Monday, July 07, 2008

Building a Conversation with 500 Students

This article appeared as a Syllabus "Case Study", July 2001, page 10. Even after all these years, I find that it still holds up. It was exciting to create a multi-directional Socratic dialogue with a class of 500 students. What I did not know at the time is that it takes so much energy and attention from the lead instructor! I don't think I could do that now. It would require several well trained co-instructors to make this to work on a permanent basis.

FACE-TO-FACE WITH VIRTUAL COMMUNITIES
Building a Conversation with 500 Students
Syllabus "Case Study", July 2001, page 10

Americ Azevedo has 500 students in his Introduction to Computers course at the University of California, Berkeley. Despite that, his teaching philosophy embodies the principles of the Socratic method. What makes this apparent contradiction possible is discussion software, a technology that enables him to “teach” and interact with his students outside of class in a flexible, dynamic way. Discussion software connects him, his students, and the TAs for the course, and allows them to communicate much more directly and frequently than they otherwise could.

Azevedo, who has taught courses in computers and human/computer interaction at several institutions, has always believed that the Socratic method is right approach to teaching. In courses with smaller enrollments, he has usually relied upon open-ended questions and in-class discussion while simultaneously tinkering with online discussion formats to supplement the ongoing Socratic dialogue. However, faced with the prospect of teaching hundreds of students in a large lecture hall three days a week for 50 minutes, Azevedo knew that in-class discussion would be nearly impossible and that he’d have to rely on online discussions to achieve his goals.

The immediate benefit of using discussion software has been an increase in participation by his students and a chance for him to get to know some of them quite well. “I can call up a list of all of their contributions to the course and see what they’re like quite easily.” Says Azevedo. “Through the use of the software I get a chance to hear the ideas and concerns of a large number of students. It also allows the shy students to participate as actively as the more outgoing ones.”

Flexibility was one of his primary concerns. “Most of the software that exists for course management is content-centered,” notes Azevedo. “It locks you into specific topics and doesn’t allow discussions to grow naturally.” Because it had many of the features he was looking for, Azevedo decided to try WebCrossing in the course. “What like about WebCrossing is that it’s discussion-centered and allows students to generate new topics, or threads, if they want to. It is really an experiment in developing a pattern language, a new way of submitting thoughts.”

Azevedo’s class site had topics that he’s generated, where he can post course information, posit questions, and link to other useful sites. It also includes many student-generated threads. In addition, the course is supported by the full array of UC Berkeley’s technology tools. For instance, through the Berkeley Internet Broadcasting Network, Azevedo has captured streaming video of all of his lectures. Students can link to these from the class site. Coupled with dynamic lecture notes, PowerPoint slides, and online assignments, the site is a rich resource for both discussion and study. “With these resources in place,” he notes, “we could expand the enrollment of the course to a distance learning situation with twice or four times as many students.”

e-mail is a part of Azevedo’s package as well. He is experimenting with the use of e-mail to communicate with his students, posting information about upcoming lectures to a listserv. Based on student responses, he can tailor the lecture to address the material they need specific help with, and skip what they’ve already absorbed. This has led to some interesting student-contributed material. “I asked them to define some terms that are used in the computer industry,” he says. “The students generated some very interesting metaphors that I used in lecture.”

Azevedo’s Introduction to Computers also has a lab requirement. “With 18 sections of labs 4 hours a week, we’re using all the available lab space,” he says. In the future, he hopes to use discussion software to enhance the laboratory experience, allowing the students in each lab section to communicate with each other and with the TA on projects. He’s also planning to experiment with a CyberLab that would replace some of the lab sections.

According to Azevedo, discussion software can enhance not only large lecture courses, but smaller enrollment courses as well. “When I used it with small classes, it generated a lot of excitement,” he notes. “There was more personal engagement than you get with a large course. My students generated hundreds of pages of text, and the themes just grew and expanded organically.”

In his large course, Azevedo has found that students don’t necessarily participate as much, but he has been surprised by the level of response at times. “I started a debate about participation credits: should students get credit for participating in these large lecture courses? This produced a raging debate on WebCrossing. It was a level of expression that you would normally never get in a large class. Students contributed ideas about how the course should be graded, some of which I incorporated into the course.”

He adds, “My co-teachers, Nicholas Cravotta, quickly adopted the new environment. For instance, he was able to give quick public feedback to a discussion topic led by student-generated questions. Normally, students would never get this kind of feedback in a large class.”

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Hi Americ

I am glad to see you posting this material on teaching. Some great ideas. I read another article on teaching a while back that really clicked with me. It was about teaching principals as opposed to examples. Math courses are a good example, where “examples” are taught, over and over again. I thought he was right on. But the more I thought about the how. I realized the crux of the problem is that people have differing skill sets. I intuitively/inductively know how things work. And always have. I remember helping you with you introduction to computer science course at UCI. Remember you were using the computer language Aids or Ada, something like that, on the DEC-10. Remember? I had never seen or used that language before and still was able to pick it up and help you. Woo that was a long time ago. Back in 1966. Anyway to get to the point. The last time I was out there and visited you and Linda I was working for DEC at the time. We were there taking a management class. It divided people into two groups: doers and thinkers. I think teaching should be geared to the individual. But to do that you first need to categorize students into learning types. Like the management course did with doers and thinkers. There was one other type defined in that management course: Loafers. Those you fired.

Andy