On Friday, October 27, 2017, my colleague Mike Rifino and I led a Total Participation Workshop as part of Pedagogy Day. Twenty participants engaged in an experiment to see what we could accomplish by using technology as a tool for collaboration and co-constructing knowledge among faculty and graduate student teachers to create this WordPress site in less than an hour. At the beginning, we were all a little nervous. After all, technology is a blessing when it works right, and a curse when the unexpected crops up, particularly when time is limited and there are varying levels of expertise. The result was inspiring; not only did the workshop exceed my own expectations, but we also left with a permanent resource that can be referenced and possibly expanded on in the future.
For some background, I have never taught a psychology class. I am also not a traditional psychology Ph.D. student, having come from a design background and earning my bachelor’s degree in fine arts. The experience I gained working for nearly a decade as a graphic and web designer has complemented my academic career, and given me the opportunity to work as a Digital Fellow for the Center for Humanities, and now as a Graduate Fellow for the Futures Initiative. I manage the Futures Initiative website, and lead WordPress workshops for our faculty fellows to support their team-taught courses. Mike is currently teaching psychology at LaGuardia Community College, and is new to teaching, but very interested in student-centered pedagogy techniques, something the Futures Initiative champions. When we came together to plan our session leading up to the event, we admitted to each other that we both felt a little intimidated. After all, faculty and graduate student teachers with far more experience than we had would be attending this workshop. We spent a few hours trying to find innovative, engaging techniques for teaching and realized how many possibilities were out there. Could we really bring anything new to the table? We left our planning session without a plan, but after having some downtime and rest that weekend, I realized that we were approaching this workshop in the wrong way. The idea struck me to leverage the talent and experience in the room, including our own, to create a teaching resource rather than try to transmit information to the attendees of the workshop—the opposite of engaged learning.
As we began to refine the idea into a workable session format, it became clear that we would need to make sure that we would have the available technology and create a schedule we could stick to. Working within constraints shaped how the workshop would unfold, and ended up delivering some unexpected benefits and some less-than-ideal surprises. For example, because of the time constraint, we knew it would be impossible to register all of the participants for this website, which we set up ahead of time. We decided to work in six groups (which organically ended up being five once we started the workshop). This way, we could sign up one person per group. Here’s a screenshot of an editable Google spreadsheet that we created in advance and shared with the group via a bit.ly link that would be easy to type in:
Working in groups also limited the number of computers we would need. While we expected some people to have laptops, we didn’t want to leave the fate of our workshop to chance, so Mike and I borrowed laptops from the Futures Initiative, brought our own, and also borrowed two from the library. The less-than-ideal surprise was that the library laptops didn’t work; one wouldn’t connect to the internet, and the other kept redirecting to a website in Spanish. Rather than troubleshooting, two of our participants generously offered their laptops for use.
After selecting groups and a leader for each who added their email to the spreadsheet, the first activity to get the workshop going was a tried and true method for student engagement: Think, Pair, Share. Traditionally, everyone takes 90 seconds to write down an answer to a prompt on an index card, then partners with someone they don’t know and spends the next 90 seconds sharing what they wrote. One person from each group (or several groups, depending on time) can share what they or their partner wrote to the rest of the group. We modified this activity for participants to share with their groups and choose an active teaching technique to write about on the site. While the groups were think-pair-sharing, we were registering group leaders on the site and creating a password, which we also saved in the document. After their discussion was over, we took a few minutes to make sure that the leaders could log in and post, then the groups collectively wrote a blog post for the topic they chose from their discussion and selected a photo to complement their blog post.
This activity took around 15-20 minutes, at which point, the groups published their posts and switched from editing to viewing. They left the laptops where they were, and rotated as a group to a new table to read, discuss, and comment on the other group’s post. We planned for three of these rotations but ended up doing it twice because the writing activity took a little longer than we planned for. At the end of the two rotations, we changed the home page view on the blog from the static page we created to introduce the website to the latest posts view, and, voila! We had created a website in one hour!
We spent the last 10-15 minutes reflecting on the workshop, and I took notes in a shared document that was available to the group. Here are a few takeaways from our discussion:
- Technology access varies greatly depending on where people are teaching; teaching methods in the classroom involving technology may not be possible because of the limitations of available tech, or poor wi-fi quality in the classrooms. We have to keep fighting to improve equal access to technology at CUNY, and always think about the access that students have to technology off-campus.
- Some technology-based teaching methods can be adapted to a low-tech or no-tech version. For example, one engaged teaching method uses polling with clickers for students to vote on what they think is the correct answer. This can be modified by letting students signal their vote through other means.
- Working in groups on a tech-based learning activity was great for scaffolding those who were unfamiliar with the technology. Because some of the participants already had experience with WordPress, they were able to help those who were not familiar with the platform.
- A few people who were brand new to WordPress were excited to see how easy it was to create a professional blog and wanted to learn more. Luckily, NYPL members can access online training through Lynda.com for free with their library card number and pin, and anyone can take advantage of Futures Initiative tutorials.
- We also discussed using technology like Blackboard or creating a Wiki as a way to encourage student collaboration and discussion. Like this workshop, some coordination and guidance are needed for both. Creating a site on Futures Initiative has the added benefit of being publicly available and won’t be archived at the end of the semester like a course on Blackboard. There are more benefits to using WordPress that I wrote about recently on the GSTA blog.
Thank you to all of the participants of the workshop. It was a great experience to collaborate on this website, and would have been impossible without your willingness to engage in our experiment!