We started our discussion of active learning at social distance by moving into breakout rooms to discuss the prework, responses to Norman Clark's Inside Higher Ed article The Physically Distanced Classroom: A Day in the Life, which envisions what the experience of students in our fall classes might look like. Perhaps unsurprisingly, many of us found this vision of the future depressing! However, some participants pointed out that things don't have to be as dire as this, and we set out to learn ways to improve our odds of making that happen.
We addressed the core challenge of active learning at social distance-- the discussion element between students. Participants brainstormed elements of successful discussions they had engaged in previously in the chat, and we talked though the key ways to facilitate good discussions regardless of course format. First, creating an environment conducive to discussion, including using your syllabus and policies wisely and formulating ground rules around potentially sensitive topics or challenges relevant to your discipline. This can be particularly difficult and particularly crucial in online discussions (or in-person, socially distanced discussions facilitated in online platforms) because of the lasting nature of online discussions and the need for greater clarity and specificity in instructions or contributions-- you don't have the ability to interject or redirect as easily as you do in an in-person class.
Next, we addressed the purpose of student discussions and activities and their educational value, as to amend an activity to online or socially distanced use requires first that you understand what aspects of the activity are useful and can prioritize those. Trying on ideas and getting practice with the skills and concepts of the course are two key reasons that we use student discussions and learning activities; thus, in trying to translate discussions into online and/or socially distanced spaces, we wanted to make sure that these reasons for discussion were actually still possible in the new formats.
We moved to a Jamboard, where participants described activities they were interested in moving online and/or to social distance on a sticky note. Leanna then shared a work in progress, a chart designed to help instructors amend activities for in-person classes to online use. Participants used the chart to brainstorm how to apply these suggestions to the activities used. They also offered some great suggestions for additions to the chart! We ended by reflecting on the bottom right corner of the board, where a discussion about facilitating human connection had unfolded. We agreed that this is a tricky element, because as much as you want students to communicate with one another you also want to ensure that their discussions are fun and fruitful, not hurtful. Solutions suggested included setting clear ground rules (either yourself or in cooperation with students), monitoring all discussion opportunities, and having students provide written feedback on group members after group projects or discussions.
Lastly, some of you may have been unfamiliar with some of the activities mentioned as examples in the left column of the chart. The last slide of the Powerpoint will link you to a Box file of active learning materials with a set of cards that describe each of these activities as they are generally used in an in-person classroom.
Further reading suggestions:
For more on handling sensitive or challenging discussions, check out Facilitating Challenging Conversations in the Classroom for general principles or Teaching Tolerance's Let's Talk!: Discussing Race, Racism, and Other Difficult Topics With Students for more specific discussions of race and identity.
For more on ground rules for discussions, check out this great document that Lucas suggested during the session.
For more on online discussion facilitation, you might find this Edutopia article 4 Tips for Online Discussions helpful.
For more on socially distanced or hybrid active learning and engagement, try Active Learning in Hybrid and Physically Distanced Classrooms (which begins by citing the Clark article we read for our prework) and How to Engage Students in a Hybrid Classroom.