Using Slack in the Classroom

If you aren’t already using it, chances are you have probably heard of the online communication platform known as Slack. Slack is a cloud-based software program that is used for project management, information sharing, individual and group communication, as well as synchronous and asynchronous collaboration.  There are free and paid plans available; the main difference between the plans is the number of messages that are accessible (10,000 with the free plan) and how many third-party tools are supported (10 with the free plan).  What began in 2013 as a mode for inter-office conversation between two business offices has quickly expanded to hundreds of workplaces worldwide as well as many classrooms.

With the number of existing communication tools already available, you may be wondering how this one differs and why you might consider using it. Slack is organized into ‘channels’ which are like chat rooms dedicated to specific conversations. Messages posted to a channel can be seen by everyone who subscribes to that channel or directed to specific individuals and kept private. Unlike traditional chat rooms which may be hard to follow, Slack supports threading, which allows participants to respond directly to posts within a channel without interrupting the overall flow of conversation. Slack integrates with several third-party services, such as Box, Google Drive, and Dropbox, as well as developer platforms such as GitHub and Bitbucket. It also has a powerful search feature, making it easy to find files and specific topics in cross-channel conversations.

Slack was designed with efficiency in mind, therefore communication tends to be succinct and streamlined. Generally speaking, participants write short, direct messages closer in style to a messaging app without the ‘formality’ often used when composing an email. While this lack of formality may take some getting used to, many students are already accustomed to this style which they frequently use in various social media apps and when texting. Also unlike email, Slack follows more of an ‘opt-in’ model, where users can join in on conversations they feel are relevant and ignore those that are not.  Settings are available to determine how often users are notified of messages being posted.

The following is a list of possible ways instructors can use Slack in the classroom:

  • Share information – Create channels for posting announcements, sharing articles, links, relevant content, etc. Students can immediately ask questions or comment on the post which could lead to a dialogue around a specific topic. This may help to engage students in the topic as well as build a sense of community in the class.
  • Manage group projects – Each group can have its own channel to collaborate, share files, and communicate with each other. Instructors can post resources for groups in their specific channels and periodically check in and offer assistance as needed.
  • Crowdsource class notes – Create a channel for students to contribute main ideas from notes taken in class. This could eventually be used to create a study guide.
  • Poll the class – Slack includes a free polling tool which can be used to survey students for a variety of reasons in real-time, during class, or asynchronously, outside of class. Polls are optionally anonymous.
  • Include experts ‘in the field’ – Invite subject matter experts and/or those working ‘in the field’ to Slack so they can participate in conversations and answer student questions. JHU instructor Jennifer Bernstein invites former students to stay involved in her Slack channels so that current students can benefit from the perspective of someone who has recently graduated and is now working in the medical profession.
  • Monitor student engagement – Slack provides an optional weekly summary of usage statistics, including charts and graphs showing how many messages were posted, files uploaded, etc.

If you decide to use Slack in a classroom environment, there are some considerations to keep in mind. For example, there is no FERPA compliance in Slack. Sensitive data such as grades and personal information should not be shared in Slack spaces. Instructors should be clear with students about what types of conversations are appropriate for Slack, and what might be better served in an email or face-to-face. Another thing to consider is the capability available to members (students) that are invited to a Slack space. Instructors may be surprised with the permissions and features available to students (i.e. the ability to create their own channels). Therefore, it is recommended that instructors familiarize themselves with the established permissions of Slack before getting started.  Finally, it may be worth noting that Slack is not a course management system (Blackboard, Canvas, etc.), and does not contain many of the features available in those systems, such as a gradebook, assignment creator, rubrics tool, etc. It may, however, provide an interesting, alternative means of communication in relevant situations as determined by the instructor.

Amy Brusini, Senior Instructional Designer
Center for Educational Resources

Image sources: Slack logo, Phil Simon: How I Use Slack in the Classroom

Lunch and Learn: Community-based Learning

On Wednesday, December 12, the Center for Educational Resources (CER) hosted the second Lunch and Learn for the 2018-2019 academic year. Shawntay Stocks, Assistant Director of Engaged Scholarship, Center for Social Concern; and Dora Malech, Assistant Professor, Writing Seminars; presented on Community-based Learning.

Graphic illustration of Community-based learning process.

Shawntay Stocks opened with a presentation on community-based learning (CBL) at Johns Hopkins speaking about how her organization—the Center for Social Concern (CSC)—can assist faculty who wish to use the CBL pedagogical model in their courses (see slides here). The Center for Social Concern is the part of the Homewood Student Affairs division of Johns Hopkins University that focuses on volunteerism and community engagement; Community-based Learning is just one of their programs.

Stocks described CBL as “…a pedagogical model that connects classroom-based work with meaningful community involvement and exchange.  Within the context of equitable partnership, community organizations and students mutually benefit from the CBL experience both by meeting course objectives and addressing community-identified goals.  Students may engage with groups including, but not limited to: nonprofits, government agencies, grassroots collectives, and other educational institutions.” She noted that collaboration is the key for faculty, students, and community groups in pursuing mutual goals and course objectives, and that faculty must provide adequate preparation for their students to engage in CBL. The Center for Social Concern offers training for faculty, stipends to support faculty and community partners, and provides a TA for courses using CBL. At the core CBL is an equal partnership. The community partner may not have an advanced academic degree, but does have expertise, relationships, and contextual knowledge to bring to the table.

Students benefit because CBL allows them to connect theory to real-life experience and to think critically, in our case, about urban life in Baltimore. They have the opportunity to work collaboratively and collectively and gain an understanding of diverse perspectives. The skills they develop will be transferable to other aspects of their lives. Students often transform their thinking about the city in positive ways as they gain knowledge through reflection.

How can faculty ensure a successful CBL experience? Stocks emphasized the importance of “doing your homework” in terms of the community partner. You should think about these questions: What are the areas of commonality? How do your academic goals and their programmatic goals overlap? What are the expectations on both sides? What types of training will students need for a successful partnership? What are the logistics for partnership meetings? What commitment is being made (e.g., one semester, multiple semesters or academic years) and what is the potential for an ongoing partnership? What type of action are you planning for your CBL course—research, service, community building, advocacy, dialog?

Critical for the student experience are reflection and assessment. Reflection deepens learning. Instructors must allow for students to express their discomfort, frustration, anxiety, anger as well as their positive, affirmative feelings. It’s important to have conversations around the emotional impact of their experiences and acknowledge difficulties. Assessment of learning can be done through journaling, discussion, essays, or presentations.

At the end of the course there should be a project evaluation that includes the community partner. How did the partnership work? Were the learning goals accomplished? What would make the partnership work better? What were the pitfalls? How can these be navigated next time?  CBL courses may be iterative processes and such evaluation will allow for continuous improvement of the experience for all involved.

Dora Malech won the Crenson-Hertz Award for Community Based Learning and Participatory Research from the Johns Hopkins University Center for Social Concern in 2016. For the past several years she has worked with CSC, partnering with the Writers in Baltimore Schools (WBS) program to give her Johns Hopkins Writing Seminars students a CBL experience. The WBS website has more information on this partnership. Malech shared her experiences with developing and teaching her course, Poetry and Social Justice.

Malech teaches undergraduate and graduate students now, but previously, at the University of Iowa, she directed a K-12 outreach program, which gave her an appreciation for community partnerships. In thinking about CBL, an important component for her is the concept of cultural humility, which comes from social work, a profession that emphasizes diversity and cultural competency. This idea of respecting the different experience of others and being open to learning from them works well for those interested in implementing CBL.

When she was first considering CBL, she made a lot of phone calls to prospective partners. Malech recommends meeting face to face, having coffee, getting to know the person. She ended up partnering with Patrice Hutton from the Writers in Baltimore Schools program. The program starts with Middle School students who participate in “in-school, after-school, and summer programming that builds skills in literacy and communication while creating a community of support for young writers.” Malech’s Writing Seminars students worked with Baltimore City high school students who had been program participants.

For the students on both sides, it is important to frame the relationship as a two-way transaction. The high school students have the experience of growing up in Baltimore City. They have cultural wealth and knowledge, and can articulate the community concerns. These students are college bound, but university culture is very much an abstraction for them. The JHU students may know nothing about inner-city life; the high school students give them the benefit of their urban experience, while the JHU students can help break down the mystery of what college life will be like for their high school partners.

Malech is explicit with her students about the course requirements. Participation in events outside of class time is mandatory—these include field trips, interview assignments, literary readings. Students are expected to get to these events on their own. Purchase of a Maryland Transit Administration CharmCard is recommended, and students should become familiar with public transportation such as local buses, light rail and the MARC train to DC. Due to logistics (the high school students are coming from all across Baltimore City), and to the high school students’ expressed preference, the class meetings are held on the JHU campus.

Malech said her role is to be explicit that the text is the community itself and that the students will build it together in the classroom. An on-going class blog—Poetry and Power—captures student writings. From the web site: “POETRY & POWER is the website and blog of “Poetry & Social Justice,” a Community Based Learning class that brings 15-20 Baltimore City high school students and 15- 20 Johns Hopkins University undergraduate students together to explore the intersection of poetry and social justice. They’ll write and read poetry together, engage with visiting writers, interview local poets and activists, and hold public performances of their own.”

As Stocks emphasized, Malech also views critical reflection as a key component for CBL. She uses the DEAL Model for Critical Reflection from Patti Clayton’s web site PHC Ventures (Mission: To build capacity for and generate best practices around community-engaged teaching, learning, and scholarship.), which Malech recommends as a great resource for those engaging in CBL.

A discussion followed the presentations. Stocks gave examples of different models of CBL. In one case a STEM faculty member and his class developed course modules to augment STEM programming at Margaret Brent Middle School. She fielded questions about whether it would be possible for Engineering capstone courses to use CBL with identified partners, specifically whether Civil Engineering students might partner with city agencies to identify and resolve infrastructure issues. This is an intriguing possibility that may be pursued with faculty and deans in the Whiting School of Engineering.

A question was posed about how to get departmental buy-in and funding for CBL courses. Malech noted that she had to prove that the concept was pedagogically sound and not overwhelming for the students. Strong positive feedback from the students showed that this was a high-impact teaching model. She said that she worked very hard to make the course a success. Getting positive publicity can be a strong incentive for department backing. Media attention acts as a “witness” to the process and as pressure for the administration to continue a project. She also presented at conferences and made the connection between strong writing and community engagement. Malech stated that culture change is an uphill battle where positive community feedback can really help. Being flexible and willing to scale up or down is important as well. The JHU President’s Office is advocating for community engagement, which may also be useful in getting departmental approval.

Stocks reminded us that CSC has resources for faculty and can assist even if someone wants to start on a small scale and build up to greater community engagement. Mike Reese, who uses CBL in his Sociology courses (focused on Baltimore City) noted that CSC had helped him get a JHU van to transport students for field work assignments. Stocks referenced the CSC website page for faculty wanting to use CBL—there are resources listed. She invited interested faculty to come have a conversation and learn more.

A question was asked about how a course could be restructured to include a CBL component. Faculty who have implemented CBL agreed that the activities must be the core course fabric. Traditional assignments can be swapped out for CBL assignments; class time can be used, or time outside of class can be substituted depending on the activity. Both the Center for Social Concern and the Center for Educational Resources can assist faculty with course planning.

Several participants who have used CBL in their courses stressed the importance of structuring and scaffolding the experience for students to assure that they buy into the concept. Malech emphasized that students should be prepared for the fact that there will be a certain amount of chaos inherent in the program, and that interpersonal relationships can be challenging. That is part of any real-world experience, but if students are prepared, they will be able to adapt. Another faculty CBL user noted that it is never a majority of students who feel “unsettled” by the realities of city life and partnership, but for those who are it is important to keep communication lines open and be flexible. And someone else noted that the “chaos factor” is also part of the equation for faculty and doesn’t go away even after multiple experiences offering CBL courses. In her experience, the chaos is well worth the meaningful, long-term impact for students. Malech commented, “That’s what college should be all about.”

Ahmed Ibrahim, Senior Education Research Consultant in the Center for Educational Resources, has been analyzing data on CBL courses taught at JHU from 2015 to 2017. He shared that students indicated that the best aspect of CBL courses is the personal interaction. Students asked for negative aspects made comments when the course was not well-structured.

Mike Reese, Director of the Center for Educational Resources asked Stocks and Malech what the best thing about CBL has been for them. Stocks answered that she enjoys creating CBL partnerships and wants to further engage faculty in a CBL learning community. For Malech, it has been the publishing and presenting as an educational expert outside her field of poetry. In terms of the learning process, she has come to think differently about course content. While originally she was focused on social justice and lived experience for the high school students, they challenged her to allow them to be creative writers. She’s appreciated the chance to be more open about her own assumptions of what the community partner wants and needs.

Macie Hall, Senior Instructional Designer
Center for Educational Resources

Image Sources: Center for Social Concern, Community-based Learning web site: https://studentaffairs.jhu.edu/socialconcern/programs/community-based-learning/

 

PhysPort: Not Just for Physics Instructors

Screenshot of PhysPort home page.While tracking down some resources for active learning this past week, I stumbled on PhysPort, and wished I’d know about this site much sooner. PhysPort, formerly the Physics Education Research (PER) User’s Guide, supports “…physics faculty in implementing research-based teaching practices in their classrooms, by providing expert recommendations about teaching methods, assessment, and results from physics education research (PER). Work in PER has made enormous advances in developing a variety of tools that dramatically improve student learning of physics. Our goal is to synthesize and translate the results of this research so you can use it in your classroom today.” The thing is, many of the resources here will be valuable to faculty in any discipline and will help improve student learning in any course.

Certainly, some of the materials and examples are physics-specific; others may be more useful for STEM faculty generally. Yet, there is plenty here that will be appreciated by anyone looking for pedagogical resources, even Humanities faculty. The best thing is the emphasis on research-based strategies.

I liked the clean, clear structure of the site. There are five tabs at the top each page for easy navigation to the Home page, Expert Recommendations, Teaching Methods, Assessments, and Workshops.

On the Home page there are three areas for general help—Teaching (I want to…), Assessment (I want to…), and Troubleshooting (I need help with…). Clicking on a topic of interest will take you to a page with relevant materials and resources. Expert Recommendations are essentially articles/blog posts written by PhysPort staff and guest authors to help instructors. I’ve listed some articles of general interest further down.

Teaching Methods will take you to a form where you can enter information more specific to your course. You can enter subject from a drop down list (including “any subject” to keep results more generic), level, setting, student skills you’d like to develop, the amount of instructor effort required. You can choose the level of research validation, and exclude resources, such as computers for students or tables for group work, that may not be available to you. Below the form is the list of 57 Research-Based Methods that you can browse through if the form doesn’t provide you with relevant choices. Again, some of these are physics-specific, but others, like Just-in-Time-Teaching are broadly applicable. Each of the methods has tabs for Overview, Resources, Teaching Materials, and Research.

The Assessments tab allows you to explore “…where you can get instant analysis of your students’ scores on research-based assessment instruments, comparisons to national averages and students like yours, recommendations for improving your teaching, and reports for tenure and promotion files, teaching portfolios, and departmental accreditation.” It is also set up with a form at the top. You can scroll down to see a list of 92 Research-Based Assessments. Most of these are physics-based. But scroll to the bottom of the page for a few interactive teaching protocols that may be more generally appropriate.

The Workshops tab features video tutorials. Again, there is a mix of physics-specific and non-specific materials.

Back to my original quest for resources on active learning. Under Expert Recommendations tab of particular interest are a series of posts by Stephanie Chasteen, University of Colorado Boulder (June 20, 2017) on implementing active learning strategies in your classroom. These are applicable to any subject matter, not just physics or even STEM courses. Each topic covered has a section on further reading with a list of references, a general reading list, and suggested keywords for searching in the literature.

PhysPort is a rich resource for all faculty. Spend a little time digging around. You should come up with some great material.

Macie Hall, Senior Instructional Designer
Center for Educational Resources

Image Source: Screenshot of PhysPort home page: https://www.physport.or

 

Scaffolding for Successful Learning

The Innovative Instructor likes the concept of scaffolding. Not the architectural structure,Construction workers climbing a scaffold. but the support faculty can provide for students in the classroom. Two previous posts, Scaffolding Part 2: Build Your Students’ Notetaking Skills (March 29, 2017) and Scaffolding: Teach your students how to read a journal article (February 28, 2017) looked at ways in which instructors can give students a framework to improve their skills and help them succeed. In an article in the Chronicle of Higher Education, Traditional Teaching May Deepen Inequality. Can a Different Approach Fix It?  (Beckie Supiano, May 6, 2018) instructor Kelly A. Hogan asks, “Doesn’t everybody like some structure or guidance? Why do we treat learning as something different or special?”

Ten years ago, Hogan, now STEM-Teaching Associate Professor and Assistant Dean of Instructional Innovation at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, was presented with data on students’ grades in her introductory level biology class and grasped the impact that inequities in K-12 education have. “About one in 14 white students earned a D or F in the course. About one in seven Latino/a students received those grades. For black students, it was one in three.” She was directly contributing to the leaky STEM pipeline—students who failed her course were unlikely to continue in a STEM field.

Faculty may recognize the racial gaps in education that first year college students bring to the classroom. They may see these as “inevitable inequities” revealing problems that are too vast for them, as instructors, to overcome. Hogan saw it differently. The gap was her problem and she became convinced that traditional undergraduate teaching—lectures, reading assignments, high-stakes assessments—was making it worse. Specifically, students whose high schools had not prepared them for college-level work were failing, not because they weren’t capable of doing that work, “…but because no one has taught them how to navigate the system.” That includes knowing how to take notes in lectures and on reading assignments, how to prepare for writing papers and taking tests, and how (and where) to ask for help when needed.

Hogan taught courses with 300 or more students and had a lot of student data, so she could see patterns and trends. And because she also ran study-skills workshops, she had strategies that would help students succeed. She now uses a pedagogical approach called inclusive teaching. “Inclusive teaching has two main components: putting more structure into a course, giving clear instructions so that all students know what to do before, during, and after class; and thoughtfully facilitating class discussion, so that everyone can participate.”

Hogan flipped her course so that students spend class time doing active learning exercises rather than listing to her lecture. She was explicit about her motives and how students would benefit. “She emphasized the habits of a successful student and focused on the importance of practice. She broke down the things students could do before, during, and after class to give themselves the best chances of performing well. Then she made those tasks mandatory, and a factor in students’ grades.” The article details some of the practices. Her course syllabus illustrates how she communicates these to her students.

Even in a class with a 300 plus enrollment, held in an auditorium designed for lecturing, Hogan has students working in assigned groups on projects. She moves around the room to oversee their work. Students use smart phones as classroom polling devices to answer questions, opening an opportunity for discussion. Hogan facilitates class discussions in ways to equalize participation.

The article goes on to detail how two of Hogan’s “converts” have implemented inclusive teaching in their own classrooms. Hogan runs workshops on inclusive teaching that include an unusual startup activity that clearly illustrates the educational inequity gap for incoming college students. At one workshop after completing the initial task, attendees turned to what might be done to remedy the problem. “Inequity, Hogan suggested, is not intractable. Even small changes in teaching can help counteract it. ‘Adding structure to the learning environment,’ Hogan said, ‘can mitigate unfairness, build feelings of inclusion, and promote student success.’”

Changing demographics mean that many students arrive at colleges and universities lacking high school preparation that used to be taken for granted. We can’t afford to shrug off responsibility for ensuring that all of our students can succeed. As Hogan points out, the impact on our society going forward is too great. Rather, instructors must consider how to level the field and provide guidance and scaffolding to support their students in successful learning.

Macie Hall, Senior Instructional Designer
Center for Educational Resources

Image Source: Pixabay.com

Quick Tips: Tweeting to Learn

Twitter Logo Blue BirdToday it seems that everyone is tweeting, from politicians to celebrities to regular folks. And yes, even academics are tweeting. For high profile users, Twitter allows users to quickly get out a message to followers, whether political or public relations. For academics, it can be a great way to share conference takeaways, timely articles, or, in the case of Johns Hopkins University Professor of History, Martha S. Jones, to stimulate class discussion. A recent article in the JHU Hub, History Class Meets the Digital Age, details Jones’ practice.

Jones thinks that giving students skills in using social media is as important as teaching content and having students learn to do research. “Which is why this semester, six sessions of Jones’ History of Law and Social Justice course are taking the form of Twitter chats. Over the period of an hour, Jones posts 10 questions related to that unit’s reading, and students—along with anyone else who happens to drop in on the chat—respond and discuss. Far from an afterthought, the chats—conducted using the #lawsocialjustice hash tag—are a central element in the course and determine 30 percent of a student’s grade.”

Just as they might do in class, these students are participating in a discussion, albeit one they can contribute to while in their pajamas lounging at home as easily as in the quiet space of the library or while sitting on the quad enjoying the fall weather.

“The questions are rapid-fire, with a new one popping up every six minutes. Students are required to answer each question, which means that responses often overlap, but also that all 20 can fully participate in a way not always possible in a traditional class setting. Responses are limited to Twitter’s 280 characters, which encourages students to distill their thoughts, though many are also learning to “thread” their responses to allow for greater depth.”

And the audience is not limited to the instructor and classmates; Jones invites her 8,000 plus Twitter followers to join in as well. These additional voices enrich the students’ learning experience as they become teachers themselves byclarifying or providing nuance to their responses when questioned by others on the chat. In some cases, the followers contribute additional expertise to the conversation. Jones appreciates the give and take with a larger community as well the view that students get into her roles as a professional/scholar/researcher—something that undergraduates may not always see or have access to in their relationships with faculty.

If you are interested in using Twitter in your class, read the full article to get more detail. In addition, two previous Innovative Instructor posts have looked at using Twitter in the classroom and will provide additional resources: Using Twitter in Your Course (December 10, 2014) and Tweeting the Iliad (November 22, 2016). Faculty have asked about whether students might have reservations about setting up a Twitter account. If tweeting will be a requirement for your course, it would be wise to make that clear in the course description and again on the first day of class. Student response to tweeting in Jones’ course and to the courses described in the previous blog posts on Twitter have been overwhelmingly positive. The Innovative Instructor welcomes comments on your pedagogical experiences with Twitter specifically or social media more generally.

Macie Hall, Senior Instructional Designer
Center for Educational Resources

Image Source: Twitter blue logo https://about.twitter.com/press/brand-assets

The New Google Sites

We’re always on the lookout for applications that instructors and their students can use to enhance course work. A previous post We Have a Solution for That: Student Presentations, Posters, and Websites (October 6, 2017) mentioned a new version of Google Sites as having potential as a presentation software that allows for easy collaboration among student team members. Today’s post will delve deeper into its possibilities and use. This post is also available in PDF format as part of The Innovative Instructor articles series.

Logo for Google SitesNew Google Sites is an online website creation platform. It doesn’t require web development or design experience to create sites that work well on mobile devices. The New Google Sites application is included with the creation tools offered in Google Drive, making it easier to share and integrate your Google Drive content.

In 2006 Google purchased JotSpot, a software company that had been creating social software for businesses. The software acquired from that purchase was used to create the first iteration of Google Sites, now known as Classic Google Sites. Ten years later, Google launched a completely rebuilt Google Sites, which is currently being referred to as New Google Sites.

New Google Sites hasn’t replaced Classic Google Sites so much as it offers a new and different experience. The focus of New Google Sites is to increase collaboration for all team members regardless of their web development experience. It is also integrated with Google Drive so that teams working within the Google apps environment can easily associate shared content.

This new iteration of Google Sites is designed with mobile devices in mind. Users are

Screenshot example of the New Google Sites editing interface.

Example of the New Google Sites editing interface.

not able to add special APIs (Application Programmable Interface, which extends functionality of an application) or edit HTML directly. This keeps the editing interface

and options simple to ensure that whatever you create will work consistently across all browsers and devices. While this may seem limiting, you still have the option to use Classic Google Sites if you want a higher level of control.

In a classroom setting, instructors are often cautious about assigning students projects that require them to learn new technical skills that aren’t directly relevant to the course content. Instructors must balance the time it will take students to achieve technical competency against the need to ensure that students achieve the course learning goals. With New Google Sites, students can focus on their content without being overwhelmed by the technology.

In addition to ease of use, collaborative features allow students to work in teams and share content. Group assignments can offer students a valuable learning experience by providing opportunities for inclusivity, exposure to diverse viewpoints, accountability through team roles, and improved project outcomes.

New Google Sites makes it easy for the causal user to disseminate new ideas, original research, and self-expression to a public audience. If the website isn’t ready to be open to the world, the site’s editor has the ability to keep it unpublished while still having the option to collaborate or share it with select people. This is an important feature as student work may not be ready for a public audience or there may be intellectual property rights issues that preclude public display.

Professors at here at Johns Hopkins have used New Google Sites for assignments. In the History of Science and Technology course, Man vs. Machine: Resistance to New Technology since the Industrial Revolution, Assistant Professor Joris Mercelis had students use New Google Sites for their final projects. Teams of two or three students were each asked to create a website to display an illustrated essay based on research they had conducted. Images and video were required to support their narrative arguments. Students had to provide proper citations for all materials. Mercelis wanted the students to focus on writing for a lay audience, an exercise that encouraged them to think broadly about the topics they were studying.

History of Art Professor Stephen Campbell used a single Google Site where student teams collaborated to produce an online exhibition, Exhibiting the Renaissance Nude: The Body Exposed. Each student group was responsible for supplying the materials for one of five topic pages. The content developed from this project was accessible only to the class.

In both cases, students reported needing very little assistance when editing their sites. Typically, giving an introductory demonstration and providing resources for where to find help are all students need to begin working.

Recently, Google has created the ability to allow other Google Drive content to be embedded in a site. This means that you can embed a form or a document on a web page to elicit responses/feedback from your audience without them having to leave the site. This level of integration further supports the collaborative nature of Google applications.

Currently, this iteration of Google Sites uses the New in its title. There may come a time when Google will drop the New or re-brand New Google Sites with a different name. There is no indication that Google will stop supporting Classic Google Sites with its more advanced features.

Use of both versions of Google Sites is free and accessible using your Google Account. You can create a new site by signing into Google and going to the New Google Sites page (link provided below). You can also create a site from Google Drive’s “New” button in the creation tools menu.

It is recommended that students create a new account for class work instead of us­ing their personal accounts. While this is an additional step, it ensures that they can keep their personal lives separated from their studies.

A Google Site as displayed on a desktop, tablet, and smartphone.

A Google Site as displayed on a desktop, tablet, and smartphone.

Additional Resources:

Reid Sczerba, Multimedia Developer
Center for Educational Resources

Image sources: Google Sites logo, screenshots

Notice and Wonder

Sometimes you discover a great blog, only to learn that the authors have just posted their final article. At least, in this case, the posts are archived by a professional association, and in searching through said archive, you find a gem. Such is the story of The Teaching Tidbits Blog, hosted by the Mathematical Association of America.

Black and white line drawing of the upper torso of a young male in a thinking pose. Two question marks are on either side of his head.The gem of a post is The Exercise with No Wrong Answer: Notice and Wonder (April 18, 2018) written by May Mei, Assistant Professor of Computer Science and Mathematics at Denison University. Mei asks: “How often have your students said nothing rather than risk saying something wrong? And how often in our own writing are we so paralyzed by the fear of imperfection that we end up writing nothing at all?” The solution is an exercise called Notice and Wonder, which “has no wrong answers.” The concept is to present students with an idea, which could be in the form of a drawing, diagram, graphical presentation, image, video clip, a sentence written on the blackboard, etc., and ask students what they notice about it. After students have explored the possibilities, they are asked what they wonder about it. Mei states: “This provides opportunities to discuss what is still unknown and puts all students on equal ground-everyone can wonder about something. Because there are no wrong answers for either of these questions, all students can participate in the activity.

Notice and Wonder exercises allow students to brainstorm ideas and explore a problem before attempting to find a solution or uncover meaning. These activities can be used in-class, but the concept is flexible enough to be adapted to online discussion board threads or outside-of-class group work. Mei uses it as a way to help her students review for exams. “If my students have an upcoming exam, I will use the class period before as review, and sometime before that review period I ask each of my students to email me one thing they noticed and one thing they’re still wondering about. Just before class on the review day, I put all the students’ Notices and Wonders into one document and distribute it to the class. As I’m making this document I’m able to recognize themes and repeated observations or questions and can focus on those during the in-class review.”

Many of the examples of these activities revolve around mathematics, and/or are directed at the K-12 population. But as creative thinkers, it is easy to see that this is an idea that can be expanded to any discipline or age group. A video by Annie Fetter, on staff at Math Forum (which is now part of National Council of Teachers of Mathematics), is often cited in articles on Notice and Wonder. It is directed at K-12 teachers, but demonstrates the concept in a way that will be useful to anyone considering using Notice and Wonder exercises. See Ever Wonder What They’d Notice (5 minutes).

Notice and Wonder activities involving data visualizations and images can help students develop interpretive, critical thinking, analytical, and visual literacy skills. The New York Times offers two resources: What is Going on in This Picture and the more recently launched What is Going on in This Graph. Of the latter, the Times says: “The content and statistical concepts will be suitable for most middle and high school students. Often, we’ll strip it of some key information, then ask students three question — inspired by Visual Thinking Strategies, but anchored in math and statistics thinking: • What do you notice? • What do you wonder? • What’s going on in this graph?” Again, these platforms are directed towards a K-12 audience, but looking at the examples may inspire you to conceive examples that will be relevant for your college-age students.

Have you used Notice and Wonder exercises in your class? If so, please share your experience in the comments.

Macie Hall, Senior Instructional Designer
Center for Educational Resources

Image Source: Image from Pixabay.com

 

Texts of Engagement: Reading and Writing for Inclusivity in Any Discipline

[Guest post by Anne-Elizabeth Brodsky, Senior Lecturer, Expository Writing, JHU]

As part of the Lunch and Learn series, Karen Fleming (biophysics professor) and I gave presentations on fostering an inclusive classroom environment, summarized in the previous post.

In this follow up, I’ll offer some resources that seem to me versatile enough to use in different kinds of classrooms, and toward different ends. I’ve divided them into the categories below; the sources in the first three sections, in particular, can nearly all live quite comfortably in most disciplines.

What is college for?
Why bother with stories
How textual analysis works
Ideas for writing assignments

What is college for?

Cartoon rendering of an illuminated light bulb.Plenty of college students, from visibly diverse backgrounds and otherwise, feel mystified by the academy, at best —and overwhelmed by it, at worst. One way I try to help them find their footing is to engage them in examining university culture.

In my courses we use the sources below, and others, for informal “response writing.” I’m not using these sources to teach academic argument, although plenty of them have elegant arguments built into their narratives, and my students do notice that. I use them in hopes of activating their engagement and imagination about what their undergraduate experience will mean for them—to give them glimpses from the skybox.

Here’s a sampling:

Anna Deveare Smith raises the stakes of higher ed in her Chronicle interview “Are Students “Learning Anything About Love Here?’”

In “How to Live Wisely,”  Richard J. Light describes the Harvard course “Reflecting on Your Life.” Students explore: What does it mean to live a good life? What about a productive life? How about a happy life? How might I think about these ideas if the answers conflict with one another? And how do I use my time here at college to build on the answers to these tough questions?”

Mark Edmundson, first in his family to go to college, takes on undergraduate experience at research institutions in “Who Are You and What Are You Doing Here?”

“The Cosmos and You,” just a few paragraphs long, tells the story of an astronomy student who asks her professor the big question: “How do you keep from despairing at the immensity of space and the smallness of us?”

Julio M. Ottino and Gary Saul Morson write about empathy, engineering, and more in “Building a Bridge Between Engineering and the Humanities.”

Neil Koblitz advocates for clear, engaging storytelling in the sciences in “Why STEM Needs the Humanities.”

Lyell Asher’s essay “Low Definition in Higher Education” takes on Anna Karenina, safe spaces, and more: “Rightly understood, the campus beyond the classroom is the laboratory component of college itself. It’s where ideas and experience should meet and refine one another, where things should get more complicated, not less.”

Nicholas Lemann’s “The Case for a New Kind of Core” proposes “a methods-based, rather than a canon-based, curriculum,” with skills categories: information acquisition, cause & effect, interpretation, numeracy, perspective, language of form, thinking in time, and argument.

“The Astrophysicist Who Wants to Help Solve Baltimore’s Urban Blight” tells the story of a Hopkins professor and the Baltimore Housing Commissioner teaming up to tackle our vacant housing problem.

Finally, a dated but still very popular article among my students is Thomas Friedman’s “How to Get a Job at Google.” To a person, every student who has read this has been surprised. At JHU as at many other schools, it’s common for students to see college as a means to an end—professional school, a big job. Living in the future tense, focused almost entirely on the retroactive value of college they plan to enjoy after graduation, they default to a safe, well-worn path of coursework and GPA management. Friedman’s article, like many of those above, nudges them a bit on this.

Why bother with stories

Sea turtle rendered as a multi-colored mosaic.A central tenet of the Expository Writing Program at Hopkins is that our students engage in meaningful writing. Our students write to contribute to an ongoing intellectual conversation about a genuine problem or question. We expect students to think not only about their argument, based on the evidence at hand, but also about the implications of their argument.

Thus if I’m asking students (in my classes, mostly STEM majors) to enter a critical conversation about a short story, I have to be sure we are explicit about how it could possibly matter whether or not they make a compelling argument about a piece of fiction—you know, something that never really happened.

So, in class we ask the question: Why bother with stories? Here are some resources that have helped answer this:

Short fiction warrants a column in the New York Times op-ed pages in David Brooks’ “The Child in the Basement,” which nicely models a summary (of Ursula Le Guin’s “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas”) and then offers three socially relevant readings of the text.

Diaa Hadid’s interview with Mahlia Lone and Laaleen Sukhera, “2 Sisters in Pakistan Find They Have a Lot in Common with Jane Austen” illustrates connections between upper-class contemporary Pakistan and the England of Austen’s novels.

Two TED talks: The well-known “The Danger of a Single Story” by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and Raghava KK’s also wonderful 4½ -minute “Shake Up Your Story.”

Here’s an idea I haven’t tried yet: put Adichie’s talk next to John W. Krakauer and David Poeppel’s “Neuroscience Needs Behavior: Correcting a Reductionist Bias,” which is also about the “danger of a single story.”

Most recently: Lindy West writes in her op-ed “We Got Rid of Some Bad Men. Now Let’s Get Rid of Bad Movies”: “Art didn’t invent oppressive gender roles, racial stereotyping or rape culture, but it reflects, polishes and sells them back to us every moment of our waking lives.”

All of this depends on analysis, of course, and especially textual analysis…

How textual analysis works

Budding tree growing out of the center of an opened book.There are lots of ways to teach students how to do textual analysis (aka close reading). A few favorite resources:

“Twenty Titles: One Poem,” by poet Douglas Kearney, helps students see different interpretations (titles) of the same data (the sculpture).

Here, students analyze the poem “Since You Are Mortal” (Simonides) and then turn over the page to see how the translator, Danielle S. Allen, interprets it.

Danielle S. Allen, Our Declaration: A Reading of the Declaration of Independence in Defense of Equality (excerpts)

John Oliver, “Migrants and Refugees” (1:12-1:54)

NPR Code Switch Podcast: Camila Domonoske, “When ‘Miss’ Meant So Much More: How One Woman Fought Alabama — And Won”

Two more TED talks: John McWhorter’s “Txting is Killing Language. JK!!!” and Jean-Baptiste Michel and Erez Lieberman Aiden’s “What We Learned from 5 Million Books”

Ideas for writing assignments

Colored pencils arranged in a row.Again, just a quick sampling of texts that have worked well with first- and second-year students. My colleagues have loads of their own, as you likely do as well.

Summarizing an academic article:

Lin Bian et al, “Messages About Brilliance Undermine Women’s Interest in Educational and Professional Opportunities”

Samantha P. Fan et al, “The Exposure Advantage: Early Exposure to a Multilingual Environment Promotes Effective Communication”

Martha C. Nussbaum, “Teaching Patriotism: Love and Critical Freedom”

Finding an interpretive question in a text and reasoning through it:

James Baldwin, “Stranger in the Village”
Octavia Butler, “Bloodchild”
Ursula K. Le Guin, “She Unnames Them”
Toni Morrison, “Recitatif”
ZZ Packer, “Brownies”
David Sedaris, “Repeat After Me”
Alice Walker, “The Revenge of Hannah Kemhuff”
Patricia Williams, “The Emperor’s New Clothes”
EB White, “The Ring of Time” (the whole essay, including the section on Florida and segregation)

Entering a critical conversation about a text:

Build an argument about EB White’s “The Ring of Time” by responding to Craig Seligman’s review “Mr. Normal”

Build an argument about Octavia Butler’s “Bloodchild” by responding to the Butler’s comments in the Afterword about love and slavery

Build an argument about Toni Morrison’s “Recitatif” by responding to two of the following: Morrison’s prologue to Playing in the Dark; Elizabeth Abel’s “Black Writing, White Reading: Race and the Politics of Feminist Interpretation”; David Goldstein-Shirley’s “Race and Response: Toni Morison’s ‘Recitatif’”; and Danielle S. Allen’s prologue, chapter 1, and chapter 9 of Talking to Strangers: Anxieties of Citizenship Since Brown v. Board of Education.

 

Anne-Elizabeth Brodsky, PhD, has been teaching at Johns Hopkins since 2007 and co-chairs, with Professor Fleming, JHU’s Committee on the Status of Women.

Images source: Pixabay.com

Lunch and Learn: Creating and Implementing Authentic Assignments

Logo for Lunch and Learn program showing the words Lunch and Learn in orange with a fork above and a pen below the lettering. Faculty Conversations on Teaching at the bottom.On Tuesday, October 15, the Center for Educational Resources (CER) hosted the first Lunch and Learn—Faculty Conversations on Teaching—for the 201-2018 academic year.  Sanchita Balachandran, Associate Director, the Johns Hopkins Archaeological Museum and Senior Lecturer, Department of Near Eastern Studies; and Sauleh Siddiqui, Assistant Professor, Civil Engineering presented on their experiences using authentic assignments.

As a preface, students often ask why they need to learn something, and wonder when, if ever, they will use course information. Authentic assignments give students “real-world” experience and context, and involve hands-on, active learning.

Students building a kiln for Sanchita Balachandran's Greek Vases course.Sanchita Balachandran is Associate Director and conservator of the JHU Archaeological Museum as well as a lecturer in the Department of Near Eastern Studies. The collection was started in 1882, just six years after the founding of the University, and now occupies a jewel-box of a space in the renovated Gilman Hall, where its collection is at long last appropriately displayed. Balachandran uses the museum collection and “teaches courses related to the identification and analysis of ancient manufacturing techniques of objects, as well as the history, ethics and practice of museum conservation and curation.” She’s long been interested in authentic learning, and has recently taught two courses that exemplify this method: Recreating Ancient Greek Ceramics and Roman Egyptian Mummy Portraits.  [See presentation slides.]

When designing authentic learning assignments Balachandran asks herself a series of questions.

  1. Is this a question I am genuinely curious about and don’t know the answer to? With the course on recreating Greek ceramics she had long wondered how these objects were made (a subject of speculation and debate but no definitive answers). For both Balachandran and her students, it was both “exhilarating and terrifying” to not know what the end results would be. They would be discovering the answers together and this was motivating for the students.
  2. Is the question big enough, and are the stakes high? For her course on Roman Egyptian mummy portraits (Freshman Seminar: Technical Research on Archaeological Objects in the Johns Hopkins Archaeological Museum) the primary goal was to generate and collect technical data on these ancient portraits for contribution to an international data base. Other collaborators included the J. Paul Getty Museum, the British Museum, the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, the Walters Art Museum and the Art Institute of Chicago. The students were working with “big players” in the museum world.
  3. Do I have a physical thing that can be the focus of sustained and weekly examination and research? In both courses museum artifacts provided a focus point for the students.
  4. What methodology am I trying to teach? Balachandran’s methodology involved working hands-on with museum objects, consulting with experts and specialists in the field, documenting through writing, photography, and film the processes, and sharing observations and reflections with a broad audience. She noted that it was important that students experience moments of confusion during the process as it teaches them to think critically about, for example, past research, and what applies and doesn’t.
  5. What kind of expertise is need and who has it and will help? Balachandran spends a great deal of time in advance of her courses identifying relevant resources. She noted the value of Skype for bringing subject matter experts and specialists into the classroom from around the world.
  6. Is my class of students disciplinarily diverse? Balachandran advertises her courses broadly. Museum work often involves material scientists, for example. Her Greek vase course had students from materials science, applied mathematics, and biomedical engineering as well as the humanities and social sciences.
  7. Is the class work challenging and is there a hands on component? In each of the courses, Balachandran had students working with the materials that were used in the creation of the original art objects. The students made vases from clay using the techniques known to have been used in Ancient Greece; in the portrait course, they painted with encaustic, the material used by Roman Egyptians. She stressed that this was more than an arts and crafts session. Students studied the material science behind the techniques that were used and gained an appreciation for how the works were created.
  8. Is there an enduring “deliverable” or a regular public component to the class? Students contributed to the international data base in the mummy portraits class and blogged regularly as a part of the Greek vases class. Balachandran used social media (Facebook) to publicize student work. There was also a documentary film—Mysteries of the Kylix—made during the class that has been viewed over 4000 times. She arranged for radio spots on WYPR (Baltimore’s NPR station) and gained exposure through Johns Hopkins publications and the Baltimore Sun newspaper.
  9. Do I see my students as collaborators? Balachandran makes sure that students are given credit in the public components of the course and regularly acknowledges their participation. She sees herself as in the trenches with the students, finding answers to problems together.
  10. Am I ready not to be in control of what we find out? This is perhaps the most difficult step for an instructor to take with authentic assignments, but the one that will allow for the real learning gains. We learn from our failures as well as successes, and that is important for students to experience firsthand.

In conclusion, Balachandran summarized what students learned during her courses:

  • Everything is more complicated than we think and merits repeated examination/re-examination
  • Our work in the classroom produces unique specialized knowledge
  • We can participate in and contribute to scholarly conversations
  • We should broaden our own knowledge base and collaborate beyond our usual networks
  • We must provide access to the knowledge we produce
  • The process of trying to answer a question is more important than answering the question—and will lead to more interesting questions
  • We can/must ask more daring questions.

Siddiqui discussed the main components of authentic learning assignments as he uses them in his courses with the most important being that students should be doing rather than listening. [See presentation slides.] These are:

  • The judgment to distinguish reliable from unreliable information.
  • The patience to follow longer arguments.
  • The synthetic ability to recognize relevant patterns in unfamiliar contexts.
  • The flexibility to work across disciplinary and cultural boundaries to generate innovative solutions.

Example of problem involving transportation networks by Sauleh Siddiqui.In his course, Equilibrium Models in Systems Engineering, students work on real-life examples such as designing transportation networks. To demonstrate an exercise that Siddiqui uses in his course, he passed out clickers to the audience, as his students would use. He then set up a problem involving getting from Washington, DC to Baltimore, MD using a combination of driving and taking a train, with two possible routes. Driving time on each route will vary depending on the number of cars on the road. The model is set for the number of participants/students in the group—if there are 28 participants driving on the same route, the driving part of the trip will take 28 minutes. If there are 5 participants driving on the route, it will take 5 minutes. The train trip is static and takes 30 minutes on each route. Using their clickers, participants vote on a route, A or B. Siddiqui then show the histogram of the vote, and participants can change their vote based on the road time component. As participants change votes, the driving time will increase or decrease on each choice. Voting continues until eventually a state of equilibrium is reached and the driving time on the two routes is equal.

Siddiqui then throws in another component. What happens if you add another variable, a new road? Participants can now vote for three options. Ultimately his students will see (as did the participants at the Lunch and Learn) that sometimes a third option can worsen the situation rather than improve it.

In his classes, students work with actual examples taken from New York City, Germany, South Korea, and other places, to examine the factors that went into the design process, and analyze what went wrong. Siddiqui feels that engineers are not necessarily taught to work with real-life situations and this can lead to poor design. Engineers need to understand the factors that impact actual human decision making in order to build successful solutions.

In the discussion period that followed the presentation, Balachandran and Siddiqui agreed that students are motivated by working with real-life problems. Siddiqui noted that his students still had to “slog through” doing the mathematics behind the exercises, but valued understanding both sides.

In discussing how to gauge whether an assignment or project was too big or too small, it was agreed that it is important to scaffold larger projects, build support structures, and allow for flexibility. It was acknowledged that students will struggle with ambiguity. It is important with authentic assignments to be clear that the goal is not so much to find an answer as to go through a process.

Both presenters agreed that setting up these authentic learning experiences—assignments, projects, and courses, can be time consuming and challenging. But, for both, the benefits for students have been substantial and they will continue to explore the possibilities for future classes.

Macie Hall, Senior Instructional Designer
Center for Educational Resources

Image Sources: Lunch and Learn Logo, slides from Balachandran and Siddiqui presentations

Faculty Office Hours: The Instructor is In

Peanuts comic showing Lucy in the psychiatrist's booth, re-labelled to say "Course Help Free; The Instructor is In."What if you hold office hours and nobody comes? That’s the issue that Dr. Richard Freishtat, Director of the Center for Teaching and Learning at UC Berkeley addresses in Don’t Be Alone During Office Hours (Tomorrow’s Professor, January 10, 2017). He describes a student panel at Berkeley on facilitating student success. When the student panelists were asked by a faculty member about attending office hours, there was silence. Why was this opportunity not being pursued? One student responded, “Reason #1: ‘I think office hours is for students who are struggling with the material and need extra help. I wouldn’t want my professor to know I’m struggling, even if I was.’ Reason #2: ‘I was fascinated by the Professor, the discipline, and research in the field beyond what we were focusing on in class. I would have loved to drop into office hours and just talk with my professor about her own research, but figured there’s no way she’d want to take the time to do that with me.’” Faculty in the audience expressed just how much they would appreciate students coming to see them for the latter reason.

Freishtat goes on to suggest some ways to increase student attendance at office hours including making it an assignment, telling students how to use/what the purpose is of office hours, explaining to students how to start an office hours conversations (bring a question, a quote of interest, a story), scheduling varying days and times to accommodate different schedules, and promoting office hours throughout the semester/quarter.

For more on practical measures to take to improve the participation and outcome of your office hours, see the Stanford Teaching Commons website on Office Hours That Work and the University of Washington Center for Teaching and Learning on Face to Face Office Hours.

Macie Hall, Senior Instructional Designer
Center for Educational Resources

Image Source: CC Image from Flickr [https://www.flickr.com/photos/frederickhomesforsale/16107671226] modified by Macie Hall