KIERAN: Ok, Dan, let’s dig into some specifics…
What compensations do you have to consider, if any, for a conversation that unfolds online, over an extended period of time rather than the duration of a 50 minute in-person class?
DAN: The goal of going to graduate school is to acquire knowledge and expertise, and the measure of doing that well is being productive, to be efficient, to have agency, to be able to study the things that you want to study, to advance your own career. So I think that the asynchronous environment encourages all of those things. In a brick box, some students are going to do very well in a seminar discussion. They’re going to be able to speak extemporaneously, respond quickly. It’s a verbal thing. But having an asynchronous discussion then adds another modality to how students can communicate and express themselves. And I think that that’s really important.
KIERAN: Do you think it’s beneficial that students have more time to consider their responses before they answer a prompt or reply to another student’s comment? I mean, it does eliminate that pop-quiz aspect of an in-person or real-time classroom discussion that keeps so many people from joining in.
DAN: Asynchronous discussion gives time for reflection. It gives time for building out an argument or a responsive argument to something that someone just said. So I think the thought process gets to be a little bit different. So you have the quick thinkers, that’s great. You also have the ones who are going to be more reflective and want to sit back and respond that way. So I think that the asynchronous discussion opportunities can actually really enhance the learning outcomes for the students.
And a couple of other things that I want to point out is that for an asynchronous discussion in a course, the students aren’t just saying what they feel or believe or hypothesize, they actually get to document it. So it’s a more rigorous discussion in the end because it’s like, I need some sources on this.
KIERAN: That’s a great point about documentation, about the possibility of providing a citation that may even include a link to the source material, and comments in an LMS discussion platform are more persistent than a spoken conversation… they remain parked there, it’s easier to refer back to them.
DAN: Yeah, exactly. That’s the other thing that’s critically important is that there’s not a finite resource as far as the discussion time. So we’re not, we don’t have a two and a half hour pie that we’re dividing up between everybody in the group, and there’s no danger that someone’s going to talk more than their turn.
KIERAN: And also I’ve found that it’s much harder for students to hide in a virtual group discussion than in a physical classroom.
DAN: Everyone has an opportunity to speak up, in fact, everyone has to speak up because if you don’t say something in an online class, then you’re as good as not there if there’s no such thing as passive participation in an online class. And so I think that that’s really an important element of an asynchronous discussion that is a real asset to online education.
KIERAN: I know, because students tell me so, that you’ve developed some very interesting ways to help them feel like part of an actual community that just happens to interact virtually. And not all the techniques you use are connected to graded assignments. For example, I’ve heard you crowdsource a weekly theme song?
DAN: I have done that. Yes, that is true. I do. I try in my courses to have an ungraded or unassessed — the important thing is an activity that’s not judged. So people aren’t being judged by their contribution, in each week and every actually every single week. And it doesn’t, it’s not a big thing necessarily. And the other thing that’s important is it’s not trying to be centered on me. I’m not trying to put the light on me or what I think. I’m trying to get them to express themselves and say what they think, and that becomes, um, I think very important. The goal of setting up the team members to talk about themselves is A) to get them to be a little bit more expressive, but also to get them to be comfortable with sharing with each other.
There’s a lot of ways I do this and one of them is songs, so it’ll depend on the course. I don’t use the same techniques in every course because then they will know all my tricks if they take more than one of my course, um, quite frankly, particularly songs that are rather, excuse me, courses that have place-based case studies lend themselves very well to songs because I love music and I love to… there are so many songs about place, so it’s great to bring them in. The other wonderful thing about it is I got a particular style, you know, I’m an old guy, I got a certain style of song that I like, it’s wonderful to sort of have, particularly the younger ones in the group, bringing in their music would just stuff I’ve never heard, you know, and they can talk to each other about this music. And I was like, okay, I’m, I’m the rookie here on this one. You know, it’s a little bit of changing of the power dynamic in a very good way.
KIERAN: I used to do something similar; it wasn’t crowdsourced by the students. It didn’t have quite the same community building function, but once I realized that I can learn a lot through my ears — listening to NPR for example — and that audio is more powerful now than ever because you can refer listeners to supporting images on the Internet or,in our case, on an LMS course site, that’s when I stopped relying on PowerPoint slides with a recorded voice-over. I started to record audio-only… I wouldn’t call them lectures, they were more like movie trailers, designed to introduce students to the upcoming week’s topic and provide some context for the readings and discussion, and start off on kind of an upbeat note.
I guess that was an early indication that at some point in the future I’d want to do a podcast! I would add snippets of songs that were relevant to the week’s topic as spacers between sections in the audio, knowing I could do that for educational use and not run afoul of copyright and licensing. That was a lot of fun for me but, to my surprise and delight, students were extremely enthusiastic about this. They really liked the ability to listen to the weekly trailer on their commute, or at the gym, and sometimes they’d even ask me if it was ok to share the file with a friend or colleague they thought would benefit or enjoy it. Students would also comment that having the songs helped them to remember the concepts… kind of a melodic mnemonic, I guess.
DAN: You know, it’s a little subversive. We’re not specifically saying that this is a, this is a teaching moment, but at the same time, I’m challenging them to think about music that they might be familiar with and how it connects to a place or perhaps an environmental theme or something like that. And, it’s fun. It works. It’s not graded, they’re not judged.They’re not even absolutely required to do it, but, but as the semester goes on, more and more of them find themselves getting into it and doing, um, so that works and it’s not, and there’s other ways of doing it.
And there’s other, um, what’s the, what’s our technical academic word, vectors, that we would do it. I mean, I do with songs, I’ll do it with food. I’ll even do it with clothing, believe it or not. Because a lot of my teaching is place-based I’ll have them talk about personal landscapes or landscapes that are personal to them. That could be where they live or favorite vacation spots or their grandparents’ farm or something like that.
And the other thing that is easy to do in all the classes is some element of found knowledge, because we’re teaching about 21st century issues in our courses. And all you have to do is read the newspaper any single day. And there will be an article that relates to some theme that we’re dealing with in a course that I’m teaching. And it comes in different forms. One of them is called Ripped From the Headlines, and one of them is called Unexpected Sustainability.
KIERAN: Say more about that. Those are ungraded discussions?
DAN: They’re open discussion…its, and, the idea is that they’re fun activities, they’re tied to the themes in the lessons. The key thing here is that the class members can contribute these in we would define as a psychologically safe space. And if we look at teaming as something that’s an objective for the online learning community, and I look at some of the work that Amy Edmondson has written about. Psychologically safe spaces are essential for professional teaming. But if it’s a space, then it’s a space that has to be built, and this is just a way of building this psychologically safe space.
KIERAN: Right, right. I think that’s brilliant. I mean, especially the songs because one, I’m sure that the theme song for a week calls back to mind the subject matter for that week… it creates that connection there. It’s also a fun way to bring the students together while asking them to think creatively about the topic. And the fact that you find it fun makes it more engaging for you as you continue to teach, teach these courses over the years. So I think that’s great on so many different levels.
I’ve heard you’ve also become a kind of a virtual camping trip organizer.
DAN: It is true. An issue with creating an online community is we don’t get to do a field trip or a canoe trip or camping trip, which I did use to do in courses that I taught when we were all in the same state. But the opportunities still exist to do something and share it. And one of the things that we would do is pick a weekend, and uh, sleep outside and then share our experiences. So we’ll pick a weekend and everyone who can, it’s again not required, but everyone who can sleeps outside, then reports back, takes pictures. Actually what I like to do is take an audio of the night sounds and I post the audio of the night sounds and um, just sort of share. It’s a, it’s a fun thing to do. There’s a couple of ways of experiencing the environment that are not common in our modern technological society. And one of them is sleeping outdoors. And I think the other one I was actually riding a bicycle… because you see a landscape differently when you’re riding a bicycle…
KIERAN: Interesting. Sure, sure… Or by foot.
DAN: Or by foot but you see more landscape if you’re on a bike is the advantage. And um, so yeah, I will include things like this and it, again, it’s a group activity that’s just, that’s dispersed across the globe.
KIERAN: Mmmhmm. So how does a collaborative but distributed and asynchronous activity, because people are all over the globe, something like sleeping out under the stars… how does that work exactly? Do students share the experience with each other through the LMS in a discussion platform in real time? Or do you set up a social media group for them to share photos or the audio files that you record, or that they re record? How does that, how does that work or how, how does it become not just individual students sleeping out under the stars but a learning community that is participating in this activity asynchronously?
DAN: I probably should even do more work in this area than I have, but I take it to the point that, I guess, I have the time. But I love the implication of your question. The way that it’s generally worked is, within the LMS, within our software that the course is run, there is a place for students to post a record of their experience. So they’re, if they just want to write about what they did, if they took a video or audio recordings, that’s good.
You know, the great thing about this activity, and this will happen with a lot of the activities that fall into this category, is they’re designed that they can do them with their family. So, you know, many times it’ll be a parent sleeping out in the backyard with the four year old who’s never slept outside before. And that’s always great because it’s win-win-win on that one… there’s donuts in the morning. So we get to see cute pictures of four smiling four year olds eating donuts after sleeping outside in the backyard. And who doesn’t love that?
Uh, we don’t do anything outside of the LMS. I tend not to organize things outside of the LMS. I have had students not for the camping activity, but for a cooking activity, post YouTube videos of their cooking adventures. Um, so those are shared publicly, but that entirely voluntary on their part. I never require people to go public with these things.
KIERAN: So the activity happens in one virtual and asynchronous space, but then they post various components or, or artifacts of that experience to a classroom space… and then there’s discussion within the LMS about that in an informal way.
DAN: Yeah, there’s just, it’s informal, um, chat about that. There’s, we’re not trying to draw any major lessons from it. Um, we’re just trying to.. reflect on the experience a bit and just see how that is. And as much as anything, it’s, it’s, you know, a chance to camp together. It’s a bonding experience as much as anything. It’s like, Oh my gosh, I can’t believe I did that over my case. It’s like, Oh my gosh, I’m getting too old to sleep on the ground, you know.
KIERAN: Well, so that actually, I’ll follow up with that… how actively do you participate in these activities? Do you offer theme songs for the group to vote on? Once you’ve shared a couple of photos of yourself in the tent do you go back inside to your comfortable bed or do you feel an obligation to be a virtual role model and stay out there all night?
DAN: I’m a member of the team, so I’m out there. No, I go out there for the record, although, although for the record I don’t actually like a tent. I like to sleep under the stars so I’ll stay out there until the sun comes up unless it rains, in which case I’ll run to the car, run to the house or something if I’m near the house.
KIERAN: I don’t think anybody would have a problem with that.
I never organized a group camping trip but in my urban wildlife course, before handed that class over to our colleague Megan Draheim to teach, I used to have students take a walk through their local environment and do an informal survey of the wildlife and signs of wildlife they saw, then post photos on a discussion board on the course site.
I still remember that “aha!” moment when I realized, “Hey, I’m working with adults! They have jobs, they care for other people, younger and older people, it’s probably safe to ask them to take a walk and look around for wildlife without me there to chaperone!” It was also really interesting to watch the responses on the discussion board… people would weigh in with a comment like “Oh, I have a blue jay that comes to my backyard feeder every morning, too!” or “You saw a swallowtail butterfly! You’re so lucky!!” So there’s another simple example of how to help a class connect to each other, through experience and a shared interest.
I’m curious to know if you observe any changes in the students, as a group and as individuals, as a result of these community building activities. Do you observe changes in their interactions with each other?
DAN: I believe I see agency, which is enormously gratifying to me. Obviously if you’re in graduate school, you need to develop agency. And that’s true regardless of the mode of your graduate school. And I’d say it’s even more observable with some of the younger members of the class who maybe have only been out of undergraduate school for a couple of years. The emphasis on the peer to peer interaction and the peer to peer learning is one that sometimes has maybe a little bit foreign to them and they’re a little tentative at first.
KIERAN: They’re so used to top-down.
DAN: They’re so used to being told what to do or told when to turn something in or taking a quiz or having everything filtered through the professor as it were. So sometimes they’re, you know, I can tell that they’re a little tentative at first or not quite sure how this is all going to work, how this, how this, this, this community space is going to work. It’s really fun to watch, uh, a sense of agency develop in them.
Some of the people in class who had been out and working for 20 or 30 years have developed a professional sense of agency already. And I’m, I’m doing gross generalizations here on, on people and by, you know, I’m not, so there’s no hard and fast generational rural, but logically if you’re 50 and you’ve been working and you have high ranking and management position, you’ve got a sense of your own agency as far as that goes.
KIERAN: Sure, although that can change when they get into a formal learning space again, there’s a tendency to revert back to being a good, compliant student.
DAN: Because they’re not sure quite how the authority lines are supposed to work in the class or how much agency they have. And it’s a philosophical goal in any of my classes that they really have to be there for their own reasons and they have to even have agency on what some of the specific outcomes they want to get out of the class are. So, you know, it can throw a 50-year old for a loop for a week or two, maybe, how that goes. Um, but really I think that’s, that’s the change. That is something that I look for that I’m gratified when I see…
KIERAN: Plus, it varies from one semester, one group, to the next, even when you use the exact same assignments and techniques.
What would you consider evidence that they’re beginning to take a more active role and have more agency in their learning?
DAN: Well, it’s a subjective thing. It’s not, I mean, I suppose it’s measurable if I thought hard about how to quantify it, but there’s a point in a term in the course where the team just picks up the discussion thread and runs with it and I don’t have to coax it. And you know, ideally this happens by about the fourth week in the term. It depends on the subject. It depends on the group that’s in that semester. But they really kind of just go with it and they don’t — it’s almost like they’re not, they’re not even thinking about me in their conversation. Early on, they’re posting things that kind of, they’re talking to me… later it gets to the point where they’re really talking to the group and that’s a fuzzy enough explanation that any academic could possibly give.
KIERAN: No, no, I think that’s something obviously observable and really a great goal to have for that.
DAN: Yeah. No, that’s, it’s like this is okay, this is the point we wanted to get to. And it’s also nice for me just cause it’s a feedback mechanism into the course that, you know, maybe a certain set of resources is missing the mark because we’re not getting that response and I know, I know the group is capable of it or maybe the discussion prompt was, um, too obscurely worded in a way that didn’t promote that type of reaction. So it’s valuable for a couple of things. So it’s, it’s gratifying to see, but it’s, then it’s also valuable that, uh, as a feedback mechanism for me to make sure that the course is responsive to their needs.
KIERAN: They’re doing more than the minimum requirement of the course…
DAN: Absolutely, yeah, they get to it before I do. There was one episode that happened late in the term last fall where there was an exercise where each of the members of the class were tasked with allocating a set of resources on a problem. It’s a type of activity. So all [inaudible] members, each of the [inaudible] members of class had to do that. And then…
KIERAN: Wait… there were fifty members in the class?
DAN: Sorry about that. Shocked the program director on that one!
KIERAN: Yeah! I was, like, dang it! How could I have missed that? Our courses are supposed to be maxed out at 20-ish students!
DAN: Nope. Nope. One-Five. What was great was it was something I was thinking: oh, I really need to make time to do this. But I didn’t even have to do it because before I got to it. One of the members of the class took everybody’s data and did a meta analysis and got the averages across the allocations. And I didn’t have to ask for it. And they knew — I mean, it was like this is exactly what we needed. Then what’s interesting is to see what you did against what the crowd did, you know? And I didn’t say anything, but, but it’s like, okay, that’s, I know they’re engaged.
KIERAN: So what would be a red flag that the class isn’t fusing?
DAN: When they don’t laugh at my jokes?
KIERAN: I’m pretty sure that’s not an appropriate conclusion to draw from those data but that will have to wait for a future conversation.
So, okay then… on a more serious note — and this is a fairly serious note — how do you maintain a safe, civil discussion space as everyone becomes more familiar with each other, more comfortable with each other, but still encouraging critical thinking, still allow for difference of opinion… all of those hot potatoes… which, I guess, brings our conversation back around to where we started today and online asynchronous discussions?
DAN: This is a real issue. The first thing I think is the language that you model in speaking with them and I’m, I try my very best to always be very respectful. It’s stated explicitly in the syllabus about what civil discourse is and isn’t. There’s a request that we respect civil discourse. So it’s great to say it. Modeling it I think helps. The truth is it hasn’t been a huge issue because people seem to be coming to the table with the best of intentions here. So there’s certainly disagreements, there’s disagreements every week or I haven’t written a good lesson plan.
And we deal with some, um, hot button issues that aren’t not even everyone interested in sustainability would agree on. We deal with tough, wicked problems on purpose for just that reason. So I expect people to take different sides, whether it’s nuclear energy, whether it’s making a pipeline, whether it’s building a highway, these are all things that are worth discussing.
But I think that the fact that everything happens in public and nothing is anonymous, and I don’t allow this — on the LMS that we use there’s a little function where you can do, I think people learn this from their social media, it’s a generational thing; I don’t know — there’s little like buttons for it you can like, I like this, you know, it’s like it’s turned off. It’s like that’s, that’s, that’s bunk. if you, yeah. If you are responding to something, use your grownup words and tell us why you’re responding to it. And put your name on it, you know?
So I think that there is some value in the fact that people have to put their names on things and there’s a golden rule thing going on here. It’s like, okay, you can’t troll in an online class, not one that I’m leading at least, because everyone is going to see and it’s going to stay there. So if you’re, if you’re throwing out a, what is it with that troll send-out what’s that?
KIERAN: Starting a flame war?
DAN: A flame, right. If you’re going to start a flame war, everyone’s going to see who started the flame war. So I think having that transparency is helpful.
KIERAN: Yeah, I mean you bring up a really good point, which is, while it is true that on the internet, no one knows you’re a dog on an LMS, they do. That’s one of the great things that people don’t talk about with discussion in an LMS platform. It gets around that anonymity that creates so much problem in that broader social internet space. So I hadn’t thought about that, but that’s, that’s really good.
DAN: Yeah. And that comment you might say in haste, that’s ill advised in a brick box seminar. Right. It just stays there. I mean there is a delete function, but I can control that as well. But you know, it stays there for the group to see. So it, there’s, it’s not, it’s not ethereal. You know, you think about it, and then you live with what you think.
KIERAN: Do you ever find yourself having to intervene to address uncivil behavior on a discussion platform or in an assignment group?
DAN: Some, fortunately not, not too often. I see the way that I tried to build the course is that it’s a project and the class is a team. And to me this is what I need to do for adult learners. The philosophy that I’m taking with working with adult learners in a professional online graduate learning community. And because of that, I see the team members, including myself, as colleagues and collaborators in this project. So I reinforced the behavior of how to treat each other in the syllabus and throughout the lesson plans and throughout the conversations that I have with them.
Now it’s clear that I’m the team leader. So if some, if there is something that goes awry, I’m the person that needs to try to, work a fix is not quite the right word I want to use, but to sort of, uh, encourage a solution.
KIERAN: Ok, we’re just about out of time today but I don’t want to finish up before asking: do you have one suggestion for our listeners about how to connect online students and create a virtual, but still authentic, learning community?
DAN: Well, I would say to be intentional, and to be welcoming, and to be forthcoming about yourself as well. So that’s actually three things and I think you said one thing, but, oh well: it’s bonus. I do want to add that I recognize that I’m privileged to not have to worry about reinforcing boundaries or establishing credibility or authority. And it’s not necessarily going to be the experience that everybody else has. To the degree possible though I think it’s best if the professor, the team leader, is a safe, approachable member of that online community. If that makes sense.
KIERAN: It does make sense.I think this was a great start to this season’s conversation on building virtual community, so thanks for sharing your ideas and experiences, Dan.
DAN: I hope that it’s a chance for people to understand where we’re going with the podcast a little bit.
KIERAN: I know I learned a lot.