My focus here is on undergraduate instruction only and to keep matters simple I will only consider classes that are taught as lecture-discussion, in moderately sized classrooms, or where the lecture is in one section taught in a large auditorium and the discussion is in a different section, typically taught by a TA. I want to begin with the following ideas, which you might call learning principles, or stylized facts about learning, or imperatives to take into account when making modifications to how a course is taught.
- Every Learner Must Express Their Own Formative Thinking - How such expression occurs might very well vary from person to person. One would expect that extroverts would do this in conversation with others while introverts might have purely an internal conversation, but then perhaps express the thinking through some creative activity. For example, I write blog posts as "think alouds" to work through some issue. If I've hit my mark, it helps others to think through those issues for themselves. Also note that sometimes people behave against type - extroverts may engage in deep reflection for expressing their thinking while introverts may engage in thoughtful conversation with others.
- The Shy Student Problem - Many students are reluctant to speak up in the face-to-face classroom. They won't raise their hand even when they have a question to ask. Likewise, they won't raise their hand when the instructor poses a question to the class. Some of these students genuinely prefer to listen to their classmates and to the instructor, rather than contribute to the discussion themselves. Many of these students are afraid of looking stupid in front of the instructor and their classmates, so sometimes the preference for listening is a dodge to conceal this fear. This is not new. I learned about it in spring-summer 1996 when Cheryl Bullock and I interviewed many SCALE faculty. Addressing the shy student problem was the primary reason that most of these instructors were willing to try going online. Of course, there have been many factors since then which impact how students now behave in the face-to-face classroom. If my own recent teaching experience is any indicator, the issue is more acute now than it was in the mid to late 1990s.
- People Tend To Be More Open When Typing On A Screen - This too is not new. Absent the facial cues, it is easier to think of what to say because there won't be quick feedback about saying the wrong thing. This is why one approach to the shy student problem is to have students do writing online of some sort.
- Students Tend To Be More Open With Others Their Own Age - These kids, on the path to adulthood, live in a hierarchical world. Those in authority, mainly parents and teachers, are older than them, and learning to please the authority figure may mean denying oneself of true motivations and feelings. It is easier to express those sometimes hidden thoughts with peers, who likely are thinking along similar lines. Further, there are generational/cultural differences based on common experience (think about music or online games) that encourages communication within generations and blocks communication across generations.
- The Most Basic Pedagogy Is Imitation Of Expert Performance - We refer to it as the master-apprentice model or, more colloquially, as monkey-see monkey-do. Indeed, much of what caring instructors aspire to do is provide a good model for their students. Yet sometimes instructors who are experts in their fields are blind to obstacles that novice learners face. Those who are somewhat experienced yet still novice might be better teachers this way because they have a better sense of what someone new to the subject is going through.
- Is The Innovation Specific To Online Or Can It Also Be Deployed Face-To-Face? Nobody knows now when instruction will return to what it was or if that will happen. Expectations about that will vary. If an instructor is to make changes in how the course is taught, thinking of that as a kind of investment, the instructor would like to get good return on that effort. It stands to reason that modifications which can be deployed either online or face-to-face are more likely to elicit greater instructor response.
The idea included taking a very old concept, the study group, which typically would be formed by some of the current students themselves, with it being an opt in for those who became study group members, and making the following modification. The instructor would break up the class into study groups where each student enrolled in the class would be assigned to some group. Each group would also be assigned a peer-mentor, who would serve as the group leader. Each study group would meet online in synchronous fashion, with the agenda for the group meeting being determined by the course work that needed to be covered during the session. The peer-mentor would encourage participation by all group members, address outside-the-group meeting, if a particular member seemed to be struggling more than a little bit, and try to keep the group on track so the meeting remains functional, although in the current circumstances it might be appropriate to allocate some time to other diversions as people who are abiding by the social distancing requirements might need some non-academic interactions with other people that are purely fun/social or are expressing their fears about whether society will rebound fully or not.
The instructor, in turn, would serve as a mentor of the peer-mentors, by having an online session with them where they could share their experiences and where the suggested agenda for the the next group meeting would be proposed. The instructor might also arrange to visit with individual groups, perhaps for a fraction of the full group meeting, just to get a sense of how things are going and to demonstrate to the students that the instructor has an interest in how students are learning with this approach. (In large lecture classes, it is the graduate student TA who would perform this function.) Otherwise, instructor produced content would be delivered to students asynchronously and students would review that content as well as complete any assignments that were due between group meetings. So those meetings would partially be for taking a reflective look at the work the students had already done and partially for getting the students ready for what would come next.
One would want to evaluate whether the approach works for students in the class. Will they find it a boon, have true personal contact with a peer-mentor who can help them learn? Or will they see it as a way for the instructor to become even more distant than happens in the usual mode of instruction? It only makes sense to perpetuate the practice if most of the students are in the former situation. One also has to consider how the peer-mentors benefit from the arrangement. As I mentioned previously, there is real learning for them from doing this work, which might be categorized as learning communication skills and learning leadership skills, as well as possibly learning the subject matter of the course in a deeper way than they had during the time they were students in the class. There is an issue about getting college credit for this learning. If there were an institutional embrace of the practice, that would have be to addressed in a systematic fashion. In the current situation credit might be given in an ad hoc manner, letting the peer-mentors receive independent study credit, possibly using the peer-mentoring as a gateway for the instructor to actually supervise independent study projects that the peer-mentors do. But if too much of that is deemed necessary, it will be self-defeating, because it will up the instructor workload beyond what is reasonable.
What is clear is that the peer-mentors need to be paid, perhaps on an hourly basis, or maybe via tuition reductions that are granted to such students. So, one needs to ask where the money will come from to make such payments. In the INSL posts from 15 years ago, I went through some effort to show how an institutional embrace could be made self-financing. Here we don't have that, so something else is needed. And now I will make reference to my previous post, where a worry was expressed about graduating seniors entering the job market at this impossible time. If the university had the wherewithal to do this, should it encourage these students to defer graduation till after the health risk has passed? My sense of things is that this is a sufficient emergency situation to warrant spending down the university endowment substantially and to really lean on major donors (the ones who have buildings named after them) to provide additional funding for hiring undergraduate students. One might also lean on well-paid faculty and staff to make contributions to the university. Without this, the idea is a non-starter. With it, you can then ask, just how much of this sort of thing can we do?
I promised a critique of the INSL approach and I want to offer that, tie it in with what came previously, and then close. I came up with INSL because in the late 1990s and early 2000s I used undergraduate TAs in my intermediate microeconomics course (they held online office hours) and got reasonably good results from that practice In turn, I adopted that approach from some instructors in Engineering who had been using undergraduate peer-mentors well before I started to do it. This leads to the first critique.
- Innovators and Early Adopters among the instructors make the innovation shine. The same innovation when deployed by majority instructors can seem rather dull. This is my conclusion from the main innovation I oversaw as the Director of the Center for Educational Technologies, when the innovation was getting a traditional class and giving it an online component, so the class became Web enhanced. The traditional way of overcoming this issue is by having the majority instructor receive professional development support from campus, college, or departmental providers. But that doesn't scale well and/or is a slow way to get interesting adaptations of the innovation. The issue is whether in the current tough situation we find ourselves whether there is some way to quick start the learning of the majority instructors, so they behave more like early adopters in this instance. I don't have an answer for that here, but it is worth thinking about.
- Diligent students will report on prior group projects that there are other students who free ride on the efforts of the group and don't do their fair share of the work. I have heard this sufficiently often when I query students about this that I take it to be the norm on campus. Particularly galling here is when the group shares a common grade for the project. If there were individualized grading then the free riding wouldn't seem as much as an issue to the diligent students. In our context, however, it would be the peer-mentors who assigned the individualized grades. Do we want to advocate for undergraduates to do that? A flip issue here would happen if there is no direct grading for the study group at all. Would the diligent students see the group as productive regarding their own performance in class on the work they do that does get assessed? If so, they would participate vigorously. If not, however, the study group might degenerate entirely. Holding the study group together so all members participate and the discussions are valued by group members might be putting a very large burden on the peer-mentors. What can help them be up to that burden?
- Students are in the habit of multiprocessing when online. The multiprocessing counteracts student engagement and thus lessens the quality of the group meeting. Among the related issues that need to be worked through here are: (a) should group meetings be by video chat, audio chat, or text chat? (b) should a group member be designated to take minutes of the meeting and thereby be absolved from much participation in the discussion? and (c) does it matter what device students use for these group meetings, smartphone or laptop? I do want to note that meetings can be recorded and recordings can be shared with the instructor, if necessary. So if a student is under performing during the meeting, the peer-mentor can note this, share the recording of the meeting with the instructor and leave it to the instructor to deal with the student. This is an example of the typical monitor/punish approach to labor shirking. One wonders if there is an alternative approach that emphasizes carrots rather than sticks, so taps into student intrinsic motivation. If this alternative does exist is that due to the subject matter of the course or to the pedagogic method? There needs to be some unpacking in answering those questions.