handful of students are active participants