In-Class Activities: STV 250 and Extending the Discussion

Sometimes, it’s good to be able to refer back on a previous discussion – this can not only help your students better reflect on what they’ve learned, but it can also help you use specific examples as you write teaching statements for future employment.

The technology in the STV 250 classroom offers unique opportunities for students to write records of their discussions. Plus, when discussions are shared online, students can continue the discussion beyond the classroom.  Here are some techniques and technologies I use to engage my students during class time.

During in-class activities, I often split up my students into groups of two to four students and then ask ask them to examine texts collaboratively to find answers to discussion questions. In order to help students overcome the “stage fright” of speaking in-class, I find it helps if they first write down the answers they’ve found, and then share those answers aloud with the larger group. Also, I’ve found that the act of writing these answers helps keep students on-task – if they know that they need to “find five elements of ______” in a text, then they’ll keep working until they’ve found and written down those elements.

With technology, it’s possible to carry these discussions further, even continuing them outside the classroom. This is particularly helpful with group projects – often, I’ll ask students to plan out their work in-class, but then they’ll need to access these written plans outside of class to help stay on task.

So far, I’ve found that ReggieNet, GoogleDocs, and Facebook offer the best ways for students to interact inside the classroom, but each technology is specifically suited to certain types of activities.  GoogleDocs and Facebook offer the best “real time” experience, while ReggieNet and Facebook allow you to track which students are posting.  Facebook offers the best chance of “organic” discussion continuing outside the classroom – but it might not be the kind of in-depth discussions you’re looking for.

The Discussions and Discussion Forums tools on ReggieNet allow you as the instructor to provide a very structured online space for students to share ideas, and then you can easily grade these discussions using the gradebook. However, there are some limitations in terms of collaboration because each student must type his or her own posts separately. Also, unlike Facebook and GoogleDocs, these interactions are not in real-time – students may need to refresh their browser frequently.  However, the delay coupled with the “officialness” of ReggieNet does encourage students to write longer posts, and this can lead to more philosophical approaches to the discussion.

(NOTE: this only works when students use Chrome or Firefox.)  GoogleDocs is by far the most collaborative of the three technologies. Multiple students can simultaneously edit a single document, and this allows a great deal of freedom for students to make changes as they go. The downside, however, is that the document itself won’t track which students made which changes to the document, so it can be somewhat difficult to grade these collaborations based on the online text alone. Note, however, that not every student contributes to the writing process through typing – there should be a strong oral component to genuine collaboration. To assess this process, you may want to use peer assessment within your individual groups, or you may want to meet with each group individually and ask students to discuss their work.

Also, as noted above, GoogleDocs will ONLY work in Chrome or Firefox. Often, students in the STV 250 labs will attempt to use GoogleDocs on Internet Explorer, and then GoogleDocs won’t load correctly. Anytime a student reports an issue with GoogleDocs, your first question should be which browser is being used.

Oddly enough, the “bane of the computer lab” is one of the most effective online tools for in-class activities. It combines two of the best features of both ReggieNet and GoogleDocs: you can have real-time interactions and a permanent marker of who said what. And since Facebook provides notifications, students experience this real-time activity outside the classroom. Unlike GoogleDocs and ReggieNet, Facebook is generally very user-friendly – so much so that students are more likely to joke and and have fun with their online writing. The downside, of course, is that discussion posts may be shorter and less focused, but the upside is that you’re likely to have far more posts and interactions. In the past, I’ve seen a single discussion between a few students produce over ninety comments over the course of an evening. If you can get students in the habit of using Facebook effectively in the classroom, then they are far more likely to have impromptu class-related interactions on Facebook outside the class.