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🪵 10 Building Blocks from Teaching Experience

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You can find the resources mentioned in the podcast: the videos and Miro Board from IO1075, the Computational Thinking GitHub-hosted website, the tips from Pieter Jan Stappers in Lecture like a YouTuber and the code for the Crowd Quiz. The podcast theme music by Transistor.fm. Learn how to start a podcast here.

The summer is closing, and courses are getting ready for the new academic year. I’m Jacky Bourgeois, assistant professor at the TU Delft. Today I’ll share 10 teaching blocks I’ve experienced while piloting a course earlier this year.

This year, we are excited to roll out a new Bachelor curriculum at the Faculty of Industrial Design Engineering.

I had the chance to pilot a course last Spring on Software-Based Products, code name: IO1075. It will be part of the new curriculum as Digital Product Development. I already shared information and course material a few months ago, which I’ll link in the notes. But in brief, about 350 1st-year Bachelor students from our design Faculty. The course aim at introducing what’s behind the scene, the digital part of products. It covers deep dive modules on Internet architectures, networking, data and software design. The second half of the course explores development methods, business models and digital responsibilities.

I try to put myself in our students’ shoes as much as possible in my teaching activities. Suppose we limit our work to delivering knowledge. In that case, our students can learn and grow from an abundance of high-quality MOOCs and books already available. As a University teacher, I see myself as a structurer and an entertainer more than a lecturer or expert. No dogma of autonomous learning, blended learning, or other concepts. In the end, it all comes down to practical activities that help students understand and be confident in leveraging knowledge and skills in their career ahead.

I see teaching activities as blocks that we play with to fit the learning objectives. So this is what I want to share today, a series of 10 blocks. So let’s get started!

1. Roadmap

The first building block is about structure. Learning environments like Brightspace can be bulky, with information scattered in different places. In addition, activities are often not documents but event details, actions to do on a tool, or reactions to share on the course forum.

Giving flexibility and autonomy to the students requires more structure. The last thing I want is for students to lose time searching for content and instructions. It is unproductive for them but also generating significant noise for the teaching team.

In the course, all activities but the final exam are voluntary. I was looking for a way to link all these activities on a weekly timeline. For this, Brightspace has the concept of checklists. A checklist contains elements with a title, a due date and a description. We set up a page called Roadmap, including a checklist for each week.

For example, on week 2, the checklist has 11 tasks. The first 3 are videos, which directly appear in the task. Then, there is a plenary session to kick off the week. This task contains the link to the online live event and the schedule. Then, students can read a book chapter following a link to the digital library document. And so on.

The Brightspace calendar indicates all due dates. For an event such as a plenary session, we mark the start time as the due date. For all other activities, the due date is a suggested deadline so that students can make the best out of it. For instance, they would not receive our feedback if they share their work too late.

The roadmap was one of the highlights of the course. Students appreciated its flexibility while providing guidance. In addition, it links all content, guiding students through it without extra effort to find the necessary information. Above all, it is relatively easy to set up.

2. Self-Study Material

The second building block is about self-study material. We deliver all content through video demos of prototypes and videos to navigate the most critical knowledge along with book chapters.

This choice provides flexibility to students. They are free to walk through this material at the time that fits them best and as many times as they want, even at a faster pace if they wish to.

This requires more work for the teaching team upfront. From my perspective, I see this material as the MOOC element of the course. But it releases a considerable amount of time during the quarter to focus on the interaction with students. This is where we add most of our value.

The structure with demos, videos, and book chapters repeats knowledge in different forms. This is an inclusive approach to facilitate learning for a wide range of student needs. Following tips from Pieter Jan Stappers, we’ve built 10 to 15-minute high-paced videos packed with a lot of enthusiasm! Students need to receive energy and encouragement. They appreciate it and feed this energy back to us.

3. Energiser

Third, let’s talk about the weekly energiser! When I designed this course within the context of the COVID pandemic, I felt the need to introduce a weekly touchpoint. I gave importance to making the students at ease in a climate that gives them intrinsic motivations to engage, to be part of the cohort and their group.

I set a 30-minute plenary meeting at the beginning of each week, the so-called energiser. I used this time slot for housekeeping information, introducing the aim of the weekly module and the connection to design. But the true purpose was to cheer up everyone on Monday morning.

I ask students to join their groups, greet everyone, and reflect on the previous module halfway through the session. Then, depending on the topic, they could express this reflection on the course forum in GIFs, group pictures, or even tweet-like text blobs.

I also used this moment to share real-life examples, going slightly off-road with a YouTube video related to the week module. But, again, the purpose was for inspiration and triggering discussions rather than specific knowledge.

4. Crowd quizzes

Building block number 4 is about helping students in their recall process. I phrase it as the crowd quiz, an activity that invites students to formulate two quiz questions after going through the weekly self-study material. Here, the idea is to offer students the opportunity to think about the two most essential learnings they extract from the material.

We use the submitted questions to automatically and randomly compose a quiz for each student. This mechanism aims at combining the process of selecting the most critical learnings with the recall of new knowledge.

As teachers, it provides a valuable indicator of what students pick as critical learnings.

This approach was not without challenge. First, it lacked curation. Although students could rate each question as helpful or not helpful, this did not prevent students to regularly face poorly formulated or irrelevant questions from their peers. Second, it is a challenging activity for students, which makes it hard to sustain engagement over the whole duration of the course.

Nevertheless, this activity is an exciting mechanism to explore. Students even suggested extending this mechanism to the practice of computational concepts as part of the programming assignments.

As an improvement, our teaching team will be more involved in the curation of questions. We will also use this material more effectively to prompt questions and drive the feedback sessions.

If you are curious about how we implemented this mechanism, I’ll share the link to the code in the notes.

5. Knowledge Exercise with Miro

The fifth block to share relates to group exercises. The COVID pandemic led us to develop a series of online whiteboard exercises with Miro.

Through these exercises, we led students to apply knowledge. Moreover, in groups, students could combine their understanding and develop their practice without teachers help.

Beyond the pandemic, our exercises will undoubtedly involve more tangible activities. However, online whiteboards effectively guide students in the process, the instructions, and delivery. As a result, the teaching team could focus on in-depth interaction, which I’ll touch upon in the next building block.

Worth mentioning is the tension within groups and between groups.

First, within groups, some students might engage less than others. With a focus on autonomy, I am not concerned about students who choose not to participate. However, it might hamper the learning experience of the remaining members of the group, struggling with tasks that are too large for a group with fewer members.

Second, online whiteboards offer practical ways to let several groups working on the same board while guiding them for peer feedback. For instance, our instructions included explicit steps to visit their neighbouring group’s work and provide specific feedback. However, we learned that this mechanism should remain loose, not enforcing groups to a particular board. Otherwise, some groups are not showing up or showing up late, which hamper the progress of other groups.

The 8 Miro board templates are open-source; I’ll put the link in the notes.

6. Drop-in videos

I mentioned in-depth interactions as a result of freeing time with guidance on whiteboards.

With 350 students, providing in-depth feedback can be labour intensive but also redundant. Perhaps, a design course might need group coaching sessions to focus on the specific of each group. But in general, I believe the feedback we provide applies to most groups.

With this in mind, we started the course by looking at boards as students were working on their group exercises. Then, we would record short videos thinking aloud and bouncing reactions with other teachers. This process helped us to prepare our weekly plenary feedback sessions, which I’ll detail in a moment. However, it did not support the students. This feedback was unstructured and redundant with the live feedback session.

It only came to life when we started identifying groups with good progress and relevant questions. Then, we would drop in their video channels and engage these students in constructive discussions that benefit the whole cohort. I am looking forward to the next iteration, hopefully on campus. We plan to transfer this approach to the campus, dropping by groups with a cameraman to capture in-depth discussions with students that we can share with the whole cohort.

7. Discourse

I mentioned the use of a forum a couple of times already. We used Discourse, an online platform, to bring all discussions in a single place throughout the course. Discourse is the interaction backbone and will remain so beyond COVID restrictions.

I encourage students to ask all questions there unless it is of a personal matter. This massively reduces individual emails by addressing questions for everyone. Beyond questions, students can share reactions to what they read, watch and experience and bring in external materials to discuss.

It provides features that many students use on social networks, such as liking a post, tagging teachers and other students, and reacting with a wide range of responses.

It is also excellent support for polling and lives discussions while creating an archive of interactions. Students can search for knowledge because it is not siloed into a video conference tool, for instance.

We encourage students to post all their work on Discourse, always suggesting tags as part of the activity instructions to facilitate later searching and filtering.

The main challenge we faced with Discourse is reducing the distance between teachers and students. I want students to see the teaching team as members of the forum, offering questions and triggering thought rather than bringing authority.

However, students had difficulty commenting on others work, claiming that they do not feel confident enough. So, in the next iteration, I will look for strategies to reinforce the feeling of safety. Students need to understand that the more they question and react, the more they receive feedback from their peers and the teaching team through discussions.

8. Student feedback collection

Discourse leads to the 8th building block, the ability for students to continuously provide feedback.

I have confidence in the knowledge students should acquire. However, there are many ways to deliver this knowledge. Effective feedback mechanisms are vital to reflect on how students receive our teaching.

Discourse is instrumental for that. On a weekly or even activity basis, we can open topics to invite students to share their reactions and suggestions for improvement. But collecting feedback is not enough. As teachers, the forum gives us the ability to quickly respond. We explain why an activity is as it is. We can quickly take into account comments for the upcoming modules whenever possible. We can also acknowledge the feedback and share our plan for the next iteration of the course.

This asynchronous collection of feedback can also be addressed in the live sessions.

We also closed the course with a feedback workshop. We invited volunteer students to join us for a 2-hour session. They raised challenges, and we worked together on ways to improve them. Such a session would also be valuable halfway through the course.

Beyond collecting feedback, these mechanisms show students that we listen, encouraging them to engage in the course.

9. Computational Thinking

On a different note, part of the course involves an introduction to computational thinking through the basics of Python. We chose to develop a set of open-source, cloud-based, contextual Python exercises. Open-source so that students can access this material on their time beyond the course period. Cloud-based so that everything takes place in their web browser without installing anything on their machine. And contextual, always having the development of a product prototype in mind.

However, the 9th building block is about the series of easy-going videos that we recorded to match these assignments. Although these Python exercises are challenging, we attempted to convey their intuitions through small, 2-character plays. Once again, it is about entertainment, and it was positively received by students.

10. Feedback session

Finally, we closed each week with a live plenary session focusing on feedback, our 10th block. From students questions, reactions, group exercises and quizzes, we compile a list of tips and tops and walk through concrete student work to illustrate our points. We also expand on topics we feel not yet adequately addressed and interact with students via polls and live questions.

This was a challenging part of the course to do online. I look forward to an on-campus version where we can engage in a lecture room with a panel discussion and in-person interaction with students. The online broadcast interaction requires significant effort on both ends, from teachers but mainly from the students, which can be frustrating. This contributed to losing important attendance towards the end of the course for this particular activity.

Voilà, these 10 building blocks can be reused separately and adapted to a different course: Roadmap, self-study material, energiser, crowd-quizzes, knowledge exercises on Miro, drop-in videos, interaction via Discourse, student feedback collection, entertaining videos and feedback sessions.

I hope it provides some inspiration for trying out new, engaging teaching formats. What I learned through this process is that students appreciate when we try to think along with them. They notice our effort and attempt to offer teaching activities that work for them, even though it might not ultimately work out. In the end, it does not matter as long as we are transparent and show them that we value their feedback.

Notes

This post is licensed under CC BY 4.0 by the author.