It’s a cliche at this point for one to state that this past year has presented many complexities for all of us to adapt to. Not the least daunting of these adversities has been connecting meaningfully with peers and colleagues over web-conferencing platforms. This difficulty has spurred a myriad of responses and tool adoptions, particularly within a domain with which we are all now intimately familiar – online learning. Of notable concern for faculty and students throughout this period of uncertainty and innovation has been the need to connect and interact synchronously. What are the best tools and practices to facilitate learning?
UMBC has been particularly well positioned throughout this time, supporting both Blackboard Collaborate Ultra and WebEx as synchronous platforms. But with this wealth of opportunity, one is at times left wondering what platform to adopt and for what use cases. The response to these concerns require some nuance: It depends on what one is attempting to undertake and how much time one is willing to spend preparing their learning spaces to promote learner interactions.Professor Jamie Gurganus, the undergraduate program coordinator and faculty member, Director for the Center for Integrated Research, Teaching and Learning (CIRTL), as well as Associate Director of Engineering Education Initiatives at COEIT, has been using WebEx as her platform of choice for teaching her mechanical engineering students, or “Mechies.” She’s developed an exceptionally well thought out approach to incorporate live instruction, lab participation, and peer-to-peer group learning.
For Professor Gurganus, a primary concern has been in facilitating the same types of design and collaborative learning experiences she’s been able to provide through face-to-face instruction, particularly for supporting group work. How can one best scaffold undergraduate students in large classroom settings to engage in discussions with their peers and coordinate on long term design projects? She has found using the WebEx spaces, although time consuming to configure, conducive to facilitating the kinds of interactions students need to be successful in the courses she teaches, from brainstorming and critical problem solving, to developing product prototypes for customers with special needs.
Her adaptation and model of WebEx for lecturing and collaborative learning appears both thoughtfully designed to be comfortable and inviting while simultaneously strikingly commonsensical. Students enter her sessions to the sound of music and respond to icebreaker questions such as “Would you rather fight with Marvel or DC heroes and why?” Her lectures, with both her forward facing camera and slidedeck presented, are recorded. Attendance is taken by Teaching Fellows (Undergraduate Teaching Assistant) based on breakout group participation or by using Qwickly Attendance. There’s an ongoing, searchable record of all communications and documents shared, and perhaps best of all, the breakout rooms are always available for students, during or between classes, and for instructor drop-in.