Never Too Far Away

Susan Rhoades Neel | Jan 12, 2018

Student engagement is a particularly difficult challenge in history courses offered through Utah State University (USU)’s interactive video conferencing (IVC) broadcast system. Students enrolled in IVC courses attend classes at a scheduled time and place, just like students in face-to-face courses, but instruction is delivered through a real-time audio-­visual link. An instructor may or may not have students present in the room from which she is broadcasting. Students from as many as 10 different classrooms throughout the state may be participating in the class.

How do you engage students who are not in the same room with one another or with the instructor? Are there ways to encourage student participation other than clicking the microphone and asking, “Hey, out there, what’s on your mind?”

A useful approach is one I take in the lower-division US history survey. Students take this course to fulfill general education requirements; most are not (nor do they intend to become) history majors. Some are pursuing bachelor’s degrees, but many are enrolled in USU’s two-year associate’s degree program. The class thus comprises people aiming to become nail technicians and diesel mechanics alongside young MBA and law school hopefuls.

Working in groups helps create a sense of camaraderie and common purpose.

I devote a portion of each class session to lecture. Lectures model historical thinking for students and convey wonderful stories that help capture their interest. Despite the recent trend in dissing the format, a well-crafted and elegantly presented lecture remains central to the way I teach history. But I also couple lectures with daily in-class activities, which is effective in keeping general education students engaged over a 16-week semester.

The key to getting all students, including those at remote sites, involved in classroom activities is coordinated use of instructional technology. The technology I use is simple and readily available to most instructors, including those in traditional face-to-face classrooms. For each in-class activity, I load instructions and relevant secondary and primary sources to USU’s learning management system (LMS), so that students can either prepare in advance or access the materials on the spot during class (USU uses Canvas, but this can be done with any LMS, such as Blackboard or Sakai). This enables the classroom activity to go forward even for those students who have not prepared. I use the same slideshow with the lecture outline to present and pace in-class activities so that all students, regardless of geographic location, can see each step or component on the screen. Any presentation software works (I use Apple’s Keynote), but the key is to integrate lecture slides and slides for in-class activities into the same slideshow. Giving visual coherence to each day’s session is a simple but surprisingly effective way to keep everyone attentive and engaged through the different learning tasks.

In some activities, students respond to questions with a polling application. I use iClicker’s inexpensive Internet-based application (called REEF), which students use with their own smartphones or laptops. At other times, we just use our microphones for open discussion. If students are working on an activity in groups, we use the Canvas discussion board and the collaboration platform Acano. Often, students just like to text or tweet one another on their phones.

In one class activity, for example, we discuss political cartoons of the Gilded Age. As preparation, students have been asked to read an essay on political cartoons and how to analyze them, but I review the main points in class. Student groups are then assigned a cartoon to analyze, using high-resolution images that I have uploaded to Canvas. The groups meet for 15 minutes to prepare to present an analysis of their cartoon to the rest of the class.

Simultaneously, a presentation slide projects activity instructions, and an embedded countdown timer ensures that everyone knows how much time they have to get the analysis done. When time is up, I randomly call on groups to present their analyses, and I call up the respective cartoons so that the entire class can see what each group is referring to. We don’t always have time for all the groups to present their work, but I ask everyone to type their analysis into Canvas. With these responses, I can award each student who participated some points.

Stanislas Petit, "Engineering," n.d. (c. 1905?). Wellcome Images/Wikimedia Commons/CC BY 4.0Making the in-class activities low-stakes, in terms of the overall course grade, but providing modest feedback, either verbally during the class presentations or through the Canvas grade book, seems to encourage student participation. Ensuring that everyone has access to the activity’s components (images, instructions, background reading) prior to and throughout the class period keeps everyone involved. Working in groups helps create a sense of camaraderie and common purpose. Giving the activity visual coherence through the presentation software and linking it with the LMS keeps the whole process focused and user-friendly.

We do a different in-class activity every week. Although each activity in this survey course is different, all have key elements in common. They reinforce rather than replace lectures; they use Canvas for advance preparation and in-class participation; they use presentation software to enhance focus, coherence, and pacing; they include coordinated use of educational technology to facilitate the participation of all students; and they are low-stakes, can be done in a single class session, and are engaging.

Integrating good lectures and creative in-class participation activities using tools commonly available today on most campuses is an easy and effective way of engaging students across distance. Instructors may find this to be as true for students sitting in large, cavernous classrooms as it is for my geographically dispersed students. Disengagement can be as much of a challenge with students who are only a few seats away from one another as with those separated by many miles.

Susan Rhoades Neel is associate professor of history at Utah State University.

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