Remote Small Group Interaction

As we prepare to social distantify our teaching I’m adapting something I use a lot in the “active” classroom to the online context.

I describe the “Pitch and Catch” technique in a previous blog post. Here’s the TL/DR version.

Everyone brings their work-in-progress to class; over four 15 minute rounds every student sits with 3 peers, “pitches” her current draft and gets intense, “iteration forward” feedback*; each round the groups are shuffled so that over the course of 60 minutes everyone sits with 9 different classmates, one round as pitcher and three as catcher. In my classes of 64 students the one hour yields 16 student-experience-hours of having one’s work the intense focus of classmates’ attention and 48 student-experience-hours of give-and-take critique with classmates.

I’ve just adapted this for remote classroom. Here’s my toolkit and workflow.
I built a simple “app” that takes a comma separated list of student names and produces randomized groups of 4 for four rounds. The output looks like this:


Next I create “Group Sets” in Canvas for each round. This is a little bit labor intensive but barely a half an hour of work for a class of 64. Groups are named so that students can easily connect them back to the table and the round.

Four students are assigned to each one, based on the output of the app above. The pitcher is made the team “leader.”

There are lots of tools we can use for remote video but for this demonstration we use Zoom. The free version allows sessions up to 40 minutes and has a very shallow learning curve; it’s easy to get up to speed with screen sharing, interactive whiteboards, etc.

We make the pitchers in each session responsible for setting up the meeting on Zoom. They fill in some information like this:

And they copy some “invite” text to the clipboard:

Inside Canvas the student goes to the group’s “Home Page” (essentially a section of Canvas pages reserved for members of the group)

and she posts an “Announcement” (just like an instructor can do for the whole class but this one only goes to the group members and the instructor). Each group member sees this and can click on the link to join the meeting at the appointed time.

If the group wants to it can have the host’s machine keep a copy of the meeting. Peer feedback is collected either as answers to questions in Canvas discussion or on a Google form like the one below. We have folks wait until AFTER the session to fill in the form so that it’s the product of some reflection rather than contemporaneous note-taking (which is what we found when folks had the form open during the session).

We do a mail merge with the data (there’s currently a bit of hand massaging needed in Excel to make this happen but we’ll automate that soon) from the feedback form so that each student receives written critique AND we have a “kudos for you” section, an acknowledgment of things other people appreciated during the session. Here’s what the feedback looks like – we either send a PDF through Canvas or paste the text as a Canvas comment.

*a concept developed many years ago at the top of Piedmont Ave with Maia Averett within earshot of Joe Edelman

Wanted: Grading Analytics (about me)

I don’t like grading. And when I have a large enrollment course, the tedium of it can drive me round the bend. To get through the task with my sanity intact I break it into batches, take breaks, etc.

When the task is complete, I have a new perspective on the course I just taught and the students who took the course. I’m a different person for the experience.

It is likely that this transformation is not a sudden one that occurs when I finally put my green pencil back in its holster. I’m pretty sure I evolve over the course of several days of marking. And, too, I’m pretty sure there are other temporal effects too: I get tired, exasperated, bored, delighted, and even angry over the course of the work. I bet that has an effect on the grades I confer, no matter how careful I might be.

To investigate this I click on the “analytics” button on my LMS’s interface. But what to my astonished eyes should appear but a zillion ways to slice and dice data about students and not a one to measure me.

So why isn’t there a function that would tell me if there is a bias that creeps into my grading over the course of a session or over the course of several days of end of semester grading? The system lets me grade anonymously, of course, but personal bias is not what I am looking for here. I want to extract some meaning out of data that’s already there: is there an advantage to being in the group I mark the first day? Last day? Are you better off getting marked at the beginning of a work session or the end? Simple stuff, really, but stuff that would contribute to reflective practice. I’m not imagining an algorithm that will compensate for my human foibles, but one that will keep me inclined to the same sort of continuous evaluation and performance improvement that we deploy with our students. And maybe some practical wisdom will emerge: “don’t grade for more than two hours at a time, Dan” or “don’t stretch it out for more than two days, Dan.” Those would be useful too.

Canvas folks in the back room? Are you listening? This would be dead easy – the data is already there. A lot of it. Give me more tools for self-monitoring rather than more tools for surveillance of my students.

Feeling Learning

While using chopsticks at lunch today I found myself musing about how to train a robot to do the same. One could, of course, attempt (likely in vain) to describe how it is done. Perhaps better than that, one could show how it is done. But the thing about using chopsticks is that when your hand-brain-eye system gets it, you know it. It’s a feeling, “I got it!” Suddenly it totally works. What was awkward becomes natural. Those two slivers of bamboo or plastic become an extension of the self. The strength of the “this is working” reinforcement feedback is tremendous.

Which got me thinking about teaching in general. We do a lot of explaining and describing and even some showing. And we tend to couple it with rewards in the form of approval/disapproval, points added or points taken off. In another jargon, we might say that we are inventing reward functions for our students, rewards rooted, ultimately, in the instructor’s approval.

And many of us bemoan the fact that a predominant result of this process is that the students invest a lot of time trying to figure out “what the teacher wants.”

Of course, what we really want is for the student to master the skill at hand but we offer this proxy reward, our approval when the performance is judged right by us.

Somewhere in this is a theory that if we repeat this process often enough, the student will learn what it was we were actually after (that is, they’ll get beyond trying to win our approval and see that actual mastery of the skill is what it is that earns the approval). We vary the inputs and mix showings and tellings of both problem and solution in a hope to optimize this process.

But what about that awesome feeling when your fingers and brain finally “get” how chopsticks work? What if I could be more successful at communicating that feeling and setting up in my students a search for it? My job can then be converted into helping them move toward trajectories that will pass through that experience.

We might still deploy some conventional approaches to explanation, demonstration, and performance assessment, but I think I’ll be doing a better and more effective job to the degree that I can create opportunities for the production and recognition of that tangible feeling of “I got it.”

Photo by Chopstick.JPG: 毛抜きderivative work: Richardprins (talk) – Chopstick.JPG, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Pitch & Catch: Maximizing Peer Critique and Feedback

In an entrepreneurship course a colleague of mine used to have a “pitch and catch” session in which one team would pitch their idea and another team would play the role of investors or critics while the rest of the class watched. The catching team’s job was to help the pitching team sharpen its presentation. The rest of the class would watch the presentations.

I’ve been evolving a variation on this technique in other courses over the last few years. Here’s how it works.

Suppose students in a class of 40 students are working on individual semester-long projects. After about the middle of the semester when a few installments or drafts of the projects have been submitted to me and returned with feedback, we move into pitch and catch mode. During each class session we set aside an hour or so. The basic structure is like a conference at which there are simultaneous sessions running in parallel.

We break the session into four 15 minute rounds. During round one 10 students will pitch and the other 30 will catch. And then in round two, a different set of 10 will pitch and the others will be assigned catching roles. The catchers are shuffled between rounds so students are not simply listening back and forth to one another’s ideas.

Pitching and catching assignments are projected from a page in our LMS as shown below. We also use this page to link catchers to pitchers’ work in progress so they can consult it (and ideally offer feedback) between class sessions.

The “charge” to the catchers is to make their pitcher’s project as good as it can be. I tell them they want to get into a mindset in which THEIR grade is dependent only on the quality of the work done by the three pitchers they will meet with during the session. We talk about the learning outcome we are aiming at here: the capacity to be a helpful, constructively critical teammate/colleague.

The animation below gives a sense of what the classroom movement looks like.

By the end of the session, each student has had fifteen minutes and the attention of three classmates dedicated to her work and she has caught three times. The pitcher gets serious feedback and repeated engagement with interested listeners and each catcher participates with two classmates in a total of 45 minutes of focused conversation about other students’ work.

In one hour this yields 10 student-hours of presentation experience and 30 student-hours of feedback-experience. The pitch-catch conversations tend to be taken rather seriously – with just three critics there’s some informal pressure to participate and do one’s share of the thinking and talking and in most groups I’ve seen a regression to serious rather than the casual.

Following a pitch and catch session, each pitcher has an assignment to “evaluate” the catching she received. They post a short, private reply to the LMS saying who their catchers were and what advice/feedback stood out. This is designed to motivate the pitcher’s taking notes and reflecting on the feedback received and the catchers to give serious advice. The instructions for the assignment mention that they only need cite helpful feedback, that they should attribute it, and that one of the things I read these four is so that when I’m writing letters of evaluation I’ll have concrete things in mind – e.g., “during our pitch and catch sessions, Jesse’s classmates consistently appreciate their feedback on marketing issues.”

Here’s just one example of post pitch-and-catch session reflection:

My assigned catchers were – Q, T, and A. I found T’s input very helpful. My workshop is targeted towards helping entrepreneurs bring design into their startup using a version user centred design thinking and T suggested taking a look at design hackathons. Hackathons are already popular among my audience so using that concepts will help me connect. I also found Q’s input very helpful. She suggested for the prototype step that I could guide participants toward simple mockups. This was helpful because creating an MVP is a common hurdle.

Pitch-and-catch combines the best elements of small group discussion and presentations of work-in-progress, supercharging both in a manner that yields a lot of bang-for-your-buck. It allows us to get serious small class payoffs in arbitrarily large classes by exploiting the insight that not everyone has to hear from everyone and that with sufficient structural constraints we can get high quality conversations happening in parallel.

If one hour of class time were split equally among a class of forty, with half the time hearing about project and half the time offering feedback to peers, on average each student would have 45 seconds to communicate their ideas and each would receive about 45 seconds of feedback. Pitch and Catch yields about 10 times as much student experience.

To Lecture or Not to Lecture

I still remember things said in some lectures that I heard in the late 1970s, the 80s and the early 90s. In some cases I remember what was said, in some cases I simply think and live differently to this day because of what was said.

Earlier this year David Goodblar wrote a piece in Chronicle Vitae under the title “‘Is It Ever OK to Lecture?’” Mostly the piece just recounts the arguments made in favor of “active learning” vs. lecturing. His take away conclusion is that lecturing is OK if it includes active learning activities. A bit disappointing as a dodge of the question in the title, but it left me wondering whether the whole piece, and much of the active learning conversation, is perhaps grounded in a false premise.

The author characterizes lecturing as just “tell[ing] students what we know.” The standard caricature of lectures is that they are mere conveyance of information with goal being that students remember what we said, but that’s wrong. It might be what far too many instructors do when they are supposed to be lecturing, but a good lecture is something different from articulating information that students are supposed to absorb or write down.

A proper lecture is an interactive experience in which the speaker connects with the minds of the audience and takes them on a journey and changes them in the process. I’m a serious advocate and practitioner of all manner of “active” pedagogy, but I’m disappointed when supporters resort to cartoon versions of alternatives to bolster their case. The argument between active learning and lecturing as it normally happens is between great active learning and mediocre lecturing. It’s easy to win that battle. But out in the wild there’s plenty of really great lecturing and plenty of really tedious active learning too.

Why do we rarely see, in conversations like this, pointers to ideas about how to give really awesome lectures. I think it’s because the conversations are dominated by individuals and organizations that live OFF bandwagons and trends, making their names telling faculty to get with the program or risk being labeled dinosaurs, rather than living FOR education per se. There is material out there – see Chris Anderson on how to deliver a compelling TED talk or folks like Nancy Duarte on great talks more generally or Conor Neill on how to start a speech or so many others just waiting for a little curation – that can help the mediocre lecturer most of us are become the one who can deliver the lecture that a student will remember 30 years later.

When we have that skill in hand we can make smart, strategic pedagogical decisions about when to lecture and when to use other methods.

When Modes of Information Diffusion Collide

Anyone familiar with Twitter probably knows about “live tweeting” during television broadcasts.  In my own Twitter feed are several “followees” on whom I can depend for a play-by-play about the shows “Scandal,” “Girls,” and “America’s Got Talent.”  Sometimes one, sometimes another of these “friends” are live tweeting and every now and then several of them are at it at the same time.

What I experience at that moment reminds me of the lovers in the film “Letter to Brezhnev” who looked up at the moon, one in England, one at home in Russia, and observe that they were united by looking up at the same moon. They don’t actually communicate at that moment, but as viewer of the film, I experience their “virtual connection”  as the spatial separation between the lovers is romantically collapsed by mutual gazing at this distant, real object.  My Twitter friends do not necessarily follow one another so I may be the only witness to their synchronous experience, but the analogy is this: in one case the moon “broadcasts” its light, in the other a television network broadcasts a show and in both cases I experience the simultaneous common experience of others.

During the 2 March 2014 broadcast of the Academy Awards, host Ellen deGeneres took a photo of herself and a few attendees and tweeted the photo while exhorting the audience to make it the “most re-tweeted tweet of all time.”  It is unlikely this has never been done before but the phenomenon brings up something interesting.  2,909,385 retweets as I write this about 18 hours later.

Now, shows like Scandal and Girls and especially contest shows like The Voice or America’s Got Talent actually make an effort to get people to tweet about them and athletes have often tweeted before or even during a competition, but deGeneres’s gambit was slightly different.  She showed us the tweet (or at least informed us of it) and gave us a photo that we saw being composed and taken (indeed, we can find a picture of the picture being made as we see below).

Reportedly, 43 Million people watched the Oscars.

In Comey Firing Trump Gets Notification Wrong Again

Any number of news outlets communicated a sense of outrage over the fact that James Comey apparently learned he’d been fired by looking up at news coverage on TV monitors while speaking before an audience in Los Angeles.

What these commentators were zeroing in on was the violation by Trump of what I call “notification norms.”  One just doesn’t tell someone they are fired by telling someone else who then releases it to journalists so that one literally “hears about it on the news.”

Now, from a strictly utilitarian perspective, it might not matter much; you’re out of a job either way. But, we might say, how you find out can add insult to injury.  But how, exactly, does that extra sting of shame happen?  People felt it vicariously; as when the scalpel comes out on a medical show, one’s instinct is to turn away, though here it was not the integrity of skin that is violated, but the integrity of the self.  One part of the self’s integrity requires that certain kinds of information breaches “just are not done.”

Every relationship comes with a set of informational expectations – things that a member of the relation knows she will be told in a certain way in a certain order.  Your mother does not learn of your pregnancy from a casual acquaintance who heard it from a friend in the grocery store. One winces just thinking about such things.  In professional settings, you learn where you are in the status order by which meetings you are invited to, which announcements are run by you before they are released, which things you learn about when others are asked to “give us the room.”

In the Comey affair, we experienced a gigantic collective wince as we saw someone of relatively high status – the director of the FBI on a ten year contract – socially demoted by a massive notification violation at the same time as we wince watching another high status actor, the president, wantonly disregard a notification norm. That’s the thing with norms – we feel it not just out of sympathy for the proximate victim of the violation; we feel the norm violation because it tells us all that we might not live in the kind of world we thought we lived in.

But the public discourse, especially in the media, about the inappropriateness of the notification does something to restore our sense of the world. What we saw last night, almost no matter what channel we tuned in to, were fellow citizens, not themselves victims of the breach of etiquette, calling it out. With each comment saying how inappropriate the manner of Trump’s notification of Comey was, we got a small step of the way back to being able to take for granted that certain information behaviors just aren’t done.

See also

Squirrels and Democracy

Essay in progress (w GKH):

HRC criticized DJT as unfit to lead because he could fly off the handle over an insulting tweet, get distracted by a minor outrage. Is the opposition, collectively, guilty of the same thing?

Was the Hamilton tweet affair a case of the left half of the country having a “squirrel!” moment and thus taking its eyes off the nomination of some seriously scary men to cabinet and agency head positions?

More generally, does our hair trigger ability to pounce on racist, sexist, homophobic, transphobic, culturally appropriative, or personally insulting comments, our readiness to rush to join in on an internet “take down” of someone who says or does something ideologically scandalous, reduce our capacity for thoughtful and effective counterplay?

Does the other side know this, at least implicitly, and take advantage of it? Are we duped into thinking that accumulating likes from people who already are like us is effecting positive change?Are we sometimes party to a media loop in which we react to something, react to one another reacting, and then satisfiedly watch ourselves on the news (or as something trending online), basking in the solidarity of shared outrage?

Weber famously described politics as the long, slow boring of hard boards.  Has the internet become such a drug of instant ideological gratification, has it so enabled instant, coordinated outrage that the demos, too, is unfit to rule?

College Affordability Expert on the Daily Show

A friend and co-author has a new book and did an interview on The Daily Show last night. You don’t see too many sociologists on TV, BTW. Sara’s new book is a research-based look at the challenges of paying for higher education, with solutions.

Paying the Price: College Costs, Financial Aid, and the Betrayal of the American Dream

NPR’s Cladio Sanchez’ "6 Education Stories To Watch In 2016"

NPR’s senior education correspondent offers his predictions for stories in education in 2016.

1. The New Federal Education Law

The long, grueling fight to overhaul the 14-year-old No Child Left Behind law is over, but that’ll turn out to be the easy part. The new Every Student Succeeds Act returns most government oversight of schools back to states. But there are no guarantees that the states will do a better job than the federal government in two key areas: closing the achievement gap and raising the performance of the absolute worst schools.

There will be some relief for students burdened by excessive testing. But for the most part states will continue to rely on test scores, using them to punish schools rather than for improving curriculum and instruction. Reading and math scores will drop for all kids on the new, tougher standardized tests linked to the Common Core. But the dismal performance of groups that struggle will trigger more scrutiny from civil rights groups in 2016. We’ll also see those groups pressure states to deal with teacher quality and funding.

2. Moving On From Common Core

The controversy over the much-maligned Common Core State Standards will diminish. States will continue their efforts to re-brand or rename the standards, while for the most part following them. Despite the political controversy, the push for high academic standards will continue, and we’ll see little of the “race to the bottom” that happened under NCLB.

3. Charter Schools Under A Microscope

The charter school movement will celebrate its 25th anniversary in 2016. With 6,700 schools and nearly 3million students across 43 states and the District of Columbia, charters are a powerful force. The federal government has poured billions of dollars into charters, and polling shows that a majority of Americans support them. But you can expect these publicly funded, privately run schools to face new scrutiny, and new criticism.

We’ll see more scandals involving fraud, corruption and mismanagement, despite efforts to weed out “bad actors” who’ve exploited weak charter laws in several states. As Joe Nathan, a senior fellow at the Center for School Change, who helped write charter school legislation in 32 states, puts it: “We have not done enough to deal with the crooks and charlatans, of which we have our share.”

Charters will also be one of the very few education issues to get any attention in the presidential campaign.

4. Dreamers Dreams Deferred

There will be an even stronger backlash against the push for greater access to college for undocumented students. Dreamers — students brought to the U.S. illegally as children — will face greater opposition because of the stalemate over immigration reform. The angry, anti-immigrant rhetoric from Republicans running for president will also shape this debate. Look for state lawmakers to consider even tougher measures to deny dreamers any benefits and push them deeper into a legal and educational limbo.

5. Goodbye Race-Conscious Admissions

Watch for the U.S. Supreme Court to ban race in college admissions, forcing institutions to abandon affirmative action policies. Schools will have to rethink how they recruit and enroll students in efforts to increase diversity. This will fuel an already tense situation on many campuses. Expect minority student protests and campus unrest to intensify.

6. Student Debt Takes Center Stage

Higher education leaders, or what presidential candidate Senator Marco Rubio calls “the higher-ed cartel,” effectively killed the Obama administration’s attempt to create a more transparent, consumer-friendly way for students and parents to rate colleges. But with many of the presidential candidates calling for tuition-free or debt-free college, we’ll see these institutions undertake a more serious discussion about changing their pricing policies — largely out of fear that lawmakers in Washington will step in and do it for them.

Last Year’s List

  1. Standardized Testing Under Fire
  2. More Troubles For The Common Core
  3. In Congress, Deeper Divisions
  4. Focus On Campus Behavior
  5. Teacher Evaluation, Training, And The Vergara Fallout
  6. The Ferguson Effect: New Scrutiny For School Police

And some from NPR’s “crowd sourced” predictions for 2015.

  1. Blended Learning As A Daily Practice
  2. More Scrutiny of Student Data
  3. Broader Disclosure On Student Loan Defaults
  4. Moving On From Common Core Debates
  5. Reauthorization of No Child Left Behind; More School Choice
  6. Customizable, Game-Like Platforms
  7. Transition For The Online Education Space. “Snackable” learning will become a large part of the online education menu.
  8. More Options For Student Borrowers
  9. Competency-Based Education Picks Up
  10. More Nuanced Kinds Of Data In Schools
  11. The Digital Classroom Meets Labor Issues