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Interview with Adrienne Phelps-Coco of Harvard Extension

Interview with Adrienne Phelps-Coco of Harvard Extension

We sat down with Adrienne Phelps-Coco, an Instructor at Harvard Extension School to discuss her work, and thoughts about Yellowdig. 

Give us a brief overview of your course

My course is called Applied Online Course Design. It’s a very “meta” course. It’s a class that is completely online, with 30 students with 1 TA. It met for 2 hours a week over web conference. Everything else was done asynchronously through Canvas and Yellowdig. Students were from throughout the US and international, and they were a mix of people who were already working in the instructional design field and instructors-- K-12 teachers, college professors, trainers. We actually switched to Yellowdig mid-semester. It was an interesting shift.

Could you talk a little more about the shift?
When we first started using Yellowdig in the course, I wanted a separate Yellowdig board for each week but at the time that was not available. And I am so glad it wasn’t because the fact of having one big board versus weekly boards really changed the rhythm of the discussion. It used to be that in In my LMS we had weekly discussions. I would write a very particular prompt, students would answer the prompt, and I would encourage students to talk to each other.

With Yellowdig, the first thing I did was make it less formal, and then in the second week, I opened up the prompt a lot more. I said ‘Here is the topic of this week. You can talk about anything related to the topic of this week. Here are a few ideas.” In the middle of that week, I found an article related to something we’d covered earlier in the course and wanted to share it with my students. I realized that my students were probably thinking the same. I ended up completely scrapping the weekly topics. And then I said, “You can post about anything relating to this course.” It changed the way people posted. They brought all sorts of articles, ideas, real challenges they faced in their projects or work.  It became a really genuine discussion that was much more free formed, much more student driven, than the particular topics than I have given them in the past.

So can you tell us more what was the difference after you switched discussions?
What I saw was a much more genuine discussion. Where people were asking questions, they were sharing materials that they really cared about. When they were responding, they responded because they really cared. The point system helped to get it going, but once it was going, people were talking because people were interested in the conversation.

Was there a memorable conversation that happened as a direct result of Yellowdig?
The conversations stayed pretty close to what we were covering in class, but it was much more personal. One of my prompts about educational technology said: “go research an ed-tech tool and discuss it.” When I got rid of the prompts, one of the students posted “Hey, I need a free survey tool for my work, does anyone have any suggestions?” and people responded with recommendations. So they were having the conversations that I hoped that they would have, including what tech tools are out there, and why they might be good in some situations and not in others, but they were having it tied to a particular student’s needs. It was no longer this thing that they had to do for class, but rather they were helping each other out and still getting to where I hoped that they would get.

A lot of times people brought in additional articles, additional perspectives, documents from different places. It stayed within the grounds of the course but it added a lot of other alternate perspectives.

So you’ve never had to find yourself moderating the discussion?
I was on Yellowdig a fair amount. On the LMS I tried to stay out of the discussion board every week, and I would film a weekly wrap up video where I talked about some of the main points that I had seen and used it as a segue into next week. I stopped doing that with Yellowdig because there wasn't one topic that students discussed. Instead I was happy to jump in and participate and ask questions. I would occasionally post my own pins and give out instructor badges and thumbs up. It was a nice, easy way for me to be involved in the course in a less formal way but in a way that felt like having a conversation with an interesting group of people.

How would you say Yellowdig changed your classroom?
I wanted the posts on Yellowdig to be respected as valid sources of information. When they did final projects and then wrote reflection papers on those projects, they had to answer a question about which sources from the course they used to shape their project. For that, I allowed them to draw on resources they were assigned in the course or resources that they or their classmates posted to Yellowdig. They were then able to use the materials they had given to each other. I would say it was a fairly sizable percentage of the class who talked about articles Yellowdig in addition to those officially assigned in the course.

One of the things that were still important to me was quality work on Yellowdig. In the LMS, I graded every week, and I wanted to make sure that the quality remained high even though I used auto grading on Yellowdig. So we created a “Discussion  Reflection Paper”.  I had them choose three of the posts that they had done and submit those as an assignment. I also had them submit posts that other people had done that they found particularly engaging. They had to do an analysis of what they had done, and their classmates had done, and then we graded it as an assignment. This gave us a way to grade the quality of the posts. We used the auto grading still, but it was worth a smaller part of the grade than the discussion reflection paper.

I think the quality on Yellowdig was high. It was much less formal, and much more multi-media base which was something I wanted and was trying to do on a discussion board. I also wanted to assess what they students write, and spending 1 week grading 3 posts is a lot less work than grading a post every week and it’s something that for me worked very well as a compromise. The auto grading was fantastic, it kept the conversation going throughout the course. I did the Discussion Reflection Paper about two-thirds of the course in, and the quality still stayed high even when they knew they would no longer be graded on the quality.

Where is the most impact technology can have in the current system?
I think what I really try to focus on in my teaching and in the subject matter that I teach is trying to make sure that we still have a  human to human relationships.

Education is really about people sharing ideas, inspiration, and struggling with common challenges. Where technology is with its most useful is with ways it can connect people so that they can do those things.

All opinions are my own and are not representative of Harvard University.

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