One of the issues students confront in an online teaching environment is the lack of interactivity. Students prefer the campus experience due to the multitude of interactions they can experience both among themselves, and with their instructors. My online teaching practice this year has prompted me to tackle the problem. My solution was to integrate four classroom technologies into a coherent hybrid teaching and learning experience. Those elements were: MS Teams, OneNote, Mentimeter and the breakout rooms functionality within Teams.
MS Teams was the stage where it all came together, my online classroom. I also needed a whiteboard to make notes. I used the MS OneNote app for that. OneNote is a great tool, as it enabled me to set up different notebooks for my modules. Within each of those module-specific notebooks, I had a separate set of notes for each class, all in one place. The added value for students was not only during the synchronous class but also after it: I could seamlessly export my notes to .pdf files, and then post them to Moodle for further reference. Fig. 1 demonstrates how those notes looked like, depicting (the beginning of) a graphical and a mathematical derivation of a relationship in one of my classes:
Fig. 1: The whiteboard capabilities of OneNote
However, having a classroom and a white board is hardly an innovation – after all, those are just the necessary conditions for interaction with students. What tied the entire experience together were two pedagogical add-ons: Mentimeter and breakout rooms.
Mentimeter has traditionally been used as a polling tool. I have used it to spice up my classroom in three additional ways. First, to motivate a topic, I ask a question students can easily relate to. Mentimeter produces a word-cloud of student responses. I can then use the word-cloud to comment on the importance of the topic for the audience, and move on to the lecture material. Second, at key moments during the lecture, I normally use Mentimeter to break the methodical, and sometimes monotonous, exposition of a theory. I use it to check understanding and to prepare the class for the next part using its multiple-choice or open-ended question feature. Finally, Mentimeter can significantly boost interactivity at the end of each class, because asking questions is less personalised. I used its anonymous Q&A feature at the end of a few of my classes. The response rate was phenomenal relative to a live face-to-face classroom: I could barely manage all questions, which cultivated a very dynamic and effective class ending.
Note that the above boost to class interaction was not produced by students who would take part in any discussion anyway. The fact there was a boost to interactivity in the first place means that Mentimeter affects the incentives to take part in a discussion for students who would normally not manage to overcome their own constraints to speak up in a face-to-face classroom. As a result, we could consider Mentimeter as a tool to democratise any classroom and lower the participation threshold for students from diverse backgrounds and individual circumstances.
Despite the boost to engagement and the overall excitement caused by Mentimeter, it allows interaction going along one avenue only: back and forth between me and the students. However, education is also about creating platforms for independent interaction between the students themselves. That is where the breakout rooms came to the rescue.
Using the breakout rooms feature of MS Teams was the final element of my hybrid classroom approach. Integrated with MS Teams and OneNote, the breakout rooms allowed students to tackle difficult questions from a variety of angles, without necessarily having the shadow of my authority hanging over their discussion. I typically planned to ask a non-trivial question for the breakout room activity and reconvened 4-6 minutes after the start of the discussion. When I called the students back in, everyone was asked to summarise the debate in their room or add a viewpoint to the one which was already presented.
The results on student participation and satisfaction surpassed my expectations.
First, whenever I used Mentimeter, I have got a much more involved audience than I expected. A significantly higher number of students participated on a regular basis than in a standard pre-pandemic face-to-face classroom. Active participation in class discussions builds vital job market skills, especially for students who would normally stay passive in a face-to-face classroom.
Second, the variety of online interaction included shielding and self-isolating students in the hybrid experience. As a result, it was not significantly different from the experience of the rest of the students, even when some of the classes were held on campus in the Autumn term. Therefore, the learning and attainment gaps between students across diverse backgrounds and circumstances are expected to be minimal in the modules where my integrated method was applied.
Third, the breakout rooms fostered a new approach to creating and evaluating knowledge, which Mentimeter queries alone cannot deliver. As a result, my online seminars were transformed from processions of problem-solving into interactive learning platforms. In addition, I experimented with breakout rooms across two or more seminar groups within the same week with an identical seminar content. The groups where I used breakout rooms went higher up the cognitive skills pyramid, whereas the ones without them confined the level of debate to understanding basic concepts and methods.
The results here demonstrate the usefulness of integrating MS Teams with other carefully chosen solutions to deliver an integrated hybrid classroom. My approach to tying the classroom together bridged the gap between what students expected and what they have got from online teaching.
Perhaps indicative of that, the end-of-term evaluations surpassed my own expectations. Quoting from them, students were “[e]ncouraged to be actively involved in discussions which has helped develop communication and debate skills” in an environment of “great engagement opportunities”. As a result, some students felt they experienced “the best online teaching […] this term because it was incredibly interactive […]”.
My approach uses existing technologies College has access to. Therefore, beyond the inevitable few training hours, is cheap to implement. Given its low costs and evident performance advantages, I believe it is well worth scaling up. There are also some intuitive methods to test the effectiveness of the proposed classroom integration method. Identifying its effects would be the next step in this pedagogical project.