Faculty Spotlight: Benefits of Live Online Discussions

In our first Faculty Spotlight expose, Dr. Maughn Gregory shares his pedagogical reasons, experience and methodology in using virtual classrooms, as well as his approach to online office hours and its unexpected benefits.

This semester I've experimented with a different way to show films to classes. One of my pedagogical rules of thumb is not to show film segments longer than about 30 minutes – with rare exceptions, that's just not a good use of our time together in class. Also, when I show a film segment in class, I typically stop the film at certain places to reiterate key points made and invite brief discussion on them. This is somewhat awkward, however, turning lights on and off, etc. So this semester I've experimented meeting students online to view and discuss film segments, and found this to be pedagogically preferable. To do this, you need (1) a place to meet online, and (2) a place online where students can access the film segments. As for the latter, you can either find existing segments on PBS Video, NJVID, YouTube, or the websites of conferences or professional organizations, or you can convert a VHS or DVD in your collection to a video file and upload it to your personal, private channel on Vimeo or YouTube. In either case, you need a URL that takes students to a place online where they can watch the video. I find that 10 minutes of video is a good length to watch and discuss, so I either find / make segments about that long, or else I identify minute markers of around 10 minutes in a longer film.

For a place to meet online, although I've been training with the new Blackboard "Collaborate" virtual classroom (formerly Eluminate), this semester I've been using the much simpler Blackboard IM (formerly Wimba Pronto) program. Most students are fluent in the protocols of instant messaging, from Facebook, Gmail, and internet chat rooms, and my students have used Blackboard's IM program all semester to reach me for brief, virtual office visits: when they see that I'm online they send me instant messages (usually questions about assignments) that open little chat windows on my laptop. This program has saved me a lot of email buildup and saved my students a lot of wait time to get answers. For our synchronous video discussions, my students know they can borrow a laptop at Sprague Library or use a computer in the University Hall lab (5th floor), if they bring their own earphones. When we meet online to discuss film segments, I simply open Bb IM, right-click on the name of the course, select "Group Chat," and click "Invite." This opens a group chat room, and puts everyone in the class (who has signed on) in it. Before we begin, I remind the students of these guidelines:

  1. This is meant to be an open discussion. You should feel free to ask questions, state opinions, respond to other people, etc. Please remember to keep the spirit of inquiry, by giving reasons and analyzing arguments.
  2. If you want to respond to a particular comment, use the "@" sign and the person's name, like this: "@Maughn: I completely disagree with you …"
  3. Be sure your photo is uploaded in the Bb IM program, so we will see it when you post a chat line.
  4. While we chat, you may share other internet sites that are relevant to our discussion by posting them in your chat line; they will appear as hyperlinks that we can access by clicking.
  5. If you don't want to hear the "bong" sound every time someone posts, you can turn that off: click File, Preferences, Alerts, and un-check "Play Sound."
  6. You are welcome to chat during the film (you should pause the film while you do that, so you don't miss anything). I may post some comments during the film segments, and you are welcome to pause and respond to them, but you don't have to.
  7. The pace will sometimes be fast, with many people posting comments at once, giving us a lot to read through. When that happens, don't panic, we will slow down. You don't have to read or respond to everything.
  8. If you lose your connection, and can't get back into the group chat room, send me a private chat to let me know.

When we're ready to begin, I copy and paste the URL for a video segment into my chat line, and it appears as a hyperlink that students can click on. I invite them to watch it and to join us back in the chat room when it's finished. I've been surprised at the amount of discourse this discussion format generates. Students tell me they enjoy the freedom to comment and ask questions as often as they like, without waiting to be called on. What happens is that multiple conversations – exchanges among pairs and small groups of students around certain ideas – occur simultaneously, so that in reading the chat posts we are following multiple conversations at once. The discussions are always lively and somewhat fast-paced, but the speed is mitigated by the fact that, in fact, it is possible to keep up with most of the comments and to respond to many of them, that we understand that we are not obliged to respond to everything, and that I can save the transcript of the discussion for subsequent reflection. I find that I always have to cut off the discussion arbitrarily to move us to watch the next video segment.

I have asked my students to evaluate these sessions and compare them to our face-to-face classroom dialogues, and I concur with their assessments:

Advantages:

  1. Students enjoy the freedom and spontaneity of not having to wait to be called on or to speak one at a time, especially in a class of over 30.
  2. This format generates much more conversation – many more ideas being exchanged – than is possible in fact-to-face dialogue where only one person (in each group) can speak at a time.
  3. Most of the conversation is not professor-student-professor, but student-student. This is something I insist on in class as well, but it happens more naturally in the chat room.
  4. It's easier for shy people to express themselves in the chat room than in class.
  5. I can save the transcript of the discussion for subsequent reflection.

Difficulties:

  1. Sometimes there is a lot to read at once, and multiple lines of conversation are crossing each other, so it can be difficult to follow – though in fact, it is manageable.
  2. Students who don't type fast participate less than students who do.
  3. Some students on campus had wifi disruptions; some had personal computers that crashed and couldn't get to another computer in time to finish the session.

I find that the fast pace and the multiple lines of conversation make it more difficult for students to reason carefully, to build on an extended line of argument, and to bring in diverse perspectives – the method of Socratic dialogue we practice in class. But I believe it's important to engage my students in a variety of practices of collaborative discourse. This practice is well suited for having short discussions to debrief video segments, and in fact we use ideas from these discussions in our longer, more formal dialogues in class.