MIXED COHORT TUTORIALS – the technology, the application, the possibility

So, you have another dilemma: you have 30 students and normally run 3 tutorials of 10 each, but 5 students are remote. You can’t afford to run a fourth with only remote students. You need to include them in the 3rd tutorial. But how can it be done in a way that feels like the remote and face to face students are connected as one, are equally engaged in the tutorial, and getting a quality learning experience?

Recently, I had a conversation with David Wilson from the University of Adelaide, when he outlined his approach to mixed cohort tutorials. David presented several takeaways with the process as outlined below, but perhaps none more important than the need to acknowledge that Covid stress is real, and the difficulty of the process, and the steep learning curve for all involved towards the new University normal.   

SETTING THE SCENE

Covid stress is real, and David’s first tip is to have empathy for both the students, and yourself, whilst adapting practice. No one’s going to get it right first time, especially when technology is involved, but communicating this to students is key. Letting them in on your challenges and listening to theirs creates a shared understanding of the obstacles that may be getting in the way of arriving at that comfortable teaching and learning space. David exhorts the benefits of this approach, of not only gaining valuable insights into the student point of view and picking up some tech advice on the way, but in also strengthening bonds with students that will ultimately improve learning outcomes in general.

SO, HOW DOES DAVID GO ABOUT IT?     

Of course tutorials are driven by a wide range of outcomes, but a common theme and focus is the need for student participation to be ‘active’. Active participation may include practising problem solving, collaborating on topics, discussing concepts or exploring applications of content, to name but a few examples. David knows that getting the mixed cohort active is not going to happen if remote students are simply positioned on a laptop in the corner of the room, and the bulk of the session is directed at the face to face students. His solution is to have everyone bring their own device to the tute and have them logged into Zoom.

When everyone is logged into Zoom, the remote students are a part of every conversation and can engage with the face to face students as though they were physically present – they can see them, and they can hear them. Having said that, face to face students would have their microphones muted to avoid feedback issues, and then unmute when talking. David acknowledges that this is not a natural thing for the face to face students to unmute themselves before they speak in order for the remote students to hear, but with practice the students are getting more used to it. It’s clear that David is very patient in this aspect, and calmly asks the students to unmute themselves if they forget and repeat the question so ALL can hear. This is actually not a bad thing anyway, as the repeating of the question allows for some who didn’t hear it to be involved and also for others to process the question further with the extra time to think about it.

IT’S ALL ABOUT THE COLLABORATION

Some tutorials require a lot of collaborative work, and Zoom breakout rooms facilitate this nicely. The assignment of rooms would incorporate a mix of remote and face to face students, all of whom would have headphones* to engage with the breakout room. In this way, students are as they would be in a live face to face group, discussing ideas and sharing thoughts. The buzz and noise level of an active tutorial would be the same. The tutor can mix between joining breakout rooms in Zoom or joining a face to face student and using their webcam to engage with the breakout room that way. As in a regular tutorial, the sharing of ideas after the group work is completed pedagogically serves to consolidate understanding of the topics and generate further discussion; students are now privy to the thoughts of a range of students and can assimilate or accommodate their thinking.

CONNECTING THE TWO COHORTS

It may be the case that the face to face students naturally tend to ignore the remote students – for some, the screen vs an actual person is no match. But there are ways to encourage deeper connections.

  • Mirroring your screen with the Zoom participants onto a larger screen in the tutorial room is a possible solution, so the face to face students get a better sense of the online students too – the bigger the better. Adam Montagu from the University of Adelaide has a fantastic setup in his teaching space with his students almost life size on a huge screen that helps to create a truly immersive atmosphere. But if mirroring isn’t an option then at least students have their individual Zoom screen.
  • When not in a breakout room, bringing both groups together can be facilitated by asking lots of questions and consciously involving both contexts in discussions. When face to face students understand that the remote students’ answers are as strong a feature of the session as theirs, then the behaviours and habits needed to involve everybody will become the norm.
  • The sharing of work can encourage both cohorts to interact with each other. This can be achieved in and out of the breakout room, either through screensharing of a file on their computer or using their phone as a document camera to hover over workings on a loose sheet of paper – note, this is an excellent process for a tutor demonstrating a worked example. Students would soon become very proficient very quickly in using technology this way, and they would undoubtedly lead in solving any issues that may arise from such a methodology.
  • Being mobile in the room. Mixed cohort doesn’t mean that the tutor is buried in their laptop for the entire session. I am looking forward to some research done in this area, but I believe that having some students remote can be an advantage for the face to face students – if a face to face student has a query, the tutor can call on anyone they know on the screen in front of the them to assist the face to face student. This is not so easy in a regular tutorial.

Maintaining all of the most desired aspects of a well-run interactive tutorial that ultimately serve to elicit ‘active’ participation is very achievable with a mixed cohort. The technology can certainly be manipulated to serve the pedagogy, and even though it may take some adjustment to get used to this method of operating a session, David Wilson is managing the changes very well, and it appears to be working. It also seems apparent that it wouldn’t take long for students to become comfortable and accept it as the new norm – most of all because they will realise that there is no disadvantage to their learning, and that there may in fact be some advantages not yet thought of. 

*feedback from multiple zooms being open is a concern, but in a smaller tutorial it may be ok for all face to face students to have their microphones muted and their questions to go through the tutor’s application. If that doesn’t work, then the tutor muting their microphone while the student unmutes may have to be a practised feature of the new norm. It may also be the case that clever positioning of students in the room can eliminate feedback too.

I’m Paul Moss, and I manage the Learning Design and Capability team in the Learning Enhancement and Innovation unit at the University of Adelaide

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