hacking my classes

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I've just started reading the book Hacking the Academy (that's the digital, open access version of the book; a print version will be available next year). I started with the section on "Hacking Teaching," since that's something I spend a lot of time thinking about. There are a number of excellent essays there, and many of them focus on shifting the flow of information so that students are no longer passive receivers of information, but rather part of the construction and communication of knowledge.

I thought I'd share some of the classroom hacks I'm using this fall in my freshman survey class "Introduction to Interactive Media," since they're all intended to make exactly those kinds of changes in the flow of information and knowledge.

First, I've enabled the live chat function in our campus courseware (Desire2Learn). It's a very rudimentary chat system, but I encourage my students to use it during class to ask questions of each other, and of the TAs and other instructors who are also in the chat. I spend a good bit of time in the first lecture talking about appropriate behavior in real-time chat, and reminding them that (a) everything they type is associated with their RIT username, and thus is not really anonymous, and (b) the chats are archived and I do go back and read through them from time to time. This year, I ended the list of caveats with a simple admonition..."C'mon, just don't troll the class chat!" Still, having some "adult supervision" seems to make a big difference in the overall tone.

Why real-time chat? If you've been reading my blog for a while, you'll know that I've always been a big fan of conference backchannels, and this was a way to bring some of those benefits into the classroom. This class is one of the few I teach that includes a large lecture (60-90 students), and the chat encourages them to interact with each other as well as with me.

Second, in my studio sessions (30 students each), I've divided the students into groups of 5-6 and required them to use Google Docs for collaborative note-taking. RIT has its own Google Apps installation, and during our first studio session I break them up into groups, and walk them through the process of creating a docs collection, adding all the group members to it, and adding me, my TA, and my grader. I then tell them that their groups are responsible for taking notes at every class--lecture and studio--but that it's up to them how they want to divide up the work. During the quarter I'll occasionally review what they have, and will occasionally add comments or corrections; my grader will also check regularly to see if there are groups that aren't getting notes up, or whose notes are really weak, so that he can give me a heads up to review them. At the end of the quarter, I'll assign a grade for the notes, and then adjust that grade up or down based on a peer evaluation they'll do of their group members.

There are a number of good things that come out of this hack. They learn how to use collaborative editing tools, something that will be valuable to them in many project contexts. They learn how to work with a group to divide up responsibility. They have a set of notes they can rely on if they miss class, as well as when they have to work on their final project (a poster, presentation, or video detailing 20 things they learned in the course). And I have the ability to see just what they're taking away from my classes, which provides an invaluable feedback loop--far better and more constructive than any end-of-quarter evaluation form.

Third, instead of textbooks (all of our readings are online), I have students buy the iClicker that we've standardized on at RIT for in-class polling. But instead of using this for multiple-choice quizzing, I use this for things like "Choose Your Own Lecture," in which students pick which path I take through the lecture material, or for polling the students on what they thought about a required reading or video, or for letting them vote on whether we should end class early on a beautiful day and go outside. It's not perfect, but it's a way to discourage passivity.


All of these hacks are still being refined--I've made significant changes from how I used them last year, and I'm sure this year will result in more modifications. But it's already clear to me that they're improving classroom engagement--and, I hope, student learning.

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This page contains a single entry by Liz Lawley published on September 9, 2011 7:32 AM.

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