#35: Ungraded Collaborations

Welcome to Wired Ivy Footnotes!  Clippings from a previous episode, mulched with commentary from Dan and Kieran, to help your online course design and delivery skills grow. 

KIERAN:  A popular perception, especially in the Age of Covid, is that online instruction consists solely of delivering lectures via Zoom to a Hollywood Squares screen of boxed faces and, therefore, doesn’t allow for personal connections to form between instructor and instructed or between learners.  

Tell that to students who have taken online classes from Wired Ivy co-host Dan Marcucci!  As Dan explained in Episode 23 – Anatomy of a Lesson, the virtual classroom is an excellent venue for fostering a dynamic, engaged community of learners… as long as you’re willing to apply a little creativity to your concept of a lesson. 

DAN:  I should say that in lessons — this is true with all of the courses that I develop and lead — there’s usually an element at the beginning of the lesson which is purely for fun. A lot of times it almost seems whimsical. The warmup activities are really a way for them to get into the subject matter, but then also for them to interact with their peers in a fairly low level, low vulnerability kind of situation, to loosen things up a little bit.

Food is the first lesson and the warm-up activity in that lesson, for example, is to actually cook a meal. I mean, we’re talking about chickpeas in particular, as a case study. The learning objective is for them to think about the food they’re eating and how it connects to Earth systems, y’know, how it connects to the environment, how the supply chain gets it to them, to think about nutrition, to think about alternative food.  But the other point of this is, as the first activity doing outside of introductions, I ask them to video it and post it. That was really a response to feedback that I got from people in this course who said that they appreciate the opportunity to hear and see both me as well as their colleagues in the class.

It’s conceptual. Very interactive. Part of the social goal of an early lesson like this is to get them to begin to collaborate and interact with each other. That’s a goal for every lesson, but I’m really trying to set a tone early on. 

KIERAN: Now you’re in a unique position, Dan, of being able to comment on your own shared wisdom.

DAN: I do confess that I don’t actually have data on this. It’s a soft technique that I use and the feedback that I get is anecdotal. I will also say that with each passing semester or course that I teach. I’m more convinced that this is a very important thing to include. One doesn’t want to trivialize or overlook the aspect of social relationship building or community building in a group because you want the group to serve effectively as a team and as a learning community. Yeah, I don’t have hard data but I’m completely convinced that this is necessary.

It’s funny at the end of the term I often say, “What are the most memorable things to you about the semester?”  Oftentimes one of these activities will make it into the list of most memorable, because I think it was unexpected, and it also imprinted on them the importance of connecting with other people.

KIERAN: It seems to me one of the things going on here is that, so often in our experience in education, we come into a room, we sit down, we start taking notes, and basically we have one role– we’re the learner. And, and that learner role does not require us to interact with anybody else in that room. We might as well all be ‘droids, and the task is to transcribe what the person at the front of the room is saying.

What I see happening in  these warm up exercises you’re describing  is you are allowing the people in your class to bring their whole selves and to be whole human beings in this class. You’re giving them a space to warm up to that as much as to the content that you’re introducing.  This is something new,  probably, in their educational experience to this point.

DAN: It’s even more than allowing… I’m really inviting them into the space. And I’m inviting them into the space to have fun but then also to do something that’s very valuable. I think it’s one of those wonderful times in life where virtue and pleasure kind of line up. Okay, we’re going to do this fun activity, we’re going to play this game, but at the same time we’re going to build a community of scholars. You get to be your authentic self and everyone’s going to be their authentic self. We’re going to start to learn, to interact with each other in a professional way that’s also constructive.

KIERAN: And while you have said we don’t have any data on the impact on learning outcomes, ‘cause you’re not doing pre and post testing, we do have some data — the student evaluations at the end of the class. We see their own assessment of satisfaction with what they got out of the class.  I think from that standpoint, while not perfect, I think that there are some data that would suggest  this is a valid approach to fostering a robust and interactive learning environment.

DAN: Yeah, that’s a good point.

I’ll have to say the other interesting thing, just as a thought exercise,  I can’t imagine designing a course without those components. Let me put it this way– I couldn’t imagine wanting to take a course without those.

KIERAN: [laughing] Yes, you can! Didn’t you have to take some of them?

DAN: Yeah, I did as a matter of fact, I have certainly had those in my life.  

KIERAN: Yeah, we all did! You just come in, you sit down, you open your notebook or your laptop. The person at the front of the room comes in, starts talking, you start takin’ notes, right?

DAN: Oh, I can imagine taking the course. I can’t imagine…

KIERAN: …wanting to take the course [laughing]

DAN: Let me make sure that’s clear. I can’t imagine wanting to take that course. Why would I want to teach it? Yeah. Absolutely.

KIERAN: Yeah. Because the other aspect of that is  the instructor… they are the teacher,  and their role  is to speak in front of a PowerPoint presentation. Sometimes they are able to interject a little humor or a little glimmers of themselves but, generally speaking, this is just put it out there, you all write it down, and off we go to our next things. You can be human outside of this classroom but here you just write notes.

DAN: Let me also say, with my confession that I don’t have hard data for this, I also don’t think that, um, this is dependent on class size. I think if you have a hundred or 200 in your class, this is equally if not more important to do. They’re more likely to consider themselves anonymous or lost in a group. It’s even more important to have ways for them to connect personally with the whole group or with a subgroup. Absolutely.  

KIERAN: The mechanism by which you foster that interaction has to change depending on the number of people you are trying to include, but that doesn’t change the need.

DAN: The great thing for me as the group leader is I get to think of these fun things that we might do. I’m always looking for more of them  so if any of our listeners have any ideas, please send them to me ’cause I’ll gladly incorporate them into my own activities.


KIERAN:  Let’s hear what you have to say!  Send us your questions, comments, and suggestions. You can leave a voice message at speakpipe.com/wiredivy, or send us an email to kieran@wiredivy.org —  Kieran is spelled K-I-E-R-A-N, or Dan@wiredivy.org  —  Dan is spelled D-A-N.

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Daniel J. Marcucci advocates for sustaining a livable, rich biosphere—because the alternative is scary. He teaches Sustainability Systems, Coastal and Marine Systems, and Urban Water Systems courses and leads Global Study trips. Dr. Marcucci has two decades’ experience in higher education as an environmental educator, the last several years focusing on creating supportive asynchronous online learning communities. He has published in numerous environmental planning journals. He also has extensive experience as a regional and environmental planner. His current research explores individual landscapes and landscape as an integrative and holistic concept. Dan is a member of the American Institute of Certified Planners.

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Wired Ivy is wholly owned by Kieran Lindsey and Daniel Marcucci, and we are solely responsible for its content.   Views expressed in this podcast and affiliated media are those of Kieran, Dan, and our guests, and do not represent Virginia Tech or any other institution.  Our audio engineer is Star Path Images, and a license for our theme music, Breakfast with You, was purchased from SmartSound.

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