Teaching Technologies for Large Classes

Faced with the prospect of teaching larger classes, I’ve been thinking about how technology might help me preserve what I value most about small class sizes—and perhaps even bring added value to those large classes. But first some background.

There’s probably not a humanities program in the country that hasn’t received a memo from its dean that begins something like Due to the ongoing economic downturn and ends with bad news. Friends at other universities have been put on furlough, have had their benefits frozen, and have even been banned from making photocopies. Things aren’t that apocalyptic at George Mason, but we have had to slash our department budget, including reducing the number of courses we teach by six percent. That figure may not sound like much, but in a department our size it means cutting 18 sections for Fall 2009 and 16 sections for Spring 2010. In other words, in the next academic year we have to teach the same number of students as before, but with 34 fewer classes.

In addition to eliminating under-enrolled sections (forcing students to fill remaining sections to their maximum capacity), our department’s solution to this mathematical problem is to increase the size of a few key classes that are sure to fill, no matter what the cap is. I am the lucky professor of one of these newly designated “extra-large” classes. My Fall 2009 upper-division graphic novel class, once capped at 27 students, is now fully enrolled at 40 students, an increase of 50 percent.

How should my pedagogy change to meet this new teaching context? Or should it?

My classes are student-centered and discussion-oriented, and I rarely hold forth in any kind of lecture mode. It’s unusual for me to talk more than five minutes at once (a legacy of Doc Fuller, my undergrad mentor at Miami University of Ohio, who promised me his ghost would piss down my neck if I ever lectured more than ten minutes).

Rather than looking at this shift from a smaller class to an oversized class as a hardship or an obstacle to my teaching philosophy, I see it as a challenge: How do I continue to engage students on a dialogic plane when they, my department, and institutional momentum all expect me to lecture as the most efficient means of delivering content?

There is no single answer, but I have begun thinking about tactics I might employ that allow me to maintain a student-centered classroom while taking into account the larger class size. Not surprisingly, some of these tactics exploit technology that my students are already familiar with, but in different contexts.

Here are four I’ve been thinking about, followed by more detailed explanations of each:

  1. Blogging
  2. Wiki
  3. Twitter
  4. Pecha Kucha

Blogging

I routinely have my undergraduate and graduate students contribute to a class blog. The advantages are many: it’s a public space that requires students to consider questions of accountability and audience; students begin to see themselves as participating in an ongoing conversation about culture; and participation jump-starts class discussion so that I already have an idea of what students are thinking and wondering about before I even enter the classroom. In smaller classes I read and evaluate every post (according to this rubric) and generally comment throughout the semester on at least two posts by every student.

The problem with 40 students is that there is no way to read (much less comment upon) every post if every student is posting every week. I am toying then with a rotation model (inspired by Randy Bass),  in which students are divided into five groups of  eight students, cycling through these five roles:

  • Role 1 – Students are “first readers,” posting initial questions and insights about the reading to the class blog by Monday morning
  • Role 2 – Students are “respondents,” building upon, disagreeing with, or clarifying the first readers’ posts by class time on Tuesday
  • Role 3 – Students are “synthesizers,” mediating and synthesizing the dialogue between first readers and respondents by Thursday
  • Role 4 – Students are responsible for the week’s class notes (see next section on Wikis)
  • Role  5 – Students have this week “off” in terms of blogging and the wiki

I like the rotation model because each group of students is reading for and reacting to something different. The shifting positionality affords them greater traction, offers greater variety, and guarantees a dialogue without comments from myself.

Wiki

Students in Role 4 will be responsible the week’s class notes, written collaboratively by the group on the class wiki. I am indebted to Brian Croxall’s Wiki Class Notes assignment for this idea. I haven’t thought through all of the specifics, but essentially these students will capture what happens in the classroom—synthesizing the discussion, referencing the visuals, highlighting moments of confusion and understanding—and then archive it and make it available for the entire class. I would even encourage students to document each session with their cell cameras and incorporate annotated versions of this “evidence” into the wiki. The notetaking students can also use the Twitter backchannel (see the next section) as another source for their notes.

Twitter

A number of professors and instructors have begun using Twitter in their classrooms (see the Ultimate Twitter Teacher Resource for some ideas aggregated from across the web). I am most interested in Twitter as a backchannel, in which students use hashtags to create a stream of realtime on-task chatter about the class, which we can refer to at key moments during classtime. Outside of class, Twitter can be a microblogging-lite platform as well, for students to share quick notes and inquiries whenever they come across something in their daily lives relevant to the course material. This is the kind of use that David Parry writes about on Academhack.

Pecha Kucha

The most exotic sounding of all these tools, Pecha Kucha (pronounced “pe-chak-cha” ) is in fact the simplest idea: student presentations of 20 slides, 20 seconds per slide, adding up to a total time of 6 minutes and 40 seconds.

This rigid format sounds like it might lead to manic presentations, but I see it as the perfect solution to the usual crop of undisciplined, unfocused student presentations, especially when we have 40 of them to get through in a semester. There is no way to do a timed presentation without practice, and no way a student can get through one of these presentations simply by reading aloud the text the audience can read for themselves on the screen. Think of pecha kucha as Ouilipo for PowerPoint. The formal constraints paradoxically unleash creativity.

A Note About Grading

Taken together, these four digital pedagogies will add up to quite a bit of writing for my students—writing that will replace several of the major assignments I’d normally require. Eventually such dialogic, community-based writing might encompass the entire grade for a class. (At Leheigh University, for example, Ed Gallagher has successfully experimented with online discussion comprising 100% of a student’s grade; read his thoughtful reflection at Academic Commons.) For now, though, I’ll still have at least one paper, and I’ll also require a meta-reflection two-thirds of the way into the semester (similar to my blogging about blogging assignment).

What Else?

My extra-large class is three months away, so I have plenty of time to rethink these strategies or add more to my arsenal. I welcome suggestions, both lofty untested ideas and proven, practical techniques. The class will be an experiment in pedagogy, and even if it fails it will have failed successfully.

Facebook versus Twitter

Facebook is the past, Twitter is the future.

Or phrased less starkly, Facebook reconnects while Twitter connects.

All of my friends on Facebook are exactly that: friends from real life, or at the very least, people whom I actually know. Colleagues, students, family members, former classmates, childhood friends. A significant chunk of those Facebook friends are ghosts from the past, people whom I haven’t seen, spoken to, or even thought of in years, maybe decades. Facebook has reconnected me — albeit in a very superficial sense — to these people. I’d even estimate that friends from my past now outnumber current friends and acquaintances on Facebook. Given the exponential algorithm driving the growth of social networks (like the old Faberge shampoo commercial, you tell two friends, and they’ll tell two friends, and so on), it’s not surprising that these reconnections to the past began with a single high school friend, last seen at our graduation in 1989. The ripple effect from this single act of “friending” led to dozens of acquaintances from my hometown.

The reciprocal nature of “friendship” on Facebook reinforces the site’s re-networking aspect. You can only befriend people who have befriended you. Facebook’s insistence upon reciprocity appealed to me at first, ensuring that nobody could lurk on my profile without likewise surrendering their own profile to me. Yet this feature, that I found so comforting when I first dipped into social networking, I now find to be confining, perhaps even the greatest limitation of Facebook. Reciprocity guarantees a closed platform, a fixed loop that cannot expand beyond itself.

This stands in contrast to Twitter, where reciprocity is not required. You can follow someone without them following you. The effect of this asymmetric system is that many of the people I follow I have never met. And I may never. Likewise many of my followers are absolute strangers. Yet many of them share interests with me: pedagogy, literature, digital humanities, even music (at least two of my followers added me after I wrote about the band Shearwater). So this is what I mean when I say Twitter connects.

There is another crucial difference between Facebook and Twitter that associates the former with the past and the latter with the future. Even with its new layout and feed, Facebook does not truly operate in real time. Facebook is still something like a bulletin board. My status updates, therefore, tend to be sly comments or key links that I’ve thought about and pondered and that I want to remain “active” for a day or two. Constant status updates would quickly get lost in the clutter of irritating quiz results, meaningless gift hugs, and holiday Peeps that populate the Facebook news feed.

Twitter conversely offers a more stream-of-consciousness aesthetic. If I immediately follow one tweet with another, I’m not so concerned that the first is going to get lost, as my followers are seeing a feed of my tweets in whatever application they’re using. It is also a matter of one or two clicks (depending on your Twitter client) to see my Twitter posts in aggregate, something much more difficult to achieve in Facebook.

So, to be systematic about the differences between Facebook and Twitter, I present this chart:

Facebook Twitter
past future
reconnect connect
static dynamic
closed open
pond stream

The last distinction — pond versus stream — evokes the dominant ecology of each social network. And I for one would rather be in the flowing stream than the stagnant pond.

RSS is Forever

One of the interesting features of Twitter is that you can delete a “tweet” you’ve written and it will retroactively disappear from any of your followers’ lists of tweets. This is different from RSS, where, once an RSS reader has collected the post data from a feed, the excerpt (or entire post) in the RSS reader takes on a life of its own, independent of the original blog post. So if you make any revisions to your original post after various readers have been “pinged,” then chances are those changes will not be reflected in the RSS feeds.

Case in point, Tyler Cowen at Marginal Revolution, posted a link to and some comments about a “news report” on how Barack Obama spends hours practicing gazing into the future pose. The only trouble was, this story, which Cowen appears to have taken at face value, was originally from The Onion. I read Tyler’s post on Google Reader, and when I tried to follow the story back to the Marginal Revolution site, I discovered Tyler had deleted the post, presumably because he realized his mistake. Here, below, is the only evidence that the post ever existed, a screen shot of the Marginal Revolution feed in my Google Reader.

Marginal Revolution Screen Capture

This vanishing post brings up some interesting questions for the age of blogging. When is it necessary to delete a post entirely, versus tacking on an addendum? Why not let an erroneous post stay live, but let the follow-up comments sort through any corrections that need to be made, preserving the original post as a kind of historical document (much as Wikipedia archives every version of a Wiki entry as part of the entry’s “history”)?

The vanishing post also highlights the fact that in the digital age, nothing is ever “lost.” As numerous politicians have discovered, even something as seemingly ephemeral as a text message is preserved in some corporation’s database, subject to subpoena. Come to think of it, I’m sure even Twitter has a copy of those tweets I deleted…