Happy New Semester! I hope you are all ready for the new school term. Today is the first day of classes for me, so I have been busy getting new resources online and revising those that I want to use again. I am teaching four sections of Technical Writing, all completely online.
Before I return to the series of posts on digital literacy that I started last month, I want to share the one big new thing I’m trying this semester.
Every term, I try to improve everything about my courses. It’s a nice goal, but it’s next to impossible to achieve. With four sections of student to respond to, it’s hard to rethink and rewrite everything at the same time. I certainly want to improve my courses, but I need to be realistic about how I do it. That’s where my idea of one big new thing came from. Starting this semester, I am going to stick to just one change so I can make improvements while still keeping my workload manageable.
My one big thing this semester is to change how groups are set up in an effort to improve participation during the term. A big challenge with writing groups in an online course is time management and scheduling. Since there is no class meeting time, students have no shared time slot when they are all available to collaborate. Here’s what usually happens:
- Student A shares a draft with the group early on the day the project is assigned.
- Student B shares a draft late in the evening on the day before the project is due.
- Student C shares a draft just before lunch on the day the project is due.
- Student D shares her draft a few hours before the project’s midnight submission deadline.
With no overlap among their schedules, students have difficulty giving and getting feedback. They need to keep checking back in the course CMS to see if anyone has submitted a draft or left them feedback.
I’ve tried different strategies to address the problem. Setting strict deadlines for peer feedback hasn’t worked. Scheduling in extra time to allow for the time management issues hasn’t worked either. No matter what I try, students still work on their own schedules. Worse, students who need extra time, get sick, or have a conflict may not be able to meet the requirements of the stricter schedules or systems.
I also tried creating groups that were based on majors. I grouped all the computer science majors together, all the environmentally-focused majors together, and so on. I hoped their shared interests and overlap in other classes would help collaborate. That idea backfired as students dealt with due dates in other classes. When there was a big project due in the senior-level civil engineering course, the civil engineers group couldn’t collaborate successfully. Everyone in the group was burdened in the same way, so there was no one with a light load to help pick up the slack.
I have been asking everyone for advice as I’ve tried to improve online group work. In a meeting with colleagues last month, we may have come up with a solution, one that seems so obvious in hindsight. Instead of fighting the underlying challenges that complicate online group work, the solution is to take advantage of them, to turn that constraint into an affordance. Specifically, on this first day of classes, students will complete a survey that tells me about their time management and work preferences. It includes questions and multiple choice answers like these:
Which of the following best describes when you like to do work for your classes?
- I'm an early bird. I am up and working first thing in the morning.
- I'm a morning person, but I won't be up and working before dawn.
- I'm a midday person. You'll find me working any time from 10am to 2pm.
- I'm an afternoon person. I'm likely to work any time from noon to 6pm.
- I'm an early evening person. You'll find me working from 6pm to 10pm.
- I'm a late evening person. I do most of my work from 9pm to midnight.
- I'm a night owl. You'll find me working late into the night and sometimes in the wee hours of the morning.
Which scenario best describes how you work or how you prefer to work on projects?
- I dive in immediately and prefer to finish as early as I can. I hate being rushed.
- I usually work exactly to the project's schedule. If the schedule allows a week, I work during the whole week.
- I like to be close to finished a day or so ahead of the due date.
- I usually wait until work is due. I like the pressure of a deadline.
- It’s complicated. The way I work depends upon the other things going on at the time (classes, work, student organizations, etc.).
As you have probably guessed, the idea is to arrange groups so that the early birds are all together in one group while the night owls are in another group. I expect it to be complicated to arrange, but I hope the similar work preferences will allow students to collaborate more easily. Here’s the explanation that I’m sharing with students:
The information you share in this survey will help me set up writing groups, where you will share drafts and give one another feedback. One of the big challenges of writing groups is the different schedules and ways of working we all have.
My plan is to create groups of people with similar working patterns, rather than a random mix. For instance, I will make a group of people who prefer to work in the evening. That way, the group members are more likely to be online at the same time. Likewise, I will try to pay attention to how people work, sorting those who like to finish early into a different group from those who work best at the last minute, under the pressure of a deadline.
Please know that I am not judging your answers in any way. I don't care how you work. I'm a night owl myself. This system will only work if you answer the questions honestly so that I can setup groups that have a better chance of working together smoothly than a random distribution sorted by the computer.
I want to stress that last paragraph to students in particular. This system won’t work if they choose the answers that they THINK a teacher wants to hear instead of giving me honest responses.
That’s my one big new thing for this term. I will report on how it works later in the semester. If you have feedback or suggestions, I would love to hear from you in the comments below—and come back next week for the return of my series on digital literacy assignments. Have a great week, everyone!