As more and more faculty experiment with class blogs, Twitter assignments, and other ways to use social media to connect their students to a larger audience, small group videoconferencing may not be the first thing that comes to mind. Videoconferencing, with its familiar problems of delay and interference, can be tricky medium–especially when differences in time zone, schedules, and bandwidth are added to the equation. Add to this the uncertainties that come with introducing new voices to even a conventional classroom discussion, and you have a potentially challenging teaching situation.
On the other hand, small group discussion is a tried and true method for helping students to work through new concepts, solve problems, and practice both critical and creative thinking. It is a technique used extensively by Alisa Gaunder, Professor of Political Science at Southwestern University, and her colleague Sarah Wiliarty, Associate Professor of Government and Director of the Public Affairs Center at Wesleyan University, who recently discussed their parallel course, Germany and Japan: Losers of World War II? in an ACS-sponsored webinar. Gaunder and Wiliarty share more than a favorite teaching strategy, however. As graduate school colleagues at the University of California Berkeley, where Gaunder focused on twentieth century Japan and Wiliarty on twentieth century Germany, the two began taking an interest in one another’s work. Moving into their post-graduate careers, they continued to collaborate, developing a joint syllabus and authoring shared lectures for their Comparative Politics classes in their first year out of graduate school–just as they would eventually do for the Germany and Japan course. This extensive cooperation, they acknowledge, is only possible because of the deep level of trust they have built up over years of working together.
With syllabus and lectures in place, the next logical step for the Germany and Japan course was creating a joint assignment–one that would benefit students in both classes but would also fit their varying profiles (Gaunder’s students were primarily upper level Political Science majors, whereas Wiliarty’s class was composed of a mix of sophomore and junior majors, as well as some non-majors). Their first thought was to host a class-to-class videoconference, but they soon discovered their campuses weren’t necessarily equipped to support this in a clear, reliable format. But then came another idea, based on years of successfully using small group discussion in their classes: why not use Google Hangouts–a free, easy-to-use videoconferencing platform–to facilitate a series of discussions between small groups of students at each campus?
For the first such meeting, students prepared by reading an assigned article, then gathered in their around a designated terminal and invited their remote counterparts to the videoconference. Each group played the role of a particular German or Japanese political party, responding to questions about their party’s platform and history. The second meeting was organized by issue, mixing student “representatives” from various political parties who described their party’s position on key issues and how it has changed over time. During both meetings, Gaunder, Wiliarty, and the IT staff providing support for the project circulated between groups, listening and guiding the conversation just as they might in a typical classroom setting. Both found it useful to include a debriefing session with students after each video conversation to review what had happened and what was learned, though it was not always possible to do so immediately afterwards.
In the end, Gaunder and Wiliarty found that the experience replicated many of the same benefits of face-to-face small groups–giving students and chance to listen, articulate, and rearticulate new concepts and information–as well as many of the advantages of bringing “visitors” into the discussion, with different perspectives and experience brought to bear on the same material. The new medium, and perhaps also the excitement of connecting with peers on a distant campus, motivated the students, by their own admission, to prepare and participate more fully in the discussion. The group also learned, from experience, that holding multiple discussions in the same space was difficult, due to interference and a lack of available ethernet connections. But even so, they plan to try these conversation again. The connection to other learners sparked a new enthusiasm in their students and helped them feel both accountable for what they were learning and excited about what they could teach. And that is certainly an experience worth repeating.
To learn more about this project, read this article in Southwestern University’s Newsroom.