One aspect of managing a class that has changed significantly — or, at least, has a great potential to change significantly with little effort — is communication with students outside of class. When I first started teaching, we didn’t have any real means of communicating with students outside of class. Eventually we could use email, and then we graduated to using the course Web site. Now we have both those choices plus several more.
My preferences are to use a tool that reaches a student’s cell phone with minimal effort. This makes it much easier to reach into the student’s world. Any time you require that the student get out of his/her comfort zone, then the odds drop of communicating with the student in a timely manner. This preference of mine definitely shapes my views on technology usage.
The problem here, as with so many things in higher ed, is that the expectations and desires of students aren’t inline with those of faculty. Let’s look at the arguments for and against some of the available approaches.
My students use email very little. The only time they seem to use it outside of class-related usage is when they are looking for a job. There is something to be said for preparing a student for the workplace, but there’s also something to be said for reaching the student in a timely fashion. I try to use email as little as possible. Recently, I have used it to communicate grade information to the student because I had a program that made that option easy. Other than that, I have tended away from email usage.
Forums (discussion boards)
I was a big user of discussion boards in the late 1990s and very early 2000s; however, my students never were. If they had a question to send me, they sent it via email or came to office hours. If they saw questions from other students, they waited for me to answer them. Very very rarely did students participate on a discussion board if they didn’t have to. I have basically stopped using these for that reason. They are a good idea in theory, but in practice my students simply don’t use them.
Course management system
Here at the University of Michigan we use CTools, which is an implementation of Sakai. This is a perfectly capable, functional, and traditional course management system. As such it provides all sorts of tools for communicating with students:
- The professor posts information that can be read by all students
- Discussed above
- Allows students to submit documents in fulfillment of a specific assignment
- Chat Room
- For live communication among class participants
- Drop Box
- Allows students and the professor to share documents privately
- For sending a direct message to a site participant
- For collecting information from the class as a whole on a given question
These are all perfectly reasonable and useful tools that have an underlying assumption that students go to the course Web site. If students don’t go to the Web site, then none of this is useful. So, the question is how to get them to the Web site? If I use the CMS, then I need to use it in combination with some other tool that will alert students to something they need to do or see.
Another approach that I continually come back to is the use of a blog as a course communication center. Students can subscribe to the blog RSS feed so that any post made on the blog appears in their RSS feed reader. Thus, a student would not have to be at the course blog in order to get information that I have posted. The only problem with this: students rarely use an RSS feed reader. While this approach fits with my way of reading (I’m a huge reader of blogs in my RSS feed reader) and writing (I’m writing this blog, aren’t I?), it just doesn’t work for most of my students.
This tool has a lot going for it. Students and professors can send private messages to each other. All class members can send messages that can be viewed by all other class members. Professors can announce information to the whole class. Students can ask the professor a question (privately or publicly) and the professor can provide an answer (again, privately or publicly). In addition, for many students this will become an important communication channel in their work lives; giving them some training and experience in using this tool before they start their job would be a good thing.
A couple of problems with this is that messages are limited to 140 characters, and messages can be missed in the general twitter deluge of information. If users go to the trouble of ensuring that messages from a certain user are forwarded to the user’s text messaging account, then that mitigates this concern somewhat; however, users still have to search for the class hashtag in order to find all information related to a specific class. If they don’t, then it’s possible that they will miss something. One possible solution to this problem would be to create a twitter list for all of the participants in the class. This would ensure that all of the tweets from all of the people on the list appear in one place.
Twitter is definitely in my planned communication arsenal. I will be using the #bit330 hashtag and the @bit330 account in the fall to communicate with my students. I expect that they will follow this account and I will follow their accounts. I used this three years ago when students weren’t really that into twitter usage. Now that it’s more integrated into many of their lives, I assume that it will go better than it did back then (not that it was bad or anything).
Text messages with Remind101
Another (currently free) text messaging-based solution is provided by Remind101. With this platform professors can text students but not vice versa, all without having to know each others’ phone numbers. You can see a demo video on this page and an extensive FAQ on this page.
This platform addresses is like the approach taken by twitter except that it is private to the class, students can’t send messages, and the messages are segregated to their own channel (i.e., not integrated with the whole twitter feed). It’s a really straight-forward solution. The professor gets a special code for the class, and then he/she shares this code with the students. Whenever the professor wants to make an announcement, then he/she sends a message to the Remind101 phone number that includes the class code. Everyone who has registered with that code then receives the message.
If you have routinely used email to send out announcements and found that students don’t get them in time, then consider this as a solution if you don’t want to adopt twitter.
For me, email is a fallback option; it is available but it isn’t anything that I want to use. I especially don’t rely on it any more for time-sensitive communications. I have basically stopped using forums, and will continue to ignore them, until I hear of some practices and accompanying technological changes that I can implement that somehow makes this tool more attractive to students.
Both course management systems and blogs are okay, for what they do, but they don’t reach students where they live. For me, the drawback of Remind101 is that it doesn’t provide a channel for students to communicate with each other or for them to see communications from other students; there can be much value in this kind of shared group communication channel. I plan on using twitter for announcements and to point students to a specific URL (many times within the CMS) that contains more information. This way I can take advantage of the technologies within the CMS and use twitter to draw students to the CMS in a way that is convenient for them.
I’m sure that I have missed some other tools currently available, and I’m equally sure that new approaches will be available within a year. But, for now, I hope the above analysis provides you some food for thought when planning your classes in the upcoming year.