About a year ago +Brian Glick and some other folks expressed interest in how I was using private G+C’s to teach web-enhanced college courses. I apologize for not replying sooner.
In the interim I have continued using them to great success, if I may say so myself. I also gave a paper at a sociology conference about my usage.
Someone asked about my prior experience. I started using the internet in 1992, and started teaching college courses the next year, collecting papers via floppy disks.
From 1997 I was teaching full-time at Kobe University in Japan. Eventually I started using Blogger to collate posts from students. There was not much way to hierarchize the posts (other than by time) but the seminars had few students and few enough posts that it hardly mattered.
The students and I had a strong need for such service: to pool the work of glossing the readings. That is, I was assigning them to read challenging texts in English (a foreign language to them) in print. When each student had to look up each key word they didn’t know, none of them got much reading done. So I would divvy up each assignment: each student would post a glossary for his or her assigned, ten pages of the assignment, and depend on classmates for the rest. This system was not ideal, but it served a real purpose for collaboration.
After I returned to the U.S. in 2009, I taught one course using Blackboard. The university where I taught it had paid $20,000 for a plug-in to allow usage of profile photos, only to have the university nix any usage of the feature. The authorities were concerned lest any students or professors help organized crime organizations to find, via their profile photos (or lack of identifiable profile photos), students who were in witness protection programs.
Blackboard was atrocious—by far the worst machine of any sort that I’d ever been compelled to use—and my students agreed, but we got through the semester. There were some advantages: 1) it was secure, 2) I had expert help, and 3) it was easy to set up breakout discussions.
The next semester instead I used Facebook. After I had committed to using it, I realized that by insisting students make and use a second Facebook account, I was compelling them to violate FB’s terms. If any of them got thrown off FB and complained, I could’ve got in big trouble at work. But the risk of another kind of complaint--resulting from my having compelled them to use their main FB accounts--seemed greater. I could not go back to Blogger because the class was too large. The safe path would’ve been to go back to no-internet-component, or else find a new platform, but I did not have time, so I forged ahead. Luckily (thanks to the students not complaining about it, and thanks to FB, in practice, tolerating their dual accounts), I got away with it. It seemed there was no need for breakout discussions because threads developed as mini-discussions.
The interesting thing about the semester was that I did not have to do anything to get the students to talk to each other online. They did. A lot. Freely.
One disadvantage was that a couple of the students felt FB was too informal a place to have school.
Afterwards my supervisor pointed out that the students are supposed to write essays, so reluctantly I moved towards essays. Meanwhile instead of FB, I switched to using Google+ Circles.
In all my teaching, I generally find the mutiny-factor tends to be high, because students don’t understand at first what I am asking of them, and they resist the different expectations: using social media since 2009 in the U.S. (as opposed to Japan, which is much more hierarchical and where I had excellent, dutiful students) enhances the potential for mutiny, obviously, and my first semester teaching how to write essays was the most mutinous semesters of my career thus far.
Previously I had avoided teaching how to write an essay in Humanities courses, on the grounds that teaching students to read, think, and converse thoughtfully in writing was a tall enough order for one semester of Humanities. But then I agreed to require students to write four essays, each responding to a prompt, using its terms. None of the students on the first essay used any of the terms of the prompt, so I told them they all had to re-do the first essay, this time using the terms of the prompt. They flat-out mutineed. It was quite a challenge. But we got through it!
With Google+ Circles, students found it deeply confusing because it was enough like Facebook to throw them off. They could not grasp that though on FB “friending” creates a mutual relationship, Circles are not at all mutual.
It was not easy for me either. I was able to tell them to get into breakout groups, and if students participated I could see it, but I could not see whether slack students had configured any Circles at all. If some students posts were invisible to other students, meanwhile I had no way to know.
Privacy was a major drawback. Students constantly were posting publicly instead of only to the Circle. Worse, occasionally when providing feedback that I needed to go only to the student, accidentally I posted it to the whole class Circle.
The next semester I started using only email for private feedback, but then, students were not in the habit of checking their Inboxes.
So as soon as G+Cs became available I started using them. The best features are how the Community-icon works to identify the locus of each online Community, and how we all easily can see a grid showing profile photos of the whole class.
Getting students into the Communities is a challenge, but getting easier each semester. One of the baffling flaws is that when students search for me and then for their class’s Community, they search “everything,” but don’t find anything. Why not? Because somehow at G+, “everything” does not mean . . . anything. One must actually select “People and Places” to find me, and must select “Communities” to search and find a Community. Apparently Communities, People and Places are not part of “Everything” at Google+.
Then one of the major flaws is Search, which does not work consistently within Communities. If I did not know better, I would certainly say that Google is a company great at lots of things, but not search.
As I get better and can trust students more, I keep adding functionality. For example, I put the schedule of assignments onto a Calendar, give students the iCal address, and have them add it to their accounts. (This step is the only extant, sticking point for students: a bunch can’t find the button even though I tell them where it is. Must include screen shot . . . but then, I’m not sure it’ll look the same on different machines after some time, anyway.)
The main feature I wish I had was a breakout-group feature, or a member-in-good-status feature. Because I think the most powerful visual usage of the whole package is the grid showing who is in the class, I want it to show only the students actively participating. But as it stands, my only options are to keep inactive students in there, or else evict them, which I think would harsh and discouraging, and if they are potentially passing the course it might also be unethical.
I realize that if I require students to join separate Communities, I can use them as breakout groups, but so far I have not tried it. I have enough on my plate monitoring each class’ Community. If breakout groups are separate, I would have too many Communities.
Ah, that reminds me of another approach I developed for lack of hierarchization functionality. A relevant problem first arose with Circles: because my students were all connected to me, they also saw my past students, and some friends of mine who were alumni, which was weird for the alumni. With Communities, there was no way to “put away” my old Communities to focus only on the active ones (for current courses): so I simply use a different identity each semester.
Unfortunately, this makes it very difficult for me to search anything from a prior semester, or even view prior semesters. But oh well.
I am mainly focused on how to make the classroom and the online Community feed into each other. One of my main approaches has been to say that as long as I can see online that students are doing their book-learning, we can use classroom time for other things, like listening to music and talking about it.
This semester I have one course in particular that right from the start is going great. Last night I realized that a few of them were struggling to conceptualize some of the key approaches of the course. So I decided to use class time, including breakout groups, to see if in collaboration they could get further.
They didn’t, but the takeaway was that they all realized they all tend to focus on answers and solutions, when actually the course is expressly concerned with questions and problems. They are starting to get it. There is no way I would have been able to time this lesson properly without the web-component, and no way for the group to get to know itself this way without the classroom.
Anyway before the start of this semester I got a contract to write a seminar syllabus in collaboration with someone. I managed to convince him to try my approach. He was skeptical. But it works for him too! Rave review.
The syllabus, as he puts it, is intricate. It requires students to stay actively posting. At least once a week they need to do a Substantial Blog Post (SBP) featuring quotations, explanations, open-ended questions, and pursuit of the course’s Aims. Every two weeks they must respond to some classmates.
At the start of the semester, instead of merely a Syllabus (already long enough) plus a Schedule, they have two more core documents. One is the Startup Instructions, which has all the instructions for G+ and the course’s policies for netizenship and netiquette. The other is the SBP Guide.
There is one more novel aspect of my course. Basically, students who meet all the requirements can earn at least a B just by submitting them all, and if they show they respond to criticism and turn in all the work, they get an A.
The point is, because the standards are mostly objective, and the Syllabus spells out the weighting, they can grade themselves. Because they can grade themselves, I respond to them as a guide rather than as a grader, at least until Midterm.
At the end of the course, I use Survey Monkey to get students first to evaluate the course and their instructor, and then to evaluate their own performance including a grade. I explain to them there is no penalty for under-grading themselves but there might well be a penalty if they choose a grade two letters higher than the numbers (based on work submitted) indicate. They have to count up their submissions. There would be penalty for major errors in self-reportage.
When I have to give students final grades, I look first at their self-eval, then at my feedback I gave them at Midterm and other times. (One catch is that the Midterm feedback is private, so I send it by email. To save me a step, I require students to post in their Final Self-Eval, via Survey Monkey, the Midterm feedback I gave them. Many do not bother. I’m not sure why, but I’m sure some don’t know how to find their Inbox.)
On the day of the Final Exam, I present to the class first the aggregate data of their self-evals (e.g., including a graph showing the distribution of their self-grades), plus I go over each student’s [name-munged] responses. Then each student sits for an Exit Interview with me.
I ask them how they feel about the course, then ask them how they feel about their performance in it. Then if I agree with their self-grade, I tell them so, and thank them.
If I figure their grade should be higher or lower than their self-grade, I attempt to reach consensus with them and almost always do.
My courses are intensely time-consuming for me, but I’m actually interested to see students’ questions, and enjoy coaching them.