Team Based Learning online – some reflections

Like many of those in Higher Education, I have moved my teaching online. Since my sessions involve highly interactive team work and very little ‘lecturing’ this had proved a challenge. In this blog I present some reflections and learnings from my experience, in the hope it might be useful to others. My reflections cover; using the technology, team teaching, facilitating the session – and my key learning it takes longer than you think!

This is not a blog about ‘how to’ do online teaching. However, for context, my cohort is around 90 students split into 14 teams. I use a strategy called Team Based Learning but my learnings should be relevant to pretty much all online teaching.

1.      Embrace the technology

For me, this is Microsoft Teams. I am not a particular fan of Microsoft technology, I hate Sharepoint for example. However, for my purposes, MS Teams works pretty well. Not least you can have private ‘channels’ for breakout team discussions which is absolutely key. Other technologies offer a similar functionality – Zoom, for example is a great tool.

One thing worth using is the notion of instant polling. In MS Teams I use Microsoft Forms which is a little temperamental but seemed to work in the end for me. The chat window is also invaluable. MS Teams allows some file sharing within the groups but I haven’t used that yet.

Another thing I used extensively is desktop recording of ‘lectures’. I use this to record video snippets (5-10 minutes each) of key concepts and post these to our online learning platform. (I use panopto desktop recorder and moodle, but other tools are available of course). I avoid the need for students to download large video files.

In any case, the learning for me was not to think of online learning as it used to be 10 years ago (or more!) but to embrace the newer technologies and affordances.

2.      Students will be ahead of you (mostly)

Once I had introduced the students to MS Teams, they pretty much figured it out themselves, posting animated GIFS (I still am not sure how to do this) and getting private meetings sorted out. That said, it is worth finding a simple guide, and checking in on the teams to make sure they are using the basic technology (for example “@” tagging, or sharing a screen for discussion – and turning their microphones to mute during the breaks!).

In my experience, I didn’t have any student who couldn’t get online (but this is always a possibility). What is more likely is a student with dodgy internet access (and indeed my own wireless network cut out a couple of times). It is worth making sure there is a backup channel for these eventualities eg text messaging/mobile phones

In my sessions I am actually using 3 systems – MS Teams, Moodle and InteDashboard (a cloud based Team Based Learning system). Although I am thinking about simplifying, the students seem to handle using 3 systems at once, and they do provide a backup. (for example, I had pre-recorded the task briefings as 3 minute video snippets and made them available on moodle, in case my connection failed).

3.      It takes longer than you think!

This is possibly my KEY learning. My carefully planned classroom activities needed to be adjusted and truncated, particularly in the first session, as the students adjusted to online communication with each other (and had the inevitable technical issues). I suspect this will get a bit easier in the next few sessions but I still think we probably won’t get quite as much achieved, the team communication simply takes longer online.

For reference, I had 3 activities in around 2.5 hours, the last one assessed. Each one is only meant to take 15-30 minutes of team work time (in private channels), but you need to allow time for briefing, for discussion, for wrapup and of course allow some comfort breaks. So I finished the first activity in an hour (allowing some extra facilitation time), the second in 40 minutes, and the third in 45 minutes. With breaks between each, and a final session doing a ‘concept check’, individual assignment briefing and final wrapup. I had already ditched the ‘gallery walk’ part of the class, and had to drastically reduce the second activity ‘on the fly’.

4.      You need helpers

With 14 teams, I had just enough time to pop into each team channel once during the 3 hour session to check things are going OK. Fortunately I had a colleague (we were co-teaching) and 2 postgraduate helpers who were invaluable. As I said, you can pop into a team breakout discussion at any time, my technique was simply to leave a text comment if things were going OK, and only interject if the team seemed a bit lost or having difficulties with the task. My colleague was a bit more hands on and had a conversation with each team he visited. Either approach can work.

5.      You need cues for participation

One thing that slightly surprised me (but shouldn’t have done) was that students are very reluctant to speak up in a large group channel – but they are happy enough to post comments, so this is worth encouraging. (if you get too many, your helpers can triage the comments for you – this didn’t happen for me, the volume was perfectly manageable). In fact some students who would never speak up in class were posting some very insightful comments, so in some ways this can even be an advantage. One student told me that my explanations were ‘clearer than in the classroom’ presumably because they come through to him with less background noise from his neighbours.

Students are much happier to speak up in their private team channels, and they will often then turn their videos on (which they wouldn’t in the main group). You will need to get students back from these private team discussions – I gave them a very specific time to return and my helpers posted comments on the team channels to bring them back again.

I also use Microsoft Forms for quick in class polls – this is really very useful to guide discussion. I ran a ‘concept check’ at the end of class, posting a number of learning outcomes to see which ones they were comfortable with. There was only one with a low number of votes, so I spent a few minutes wrapping up that concept with the class.

6.      Consider asynchronous

Time in the classroom is a golden opportunity for peer learning, so I arrange my sessions to maximise that chance (this is a core principle of Team Based Learning). The same is true for online learning. So all clarifications and ‘lecturing’ should be kept to an absolute minimum. Pre learning can be recorded and posted for the students to go through in advance (I also use quizzes, online games and self assessment tests for self paced learning). Similarly, if you find yourself entering into a lengthy explanation of a concept during an online session you probably need to ask yourself whether it would be better posted as a follow up to a forum, perhaps even as a recorded video snippet. Conversely, I try to avoid too much team work done asynchronously, I think this is best kept within the timetabled slot where possible.

Summary

Online teaching takes time to learn how to do well (and I am still learning). It requires even more disciplined class scheduling/managing than in person teaching. The definition of ‘inclusive teaching’ extends to technology access and timezones. Yet for me at least, online learning offers a golden opportunity to explore new ways of teaching that supplement – and even improve – the classroom experience.

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