by Moyan Brenn

Transitioning to Online Teaching (Part 1) – Think-Out-Loud

It’s been a while since I’ve been moved to post publicly about my work. I’m feeling so moved. This series will a think-out-loud version of the transition of the course I teach every semester, Adolescent and Youth Development for Youthworkers, from an in-person course to a fully online course during the COVID-19 crisis. I feel like most of us are transitioning in quiet, or in conversation with experts at our institutions, but I’m yearning for a bit of interaction with folks also doing this transition.

Background & COVID pivot

Adolescent and Youth Development for Youthworkers (a long title, so I usually just call it by its course designator “YOST 3032”) is a 4-credit majors course in Youth Studies at the University of Minnesota. I’ve taught it for four semesters, going on five. It meets 2 x 2 hour sessions per week and is highly interactive, including experiential learning activities, a large Project-Based Learning activity to write a grant in partnership with a non-profit organization, and most recently, book clubs. The course is typically called the “grant writing course” by majors, because the grant writing project is such a major part of the course.

Over the last couple of years, I’ve honed an already strong course by providing better resources for students regarding the grant project, by tightening the curriculum, and by making some changes to the curriculum as a whole. Students gave the feedback that the course used a lot of academic articles as texts, but that they were difficult to read and that we didn’t spend enough time processing them. So I tried to move some topics around, update some readings, and turned most of the readings into jigsaws.

I don’t exactly practice “ungrading”, but am maybe close? I tell students at the start of the semester that if they get the work done, and revise when they can make improvements, they should expect to have an “A”. If at any point they don’t have an “A”, we’ll talk. I don’t tend to provide grades on any of their assignments – I either ask them to revise or tell them that any given assignment seems “done”. Students say I give great feedback and that they really appreciate how thorough and helpful it is.

A core aspect of my class is that I spend time developing relationships with every student. I:

  • Talk to students before and after class, checking in, learning about them, and so on.
  • Facilitate team builder activities (and eventually they do this too) in which I participate to get to know students.
  • Keep “open work times” rather than office hours where students come hang out, grab snacks / coffee / tea, etc., and get to talk to students more.
  • Give tons of feedback in assignments and read regular assignments closely to get to know students.

I could go into detail about my pivot from in-person to online this spring, but suffice it to say, I lost a lot of the opportunities to get to know students, and moving a course that was highly interactive to an online context was rough. And given the 2 days we had to pivot, I may have succeeded in carrying over the ethos of the class, but am under no illusions that I successfully transitioned in a way I’m excited about replicating this Fall semester. Hence, this project.

New Inspiration

Though I am by no means a technophobe (I have been a computer programmer, do lots of number crunching, and studied technology for my dissertation research), I really like teaching in person. I’ve never been very interested in online instruction, though I’ve done it in a few formats. Suffice it to say, I’ve been dreading making the transition.

However, a major part of my work is supporting community organizations to practice youth work, and I’ve thus had several opportunities to practice running online youth groups this summer. The number of deeply impressive things we’ve been able to do, and all the experiments and tweaks have gotten me fired up about teaching online. Here’s an example of something I’ve done that’s worked very well:

  •  With a group of 15, start with a Jamboard or the like to do brainstorming. I have participants do it while on a Zoom call, often in small groups just to encourage discussion while they respond to the brainstorm prompt. After a few minutes, I ask them to start sorting their ideas by moving their sticky notes around. If there are disagreements, I sometimes ask them to move the sticky notes to one corner.
  • I then create a template in Google Docs for them to complete – something that helps take the general idea and move it toward a more specific one. I ask them to do some collaborative work, using the Zoom call as a place to talk out any ideas they have that they aren’t sure about. Usually again have them in small breakout rooms to make it easier to talk (I am learning breakout rooms of 3 are great for better conversation).
  • This Google Docs template may be one step in a few that we do over the course of a few days. Usually the end result is that we have an idea we need to test out – this is then tested out with me or with peers (maybe where your peer review pieces are happening)
  • Some version of this is repeated, with feedback/idea gathering along the way, until we arrive at the kind of project we are aiming toward.

I find that small groups working on the same collaborative doc works super well for synchronous online work – it seems to be motivating to see that other groups are making progress on the same document, and also offers up other ideas without all having to be in the same video talking space.

This, along with the summer’s online Digital Pedagogy Lab, inspired me to re-think how I organize my entire class coming in the fall. My plan is to outline that here, then continue to develop it in future posts.

Outlining Plans for a Course Overhaul

OER “Issues in Youth Development” Project (aka: content of the course)

This summer some incredible students in our Masters Social Work program created a police abolition teach-in in response to the murder of George Floyd. Their use of technology to teach us about this subject was inspiring to me. I learned a lot about police abolition, was deeply engaged for 90 minutes, and left feeling like I had some action steps. The more I thought about it, the more this struck me as a model for organizing my class. My new plan was to spend the first 4-5 weeks offering some framing – ways of understanding/seeing Youth Development – and then have students over the next 10 weeks run “teach-ins”.

During Digital Pedagogy Lab, comments by a few folks on OERs – Open Educational Resources – prompted me to start thinking about the ways that the work my students do over the summer can be useful for the broader field of youth development. Since there is very little professional development available in the field, what if students were creating OER modules on Issues in Youth Development? Hence, my new project: to co-create an OER with my students on issues in youth development. I will prep for the first 4-5 modules as a way to frame both the series and the experience for my students. Then alone or in small groups, they can create their own interactive experience taking us on a deep dive into issues in youth development.

Really, there are so many potential issues in youth development that I couldn’t cover them anyway. So why not just cover issues students really find interesting? The best part is that the OER project could continue into future semesters – students could either choose to investigate new issues or to extend and amplify an existing issue. This link to a A Guide to Creating OERs with Students is providing a few case studies I look forward to reading.

I’m inspired by Anth101.com and Michael Wesch on YouTube. It seems like a fun, engaging, OER on an introduction to anthropology. I’m hoping that, with my students, we can create something like this during the fall semester.

Where goes my grant project then, you ask? Typically, it goes something like this:

  • Students choose an organization to partner with – from a group of my partners or an organization they are already connected to.
  • Students do a “Developing Organizational Understanding” sub-project that involves field observations and interviews of staff and youth at the organization.
  • Students conduct some academic research into issues related to the program (e.g. if the program works with LGBTQIA+ youth, find academic articles about after school programs with said group of youth).
  • Students combine the Developing Organizational Understanding and desk research to develop a Needs Statement for the grant that outlines a youth issue the organization is trying to address (e.g. hunger in schools) and frames the need.
  • Students build on the Needs Statement to develop a Theory of Change or Program Description – how does the program address this need?
  • Students combine into groups if they choose and finish the grant with an Introduction, Budget, Goals/Objectives, and Sustainability Statement.

Online, this feels like an absolutely epic ask of students. I also don’t feel like I can ask organizational partners to put out extra energy when they are already hanging on a thread. Therefore, I’m planning to wrap the grant project into the OER project. As part of discussing the issue, students will write a Needs Statement.

It’s been a while since I’ve done a final exam, and I’ve only ever run collaborative team exams meant mainly to help students draw together everything they’ve learned. I don’t really ask them to study – just bring the resources they’ve created. I’m planning to replicate that this semester and have the final exam be creating a Program Description or Theory of Change in a small time window to limit the time they spend on the project and to have a fun way to sum up the semester.

A/B Contract (Un)Grading

One of this summer’s Digital Pedagogy Lab workshops was on Virtual, Liberatory Grading practices. A major topic of discussion was ungrading, which I’ve spent some time now reading about (here and here and here and here if you want a few links). Turns out, I’m already doing some aspects of ungrading.

Over the last couple years, I’ve developed an informal approach to ungrading that is simply just highly feedback oriented. I more or less tell students at the start of the semester that they can expect an “A” if they put in the work and do revisions on their assignments when I ask for them. I attach points to assignments, but basically don’t actually assign points in Canvas until the assignment is an “A” – and prior to that point, I ask them to make changes if for some reason it doesn’t meet the assignment standards. My students are generally very happy with this model: they always write about how much they appreciate the feedback and the opportunity to continue to improve assignments. With 25 students this is a very manageable project – but I can imagine it being much more difficult to keep track of everything with more. I’ve been happy with this process too – it helps me build a relationship with my students that feels much more immersed in their work. I’ve been getting better at communicating this set of practices around grading to my students, but the ungrading conversation has pushed me to get a little more explicit.

This fall, I’m going to switch more explicitly to A/B contract grading. I’ve done this once before with a colleague (and with graduate students) and appreciated the results. Given that I’m more or less doing this kind of thing already, I think this language will help be more explicit.

My approach to grading in this class is feedback-oriented, with the aim of developing and growing your work in ways that you and I are excited about. Personally, I am excited to help you develop the capacity to communicate your expertise as a person working with young people in professional language. At the beginning of the semester, I will invite you to reflect on the kind of feedback you’d like on your own work – and I will do my best to support you in receiving that kind of feedback from me and your peers.

Over the last few years, I’ve found that most students in my class do about as well as they’d like to do (in terms of learning and grade). I offer the opportunity to do as many revisions as you’d like on any assignment – as long as you turn even a draft in on time! Therefore, rather than assign points to assignments, grading in this class will be done by a contract that you sign at the beginning of the semester. This is called an “A” or “B” contract – because I assume those are the grades most would like to work toward in this class. If you feel you are interested in something else, let me know and we can talk about it. To receive an “A” or “B” in class, all you need to do is fulfill the terms of the contract. This will involve the completion of the assignments listed to the standards set out in the assignment descriptions (or the standards we create together, in some cases).

At the end of the semester, you will assemble all of your revised assignments into a final portfolio that you will submit in exchange for your “A” or “B” contract grade. Assuming you did the work, you’ll receive the grade for which you contracted! This final portfolio will also include a self-assessment – basically feedback for yourself on what you feel you’ve achieved. Except in the case I perceive a major discrepancy between what you see and what I see (in which case, we’ll talk!), you will receive the grade you think you’ve earned!

Modes of Engagement

I intend to create multiple modes of engagement for the semester. Synchronous Zoom calls will take place at least once a week for the whole semester. At present, I think the first 4-5 weeks will involve 2 synchronous Zoom calls. After that, I think more may happen with 1 synchronous Zoom call and one optional.

I’ve experimented this summer with engagement over Slack, a group messaging and collaboration app. Engagement has been OK, but not rich. I’m not sure whether I’ll use it again. I don’t particularly like the Canvas discussion boards – I think students have been trained to create posts that get them participation points, rather than to engage with their own curiosity. So I need to think about that one more!

More to Come…

Already getting too long here for anyone to read – but was helpful for me to put these thoughts in order! More to come – next step will be developing some depth to these ideas and organizing the structure of engagement in more detail.