"Community Conversations": Faculty Discuss Student Engagement in Remote Classes

On Wednesay May 2, 2020, Provost Joe Helble spoke with Dartmouth faculty members about their remote classes on the webcast "Community Conversations." This transcript has been edited for clarity.

Joe Helble, Provost: Our three faculty colleagues are Cecilia Gaposhkin, Professor and incoming Chair of History, Petra Bonfert-Taylor Professor of Engineering and head of the Dartmouth Emerging Engineers program, and John Lynch, former corporate CEO, former four-term governor of New Hampshire and for the past seven years, a professor at the Tuck School of Business. Welcome to all of you.

So I'd like to start by just putting a brief high level question to each of you and ask if you could just briefly give us all an overview of the course you're teaching this term, your objective, your learning, goals, anything you've had to do to adopt to a remote learning format, and Cecilia, I'd like to start with you and then I'll turn to Petra and then to John

Cecilia Gaposhkin, Professor of History: Sue Joe, thanks for inviting me here. I'm this term teaching a first year seminar on Joan of Arc. The first year seminar program is run across the College in different departments across the College in every first year student is supposed to, is required to take one in it. They're designed for students, have an opportunity to work within the disciplines, particularly on writing and research, so bringing students into college level expectations and training about academic writing and n academic research and I've taught the Joan of Arc seminar number of times. 

Joan of Arc is this remarkable 15th-century peasant woman who took on an army and led the France to victory during the Hundred Years War and ended up being tried and executed for heresy. So kind of remarkable story which is a wonderful sort of historical nugget to work with. A bunch of students and I found appeals to first  year students because she was seventeen, eighteen, nineteen years old during her extraordinary, but brief career in the 15th century. 

Joe: So just very briefly answer this as a yes or no question and then we'll get back to it. Is it different this term?

Cecilia: Oh, yes and no. Yeah, it's a different experience. The students are every bit as wonderful and every bit as engaged, but we've had to figure out how to do our work and particularly the discussion and community building and exchange component that normally comes in a 16 person seminar. These are small classes designed to function around discussion and the exploration of ideas and having been recommended to go asynchronous for all the issues of access and Internet and time zones. We've had to figure out new ways of engaging in that community discussion.

Joe: So let's hold that thought and come back to it. I want to speak about specifically how you're engaging with students. So, Petra. How 'bout you? Tell us about how you're teaching a relatively large group of engineering students in an introductory class in this new format.

Petra Bonfert-Taylor, Professor of Engineering: Yeah, thank you for asking Joe. The class I teach is Introduction to Scientific Computing, which is an introduction to programming in two languages that are really important for engineers,  namely C and MATLAB, which have two difficult languages and that are very different from each other. It's a required class of the engineering majors and they get about 60% freshmen and then 40% a mix of others in that class during spring term and the way I run the classes, I have students watch brief introductory videos before class, interspersed with formative quizzes to make sure the students understand and follow the videos which leaves us time for programming exercises in my synchronous class meetings. That way we can support students in real time where they need my support the most. We've developed our own tools that allow barrier free coding on day one of the class. So rather than having to go through complicated installation procedures, students on their first day in class with me right there, write their first programs. 

I use breakout rooms now in this online format with fixed student groups. So I send students into breakout rooms to work on coding assignments and small groups supported by wonderful Learning Fellows. These are students have taken the class previously and now support the learning in class. So in these breakout rooms, students work on programming problems, submit their solutions so I can see what's going on in their rooms, and I call them back to the main room. I go over one group's solution. We briefly go over some new concepts. I use an in class response system to gauge understanding.

And then we repeat the whole process and I'm supported in this with an absolutely fantastic team of teaching assistants and Learning Fellows who constantly help me brainstorm and develop solutions to new situations and problems that occur.

Joe: So let me just ask you one very quick follow-up action. Give me a question very brief answer. Why did you choose to use fixed groups rather than variable? 

Petra: So research actually shows that having students work with the same groups is more beneficial for their learning, and I especially chose it this term because I wanted students to be able to connect to one another in a class of 50 students. I have two sections, each of which has 50 students. In a large class, students cannot really get to know each other easily over Zoom and I wanted to provide a social component and allow students to have this extra network of students to whom they could reach out if they're having problems either in class or problems outside of class, students who they really get to know. But there's also research reasons behind it that support fixed groups over flexible groups.

Joe: Thanks. Thank you very much. So John, I'd like to turn to you now. You're teaching students who are slightly older. These are second year MBA students as I understand it. Taking an elective class focused on leadership with an extraordinary opportunity in this moment in time. Tell us a bit about the class and how you go about engaging students through this mediated electronic format. 

John Lynch, Professor of Business: Joe again, thank you for having all of us here. I teach a course called The CEO Experience. The differences and similarities between being CEO in the private sector and CEO in the public sector, looking at the leadership styles and leadership qualities. So for example, we do Jim Kilts and the turnaround of Gillette, Harvey Golub, the turnaround of American Express, Knoll, the company which I ran. I also do what was a turnaround of United Way and Brian Gallagher, the CEO of United Way Worldwide, actually comes to class. We do the founding of Keurig and the Keurig founders come to class.

But we also look at the public sector. We look at Kennedy and the Bay of Pigs, Rudy Giuliani after 9/11, the lack of leadership with respect to Hurricane Katrina. In terms of my class, I have 65 students in each of two sections and we do exclusively the case method, which is all classroom discussion. And my goal for the course is. at the end, I want the students to feel like they have the qualities and the confidence to be able to run any organization of any size in the private sector or the public sector. 

Joe: So John, if you don't mind my following up on that, the case method is an interesting approach to take to this particular medium and one of the things you're looking for is vigorous debate and exchange with the students. Zoom is a tough way to manage that. I think we've all sat in front of a Zoom meeting where we said something that we thought might be funny and you're greeted by a sea of faces with muted microphones and it's hard to tell if you've connected. How do you engage the students in vigorous debate and discussion over Zoom?

John: It's incredibly interactive. I do it a number of ways. I cold call students, so I see the gallery of all the students and I call on them and I do it and I tell them I'm not calling on them to see if they read the case. I called them because I want them to participate in the discussion. I also ask for volunteers. When students say something different than somebody else might say, I get him talking with each other, debating the principle that is being discussed. I also, Joe, do a lot of role playing in my class and I also do breakout groups, but I do them randomly and I do them in part because the students all know each other. Tuck being such a small school and even gone through the first year together. 

Joe: Alright, thank you so it's an interesting contrast to what Petra was saying about having pre-assigned breakout groups a minute ago. But I think that, to me at least, the takeaway message that I think about, and as our faculty might think about as we teach you, think about teaching the summer term, is in one case, you've got students who are brand new and don't know one another at all, and you're looking to build those relationships and give them an anchor. In your case, John, you've got students have been in the program for a year and a half, and they're also at a different stage in their lives, and so there's the opportunity to push them a bit more out outside their comfort zone. So thank you, I hadn't thought about that.

Cecilia, I want to come back to you for the next question. You know, I'm intrigued. You're teaching or a writing course where I understand from our conversations previously you have students engaging in a collaborative group-based writing project. Tell us about that briefly and tell us how you're evaluating student writing.

Cecilia: Sure, Joe. The answer is twofold. The first one set of assignments is exactly the way I would have done it in any other class which is to say they have a series of essays that they write based on primary sources that we've read, the basic building block of history. They learn to draw information and make arguments and offer historical interpretations, and they tell them a bit about how this works and they do papers and I mark them up on an iPad with a pencil and I sent him the PDF back and then we conference about it just the way I would if we were on campus and then they rewrite it and I go through the whole thing again. So in that sense the individual assignments are designed exactly the way they would be in a regular term. 

But in order to engage group discussion in this asynchronous format, we are also engaging in a collective writing project of writing a book together. Or rather, I should say they are. Joan of Arc is the figure in Medieval history about whom we have the most sources, voluminous materials, much of which has been translated, and so through Google Docs, which is a wonderful online way of working on collaboration, we've put together a an outline for a book on the life and legacy of Joan of Arc and in groups, in fixed groups, precisely in order the way Petra was talking about to foster subgroups and community in areas of discussion they are drafting, writing, debating their ideas in the written format, editing each other, trying to integrate the material of other groups, writing sections, trying to workout their interpretation of this extraordinary figure from the 15th century.

It's the first time I've done it. It seemed like sort of mad gambit, but a really interesting project to try precisely because of the credit/no credit option this term, permitted me to do something a bit more creative or something I've wanted to try for a long time. But without the anxiety on their part, that the project design might result in a low grade for them. So that's actually for me, really remarkable, actually, to see the way in which they are participating and debating on it. And it's precisely because of the fact that it's credit/no credit that I'm able to sort of experiment with this project, this group term long project of research and writing. 

Joe: Do you think this is something you might take as a project to bring back to your teaching on campus when we return to regular residential operation?

Cecilia: Yeah, great question. I've been thinking a lot about that. The learning experience, I mean my core goal for this term for the students was that they had a good learning experience and so I, that's what I, that's what I wanted, so I didn't want to put too many, to make it too challenging, I want it to be intellectually challenging, but I didn't want them to worry about too many steps. I am learning so much about how to run this project. I certainly am glad for this this opportunity to do this and learning both how to structure, how to intervene, when to give comments. This week, for instance, we were scheduling, which is particularly difficult, but scheduling group conferences with the groups about the portions that they've written and weighing in. I'm hoping we'll see how the book comes out, but I think it's a great project and I would love to redo it or reimagine it given what I've learned in future terms. 

Joe: I love the creativity of the exercise. I really look forward to hearing about how it ends up at the end of the term.

Cecilia: We'll send you a copy of the book.

Joe: That would be great. I would love that. Please do send me a copy of the book. Thank you Cecilia. So in the interest of time I think I'm just going to offer two more questions, one each for Petra and John and then I want to make sure we have time to turn to our viewers and see if there are any questions coming in from our audience. So Petra, one of the things I wanted to
ask you is Thayer is doing as I know and as we've discussed some really interesting and creative things in the laboratory and design space. You've not let the remote learning environment in any way reduce the hands-on component of student education, which I think is extraordinary. Can you tell us a little bit about what you're doing and how you've gone about that? 

Petra: Yeah, it's absolutely remarkable and I don't want to make it sound like I'm doing this. This is really us as a Thayer community family doing all these remarkable and ingenious things. So for example, within the time span of four days, we sent out 300 FedEx packages or bringing the labs to the students rather than the students to the labs, and so let me just give you some examples of what's going on in some of our classes in our computer-aided machine, mechanical engineering design class for example. Each student was sent a 3D printer and they're not as expensive as you think they are. 

The first assignment for the students was to print parts to modify the printer. Just imagine that and then it goes from there. In our digital electronics class which is a lab class each student was send a digital oscilloscope. Along with a programmable, sort of programmable circuit board. Put it that way. Students meet in small groups in that class to complete their lab assignments in our material science class. Students were sent kits, salt rock candy, different types of materials and they can also remotely control the slides on a microscope that's been set up here in Thayer. In our Intro to Engineering class, each student, now you're going to be scared here, each student was sent it credit card. But don't worry, there was a spending limit on each of those cards. 

Joe: As the Chief Budget Officer, my heart just skipped a beat when you said that thank you. 

Petra: Don't worry. We are on top of it. Students also remotely work with the machine shop they meet with technical instructors and discuss their design. The design of their projects and then the technical instructors fabricate parts that the students need and ship them out to the students. All of our lab courses remain lab courses. All of our project based courses remain project based courses and all our small small courses remain small. All courses are supported by even more TAs then we normally supply for courses to really make this a fabulous learning experience for all of our students.

Joe: That's fabulous, Petra. I hope that you are someone at Thayer will be writing up a nice summary of this at the end of the term, because I think it's something that we can all learn from and not just the Dartmouth community, but the broader educational community is grappling with the challenge of lab courses over remote learning and thank you. Last question, I'd like to turn back to you, Governor Lynch. John, through your extraordinary career, you obviously have much experience, that's relevant to the kinds of issues your students are going to be grappling with in their careers, and so let me ask you in our final question before we turn it to the audience As a former four-term governor, leadership in all sectors is facing an extraordinary moment of challenge, how do you help your students learn from this and prepare for that inevitable moment that they will encounter in their careers?

John: Well Joe, we tell them that inevitably, as you say, they're going to be facing some kind of a crisis, whether they're working in the public sector or the private sector. And interestingly enough,many if not all of the qualities which we've already discussed and are discussing in our cases will be applicable to this crisis, in our applicable to how the coronavirus is being managed. The ability to communicate, to communicate well. Be consistent. The importance of
being available and accessible. Building together a team which will work well together. All of these qualities which we talk about in our cases are so applicable to what we see or don't see today and what the students will have to do when that crisis faces them. 

Joe: Great, well thank you. Thank you John and thanks to all of you Justin. We have about 5 minutes left in our hour and would like to turn it over to you to see if there are questions coming in from outside.

Justin Anderson,Vice President for Communications: Thanks Joe. In fact there are and this question just came in actually, Petra, something in reference to something you said. "Some of the teaching elements Petra spoke of are well supported learning tools, i.e. formative quizzes. Historically, there's been a bit of pushback on using these as part of the course development. Might there be more interest in including these across the board even in a post-remote environment?"

Petra: I think that's a fantastic question and one I've actually thought about. I believe we've just made a leap ahead of something like a 10 year leap ahead in our instructional strategies and in the learning we've all done about what works and what doesn't work in the classroom. We still have a lot of evaluation to do to really get the student voice into the picture and find out what works best for our students and all of these different situations, but I completely agree that we might make tremendous progress in many new ways to integrate novel ways of teaching into all of our classes, be it remote or on campus.

Justin: Thank you and just one question came in address to Governor Lynch. "What world leader in history, public or private sector, is your favorite model? 

John: Well, I'm currently reading a book on Winston Churchill and he did an amazing job preparing England for World War II. So because he's sort of top of mind right now, I certainly would look toward him as somebody who embodies a lot of the leadership skills which I teach in my course. 

Justin: I'm wondering sort of based on that are you? Are you integrating the topic of COVID-19 into into either your curriculum or two into any of your assignments? 

John: We talk about coronavirus all the time and what various governor's are doing, who's doing it well, who isn't doing it well. What are the qualities that we think are reflective of great leadership? Governor Cuomo comes to mind in terms of somebody who we all think is doing it well, so it's constantly a subject which we refer to in the myriad of cases which we review and discuss. 

Justin: Thanks and we have time for one more question. For Cecilia, what kind of "tricks and techniques" have you been implementing in the remote format to help keep the students engaged? 

Cecilia: Well, there's two kinds of engagement. One is that, like Petra, I'm using more quizzes than I would normally because history is so often rooted really in reading and reading sources. I've asked them to show their mastery what they would normally do in class through discussion board discussions through our learning management system Canvas and through quizzes. I've tried to make myself as available as possible. It's asynchronous in that there's no required time together, but I've tried to permit or rather schedule as many opportunities. There's one period on Friday at 3:30 when everybody seems to be available, and then I open up for office hours and individual meetings, as much as possible for engagement. I find Zoom works fairly well for discussion, with about five or six people, and that's been pretty successful.

Justin: Thanks, Cecilia. That is about all we have time for. Before I go back to Joe, I just want to thank everyone for joining us and sending in your questions. We didn't get to all of them. Hopefully we'll have time next week to get to even more questions. In the meantime, please consult the COVID-19 websites for lots of information and resources. You can get off of the Dartmouth homepage. Please tune in next week.