Sunday, October 7, 2012

BlendKit 2012 Week 2: Interaction

This week's reading poses the question, "is there value in interaction in every sort of class."  My gut tells me that the answer to this question is yes, even if the medium of the class means that such interaction is limited to discussion boards, wikis, asynchronous webinars, etc.  Frankly, I still think that face to face interaction is the standard for a majority of students.  That said, it comes to mean very little when it is reduced to meaning that a student sits in the back of an auditorium in a class of 500 students and who never visits either the professor's or TAs' office hours.  Personally, I have tried to reframe the question of interaction to be one of meaningful interaction.  That is, how can I use the various tools available to me as well as my time in class with the students to create opportunities for meaningful interaction.  I absolutely agree with the observation that learning involves risk and vulnerability.  For this reason, a feeling of connection and support is crucial for a high-functioning classroom.  It is my job to make sure that every student is experiencing connection and feeling supported in his/her efforts to learn--even if there are 400 students in the classroom.

In my flipped class, there are a range of different possibilities for interaction: the students watch me in videos and I teach 3 classes x 45 min. each week.  I have office hours as well.  They interact with each other frequently in class via peer instruction and also out of class in study groups, on Piazza, on Twitter, and on the class FB site.  The greatest limit, to my mind, is just time.  These students have several other classes as well as personal lives.  They are constantly making choices about how to allocate their time and energy.

In the reading, various models were proposed for instructors to imagine themselves playing.  For my part, I see myself as a party planner.  It is my job to somehow provide that mix of choreographed "ice-breakers" and opportunities for spontaneous interaction.  Sometime I notice each semester is that, as at the start of a party of people who don't know each other well, I'm doing a lot of work to bring people together.  As time goes on, however, I am not needed and the party takes on a life and energy of its own.  This is also a difficult role to manage: I need to still be vigilant and make sure the chip bowls are filled; but I also need to let people go around the room making their own friends and talking about subjects of interest to them.

At the same time, I am the instructor because I have a lot of experience with the subject matter.  It's not enough to just bring people together and get them talking.  I have to make sure that they are having meaningful interactions that advance their learning of the course content.  That's no easy thing to do.  Students are happy to chatter away, but it's a challenge to tap into that to get them to chatter away while thinking hard about conceptually difficult topics.  Something that is proving helpful in my current course is a mix of asynchronous and synchronous conversations.  It has helped them feel more comfortable with talking about course content, from my perspective, and has let them see how other students do it (especially Piazza).

I do think that we may be on the cusp of the moment when face to face interactions will less clearly be the privileged form of pedagogical interaction.  Instead of being about absent/present (spatial) it will be about asynchronous/synchronous (temporal) kinds of interactions.  Students are already very sophisticated in how they manage these types of interactions, and which they prefer.  It is my own sense that there will never NOT be a role for the face to face student-teacher interaction when that is feasible.  But we are getting very creative about finding ways to mimic some of the benefits of the f2f interaction using ed tech tools; and students themselves seem to be less interested in it than, say, my generation or even my more senior grad students' generation.

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