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Structures for flex classrooms: pros, cons, and pedagogical choices

Posted by on Tuesday, June 23, 2020 in News, Resource.

By Cynthia Brame, CFT Associate Director

As we head into the fall thinking about classes where we may have a combination of students who are physically and digitally present, I’ve been thinking about different ways to structure students’ time “in the classroom”. The first and most straightforward of these is to divide students into groups and have them physically meet in a rotating fashion. The Option 1 image shows one version of this approach, with different student groups (ovals with varied patterns to differentiate the groups) meeting on different days of the week with the instructor, who is indicated by the a) corny, b) teacher-centric, and c) useful “I’m the professor” cartoon.

The image indicates that all the groups are meeting with the professor physically, with individuals joining virtually when necessary (e.g., a member of Group 2). However, it would also be possible to modify this approach so that an entire group always meets virtually with the professor.

Option 1 has several benefits: The instructor gets to meet with smaller groups of students each week, potentially enhancing student-student and student-professor interactions. Further, this approach minimizes the split attention that is necessary when some students are present virtually and some physically. There are some limitations, however. Since each group meets synchronously only once per week, the instructor will need to plan asynchronous work that keeps the groups engaged with the content and each other through the week—and will need to check with those groups.

Another option is for all student groups to be present at each class meeting, rotating through digital and physical presence.

Again, note that one member of group 2, indicated by an oval with vertical stripes, always joins class virtually.

Option 2 has several benefits as well: The instructor meets with all students multiple times each week, providing the opportunity the kinds of in-the-moment guidance and interaction that most of us use heavily in our F2F teaching. This option can also provide an opportunity for students to see and hear from of their colleagues, although whether this occurs is strongly influenced by size of the class and the pedagogies the instructor uses. I think the biggest challenge of this option is the instructor’s split attention. Figuring out how to fully engage and interact with students who are present in different ways is hard. I think this structure could work well with small group problem solving or discussion, where the instructor shifts attention from group to group, with intentional movement from virtual group to physical group to virtual group.

A third option structures groups differently, with each group having some members who are physically present and some who are virtually present. In this option, the members who are present physically could rotate.

One benefit I see for this option is that it helps with the instructor’s split attention. Each group has a representative who is physically present with the instructor and can therefore easily voice group questions and ideas. The group’s positive interdependence—especially if the person who is physically present rotates—could foster the kind of cooperative group work that can be so powerful. [I should note that I think Corbette Doyle is planning this kind of approach for some of her courses, and that’s a high recommendation.] Like Option 2, this approach seems as though it could be effective for small group problem-solving, brainstorming, or other discussion. A concern I have about this option is that students who are virtually present may feel less connection with the instructor, especially if they don’t rotate into the classroom physically. It would therefore be pretty critical for the instructor to start and end class with some time addressing students who are there via Zoom and, perhaps, to check in asynchronously.

Of course, there are LOTs of other options. Michelle Glaros at Centenary College in Shreveport is planning to set up an outdoor classroom with students physically distanced but close enough for whole-class discussion. She’ll have a whiteboard set up at the front of the space—and because it’s Louisiana, she’s planned her space under a big tree and has bought a Thermacell.

My colleague Bryan Dewsbury at University of Rhode Island teaches a large (350 person) intro biology course, and he’s planning a rotation that I couldn’t carry off but that I’m sure he can. One day a week, he’s planning a physically distanced outdoor classroom, hopefully under a tent, with students in small groups around the space and him on a platform with a lavalier microphone in the center. Another day of the week, he’s planning a call-in, radio show-style broadcast, where students can listen but not have to video. I was so struck by these images that I can’t remember what he said about the third day of the week. I mean, talk about creativity!

Of course, a big part of making all this work is to choose the pedagogy that suits the structure you choose as well as the other characteristics of your course (size, subject, goals, etc.). CFT director Derek Bruff recently shared a really helpful blog post on Active Learning in Hybrid and Socially Distanced Classrooms, and I encourage you to take a look at it for ideas. Here’s my summary of that blog post: We are going to use familiar pedagogical choices, but with twists to allow inclusion of students who are attending in person or digitally.

Two specific ideas I think are readily twisted to the hybrid environment are the fishbowl and the jigsaw. I love how the fishbowl can center students who are present virtually, and how zoom breakout rooms can pretty readily be reconfigured so that students can share the knowledge they generated in their first group with a different set of colleagues in the second group.

For more description, read Derek’s post!

One final note: All of these options are easier with smaller classes. I teach a 150-person course each fall, so I know that logistics get much harder as classes get bigger (and Bryan’s 350-person class; whew!). From that perspective, I think that considering how to enact some of these options may be overwhelming. If you’re in that boat, I say that you should let your creativity and care for your students carry you as far as you think you can reasonably go, and then stop there and make it work. That said, I would LOVE to hear more ideas that you have for structuring your hybrid and flexed classes this fall, be they large or small.

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  • Cindy Kam

    June 26th, 2020

    Hi there! Are there any plans to create outdoor classrooms, like the one that is mentioned in this post? I have a graduate class of <10, and I'd jump at the chance to teach outside (weather permitting) if possible, given the advantages of ventilation in virus dispersal.

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