Reflections from using Collaborations in a Synchronous Virtual Format

I, maybe like many of you, have been reflecting on what teaching methods worked and what did not work during COVID teaching this last year. In particular, I have been thinking about what tools and strategies I learned/used that I would continue to use after we go back to in-person teaching. Many faculty had to learn very quickly how to create virtual lectures and online assignments. This took a lot of time meaning that there are some aspects, possibly collaborative work, that may not have received as much attention as they should moving forward.

In this post I will share how I taught virtual classes in fall 2020 and spring 2021, what I have learned regarding collaboration in a virtual statistics course which has synchronous labs, what I plan to continue to use in future virtual courses, and what I plan to transfer over to in-person teaching.

Virtual teaching: Synchronous, asynchronous, or both?

Traditionally, the courses I taught had 2-3 in-person/live lectures per week with a 2-hour lab. I built active learning into the lectures, but most student collaborations took place in the lab. In labs, students worked in groups of approximately three students to complete an activity. When moving to virtual instruction, I had to figure out how to convert both the lectures and the labs to work in a virtual format. The first challenge was to figure out if I should use asynchronous teaching, synchronous teaching, or a mix of both. I opted for a mix to mimic a flipped classroom where students first learn the basics on their own and then follow-up with active learning in groups to apply what they learned to new datasets. Specifically, lectures were converted to online videos to be watched asynchronously, and lab activities were modified to be completed synchonously in collaborative groups using Breakout Rooms in Zoom.

I have seen many justifications for using asynchronous learning for virtual classes. One big argument is that some students may lack a stable internet connection. This can be particularly problematic because those students may really need to connect with the instructor and other students to be successful. Further, collaborations are more challenging to manage in an asynchronous format.

Synchronous learning helps build a community. One thing I will not forget is one of my students this past fall shared with me that they were a freshman and they knew no other students except the students who were in their lab groups for my class. My labs were the reason why this student was able to make friends during their first semester of college.

When people think about synchronous learning, they often assume they need to meet via Zoom or some other virtual meeting platform, which is what I did in fall 2020. Sometimes students would lose their internet connection during lab. Some students were able to rejoin and some would end up skipping the rest of the lab missing valuable learning opportunities. I would like to challenge everyone to think about how we could do synchronous activities with students who lack a stable internet connection.

A handful of my students were able to figure out how to stay involved when losing their internet connection and I plan to share recommendations to students based on their successes. Specifically, students would call each other and put them on speakerphone so they could have discussions or they would use Google Chat to share information.

Collaborations in synchronous activities:

There were two main things that worked well in my synchronous virtual labs:

  • using Breakout Rooms in Zoom and 
  • having students use Google Docs to collaborate. 

During my virtual labs, I started by discussing the statistical topic(s) of the week. I pulled out specific examples they watched in the videos and talked about how they would relate to the lab for the day. After this introduction, students were given the opportunity to ask questions and then they joined their group members in their Breakout Rooms to complete their activity. I would visit students in their rooms to provide guidance and answer questions. Many students bonded during these lab periods. It was not uncommon for me to join a Breakout Room only to hear them discussing their days and laughing.

Students completed the lab activities using Google Docs. The Google Docs were essential in making sure students were participating and learning. Before each lab started, I created a Google Doc for each group that included the activity and its questions. Each question was highlighted in one of four colors, each color corresponding to one student in the group. It was made clear to students that they needed to discuss each question together as a group, but the highlighted student would be in charge of typing the answer to that particular question. I kept all of the Google Docs open on my computer so I could see whether they were working together and the groups progress. If they were all typing in different places, I knew they were not working together and I would stop by their Breakout Room to talk about the activity and encourage them to discuss the questions. By looking at their Google Docs, I was also able to see if they were heading in the wrong direction. If they were not answering questions correctly, it was easy for me to join their Breakout Room and help them get on track. It was also easy to catch if there was a topic many groups were struggling with. When that happened, I would call everyone back to the Main Zoom Room to discuss the difficulties.

What I learned:

Through these experiences, I learned a lot about myself and what worked well or what did not work well with my students.

Worked well:

  • Considering students watched lectures on their own time, I no longer had a scheduled lecture period. I learned that I needed to purposely schedule time each week to review what students were learning about for that week. To keep myself accountable for reviewing the material, I sent a short email every Monday to students to welcome them to the week and to briefly summarize the plan for the week.
  • The overall structure of the course was good. Students reported liking the videos and labs in the course end-of-semester evaluation survey. Many students liked being able to watch videos multiple times to help them with difficult topics and they liked being able to meet me and work with classmates during the synchronous labs. For future virtual courses, I plan to keep the same format.
  • Using Google Docs in the synchronous labs worked great. I plan to use them in the future for both in-person and virtual courses.
  • Frequently asking for feedback was very helpful and made students feel heard. Twice during the semester I asked them about their group members and whether or not they would like to switch groups and why. A majority of students wanted to stay with their group members but some wanted to switch. Students who wanted to switch typically wanted to switch because their group members were not understanding the content or were not participating. Learning this gave me a chance to intervene and help the students who were struggling and therefore not participating.
  • Students needed a way to hold themselves accountable for watching the lecture videos before the weekly labs. My colleague and I created multiple-choice quizzes due each week before lab. The questions were straightforward with only five questions and were easy to answer if students watched the videos. The quizzes were low stakes and students were allowed three attempts to reduce stress. This worked well for most students.

Did not work well:

  • I treated the virtual labs like regular labs. In a typical semester, I discuss topics with students in our lecture periods. Then, in our lab periods, I set them loose to work on the activity for the day. In the virtual lab, I briefly introduced the activity and set them loose to work in their Breakout Rooms. I assumed they had watched the videos and were ready to go. Some students were not prepared; there were always some students who clearly did not watch the videos and did not put effort into the weekly quiz. I should have spent more time discussing the topics for the day before letting students work on the activities. Even if students were prepared, they wanted me to provide more instruction. Moving forward, I plan to spend more time having discussions with the large class.
  • The Ask for Help feature in Zoom was problematic. Specifically, if multiple groups had clicked on “Ask for Help,” I was unaware how many groups had actually asked for help. I only knew which group was next in line. Towards the end of the spring 2021 semester, I created a shared Google Sheet where students could “sign-up” to have me visit their room. Students entered in their group name and listed which questions they needed help with or if they just wanted to check-in with me. This helped me prioritize which groups to visit and also let me know if I should call everyone into the Main Zoom Room to have a large group discussion.

Future In-person Teaching:

Back when we were in-person for labs, students would huddle around each other, often on one computer, and write out answers on a sheet of paper shared by the group. In a perfect scenario, COVID-19 will be eliminated and we will not have to social distance. But, will students be comfortable huddling in a group even if there are no health risks? I think many of us have been traumatized and will struggle to be in close proximity with others in the future. As a result, moving forward I will expect that each student has a laptop available to them during lab. I plan to bring a handful of paper copies in case there are students who forgot their laptop or had problems with their laptop.

In future labs, regardless of whether they are virtual or in-person, I plan to have students collaborate in Google Docs. It is easier for me to monitor the Google Docs than it is to walk around and try to figure out if they are understanding the content. I still plan to walk around the room, but I will use the Google Docs to guide me to groups who are struggling. Additionally, I used to have the problem that a handful of students would sit back and let the others do the work. By requiring students to use the Google Docs, they all must participate. If needed, you can look at the version history of the Google Doc to see who typed what.

Summary:

Having at least some synchronous activities were essential for students to build a community in a world where they were isolated. Being able to see each other helped students learn the content but also helped students make connections with others. Having students work together in Breakout Rooms in Zoom gave them the opportunity to collaborate while having me immediately available if they had difficulties. Using Google Docs was essential in making sure students were collaborating and understanding the content while they were working.

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