Initial Publication Date: September 18, 2020

Was that a vee or a nu? Challenges to collaborative learning in a virtual space

Benjamin Bratton, Lewis-Sigler Institute for Integrative Genomics, Princeton University

Mid-semester spring 2020, our university moved all of its instruction into a virtual format, including the introductory science course I teach. While all aspects of the course required retooling for the virtual environment, I can speak most for the component we call precepts (others may recognize this as discussions, or recitations, or guided problem sets). This is a three-hour period with about 12 students where I reinforce lecture with worked problems, enrichment activities, and motivate quantitative descriptions of the physical world around them. As the course integrates what would traditionally have been the first-year courses in physics, chemistry, molecular biology, and computer science, there are a wide variety of skillsets and approaches needed to succeed in the course. In person, students work together around a table as a cohesive unit to tackle rather difficult science problems, and quickly interrupt the instructional partner when confused. Two major issues in virtual learning were challenges in communication and access to shared physical spaces. Experiencing these problems alongside the backdrop of the sociopolitical context in the US in 2020 also revealed many questions that we should have considered when designing classes to be fair, equitable, and accessible. We thought we had done a good job on that front, but clearly there are systemic inequalities that still need to be addressed in the US scientific academic sphere. I, unfortunately, cannot speak more to that issue but am working on listening and learning more from folks who study, practice, and teach in these areas.

One type of challenge that we encountered in virtual learning a change in how students communicated with each other and the instructor. Our first few virtual meetings occurred when students were still physically on campus. Even in such ideal network conditions, we immediately felt the burden of minor time lags, lack of non-verbal cues such as when a person is about to begin talking, and an inability to balance one's own spoken volume in mixed conversation. These issues intensified as students dispersed around the world. The solution that we came up with was to split students into smaller groups using the breakout room functionality of Zoom. This is something that was quick to implement and matched the think/pair/share style of activities we had previously done in person. To deal with lacking non-verbal cues, I have started to use a physical thumbs up, or virtual one, much more regularly instead of simply nodding my agreement. It feels somewhat awkward to amplify my small non-verbal cues into more extreme versions, but it helped me to consciously engage in how I could use my body to communicate engagement with the students as they are talking. I hope that this self-awareness helps me improve my in-person teaching as well.

A second, related, issue in access to shared physical spaces and material. For example, in person, it is trivial for a student to nudge their friend and ask about a certain formula or just peer over their shoulder to see when the lecturer's body is blocking something. In a virtual environment, this is much more complicated. Not only does Zoom lack support (La)TeX typesetting, but there is not an immediate and simple way to show each other what one is writing on their piece of paper. The solution is not particularly elegant, but students now hold up their papers to the camera to try and show a line or a piece of work. Some have also taken to using Facebook messenger, which does have TeX rendering support. When students are working on programming tasks instead of paperwork, it seems like Zoom's integrated screen sharing would help solve some of this. Unfortunately, even though it exists, it is not as smooth as real life and even less smooth than showing someone else one's physics equations via webcam.

Throughout the summer 2020, the instructors for our integrated science course worked hard to develop new materials, lab exercises, and instructional formats for a continued virtual environment. For precepts, we have added some older student mentors and grad student TAs who will attend and help answer questions via the chat functionality. As the course lasts the entire year with the same cohort, and our university's format for the spring is still unknown, I am excited to seeing what solutions other instructors have come up with for virtual or mixed teaching environments.

Downloadable version of this essay

Was that a vee or a nu? Challenges to collaborative learning in a virtual space (Microsoft Word 2007 (.docx) 16kB Sep18 20)