A class is a meeting

Though I don’t teach college anymore, I’m interested in educational class design because a class is a meeting. And much of what we can do to design great meetings is applicable to college classes too.

So I had high hopes for a September 7 2022, City University of New York webinar introducing Cathy Davidson‘s and Christina Katopodis’ book The New College Classroom, which is “about inspiring, effective, and inclusive teaching at the college level.”

Sadly, I was disappointed. Not so much by the information presented but more by the way it was done. Talking about incorporating active learning, interaction, and participation into college classes is great. But talking does little to change the behavior of those listening. The speakers didn’t model what they were preaching during their talk!

The webinar platform and opening

The two-hour webinar was hosted on Zoom. It used a hybrid format with about 100 people present in person and eight hundred online. Chat was disabled, so online attendees could only interact via Zoom’s Q&A function. The presenters used Mentimeter for (two, I think) online polls.

Two hours of 900 people’s time adds up to 1,800 person-hours allotted to this webinar. Here’s a summary of my observations, plus suggestions on how the organizers could have improved the experience.

The webinar started 6 minutes late

Starting late is disrespectful, and provides a poor model for what the “new college classroom” should be like. 90 attendee hours wasted! The meeting stakeholders could have done two small things to make it far more likely that the webinar started on time:

1. Include two times in the meeting invitation. The time when the meeting will open, and the time when the meeting will start.

For example: “We’ll open the room and the Zoom meeting at 14:45 EDT, and start promptly at 15:00 EDT.”

2. To improve the meeting start experience further, let people know what (if anything) will be happening between the open and start time of the meeting.

For example: “Arrive a little early, and chat with our presenters before the meeting starts!”

See this article for more information about starting meetings on time.

Aaagh: The webinar began with 25 minutes of broadcast information!

First up was the Executive Director of the Futures Initiative who thanked the sponsors and introduced the Chancellor and Provost of CUNY. She didn’t take too long, but the Chancellor and Provost were a different story. In total, attendees sat through twenty-five minutes of thank-yous, congratulations, and enthusiasm about the book and presenters that added nothing of value to the webinar. During this segment I tweeted:

And a little later:


Introductions and thanks can be shared effectively in a few sentences. If attendees want to know more, they can easily find it on the web. The entire introduction could have easily been covered in five minutes at the most.

At this point, a quarter of the allocated webinar time had passed and the presenters hadn’t even appeared yet! 450 attendee hours wasted.

Finally, the presenters appeared!

a class is a meeting
#newcollegeclassroom presenters from @FuturesED tweet https://twitter.com/FuturesED/status/1567609717299597312?

The book authors and webinar presenters Christina Katopodis and Cathy N. Davidson began well with the classic participative active learning exercise (think-)pair-share. This was fine for the in-person audience, but not made available to the online audience. You can easily run pair (or preferably trio) share in small Zoom meetings using (up to 50) breakouts, but Zoom webinars don’t include this functionality. Still, even an online poll provides some activity for remote audiences.

I always found it difficult to get participants’ attention when closing a pair share, and this happened during the webinar too. As the presenters noted, that’s a good thing! For the in-person audience, this was the moment when they were most engaged during the entire session.

But inadequate regular interactive process followed

Unfortunately, subsequent interactive components were sorely lacking. National Teacher of the Year Professor John Medina, whom I interviewed in front of a live audience in 2015, and Professor Donald Bligh, author of What’s The Use Of Lectures? both explain how presenters need to change their presentation process every ten minutes or less before attention flags.

At the 70-minute mark, I tweeted:


The subsequent webinar content was good, but there was only one more interactive exercise (a poll about what people disliked about teaching). Christina and Cathy switched often—a good thing to do—and told a few stories during the remainder of the webinar. But the rest of the webinar used a lecture format.

And the seminar ended really early for the online audience!

To my surprise, the “presentation” portion of the putative two-hour session ended twenty minutes early, after the presenters had answered some audience questions. The in-person audience could get up and chat with each other, get copies of their books signed, etc. The online audience (the vast majority of those attending) had nothing to do!

The online audience, who had scheduled two hours out of their day to attend the seminar, only received seventy minutes of (potentially) useful content!

This was really unfortunate. I can think of a number of ways that the online audience could have been part of an active learning experience. Instead, I and the other 800 online attendees were dismissed from class early.

This experience indicates to me that the presenters hadn’t thought enough about the online audience experience. You need to put yourself in the place of an online attendee and design an experience that is as good for them as possible, rather than relegating them to second-class status. Especially when they comprise the vast majority of your audience!

Content notes

Opening pair share

The presenters started with a pair share on what people liked most about teaching. In-person participants did a pair share, while the online audience took a poll. A majority of the latter said they liked hearing what students had to say and helping them with life skills.

From English research: college teachers talk 87% of the time even in seminar classes.

One of the presenters uses pair share to start every class (as do I).

The presenters summarized the value of active learning. Pair share allows every student to contribute, by sharing their ideas with another student. “You have energy and you have engagement and involvement and you have commitment and participation. We know and have metrics on all of this. You learn better. Retain better.”

Thoughts about teaching

They mentioned research that found 20% of students graduate from college without ever having spoken in class unless they were directly called on. “That is a tragedy.”

“Part of what we are doing in this book is finding methods to allow every student to contribute what they have to say. The fancy word for this is metacognition; you think about the course contact and why you are learning and how you are learning what you are doing and that is the lesson that lasts a lifetime.”

“What do our students need from our teaching?”

“We have this idea that higher education hasn’t changed since Socrates and Plato walked around the lyceum. Not true, we saw enormous changes two years ago. In 1 week 18 million students went online during the pandemic. It’s hard to remember we brought higher ed online in a matter of weeks. That was a tremendous accomplishment.”

Active learning

The presenters shared resources on the value of active learning. (There are more in my book, The Power of Participation.)

a class is a meeting
[Click to see full size.]
“[The] study by Scott Freeman is a metastudy of 250 separate studies of active learning and traditional learning using every imaginable metric including standardized testing retention application, et cetera. At the end of the study, Freeman says if this was a pharmaceutical study [traditional lecturing] would be taken off the market. [Active learning] is not radical pedagogy … but the best, most practical way to learn.”

Answering questions

An interesting idea shared by science fiction writer and polymath Samuel Delany.

a class is a meeting
“[We] need to teach people they are important enough to say what they have to say.”
And here he is saying it (starts at 2:42.)

The Polymath, or the Life and Opinions of Samuel R. Delany, Gentleman from Fred Barney Taylor on Vimeo.

To which I responded…


“On average, kids ask [around] twenty questions per hour. When they get to school, they ask three questions per hour. That is staggering. When they come to higher ed, there is all that unlearning that we have to do.”

Other session themes

As you’d expect, the presenters advocated using a flipped classroom model.

And they talked about:

  • Starting a course by asking students how the course will change their life.
  • The value of having students reflect on something they got wrong in class. “[Mistakes] shouldn’t be a source of shame.
  • Providing co-designed options for student assignments and evaluations.
  • Having students write a question they want to ask toward the end of the class. (I prefer to do this at the start!)

I like to use a closing “exit ticket activity” pair share on lessons learned during the session.

The session closed with the presenters answering some questions about approaches to grading. (Grading was the least favorite aspect of teaching reported in the session’s second poll!) It’s a tricky topic, and I give thanks that I no longer teach college and have to deal with the difficult balancing act between my assessment of student learning and what organizations and society want to hear.

Kudos

This webinar did some things very well. Big kudos for including ASL interpretation, real-time captioning, and a slightly delayed (but very usable), real-time, human-provided transcript.

Conclusion

A class is a meeting. This webinar was a meeting. It could have far more effectively demonstrated by example the power and value of the active learning that occurs with participant-driven and participation-rich education. The workshops I run put this into practice. Here’s an example. During them, I talk for less than ten minutes at a time.

Opening with formats like Post It! allows us to focus on what participants want to learn. Using fishbowl sandwiches for discussions ensures fluid wide-ranging conversations. Many other formats are in my toolbox, ready to be pulled out and used when the need arises. I hope to see many of these valuable, tested approaches adopted widely by college teachers. Our students and our society will be better for it.

2 thoughts on “A class is a meeting

  1. Oh so many thoughts as I read and then reread your notes, Adrian, and your tweets. First: years ago, I observed – and those who are in hospitality/meeting academia can’t tell me – that meetings seemed to be designed after the standard US school day: opening session (home room); breaks (walk to the next class with hope of time to use a restroom and never time for a snack); break-out sessions (all the rest of the day); receptions/off-site events (pep rally, sporting event, dance or other like event) – and finally free of the structure at either.

    Some of their information and your illumination of it impressed on me to remember to do ‘just that’!

    Alas, the treatment of the virtual audience made my heart, head, and most of all, my aural learner, cringe. IF they’d said they were using Open Space Technology principles – “whenever it starts is the only time it could’ve”; “when it’s over it’s over” – perhaps one could accept the late start and the early-for-the-virtual-audience end. If they’d used any sort of ability for those attending virtually to interact – including comments using a hashtag on twitter* – perhaps a closed chat with the numbers would’ve made sense. I’ve made connections with so many interesting people through open chats for e-Cornell and other programs from early in COVID days; as valuable as the content of the programs – maybe more so since they are lasting.

    The very l-o-n-g intro was inexcusable. I fear I’d have departed my screen as it went on. It is not unlike many of our own industry’s virtual events or even physical events where the glories of the sponsors are provided with videos, speeches, and unrelatable information.

    Sigh. The cockeyed optimist in me continues to look for how things have changed since the 2 years of time to think deeply about delivery of information and how to enhance the interaction among participants.

    We’re “not there yet” are we?

    *I didn’t go to twitter to see if your tweets were responded to in real-time. Were they? Was that kind of interaction noted and encouraged when the program began and it was explained why the chat was off — or was that even noted in the opening?

  2. Once again, Joan, we are sympatico. The experience highlighted for me the difficulty people have in changing how they do things (even as they say they should be done differently) when embedded in a culture that does not do them that way.

    Yes, the remote audience was treated badly. Again, I don’t think the presenters had much, if any, experience of leading hybrid meeting formats. Newbies tend to concentrate on the in-person audience at the remote audience’s expense. Given that in this case the remote audience was 90+% of the attendees, this was particularly unfortunate.

    I believe there was a passing mention at the start of using the #newcollegeclassroom hashtag on Twitter. But I believe there was no further mention. A few people used the hashtag, and there was a tiny bit of interaction. Some of the tweets were retweeted by the organizer later and positive ones were assembled into a Twitter “moment”. The hashtag should have been emphasized and encouraged. Having an event concierge who shared anything interesting with the hashtag would have helped provide a little connection with the remote audience, who had no other significant channel where they could comment or interact. (Discord is another channel that could have been used; it’s more popular with younger folks on social media.)

    One of the presenters “liked” a Tweet about this post, so maybe they will/have read it and take my POV into account for future presentations of this sort.

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