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Voices Beyond the Classroom

 

November 18-19, 2011
University of Puerto Rico, Rio Piedras and University of the Sacred Heart
San Juan Puerto Rico

Mathew Mitchell, University of San Francisco

Introduction

In this article I provide a snapshot of how some classes have been improved and enriched using a combination of techniques that allow for both the instructor voice and student voices to be heard outside the traditional classroom setting. Specifically, the combination of instructor e-delivery of presentation materials with “voice” plus e-discussions for student “voice” are needed to enhance both preparation and reflective understanding of critical course content. The key advantages of emphasizing both “voices” outside the regular classroom are: (1) student understanding and involvement can be deepened, and (2) the live classroom can subsequently be used for learning activities that focus on further developing students’ understanding rather than presentation of basic content.

Creating Instructional Time

One essential problem in many higher education courses is the lack of time to cover the content to the breadth and depth desired by the instructor. However, additional factors can amplify the problem of using instructional time well. I teach in a doctoral program in education where classes meet every two weeks. One consequence is that the time between classes is too long, which sometimes causes students not to feel part of a cohesive academic community. Another consequence is that classes are very long (over 4 hours) and this leads to a sub-optimal use of class time due to various pragmatic issues: the need for breaks, the need to use different teaching methods besides lecturing, and so on.

Thus, for me, the problem was how to make better use of instructional time outside the classroom. This led to three key changes to my courses over a period of about three years: (1) lectures remained but were delivered as audiobooks outside the live class; (2) new content focusing on key “learning how to learn” skills was added and delivered as audiobooks outside the live class; and (3) student discussions were added outside the live class.

There have been several positive consequences of these changes. The major changes and benefits have included:

  • Students are able to learn basic content more effectively.
  • Students are able to learn more content.
  • Students are able to reflect and make important conceptual connections before a live class session.
  • Live classes now last 3 hours per session rather than 4.25 hours.
  • Live classes now focus more on “meaning making” through class discussions, small group activities, and other instructional approaches that allow students to work more deeply with the basic content for a specific class.

The sections below detail the practical approaches used to create instructor-created audiobooks for delivering course content, and how student discussions were structured to create valuable and worthy complements to the total learning experience of students.

Instructor Voice

A few years ago I started experimenting with using audiobooks to deliver some lectures outside the live class setting. Early on, based on informal student feedback, it was clear that when students listened to presentations in my voice, rather than a third-party narrator, it improved the effectiveness of these alternative presentations. Since they have seen me live, students report it is easier for them to imagine me providing this virtual presentation, and it feels like I am speaking directly to them. I do renew presentations after a while, but I have used some of these pre-recorded presentations for up to seven years before re-tooling. In addition, for a number of students the ability to review the presentation, or review specific portions (i.e. “chapters”) was a very important feature that is not possible during live lectures.

Virtual Presentations

Basic lecture presentations became critical for me to develop once I made one substantial change to my courses—readings consisted entirely of journal articles. Most of these articles are original research, but some are literature reviews or meta-analyses, and a small number are educational synthesis pieces. However, the common thread is that the readings provide very focused and in-depth looks at research, but they do not provide sufficient background knowledge for a novice. Thus the virtual presentations became a necessary tool to provide relevant background knowledge before students started reading their required articles.

I deliver the final presentation product as a package which contains relevant PDF documents plus an audiobook. Just as most live lectures would be hard to understand without any visuals, such as PowerPoint slides and whiteboard scribbles, audiobooks would also be difficult to understand without good supporting documents that provide tables, visual models, and any other relevant support.

Audiobooks are especially helpful for long presentations (over 20 minutes) as they contain an easy-to-navigate chaptering function. That said, regular (i.e. non-chaptered) MP3 audio files may work well also. Since my presentations are typically about 60 minutes long, it is important for the students to be able to navigate the chapters. Students download these audiobook packages (audio plus PDF handouts) from my course website.

Research Aloud

A “research aloud” is a technique for providing students with a key doctoral-level learning-how-to-learn skill. For my doctoral students this translates into providing guidance about how to read original research articles. However the general approach could be translated to any critical set of skills or knowledge that an instructor does not have in-class time to cover.

Similar to virtual presentations, research alouds are delivered as audio files accompanied by relevant PDFs. The difference in this case is that a research aloud focuses on one specific research article and provides the reader with a “tour” of how the article was structured and written. Notice that this is really a meta-skill (how to read research), not something that would typically be embedded in a regular class. Nonetheless, it is a needed meta-skill for many students. What the research aloud does not do is focus on the content of the article; students must glean this from their own reading. Instead the focus is on research techniques and research writing embedded in the article.

When students open a research aloud folder they find three files: (1) audio file, (2) original research article, (3) my annotated version of the article. The annotated version of the article uses a page landscape view where a smaller version of one page of the article is on the left side, boxes/circles/annotations are superimposed on the article page, and relevant short comments pertaining to each highlight are provided on the right side of the page. The annotated version of the article would not work well on its own, especially for first-time users. However, the annotated article combined with the audio presentation (explaining in depth the “whys” behind the annotations) works effectively.

MechanicsOver the years I have used a high-quality audio production setup in my office to create the audio files. Audio quality is important, and students definitely notice the difference. Unfortunately, recording with your computer’s inbuilt microphone almost always results in poor quality audio. Recently there have been a number of products that make audio recording easier and of higher quality with an affordable price tag. The recent iPad and iPhones both have good recording capabilities. In addition, affordable products like the Samson Meteor microphone work well with either a computer or an iPad. I especially recommend the Meteor mic for novices as it works well, is portable, comes with a built-in tripod stand, and works with both computers and iPads.

Student Voice

In addition to the instructor having a voice outside the classroom, it is very useful for students to have a voice by contributing to the development of shared understanding in the class. The particular technique I use for this is called a “knowledge dig,” which is an electronic discussion. These discussions provide a practical way for students to have a shared voice outside the classroom. The results include: (1) a deeper conversation than would have happened inside the classroom (especially given time constraints), and (2) students coming to the class better prepared.

Knowledge Digs

The main purpose of a knowledge dig is to encourage students to dig beneath the surface of the various course readings and any other relevant learning materials for a specific class session. Towards this end digs are formatted like a discussion. Being a good discussant involves three skills: reading and reflecting deeply about the learning materials; posting thoughtful questions and comments; and taking the time to carefully read the e-discussion as it unfolds.

The spirit of this type of assignment is to have a rich e-discussion before the class session. Then, based on issues that are raised in this discussion, I choose how to refine the focus of the live class session. Students make at least two posts over a ten-day period. First, they submit a reflection that is at least 200 words long. They are prompted to address what they see as the most outstanding issues that emerged from the learning materials for the upcoming class. After posting a reflection, students have two days to read, then make at least one comment, to other student reflections.

The student prompt is fairly general and encompassing. In turn, this gives students lots of leeway about how to respond and contribute. The first few times I used electronic discussions I used more questions, and each of the questions was more specific in nature. The result was a much humbler, less thoughtful and engaging, set of contributions from students. Over time I switched to using only one prompt, one that was much more general in nature. Informal student feedback, as well as the enhanced quality of current student e-discussions, confirmed that using one general prompt, rather than multiple specific prompts, leads to a richer and deeper e-discussion.

Mechanics

Classes are held every two weeks. A new dig opens right after a previous live class has concluded. Students have two deadlines: an initial reflection plus comments to other student contributions. Specifically students have ten days to post their reflection and then an additional two days to post comments to other students. This leaves the instructor two days to read and adjust the classroom activities based on the full knowledge dig discussion. This last step is crucial: there are several ways that I incorporate the e-discussion content into our live class. Sometimes this involves a specifically designed mini-lecture to address an issue brought up by students or a small group activity challenging students to synthesize or better organize the themes emerging in their discussion. I also use a variety of other approaches to bring the content of the knowledge dig discussions into our live class. The bottom line is the e-discussion cannot be a standalone activity: the student contributions and ideas need to be incorporated into the live classroom activities.

Student reports about the knowledge dig process indicate there are several key characteristics of these discussions they find valuable including:

  • students relate to the learning content better;
  • the student dialog develops a deeper understanding of the materials;
  • the ill-structured general prompt works well;
  • helps students to make connections to their own profession and life;
  • students find that the various links and supplementary materials other students voluntarily share very helpful;
  • students noted this is the kind of conversation that provides intellectual “sparks”;
  • students find the conversation helps refine their own thinking;
  • students report that the discussion process changes the act of reading so they become more active and reflective readers; and
  • students report a greater investment and engagement with the course learning materials.

While it may seem that an electronic discussion could be rather flat and boring, students find the process highly valuable and engaging if structured well. This structuring is greatly influenced by the general prompt given to students for a dig. Commenting systems (such as the free Disqus system) are becoming prevalent and easy to embed into websites. I have found the Disqus system very helpful and user-friendly, but there are other good options available. That said, several students report that the look and feel of the discussion environment is important. For example, students report that the built-in discussion component of many learning management systems (such as Blackboard) is clunky and non-inviting.

When used appropriately, knowledge digs provide two value added components to a learning environment: (1) they help create a sense of scholarly community outside the classroom, and (2) they provide the instructor with a much better indicator of student thinking that can be used to refine the structure of the live classroom activities.

Summing Up

Instructors often face the problem of too little instructional time. Related problems may be the lack of a scholarly community (due to large breaks between classes) or special content that ideally should be included as part of the curriculum (such as relevant meta-learning skills for students). Providing a way to incorporate both instructor voice and student voices outside the live classroom setting can be a practical and valuable way to address these instructional conflicts.

Virtual presentations in the form of instructor developed audiobook presentations (audio plus relevant handouts) allows students to come to class more prepared and allows the instructor to use more in-class time for non-lecture based activities. Electronic discussions can facilitate students developing a deeper, more meaningful, understanding of course content before coming to class. In addition, these discussions may allow the instructor to greatly refine the focus of each class so that the live learning experience directly addresses actual student issues, concerns, and confusions. Put differently, taking advantage of instructor voice and student voice learning techniques outside the live classroom setting can have a very positive impact on subsequent student learning and engagement.

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