Teaching Large Classes with Technology

I’ve always been a bit of a skeptic when it comes to using technology in my teaching. There just never seemed to be enough value added to my teaching practice. Using PowerPoint slides were for lectures – I taught seminars. Blackboard/Moodle/whatever was for posting readings and maybe for pre-class preparatory writing. But the classroom…that is for rigorous discussion, led by students, facilitated by me, with a militant attention to the text. The fanciest I would get with technology was showing a film clip in class to structure discussion.

I’ve been forced to evolve.

November 2013. I’m interviewing for my position at NUS. I’m in the room with some very friendly (but very intimidating at that moment) senior scholars. We were discussing teaching, and the question was raised: “What do you consider a large class?” I responded by saying that anything over 25 was large to me. I remember Janice Bially Mattern responding with something along the lines of, “Oh, wow, you’re going to need to change your ideas about that.”

November 2014. I’m at NUS and I’m teaching my first lecture course. At this point, I’ve been teaching for between 6 and 8 years, depending on if you count some of my first forays into the classroom at the University of Washington and Miami University (1-credit seminars attached to larger programs, like a volunteer program or the MU Honors and Scholars). I’m struggling. I don’t know how much reading to assign, because we aren’t really discussing the reading. I can’t seem to find the right amount of content to fit into a 95-minute lecture – I’m either coming up short or I end up not being able to get to 15-25% or what I have prepared. I have a TA, even though it’s a relatively small class, but I don’t have any clue how to manage her. I never go to her tutorials. But the students seem to like her so I feel good about everything she’s doing. Students seem bored in the lectures. They don’t schedule meetings with me to discuss things. Frankly, I’m getting depressed by how bad I am at this, because I thought I prepared well by “practicing” in my last few semesters at Ohio State. I wrote some mini-lectures, I wrote a few exams, I read a few things on lecturing.

November 2015. I’ve improved a little. I’ve given in to student demand and I’m beginning to use PowerPoint slides. I’m writing lectures that fit within the 95-minute frame 90% of the time. And the other 10% is usually only missing by a slide or two (or maaaaaayyyyybe 3, if I’m honest). Enrollment is low enough that I can make up some of my shortcomings with mandatory consultations during office hours. I don’t have a TA, so I have no extra management issues to deal with. I feel pretty good. But… It’s a research methods course. Student expectations are all over the place; some think they’re going to learn statistics, and I give them ethnography. Others think every week will be a concrete “method,” and I give them the philosophy of science. I’m better at the mechanics of teaching, but I end the term feeling like everyone hated me and they didn’t learn anything.

November 2016. I have no lecture courses. I kill it in my seminars, as usual. My teaching scores are pretty far above departmental averages. This is a confidence booster going into a semester where I’ll lecture again for the first time in more than a calendar year.

April 2017. The semester is over. I feel like my lectures each week were good, solid. B+ to A- regularly, with a few A’s thrown in. There’s a clear narrative that ties the term together. There’s a great balance between types of assignments, so students can excel on more than just exams. Student performances on assessments show me they are learning what I want them to learn. I’ve improved my PowerPoint slides so that they are masterfully minimal – they structure the lecture but I can’t be replaced by them. Optional consultations in office hours are used by a large proportion of students. I think to myself: this is it, this is the semester when my teaching scores for a lecture course will break through to at least be near the departmental average (approx. 4.2/5.0). I’m feeling good. Then, I get my feedback scores. 3.5 out of 5.0. What the hell happened?

August 2017. I’ve been doing a little bit of reading on lecturing. Most importantly, I go to a session at the NUS Centre for Development of Teaching and Learning on “Promoting Student Engagement in Large Classes.” Normally, I would sign up for a session like this, find out it was about technology, and then politely claim that something came up in order to cancel. But this time, I knew I needed help.

So this workshop was last Friday (18 August), and I left committed to trying at least one of the tools introduced during this week’s lecture. I chose to use an app called Padlet in my lectures this week to create a student “backchannel.” I had never heard this term before, but apparently it is a background conversation that occurs during spoken remarks, but formalized and put onto some form of tech platform. I had heard of the practice, as I had read about some teachers using Twitter for this purpose. Anyway…

It worked fairly well. My lecture, on Monday, in my Sociology of Popular Culture class went pretty well. Unexpectedly, students didn’t use the Padlet until the very end of the lecture. I’m hoping they’ll use it more actively next week. But it seems to have helped broken down a barrier.

It worked much better in my Tuesday lecture in my Global Issues course. Well, it worked better in the sense that the students used it more, but it also raised the problems of some inappropriate posts. On the positive side, I was able to increase the participation of a 188-person lecture hall. I did a short think-pair-share exercise, and we used the Padlet for the share portion. That worked very well in getting students to post. But the Padlet also gets a little confusing as it updates in real time – so every time I tried to read the page to share some of the insights (it was also projected on screen) the text boxes would shift around. The problems came later as I encouraged students to add questions related to the ongoing lecture. For example, I discussed Monsanto and the patenting of seed DNA as an issue faced by agricultural communities within the context of globalization. A few students – or maybe just one? – posted to the Padlet things like: “Dear Monsanto, I can’t feed my family” and then “Dear [NAME], Too bad, From Monsanto.” Ok, not productive, but not off the mark either. The strange posts were a series of remarks about how happy it would make a student if s/he could see Kim Jong-Un nuked. With all of the spelling errors and strange grammar you would imagine in a post like that. I was not expecting to get trolled in my own classroom.

As for successes, I am certainly going to try this again. I think it helped make the lectures a more two-way street, and therefore more engaging for the students. But there were challenges as well, and honestly I haven’t figure out how to handle them yet. If you tell a troll not to troll, they just troll harder. And the technique of the Padlet loses a lot of its effectiveness (due to its extremely easy use) if you require students to sign up for an account in order to post under verified identities.

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