Unit 2: Collaboration and Group Work Online
Unit 2: Collaboration and Group Work Online avatar

Last week, we finished a group assignment in my f2f classes that I think might migrate nicely to the online classroom.

The assignment asks students to think critically about web sources and has two parts: a larger group component and a partner presentation.

The first task is completed in even numbered groups of 4 or 6 students. Students first must define “information counterfeits” such as propaganda, misinformation, disinformation, fake news, and alternative facts. Students then are to find an example (either a general example or a specific item from a web site) of each. 

The first term they must define is information, which is sneakingly challenging. Last week a group identified statements such as “My flip-flops are black” and “Your hair is blond’ as information, and their discussion about how they might verify these statements led to more and more questions about how we verify facts—how do we agree on primary sources and where do we have consensus of basic facts?  In f2f classes, this activity generates much engagement and laughter and (hopefully) critical discussion.

The final part of this first component asks students to define the terms gullible, skeptical, and cynical. They then write a brief paragraph answering the following question: Using these terms, describe how careful consumers of information should approach what they see, hear, and read.

This activity culminates in a large group discussion in which I ask questions about how students normally seek out information. Where do you usually go? (A: Google, Yahoo, social media sites.) How do you know you can trust the information—that is, how do you know the information you’re consuming is not propaganda or disinformation? (A: never really thought too much about it, unless it’s obviously a spoof.)

This discussion leads nicely into an introduction of the partner presentation part of the assignment. The goal of this component is to simulate “real life” research. Students partner off and choose a topic to research. Topics are important: I let them choose anything . . . as long as it is one with competing viewpoints. The assignment asks students to find one trustworthy source and one untrustworthy source. A secondary objective if to find “gray area” web sources—ones that are not obviously trustworthy (like academic papers) or obviously untrustworthy (like a page with dancing gifs).

The presentation portion of the assignment is low key: the pair tells us what topic they are researching and then silently previews each of their sources—in no particular order—by slowing scrolling through the page. The class has to vote on which is the trustworthy source and which is the untrustworthy. After we’ve voted, the pair explains which is which, outlining at least five reasons why they found the source trustworthy or not. There are a few “rules”: no .edu, .gov, no sources found via the databases, and no Wikipedia sources.

In f2f classes, the first part of the assignment is completed using Google Docs and the second via the Discussions in Canvas.

I can imagine migrating this activity into an online classroom. I think it already features some of the key points from Janette’s video.

1) Student “buy-in
I think it has “buy-in.” The subtext of the activity (i.e. not being duped by stuff on the internet) offers buy-in, and students love the idea of researching anything they want and of finding tricky web sites.
2) Clear expectations
I’ve finessed this assignment for a few semesters, modifying it make sure it more accurately reflects “real life” scenarios, making the expectations realistic (I originally had students find three sources for each—too much!) and specific. I’m sure I can be more clear, though. If there is only one thing I’ve learned from teaching, I can never be clear enough!!

In the online classroom, I would want to try the presentations as a synchronous meeting. I first thought it would fine asynchronouslywith students recording and uploading their presentations for us to view (with a pause for voting)–but I’m leaning against this idea because is seems like mere delivery of information. I want the discussion that happens during the presentations, which I think might be more valuable than the actual presentations. I would love feedback from experienced online teachers, though. It seems like online students might resist synchronous meetings.
3) Baby steps
I think this assignment is a good example of the baby steps that Janette discusses. Just one tiny part of an essay—quality sources- ha!

Without my illegible handwriting, how will they learn anything?
J. Williams

I’m going to open with — I like my illegible handwriting in the margins of student papers.  I find it difficult to capture the same kind of flourish in the online environment.  And, I have, through years of repetitive thinking, convinced myself that my students find the scribbles endearing.

That said, I really do prefer to scratch it out on a physical surface.  I find that I can leave a more dynamic comment that way, literally drawing connections between disparate parts of a paper by … drawing.  I am also faster at leaving feedback in this format — at least, at this time I am — which our author brought up as a legitimate concern just in case some of us have a hundred or more students making similar mistakes in their writing.

To this end, I have been eyeing the new 12.9-inch iPad Pro, thinking that I might be able to approximate the physical grading in the electronic environment by using a stylus to write on the electronic copies students send.  I have been teaching online for 10 years, and I have spent a lot of time waiting for this moment when technology would finally catch up and allow me to return to a pre-technology form of grading.  Yet, last spring, during the first leg of this prep, we spent some time considering whether we should be trying to force our on-the-ground practices into the online environment unchanged or whether what we are really talking about is a translation of those practices.  In other words, we should be taking our best practices from our years of on-the-ground teaching and re-imagining them in the online environment.

So, I should be asking myself, How does my handwritten feedback translate to the electronic grading environment?

And, I think the answer is — it doesn’t.  What does translate is my commitment to substantive feedback.  So, what tools are available in the online environment that might not only facilitate the communication of feedback to students but enhance it?

One strategy I will use will be to reduce the amount of time I spend on low-end, repeated comments through macros.  If I can auto-fill the comments I make a million times across student papers, like those associated with punctuation and in-text citation formatting, I can spend more time on high-end feedback.  I have resisted this move because it has always felt like, well, cheating.  However, if I am writing the same comment fifty times in a single grading session, what’s the difference between my repeated handwritten note and the one that the computer fills in automatically?


Another tool that I plan to make use of is combining typed comments with voice comments.  The opportunity for this has existed for a while, but not the ease of it.  I trained in Canvas in the spring, and I am teaching my first two courses in this CMS this fall, and including voice comments while grading is integrated into this system and easy to use.  I like the opportunity to explain a comment I make with a quick verbal elaboration, rather than getting into typing out a lengthy response.  It’s what I would do if a student approached me in class to go over a bit of feedback he or she received.  I can also see using this feature for my global, end comments on papers.  Video feedback is also pretty easy to use through Canvas, but I am not convinced that it will provide something essential that I can’t accomplish with a combination of typed and voice feedback.

I don’t know that these strategies really affect my philosophy about providing feedback so much as begin to satisfy my concerns that feedback in the online environment has the potential to be less than the student needs.