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
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.”