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Interview with Nina Wieda of Northwestern

Interview with Nina Wieda of Northwestern

Tell us a little about yourself.
I teach in Chicago field studies program, which is an academic internship program. It’s a unique interdisciplinary program. Our students do internships in different industries and at the same time, they take seminars that focus on issues that relate to those industries- social, moral and philosophical issues that inform their understanding in that industry’s role in the contemporary world. So I teach business field studies. My course is meant to illuminate the relationship between the world of business and society at large. And one of the goals in my course is to allow students to learn from each other and their internship experiences, as well as from me and from the readings. So social learning is very important component to my course, and that is why Yellowdig is such a useful tool for us.

So in your class your students participate in internships and discuss experiences with each other?
We cover a few topics, for example, business ethics, and we will read some philosophy that explores the notion of ethics. We read some opinions from different periods of the 20th century. We compare them. We look at the evolution of the notion of business ethics, and then in the context of all that, we apply the ideas to current day events and present cases. Students use their own internships as another text to analyze and see in the context of theory and they use each other's internships, and they draw on the news. Students bring in events as fresh as the morning of the class. ‘Have you heard? This is what happened this morning. Let’s discuss, and apply our understanding’.

Can you talk a little more about the course itself?
It’s an interesting dimension of the class as well. My course is the only course they take that quarter. It meets 1 time a week, for 3 hours, in a seminar form. It’s no more than 15 students in the room and we use those 3 hours to go through a lot of material. That’s why throughout my time of engagement with this course I’ve been looking for ways to engage students on other days, not only on days where we are sitting in front of each other, but to have them continue thinking about our discussions throughout the week. And actually Yellowdig works really well for that, because they post throughout the week, and they respond to each other when they think of something. They continue to communicate with me and with each other as the week goes on and then when we meet face to face we do some additional activities that build up on the exchanges that we had through the week with the help of Yellowdig.

Before you started using Yellowdig, did you use any other discussion boards?
In the past I used LMS discussion boards, and I used Wordpress because I value online discussions, I was looking for an effective forum. I like Yellowdig better than the other options I’ve tried before. I like its aesthetics. It’s very intuitive, easy to use, and it feels familiar because it’s so similar to social network websites that students use in their free time.

It sets up a relaxed atmosphere where students feel comfortable expressing their honest opinion and perhaps disagreeing, and debating and do not feel stiff. They do not feel like they have to post polished mini-essays which is not my intention. I want to foster the environment of debate, and discussion, and encourage them to disagree politely.

And I think Yellowdig is inviting of that, more informal, a more interactive environment. And another advantage is that it’s so easy to post videos, or links, or a variety of files because they want to post PDFs, links to podcasts, and other websites and all of them work very well on Yellowdig. Before, some of the links would work, some would not, we would have to find another medium to share different types of sources. It's really nice to share everything on the same page so that students can go find everything they need right there.

On moderating the discussion
It is important to incentivize them. Yellowdig participation is a part of the grade. I do grade their work, just not based on the point system. Basically, I am making it harder for myself but I am cautious for sending out a signal that their participation is evaluated on the basis of how many words they posted because it’s not about the number of words, but rather the content, about how unique the content is. It would have been easier for me if I received automatic grading results, but for me it is worth it to grade it myself by analyzing how original their content is.

How did Yellowdig impact how you deliver the course?
Yellowdig has shifted the ratio of what I do in class. I always valued discussion, and the nature of my class that deals with controversial issues where I want students to see both sides, and want students to debate them, the very nature of my class invited the discussion format. Before, I did a lot of discussion in class.

Now I realized it is possible to have productive, meaningful discussions online, which freed up some time in class for other creative assignments where discussions are taken as a foundation.

When students come to class, and I’ve seen their discussion board participation, I know they have read the sources, discussed them, given them some thought, so I do not need to present content and do not need to gather initial opinions. I can move on to the third step which is to have them generate, let's say guidelines for a policy, or to have them critique a certain case. It gave me more time in class to do higher level activities because the preliminary steps can be done online, prior to the arrival of class.

Can you share a moment that you remember from the course?
I feel like I am getting to know my students a lot better because i can see them participate on Yellowdig.

In class, some students are more outgoing than others while some may be more shy and hesitant to speak. On Yellowdig, they speak out equally, and if they need to think about what they want to write, they have that time.

I get an insight into all my students’ progress and their opinions and I really think I am getting to know my group better. The community aspect of my seminar has improved significantly now that I can read their online discussions every week.

I am having them respond to every reading that we have. It doesn’t have to be lengthy, but they have to respond. And then I evaluate which readings generated more interest, which readings they were skeptical about, and sometimes I am surprised to see how emotionally they are responding to a certain topic and that drives my selection of what to focus on in the future. For instance, when we were discussing the future of work, they became really affected by the discussion of automation and how it's really speeding up in the way it’s replacing humans in professional fields. Some students responded very emotionally and would share with each other phrases like “It made me really concerned, it made me think twice about my choices” I realized that they respond to it with more interest and curiosity than I anticipated. When I see that some discussions generated more interest, I know I should pay more attention to that topic in my class, or assign more readings, or allow that topic to be discussed during in-class meetings.

Did you use Yellowdig to ask questions?
There have been a variety of ways that I’ve used Yellowdig. I use it to share information that I want the class to have. My students record audio interviews, and I used Yellowdig to post training videos or links to the sites where they can reserve equipment. If they have technical questions such as “When do I go?” or something they email me about, they can post the question as a comment to the pin on Yellowdig. I can respond and the rest of the students see my response and it eliminates the need for them to email me and ask the same question. Or in other instances, other students respond. So even before I have the chance to go in and answer, they help each other. What happens is the building of a  community, not only about class related material, but they also support each other in technical things.

Another way I used Yellowdig to ask questions is when I brought in guest speakers. Prior to the visit, I post their LinkeIn accounts or biography. I ask the students to take a look, and post a question for the guest speaker. This has been really useful because it allowed me to collect questions ahead of time, and allow the guest speaker to prepare, and get an idea for what the students are most interested in. If you ask the questions right after the speaker presentation, some students are shy, some cannot think of a question. But if you give them time, you gave them a chance to think about it and generate interesting and insightful questions, which guest speakers always compliment me on.

Where do you think technology can have the biggest impact in learning?
I do think about that and I am curious about what the future has in store. What I see happening now is that technology allows increased efficiency. Some things are better done in person.  My colleagues sometimes complain about not having enough time to get to the most exciting activities in class because there is so much material to cover. And then you need to confirm that students have done the readings. There are least exciting and more technical parts of education that also eat up your class time and what I see technology doing is giving us an opportunity to do the least creative parts outside of class. Technology allows us to outsource the time for lower level activities and free up the valuable face-to-face time for higher level interactions or activities where intensive and significant learning is happening.


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