Intentional Technology for Remote Teaching and Learning

A simpler time at the University of Waterloo

Last month, I gave a talk about my new book, Intentional Tech, at the University of Waterloo. The night before my talk, I dreamed about the talk, as I often do. Usually in these dreams, I go over every bit of the planned talk and worry whether or not I should include it. It’s not quite a nightmare, but it’s also not restful sleep. I’ve accepted it as part of who I am.

This time, however, there was an extra layer of stress. In my dream, I found out that Waterloo had decided to move all of their courses online in response to the coronavirus pandemic  and so my dreamself went over my planned talk, deciding what teaching principles and examples of practice from the talk would be relevant to fully online courses. This is what my brain was doing to me in early March 2020.

Now, of course, pretty much all of higher education in Canada and the US has “pivoted” online, allowing faculty, staff, and students to practice social distancing while continuing the educational enterprise. My institution made the pivot the week after spring break, first cancelling classes for four days, then restarting classes using alternative, online instruction. As I write this, we have finished our third week of remote teaching and learning.

My teaching center’s initial efforts to support our instructors in this pivot focused on tools that would help faculty to continue doing online what they had been doing in person, including screencasting and video conferencing tools. We knew that faculty wouldn’t have time to rethink their entire course design for online learning, so we provided resources around teaching continuity. You can see that in some of the resources we generated in short order to share with faculty and other instructors.

Three weeks in, however, we’re starting to see more faculty interested in other models for online teaching. Many faculty are leaning into their Zoom sessions with students, but they’re aware that synchronous video options can be challenging for some students, given computer and internet access issues, time zone differences, displacement, and family care responsibilities. This is motivating them to take different approaches to online teaching, leveraging more asynchronous learning activities and low-bandwidth technologies.

To be fair, our staff were encouraging instructors to consider such options from the start, and a number of instructors took this approach as soon as they began moving elements of their courses online. But I’m glad to see more instructors thinking through their options for remote teaching and learning, both in the present and for the future. And my staff and I are certainly eager to help faculty make more intentional teaching choices in the current environment.

With that in mind, I have spent some time doing exactly what I did during that Waterloo dream last month. I’ve looked through my Waterloo talk, along with a few more elements of Intentional Tech that I didn’t mention at Waterloo, and identified a few teaching principles and practices that seem particularly relevant to remote teaching and learning. Here they are, in brief. You can, ahem, read the book for more details, but I’ve tried to include links to other sources of information you might find useful if you don’t have a copy of my book handy.

Thin Slices of LearningThe more we understand what and how our students are learning, the more responsive we can be to their learning needs.

I love the idea of using technology to capture what Randy Bass has called “thin slices” of student learning, that is, the ways that students are understanding and thinking about course material in that “intermediate space between expert and novice.” Some would call this formative assessment, and I’ve met some faculty using technology for this purpose in creative and intentional ways.

My favorite example of using Twitter in teaching is #birdclass, an assignment in the ornithology course taught by Margaret Rubega at the University of Connecticut. She told me that her students usually start her class thinking that all the interesting birds are somewhere far off, like the Amazon or Africa. She wants them to know that even Connecticut birds have interesting behavior and ecology. She asks her students to tweet about the birds they see as they go to class, to work, and to their homes. The assignment is simple, and lightly graded: students just need to share an observation, mention where they are, and connect their observation to course material.

You can read the latest tweets by searching #birdclass on Twitter, where it’s clear that the assignment is going strong, even during this period of remote teaching and learning. This is a beautiful example of a technology well matched to a learning objective, in this case, helping students transfer what they’re learning to new contexts. For more on Margaret Rubega’s #birdclass assignment, listen to my interview with her on our podcast, Leading Lines.

You may not be teaching a class about birds, but you could use Twitter or some similar tool, perhaps even our course management system’s discussion boards, to have students share their learning as it’s happening. I’ve talked with instructors who have students livetweet the week’s reading for a course, for instance, making visible to the instructor (and perhaps to peers) the in-the-moment observations and questions that might not show up in a weekly response paper. Might you have students explore their immediate environment, wherever they are, in a way that requires them to transfer their learning? Or explore a virtual environment (Google Maps or Google Earth, for instance) and share their observations in a class forum?

Consider all the ways that your students engage in learning before they turn in that paper or project or take that exam. How could you use some technology to which they have ready access to make some of that learning more visible?

If hats represent students, do you only hear from the purple hats?

Learning CommunitiesStructured ways for students to learn from and with each other can enhance the learning experience for all students.

There are a number of definitions of the term “learning communities,” but I tend to use it to describe contexts in which students are learning from and with each other. This happens to some degree in any course, but instructors can design experiences and assignments for their students that help foster peer-to-peer learning. Given the diversity of experiences and perspectives that are represented among our students, the learning experience for students and faculty alike can be enhanced when we find ways to surface and share our students’ stories and voices.

One example of this approach is from my Vanderbilt colleague Elizabeth Meadows, who taught a course a few years ago on love and marriage. She asked her students to build a collaborative, digital timeline on the history of marriage in the US and the UK between 1500 and the present. Each student was responsible for a certain number of timeline entries, many of them drawn from the readings and texts in the course, and they were lightly graded on the quality and completeness of their entries. Elizabeth used Tiki-Toki for this assignment, which provides a few different visualization tools to help students see patterns in their chronology. You can see the complete timeline here.

The timeline itself wasn’t the end of the assignment, however. Elizabeth asked her students to write papers situating debates over same-sex marriage of the day (this was back in 2014) in the history of marriage depicted on their class timeline. The collaborative timeline thus became a resource for the entire class, with students drawing on their peers’ findings and contributions as they wrote their papers. Each student brought a unique set of contributions to the collaborative timeline, reflecting their interests and experiences with the course topics and readings. And the final assignment provided a motivation for students to explore their peers’ various contributions to the timeline.

For more on timelines and Elizabeth Meadow’s assignments, see the teaching guide on digital timelines and Danielle Picard and I wrote a few years back. There are plenty of other technologies that foster collaborations and sharing that instructors can use to build learning communities while teaching remotely. For instance, I’ve written about my use of Diigo and other social bookmarking tools to bring students’ personal and professional interests into course conversations. I heard from one Vanderbilt colleague who is experimenting with the social annotation tool during her remote teaching, to provide spaces for students to bring their particular insights and questions to a shared reading.

The key is to explore with students the kinds of open-ended questions that allow students to bring different ideas, resources, and experiences to the conversation, then creating mechanisms that make it easier and safer for students to do that.

Dual coding, where the visual and verbal work together, like the confluence of two rivers

Multimodal AssignmentsWhen students work with new material using different kinds of media, they are better able to learn that material.

With the shift to remote teaching and learning, many instructors are having to reconsider their assessment strategies. Timed, closed-book exams are hard to do in a secure way online, especially given the various challenges students are facing this semester. And, as Thomas Tobin noted recently in Inside Higher Ed, “Students are most tempted to act dishonestly when they feel anxiety and pressure…. The current shift to remote instruction can create both anxiety and pressure. The best thing that we can all do, regardless of the subjects we teach or support, is to offer students options, voices and choices.” Giving students options for representing their learning can help lower student anxiety and foster student agency.

Moreover, encouraging students to express what they’re learning through multiple media can often enhance that learning. One reason is what’s called dual coding in the cognitive psychology literature. We have in our brains both verbal and visual channels for information. When we take in new ideas or produce some kind of work in which those channels are working together in a complementary fashion, we’re in a better position to understand and remember. Similarly, taking what you’re learning through one medium and representing that learning in a different medium provides opportunities for deeper engagement and critical thought.

In short, now might be a good time to give students some options for their final assignment in your course. I’m partial to podcast assignments, which I’ve used successfully in my cryptography course. You might tell students they can turn in that final paper or produce a podcast episode. Or you could give them even more autonomy to select the format of their final assignment, like my Vanderbilt colleague Larisa DeSantis does. In some of her earth and environmental science classes, she asks her students to find ways to show their learning that leverage their skills and interests. She’s had pre-service teachers create middle school lesson plans reflecting course topics, and she had one student produce a three-minute music video about the miocene epoch, using his rather unique set of singing skills. See Larisa’s website for more examples.

See also these episodes of our Leading Lines podcast, all of which feature faculty discussing the creative projects they give their students, for more ideas and practical strategies. Introducing a whole new type of assignment to students mid-semester, especially when it’s a new kind of assignment for you, can be challenging, so don’t reinvent the wheel. And know that some of your students displaced from campus might be in a better position to tackle a creative project of one sort or another. Again, giving them choices can help students leverage the resources they have to represent their learning in meaningful ways, and take away just a bit of the anxiety that they (and we) are experiencing in this uncertain time.

If you have stories to share about ways you’ve used technology to support your move to remote teaching and learning, I would love to hear them. Please feel free to share here on the blog in the comments section or over on Twitter, where my handle is @derekbruff.

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