As We May Teach: Small Group Discussion, Google Hangouts, and Online Classes

Three years ago, I became the director of Ball State University’s Digital Media Minor, an interdisciplinary program meant to teach students a variety of digital skills. At the time, we offered our courses in traditional classrooms; however, I believed that it made more sense to teach these digital skills in digital environments and so I lobbied to turn our program into an online-only minor.

Just ahead three years. After much struggled, we’d finally achieved our goal. All of our courses were now offered online. We even had a few years of data to help understand what was working and what wasn’t. As I began to reflect on the experiences of my students, I had a rather uncomfortable epiphany this past summer: My online courses did a terrible job teaching students how to think logically and apply critical thinking skills.

The reason: Self-directed courses (and let’s be honest, most online courses are self-directed) can’t introduce new, intellectually stimulating ideas and discussions.

Certainly I’ve tried. Message boards can be interesting, but only if you run the community properly and only if you incentive smart conversation. Academic argument papers provide a forum for student-to-teacher discussions through comments and emails. Even video responses with attached comments offer that possibility.

But none of these replicated the Socratic experience of small group discussions built around ideas and topics. If we wanted students to learn how to think, we had to teach them how to ask the right questions. To do that, we needed to spend time talking.

I’d created a dilemma.In building an efficient online training experience for my students, I’d forgotten to build a methodical learning experience that would prepare them to solve problems in the business world. (Despite what my friends in Silicon Valley think, creating efficiency in a classroom is a bad thing when it’s done at the expense of a holistic understanding of how we reach the best ideas.)

As I considered what to do, I relied upon the core philosophies of how we learn:

  1. Ideas are best articulated through writing
  2. Students need to be exposed to alternate viewpoints (not from the teacher)
  3. Students need to have ownership over their learning environment

Using those three basic ideas, I ditched quizzes (I never gave tests) and papers and replaced them with a holistic, practical based approach to ICOM 210: Introduction to Social Networks, a course meant to teach students how to use social technologies to collaborate and work together to solve problems. (Think Google Drive or SETI@Home.) You can see the full syllabus here.

Step 1: Learning Document

Each week, students must read several pieces, watch selected videos, and watch a 10-20 minute lecture. The students write 2 entries each week, in which they are asked to consider broad themes discussed in all the texts. Each text must be represented, and they are required to pull in a few outside sources to argue their points.

The documents are structured loosely around Blooms Taxonomy.There are five elements to a Learning Document entry.

  • Knowledge:You should have broad subheads that cover thematic ideas discussed in the writing and the lectures.Within those subheads, I would expect to see ideas enumerated in a way that suggests some formal analysis of understanding on your part.
  • Comprehension:You should have an explanation of what we subhead means, and descriptions of why lists or specific elements have been listed within each section.
  • Application:You should describe how you have used these listed ideas or elements before and/or how you might envision them being used in a specific, particularistic environment. (This is where you begin to personalize the information)
  • Analyze:You should point out contrarian ideas to these points, and explain how these ideas and elements differ from what you have found.
  • Synthesize + Evaluate:You should articulate a broad framework for how these kinds of ideas may apply beyond your particularistic skills.

These learning documents are the basis of our discussion. The students are meant to come prepared with ideas. When I turn the discussion to them, I want them to reference these ideas.

Step 2: Getting the Schedule

One week before I run the small group discussions using Google Hangouts, I create a poll with Doodle, an online scheduling software application. I’ve connected my Google Calendar with Doodle which allows me to selected 15-to-20 dates and times when I’m free for our discussions.

The schedule includes pre-work times (7 am, 8 am) some mid-day times (11, 12, and 1 pm), and evening times (5, 6, and 7 pm), which in my experience gives students enough flexibility to find at least a few available times.

Once I’ve selected the dates, I distribute the poll through the Blackboard course email system. Students then have one week to input their schedules, and then the poll closes. Whoever hasnt signed up receives a zero for class participation. There are no exceptions.

Step 3: Setting up Meetings

Once the poll closes, I go through the Doodle responses and create groups of 2-3 students. I use no particular system. I just select the students who can meet at particular times. (In this course, I have 15 students and thus has 5-7 small groups.)

Once that is done, I send out a Google Calendar invite to each student, which requires them to accept the time. (I also send a schedule out through Blackboards course email system.)

Step 4: Student technical preparation

Before we meet, each student is required to test their Google Hangout, their equipment (they must use headphones of some kind), and their lighting. They are required to have a good connection that doesnt interfere with the group.

Those who fail to do so receive no credit for the Hangout, and are asked to leave. I do let students make up that work with a lengthy essay if they so choose. However, technical glitches are not the problem of the professor.

Step 5: Hangout

At the agreed upon time, I launch Hangouts and invite the students, whom I’ve added to a BSU STUDENT circle, to join. We begin with 10-15 minutes of discussion on questions, and then the students are given control and expected to lead the discussion.

The rubric measures:

  1. Participation
  2. Intellectual Contribution
  3. Mastery of Subject Area
  4. Relation to Personal Career
  5. Professionalism

The goal of the discussion is to talk about the ideas in the reading as they relate to their work outside of the Minor, focusing specifically on how social tools might be deployed to solve problems. Thats the guiding instruction that drives the discussion: Applied Theory.

We have these discussions 4-5 times per semester.

So Far…

It’s too early to declare these Hangouts a success, but the feedback has been overwhelmingly positive from most students. Students have said:

  • it’s much easier to interpret instructor feedback once we’ve all talked
  • it’s nice to actuallytalkwith fellow students instead of just exchanging emails or messages
  • the interactions give them an opportunity for more unstructured questions to arise
  • they get to hear what other people are thinking so they don’t feel asalonein the learning process

Informally, the student work on their learning documents has been very insightful. Since the document is geared towards their personal experiences (although they must ground their definitions in the text, and they must find people who disagree with them), their work has been deeply intellectual. I’ve been pleasantly amazed at how well they have grokked scientific papers from the 1960s and 1970s when framed in a way that enables them to use their own experiences.

* * *

A Sample Learning Document Entry

This is the example I wrote for my students before the course started. Three ideas I’ve emphasized:

  1. The first paragraph needs to use in-class materials for definitions
  2. They must use personal experiences in graf 2 and the last graf is an example of how they might apply this knowledge in the future
  3. They must find outside sources who disagree with their point of view.

The Dilemma of Technology + Reading

While physical bookstores are struggling (Boseman, 2013), publishers and authors hope that business models with eReaders, tablet devices, and Web-based solutions will usher in a new, golden age of writing (Staff, 2013). The circular problem facing authors, though, is that while technology allows for the creation of more “native-based” stories on interactive devices, it’s still quite expensive to create tailored experiences for readers, which is what they want.

  1. Technology advances have allowed us to greater creativity
  2. Cost structures are still high for specific development
  3. It’s specific development that makes technological innovations matter

As I’ve worked with an independent book publisher, Carnegie Mellon’s ETC Press, to release Dungeons & Dreamers: A story of how computer games became a global culture (2nd Edition), I’ve seen this problem. While any author can now bypass larger corporate publishers, the array of tools available to create print books, eBooks, and websites can be dizzying. Certainly we could have used simple templates for publishing both the print and e-versions; however, those templates created a subpar experience. Instead, we’ve hired a professional designer for the print book, and learned a variety of digital publishing tools in order to publish in a variety of digital formats, e.g. Kindle, EPUB.

Of course, Richard Nash (2013) argues that these tools are neither more revolutionary nor more freeing that tools of the past. He argues that this is just a transition period, not unlike other major shifts with technology that will eventually be used to create a new business archetype.

What’s most intriguing for me moving forward with my career is understanding what tools are available for authors. I’m most in exploring which tools can be mastered rather easily, such as EPUB creation tools, and which still require an expertise beyond simple drag-and-drop interfaces, such as the Adobe Digital Publishing Suite.
The dilemma with technology and reading boils down to one of time: Authors who want to build an audience and operate in an increasingly decentralized publishing world now have to spend a good deal of time learning aspects of publishing

Works Cited

  • Bosman, J. (2013, August 11). “To Stay Afloat, Bookstores Turn to Web Donors.” New YorkTimes, p. A1.
  • Nash, R. (2013). “What Is the Business of Literature?”Virginia Quarterly Review, 89(2), 1427.
  • Staff. (2013, Spring). “The Writers Dilemma.”The Virginia Quarterly, 89(2). Retrieved from