Cleveland Teaching Collaborative

Employing both Synchronous and Asynchronous Methods to Facilitate Remote Learning

Courses: PSC 342 American Political Thought; PSC 421 Senior Seminar in Comparative Politics; PSC 326 Politics of the Third World

Department: Political Science

Institution: Cleveland State University

Instructor: Dr. Jeneen Hobby

Number & Level of Students Enrolled: PSC 326, junior/senior level course, 30 students; PSC 421, senior capstone seminar level course, 20; PSC 342, junior/senior level course, 12 students.

Digital Tools/Technologies Used: Blackboard Collaborate Ultra, audio feature; Blackboard Discussion Board.

Author Bio: Dr. Jeneen Hobby has been teaching Political Science at Cleveland State University for 21 years. She has taught at the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, New York; and in Northeast Ohio at Baldwin Wallace University and Case Western Reserve University. She completed her Ph.D. from the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, specializing in the work of German-Jewish theorist Walter Benjamin. She undertook research at the Benjamin Archiv at the Akademie der Künste in Berlin, while studying with Benjamin scholar Winfried Menninghaus at the Freie Universität. She did research in Georges Bataille’s collection of Benjamin’s work at the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris. The work in Germany—including study at the Goethe Institut in Bremen—was funded by fellowships from the Deutscher Akademischer Austauschdienst (DAAD).

Employing both Synchronous and Asynchronous Methods to Facilitate Remote Learning

In Fall semester 2020, I will be utilizing both synchronous and asynchronous methods of instruction. This approach goes for all three of my courses: International Politics; Comparative Politics; and American Political Thought. I made the decision to approach all of my courses for Fall 2020 in this way, based upon my experiences teaching PSC 326 and PSC 421 in the spring, and PSC 342 in the first summer session.

What I did in Spring 2020, after spring break in March when we went remote, was to use the audio function of Blackboard Collaborate Ultra for the purposes of both lecturing and holding class discussion sessions synchronously in both courses. I also used the Blackboard Discussion Board, to allow students to continue their discussions with one another, because it was impossible to do everything I wanted to do in the scheduled 50-minute class period.

For the first summer six-week session, I used the Collaborate audio feature again, for PSC 342: this time, however, because it was officially designated as an online course to begin with, what I did was to record my lectures asynchronously, used the Blackboard Discussion Board to hold class discussions, and had the students complete a number of smaller assignments, in addition to two longer term papers, in order to keep them on task. For instance, I had students answer one discussion question (DQ) per lecture, one paragraph in length. The discussion question answers needed to be succinct, direct, and clearly argued. Students at the same time were required to respond to those questions in a content-rich, full way. The students emailed me their answers to the discussion questions directly. Twenty discussion question answers were required.

The second type of short, graded assignment, was the quote analysis, and quote analysis responses. PSC 342 being a theory course, students were reading such writers and political actors as John Winthrop, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, Andrew Jackson, William Lloyd Garrison, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Abraham Lincoln, William Graham Sumner, Andrew Carnegie, Victoria Woodhull, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Emma Goldman, Eugene Debs, Booker T. Washington, W.E.B. DuBois, Marcus Garvey, both Teddy and Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X, Bayard Rustin, Stokely Carmichael, Betty Friedan, Kate Millett, Barack Obama, Ta-Nehisi Coates, Bill McKibben, and Edward Snowden, among other writers and activists. Because the readings were rich in content, I had students each choose a quote from one of the readings we were doing, and interpret and comment on that quote in a Blackboard Discussion Board post. I had set up forums for each author. Every student had to write a total of 15 quote analyses (QAs) for the course. Then, other students would respond to one of their peers’ quote analyses on the Discussion Board, making up the “quote analysis response” (QAR) assignment. Again, these posts had to be substantive: articulating a simple version of “I agree” or “I disagree” constituted an insufficient response. Fifteen QARs were required of each student. I was pleasantly surprised to witness the students going above and beyond the required number of QARs, because they were engaged in talking with one another about the material. I underline the verb “engage” here. Students were both engaged by and with the course readings, and engaged with one another. Their passion for learning the subject exceeded the formal requirements of the course. All of these assignments, including two 5-7 page term papers, were accomplished asynchronously.

My method of delivering content to my students, was to asynchronously record audio lectures through Blackboard Collaborate. These functioned as podcasts. I found the audio lecture technique to be an extremely useful tool, both for my pedagogical purposes, and for the students’ learning process. I received, unsolicited, at various times during the semester, a good deal of feedback from many students, telling me how much they appreciated listening to me lecture, and interpret the material for them. Actually listening to my voice was something of a “comfort,” for lack of a better noun, and they expressed having experienced a connection to me as lecturer and to the course as a whole, by having that audio file at their disposal. Universally, those students who gave me feedback on the course, shared this positive experience. Students reported to me that they listened to the podcasts through earbuds while cleaning their homes and apartments, while mowing the lawn, and while hiking or running. During COVID, such activities were becoming desultory for some students, so having their minds be stimulated while they worked or exercised “killed two birds with one stone,” so to speak. Some students reported that they were able to hear and comprehend what I was talking about easier than if they simply read transcripts of lectures or perused PowerPoint slides.

Lecturing asynchronously allowed me to say what I needed and wanted to say, without being restricted by the time constraint of a 50-minute F2F class period. That restriction has forever been the bane of my existence in 21 years teaching at CSU. Although lecturing in this way constitutes a considerable amount of work on my part, vastly exceeding the average amount of time an instructor would spend preparing for, and teaching, a university course, I do the extra work, because it allows me to do my job better. I found that my recorded lectures were far superior to the ones I would have had to significantly truncate in order to teach F2F. I had one lecture last two hours. Had I been teaching that course F2F, as I normally do, I would have had a grand total of 50 minutes, three times a week, at my disposal. That 50 minutes would have to include taking attendance, making announcements, lecturing, and holding class discussions, which, for me, are an integral feature of all of my classes. I allot anywhere from 20-30% of the students’ final course grade for “class participation,” which includes attendance. Class participation includes what students say in class—their comments, questions, and engagement with one another and me. I also include “active listening” in this aggregate grade. Therefore, in a 50-minute F2F class period, three times a week, my students are receiving, arguably, less instruction and fewer possibilities to learn and grow, than if they were learning online. My PSC 342 students this summer were grateful for my ability and my choice to give them a lot of my time, energy, and expertise. Hence, COVID, though bloody, has been a boon to me with respect to teaching, in terms, at least, of this one aspect—of asynchronously delivering audio lectures. Although, absolutely, one is lacking the F2F experience in all that it involves; primarily, the opportunity to read facial expression and gesture, which give clues to a speaker’s intent, be it hostile, accommodating, enthusiastic, or indicative of some other emotional state. In a F2F course, a community can be built. The course can function as its own community, bound by shared experiences. However, given our present circumstances, of living our lives during a deadly worldwide pandemic, a cost-benefit analysis has proven to me that the cost of losing that immediate physical contact accompanying the learning environment, is worth the gain of deeper, richer, more extensive and thoughtful examination of texts, ideas, opinions, and reflections. My experience teaching this course many times in the past has proven to me that online education can be extremely enriching, efficient, and much safer. This course, PSC 342, was taught solely asynchronously.

Now I am going to report on my experiences teaching PSC 326 and PSC 421 in the spring. When I taught the senior capstone seminar in the spring, I had half the semester to get to know the students, and they each other. That opportunity was very important, in establishing a rapport. The students, once learning remotely, were able to interact with one another easily synchronously, even though there were 20 students in the seminar, five more than the cap for enrollment. In planning to teach the capstone seminar in Spring 2021, I am considering using the video chat feature of Blackboard Collaborate Ultra or Zoom for the synchronous class meetings, to allow the students to get to “know” one another better than through audio alone. I will spend a good amount of time making that decision. I would still record asynchronous lectures/interpretations of the material, even though I ordinarily do less lecturing in the senior seminars. I would do so, lecture, to supplement the physical F2F university experience students would lack. I would then hold synchronous class sessions for discussion purposes only. As I said, I am considering using video chatting for this purpose, for the senior seminar only. My reservations are many. In my mind, one of the most significant liabilities with the Zoom platform is described in the New York Times, April 4, 2020 (updated May 5, 2020). The article I link here analyses the distinct and palpably real class differences involved in video chatting, class differences that were in the process of being erased, or mitigated, by the F2F college experience. Here’s the headline and blurb: “College Made Them Feel Equal. The Virus Exposed How Unequal Their Lives Are.” “When they were all in the same dorms and eating the same dining hall food, the disparities in students’ backgrounds weren’t as clear as they are over video chat.”

When I read that article in April of this year, I was relieved at having chosen the audio feature of Blackboard Collaborate to teach, rather than the video feature, or Zoom. I unconsciously suspected the dangers involved in the video chat. Students discussing the issues we were considering through their voices alone, not via images of themselves and their surroundings, aided the quality of the discussion, and the number of students participating: both high. I know for a fact, given my 21 years of teaching experience, that students in 2020 are obsessed with images, including their own. I wanted to avoid, as much as possible, the clear pitfalls involved in using that medium for the delivery of course content.

In the spring semester, for both PSC 326 and PSC 421, I had to plan and execute a course on the fly, as did everyone who taught. Each of those two courses met MWF for 50 minutes each day. I used, as I said, the audio feature of Blackboard Collaborate, both to lecture and to facilitate discussions. I realized I had little time for either, which is why I decided to revamp my summer semester course. Nevertheless, faced with the anxiety, stress, fear, uncertainty, and sometimes anger accompanying the outbreak of COVID in the United States, students testified to me that having our classes meet live via audio was hugely beneficial to them, especially for those students who were living alone, or with their families, who, sometimes, the students had left to live their own adult lives, for any number of reasons. The course, therefore, was a kind of lifeline for them—a lifeline to the presence of others, people who trusted one another from having had two months of time together F2F. Their voices in the synchronous sessions were often audibly pained; and a silent, or sometimes overtly expressed mourning was palpable. We supported one another as a community, again, to get each other through a very difficult time. We did this primarily through engaging one another intellectually. Focusing on, say, John Barry’s or Noam Chomsky’s or Yuval Harari’s or Slavoj Zizek’s audio and video commentaries on the COVID situation as it progressed, allowed the students to consider, analyze, learn about, reflect upon, and figure out how to act on the concrete reality of the pandemic, through examining the economic, social, psychological, historical, and political effects and ramifications of COVID-19.

As far as written work went, for spring semester PSC 326 students wrote their final term papers on how COVID-19 was affecting a country of their choice. I allowed the students to choose any country on which to write, other than the United States. COVID-19 had changed the world: no longer did the “Third World” exist in the way it might have prior to the coronavirus outbreak. The leveling effect of the virus lent equality to all people on the globe, regardless of the country in which they found themselves residing. The “Third World” already was an antiquated and erroneous way of referring to the Global South or the developing world, now more than ever. The students sunk their teeth into their papers, because the topic was immediately and crucially relevant to them. They did fine work.

For the capstone seminar, I jettisoned the final two books I had as required reading for the course, substituting Albert Camus’s The Plague for them; the students expressed gratitude for my decision. I had entitled the course thusly on the syllabus: PSC 421: SEMINAR IN COMPARATIVE POLITICS: CONSIDERING NATIONALISM, IDENTITY, GENOCIDE, COLLECTIVE MEMORY, AND AN ALTERNATIVE POLITICS. I gave students the choice of either sticking with the topic they had already chosen earlier in the semester, as their capstone research project; or the students were free to choose a topic in some way reflecting the themes of the course, while at the same time related to COVID. About three-fourths of the students chose the latter, and their work was formidable.

Therefore, based upon all of the learning experiences created by the pedagogical decisions I made, I have decided to asynchronously record audio lectures for my three fall semester courses: International Politics, Comparative Politics, and American Political Thought. I will use the Blackboard Discussion Board for the intended purpose of letting students discuss, on their own time, the material. I will again require a certain number and quality of posts, and replies, on the Discussion Board, to keep students on task. I have discovered that the imperative posed by having these posts be graded assignments, means they get done. Students welcome such shorter assignments, evidenced by feedback I have received in course evaluations in the past (“Give us more homework!”), because then their final course grade is not comprised solely or primarily of one or two term papers. If a student does poorly on a term paper, he or she has little opportunity to earn a high grade for the course. With the opportunity to write more frequently, in shorter assignments, the evidence clearly proves that students are significantly more apt to keep up with the course, due to having to adhere to regular deadlines. Students’ writing skills usually qualitatively improve through regular practice, rather than atrophy when students flounder in the morass that is typically the result of the unimaginative ask of work-shy professors: the term paper. I for four years worked in publishing, on the Copy Desk at Business Week magazine in Manhattan. I understand the necessity of meeting deadlines: there is an inherent value involved in having to write under pressure, in order to render critical content meaningful through concision and focus. Having to research and write in September 1993 about the content of the Oslo Accords, negotiated in secret, with the first face-to-face meeting between Israel and the PLO looming, meant that the need to get the handshake between Arafat and Rabin “right” was of vital importance. Now, I understand that students should not be expected to write about such a momentous historical event with the exigency faced by a journalist. Nevertheless, students can learn to use space limitations to their advantage: shorter assignments force students to organize their thoughts and express them in a concise, succinct, powerful way, highlighting the core aspects of the material they find compelling. This outcome is vastly preferable to the results of having students do a “data dump” in a term paper. Students writing term papers have the tendency to ramble on in a disorganized, often sloppy or confusing manner, marked by a lack of discipline or knowledge of how to write clearly and write well. Some students have difficulty even understanding my corrections of their writing, and my feedback in general, on a term paper, because they don’t even understand the mechanics of writing. Students are more apt to grasp where they “went wrong” in a shorter assignment: they can get their minds around the strengths and weaknesses of their writing when it is pointed out to them. It is frequently the nature of the assignment itself, not a student’s intellectual caliber, which either successfully or unsuccessfully determines whether or not a student can write well. The ability of a student to do just that, write cogently and authoritatively about course content, is the measure we professors very often use to grade students. We have a responsibility ourselves, to either hinder or facilitate students’ successful performance in the university—which, arguably, is the university’s very mission and purpose.      

Finally, I will hold synchronous class discussion periods for all three courses, during the scheduled class periods. The experience I had in the spring convinced me that students wanted to be live. I know this, because they told me this.

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