Neutral Chair for Online Oral Defense

I served as a neutral chair for an online doctoral defense recently and thought it might be helpful to share my experience. This may be helpful to others who serve as neutral chairs or for graduate students or examiners who are wondering about the process for an online oral defense. I also want to note that this may not be the process for all examining committees, but this may provide some ideas.

 

I connected to the meeting room (using Zoom) about 15 minutes prior to the start of the exam. When I arrived, the student and their supervisor were already in the virtual room and having a conversation. There was also a graduate program administrator who was there to make sure everyone could connect properly, and the student could share a slide presentation. Next, we discussed what would happen during the deliberation part of the exam and decided the student would go into a breakout room and then return to the main room after the deliberations. We tested this out to make sure the student could easily move to and from the breakout room. By this time all the examiners were present, and we were ready to begin the exam. The graduate program administrator logged out of the session and provided me with a contact number for any issues during the exam. I also provided my contact number to everyone in the event of any connectivity issues.

 

Example of an Oral Exam Sequence:

  1. Description of Process for Exam – I described the sequence of events that would take place during the exam (e.g., introductions, student presentation, two rounds of questioning, followed by a third optional round and then our deliberations).
  2. Introductions – I called on each person, one-at-a-time to provide an introduction. Each of the examiners, the student, and myself (neutral chair) provided a brief introduction with name and role. This was a good opportunity to make sure all examiners and students were turning their microphones on/ off properly. I also intentionally made sure the student was not the last one to provide an introduction as I wanted to give the student a break between providing the introduction and then moving the presentation.
  3. Student Presentation – The student started by providing a presentation up to 15 min. in length. The student shared the presentation screen so we could all see the slides. I asked the examiners to mute their mic during the presentation and with the option to turn off their video as well.
  4. First Round of Questioning – Following the presentation, we started the first round of questioning. Each examiner, starting with the most external first, asked a question. The students had up to 10 min. to respond to the question and during that time frame the examiner could also ask follow-up questions. During the questioning I asked the examiner asking the question and student to leave their video ON. However, during the questioning, I suggested the other examiners could turn OFF their video. This way, the student could focus on looking at one person on the screen instead of a gallery when answering the questions. I also indicated that I would turn my camera back ON closer to the 10 min. point as a visual cue, so the examiner would know it’s time to wrap up their questioning for this round and reserve additional questions for the next round. This visual cue seemed to work quite well and kept the exam timeline on track.
  5. Break – after the first round of questioning, we took a five-minute break. I asked all the examiners and student to mute their microphone and turn off their video. We agreed on the return time. I asked everyone to turn ON their camera to indicate they were ready to start the second round.
  6. Second Round of Questioning – We repeated the same process as the first round of questioning. Once this round was complete, I offered the examiners an opportunity to ask any additional questions. I asked the examiners to let me know if they had any further questions so I could allocate the remaining time appropriately for the third round.
  7. Deliberation – After the rounds of question were complete, I explained that I would open the breakout room for the student. I explained to everyone that we would have deliberations and when we finish, there would be a message in the breakout room indicating the room would be closing. I set the breakout room to provide a 15 second time for transition back to the main room.  When the student was ready and understood what would be happening, I opened the breakout room. The student then moved into the room. Visually, I could see the student was now in the room and only the examiners and myself (neutral chair) remained in the main room. During the deliberations, the examiners turned ON their videos and microphone. I explained the voting process and how the examiners could privately send me their examination results. At the conclusion and when all the examiners were ready, I explained the student would be returning in about 15 seconds.
  8. Closing – The student returned back to the main room and all the examiners turned on their Videos/microphones and provided commentary and feedback. Once this was complete, I thanked everyone and closed the meeting room.

 

 

Students Provide Teachers with Valuable Feedback

There is generally a formal process for gathering student ratings of instruction at the end of a course. However, as an instructor I do not receive this feedback until months after the course is complete and it is too late to make any changes. Student feedback is valuable while the course is underway, so I ask students for their feedback at the mid-point of the course. I have used various methods to gather feedback, such as:

 

Invitation for Mid-Point Feedback

  1. Email request – invite students to send me an email with suggestions for improvement that can be implemented for the prior to the end of the course.

 

  1. Anonymous Online Form/Questionnaire – invite students to rate different aspects of their course work (e.g., access to relevant resources, timely formative feedback, opportunities for asking questions, peer feedback loops, synchronous activities, asynchronous activities, etc.); and respond to open-ended questions with their suggestions for improvement.

 

This is an example of an invitation to provide mid-course feedback:

“I would like to invite you to provide me with mid-course feedback to help me make improvements during the remainder of the course.  I created a brief questionnaire that is anonymous.  I welcome constructive and anonymous feedback on achieving my instructional goals in this course. Let me know if there are areas that I can improve before the end of the course. Also add any comments about areas of strength, so I know what to make sure I continue to do to support your learning.”

 

  1. Drop-in Session – invite students to attend an informal synchronous session to provide verbal feedback about the course individually or with small groups.

 

Synthesize the Feedback

The important part about asking for feedback is to synthesize and use the feedback. Provide students with a few days or week to provide you with feedback, so you can consolidate the responses and generate a synthesis. Then, share the synthesis with all of the students. Here’s some examples of ways you can share a synthesis of the responses received:

 

  1. Word cloud – this is a great way to capture the most frequent words used for responses. Example of word cloud representing challenges with technology enhanced learning:

(This visual was also provided for the chapter –  “Designing Group Work in Blended Learning Environments” Brown & Vaughan, 2018 – http://www.drbarbbrown.com/2018/07/06/designing-group-work-in-blended-learning-environments/).

 

  1. Summary with Themes and quotes – capture common themes and offer some sample quotes to help illustrate the feedback provided.

 

This is an example of summary posted for students to review (could also be sent via email):

Thank you to those students who provided mid-course feedback!  I put the feedback together and thought I would share the aggregate responses and my action items. 

My action plan (top 3) based on your feedback:

  • I tried to extend the class time for working on units and minimized other activities over this past week. This will continue over the next couple of weeks.
  • I’m also planning to implement more formal group check-in events. 
  • As I work with the instructor team over the next year, we will continue to review and refine the readings selected for this course and support materials.

Sample of positive comments I appreciated:

  • The time and effort you have given to this class in order to maintain a safe and caring classroom environment is very much appreciated!
  • I have loved this course so far. It has brought light some very important issues that I love exploring as a group. Overall, Thank you for your care and dedication to our learning
  • The support for our group projects has been great and instructional time has felt meaningful and relevant towards our final projects, which is great as there is a lot of work to be done in such a short amount of time.

Thank you again for taking time to provide your feedback and to help make improvements!

 

Another example of synthesis:

I would like to thank you for providing me with mid-course feedback and would like to share my synthesis of the feedback with you.  The comments provided me with ideas about things I should continue to do and also ideas for improvement.  I appreciate all of your input!  I will start with the positive aspects:

  1. Feedback is valued.  Responses indicated the feedback and weekly messages provide guidance. This is something I will continue to provide and plan to provide each group with feedback about the cases analysis to help as you move forward with LT#2.
  2. Organization and pace is just right.  Responses indicated the course is well organized including the structure, content and pacing.

Areas for improvement:

  1. Discussion threads could be more organized. I added a discussion thread to each of your studio groups to help with weeks 8, 9 and 10.  If your group would like additional threads, please do not hesitate to contact me and I can add as needed. 
  2. Weekly check-in via online sessions suggested.  If your group would like to meet more often, let me know and I can set up a virtual space for your group.  You may notice that two groups already requested this and have a virtual room set-up for their use at any time during the course.  Also, if you wish to meet with me or feel a weekly check-in with me would be helpful, I can also meet with you in my virtual office at a time convenient for you.  Instead of keeping office hours, I find it easier for students to arrange a specific time with me.  Often, I can also meet in the evening or weekend when students are also available.  

How are you gathering feedback from your students?

Start your MEd degree with 4 courses in Leading and Learning in a Digital Age

Learn with instructors and invited guests who are internationally recognized in the educational technology field and experience a highly interactive online learning environment. This is not what might be considered a typical distance-learning course where students work on their own through a packet of resources.  Meet with your instructors and peers in a variety of online spaces, including live sessions where you will see and hear everyone through an easy-to-use web conference platform. Engage in weekly asynchronous activities during times you choose and when convenient for you. Take risks and learn how to use innovative technologies, develop your social learning network, and critically examine the literature and research in the field. Plan to make a difference in your work context to help others navigate the complexities of living and working a digital world. This topic attracts teachers and professionals in educational environments as well as professionals in other fields and disciplinary areas. Instructors will encourage you to make the learning tasks applicable to your work environment.

Through four interconnected fully online courses, students will: (i) examine the implications for designing and leading interdisciplinary and technology-rich learning; (ii) strengthen competencies in technological literacies; (iii) explore ethics in technology-enhanced learning environments; and (iv) lead and empower citizenry in a participatory and digital age.

Program Goals:

  • Develop and critically assess authentic interdisciplinary and technology-rich learning designs and environments
  • Demonstrate technological fluency and competencies in technological literacies
  • Advocate for high quality digital learning environments informed by understanding of current trends and issues in the field
  • Develop empowering and proactive teaching and learning practices in schools or other work contexts that promote active citizenry in a participatory and digital age

Target Audience

  • Teachers/instructors with an interest in designing and leading digital learning environments in primary, secondary or post-secondary environments or other work contexts
  • Educators and consultants who work with supporting technology use
  • School and district leaders

More information about the program – https://werklund.ucalgary.ca/graduate-programs/topics/leading-learning-in-digital-age

Apply by March 16th 2020!

 

Designing Group Work in Blended Learning Environments

Brown, B. & Vaughan, N. (2018). Designing group work in blended learning environments. In R. J. Harnish, K. R. Bridges, D. N. Sattler, M. L. Signorella, & M. Munson (Eds.). The Use of Technology in Teaching and Learning, pp. 82-97. Retrieved from the Society for the Teaching of Psychology web site: https://teachpsych.org/ebooks/useoftech

The purpose of this chapter is to discuss a framework that can guide the development of promising learning designs intended to promote group work and collaborative knowledge building in higher education, specifically in blended learning environments. Today’s learners need newly designed learning experiences leveraging collaboration technologies (Vaughan, 2014). Learners expect to work collaboratively and experience engaging learning experiences (Dunlap & Lowenthal, 2011). Some argue that professors are ill-equipped to shift from conventional styles of teaching to new technology-rich forms (Becker et al., 2017; EDUCAUSE Learning Initiative, 2017). We argue that using the five principles of the teaching effectiveness framework (Friesen, 2009) to design blended learning environments along with collaboration technologies, instructors can provide students with opportunities to work in groups, collaborate with each other, and amplify their learning experiences. The five core principles of the teaching effectiveness framework include: (1) Teachers are designers of learning; (2) Teachers design worthwhile work; (3) Teachers design assessment to improve student learning and guide teaching; (4) Teachers foster a variety of interdependent relationships; and (5) Teachers improve their practice in the company of their peers. The Teaching Effectiveness Framework provides a lens for designing and assessing learning designs (Friesen, 2009).

One Word Input

Mentimeter can be used to gather input from a group.  When working with pre-service teachers and helping them design units in small groups, I asked the question “What is the most challenging part of this work?”  Students were invited to provide up to three, one-word responses using a link provided by Mentimeter– or by visiting www.menti.com and using the code provided.

Mentimeter also provides users with a link to show others the result to the question.

I was also able to share the results on my course page using the embedded code provided. I believe this is a great way to visually gather input from students and to show the live results. I plan to use this again.

Check out the Mentimeter site for numerous examples in using this tool to engage audiences and for assessment.

Online Teaching Tip – Instructor-Student Meetings in Adobe Connect

Fostering effective communications with students is critical in online learning environments. One way I create and nurture pedagogical relations with students is through offering flexible communications. Some students prefer to send questions via email or post messages in the discussion forum. However, some students prefer to meet with instructors to discuss assignments. There are many technologies that can facilitate online meetings, such as Skype, Google Hangouts and virtual reality spaces. I prefer to arrange meetings using my virtual office space in Adobe Connect.

 

A virtual office space link can be created just like you would set up any other Adobe Connect session for your class. Once we arrange a convenient time to meet, I send the student a meeting invitation to make sure the meeting is automatically added to my calendar.  I also provide the student with a link to the meeting.

 

In Adobe Connect, you can use the “notes” pod to collaboratively maintain the meeting notes.  Participants in the meeting may also using the microphone or chat box to discuss items during the meeting. At the end of the meeting I select the option to email the pod notes to myself and to the other meeting participants. Using a virtual office for meetings with both audio and written communications has proven to be an effective strategy for instructor-student meetings.  The combination of audio and discussion notes is ideal to make sure all discussion and action items are clearly communicated.

 

Online Teaching Tip – Transparent Feedback Loops

 

Tip: Use the online discussion forum to incorporate transparent feedback loops into learning tasks to provide students with suggestions for improvement.

 

Sharing incomplete and draft work can be a regular and repeated process throughout a course. Students can be organized into small peer review groups (3-4) to share draft work using the online discussion forum in Desire2Learn. Draft work can be shared as an attachment or by inserting an external link (i.e. Google document) in the message thread.  It is also helpful for reviewers when students describe the type of feedback requested using the criteria outlined for the learning task.

 

In these small discussion groups, the feedback process is manageable and students can provide clear and specific feedback to a few peers in the class.  As the instructor, I also review the draft work posted and provide feedback to students.  My feedback might include a brief reply posted in the discussion forum or a more detailed response using track changeshttp://www.drbarbbrown.com/wp-content/uploadscomments. Additional feedback may be required using email or arranging a virtual meeting using Adobe Connect.

 

Overall, this transparent feedback strategy serves to: 1) provide students with peer and instructor feedback when there is still an opportunity to make changes before submitting the assignment for a grade; 2) clarify learning intentions and any misunderstandings about the criteria for the task; and 3) offer students an opportunity to review the type of feedback peers receive from other students and from the instructor. The following quote from one of my former students demonstrates the value in using transparent feedback loops: “Assessment practices supported my learning and showed me what my next steps are. Quick and helpful feedback was inspiring and exactly what I needed to stay engaged in the course.”

Note: This was also posted in the Teaching & Learning Newsletter, Werklund School of Education, University of Calgary, November 2015.

 

What is a Collaboratory?

I am currently teaching online courses in graduate programs (M.Ed. and Ed.D programs) that use the term “collaboratory” in the course title.   The term collaboratory is considered a combination of the terms collaboration and laboratory (Lunsford & Bruce, 2001; Wulf, 1993). The courses use a collaboratory approach and learning spaces to support graduate students examine their practice and learning from engaging in meaningful inquiry in the field.

Students in these courses are generally full-time professionals completing graduate programs and are grouped into cohorts or class groupings based on their specializations.  As such, the Collaboratory of Practice courses were designed to support the application of knowledge in real world settings by graduate students in cohorts who investigate and learn from inquiry in the field and examine problems of practice in their workplace or related to their professional work using various research methods and a collaboratory approach.

The collaboratory approach is also considered a fusion of two important developments in contemporary research: communities of practice and collaboration.  Communities of practice are groups of people (in this case cohorts based on specializations) who deepen their knowledge and expertise in an area by engaging in active inquiry.  A collaboratory can also be considered a learning space or laboratory for learning and collaboration.  In this collaborative virtual environment, scholars work together and learn alongside peers in their cohort.  Since students move through many courses with a similar cohort, they develop relationships with cohort members and can build trusting and collaborative relationships.

One strategy used by instructors to help students accomplish work in the course both individually and in collaboration with peers is to organize small groups (~5 members) within the cohort into studio groups (Grego & Thompson, 2008).  Studio groups provide students with an opportunity to collaborate with peers in a writing and sharing space for collaborative knowledge building and idea improvement.  Various online services can be used to support studio group collaboration including threaded discussion forums, shared documents (i.e. Google Docs, presentations, etc.), virtual meeting spaces (i.e. Adobe Connect, Skype, Hangouts, etc.) and other collaborative online spaces. The collaboratory approach and learning spaces used in the Collaboratory of Practice courses serve as a source of active inquiry and learning, an opportunity to respond to contextually based problems of practice, and an opportunity to take an inquiry stance in the company of peers.

Copy of slides from the session “What is a Collaboratory” for EdD graduate students on July 9, 2015 presented with Dr. Brenda Spencer – EdD Collab Lunch Session_Slides

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Facilitating Online Courses

The Teaching Assistantship Preparation Program (TAPP) is designed to provide educational development for graduate students about the role and responsibilities of the work as a graduate assistant in teaching.

I was invited by the Office of Teaching and Learning to lead a session for TAPP on Wednesday, February 25th from 11 a.m. to noon. The session will focus on how to facilitate online courses. Topics in the session include instructional design, synchronous and asynchronous communications, tools for student interactivity, cultivating a scholarly community of inquiry, organizing online spaces, developing instructor presence, and formative assessment strategies.

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Excellence in Teaching Award

Award

Thank you to all students, staff, faculty and leaders at the Werklund School of Education for the honour in receiving a Teaching Excellence Award.  I am proud to be a member of an innovative and growth-oriented learning community!

The following are responses I provided to reflective questions about teaching for the award ceremony:

1. What makes teaching a passion or something that you strive to excel at in your academic work?

 

My family influenced many of my interests including my passion for teaching and learning. For example, I remember my grandfather passionately teaching me how to read and write in Italian at a young age. He was one of my first role model teachers that taught me to value learning and to persevere with passion. As such, receiving feedback from students in my classes indicating they are “happy and learning” makes me continue to strive towards excellence and continual growth in my work.

 

 

2. What are some attributes of your excellence in teaching?

 

I believe students come first and I make my students and teaching classes my priority. When I’m prioritizing my daily tasks, my students come first. Responding to student questions, sending out class communications and providing feedback is first on my to-do list each day. I also believe learning is a collaborative partnership and a characteristic of excellence. Each term I look forward to working alongside my students and I thank my students for influencing my learning as much I endeavor to activate their learning.

 

I have always been passionate about learning and I’m particularly inspired by new ways of learning and building connections with learners in digital spaces. I try to share my passion for learning and organize my online teaching spaces so they are inviting for students and foster active participation.  I try to motivate students by designing authentic and challenging learning activities. Furthermore, I have high expectations for students and provide ongoing formative feedback, scaffolding to meet individual student needs, and offer many opportunities for students to improve their work in the company of peers.

 

 

This is a sample of student feedback I received over the last year:

 

Thank you very much for your guiding expertise which helped me to produce my best for this course . . . . Your strategies to get the studio group engaged were quite innovative and thoughtful, keeping us in check to achieve our academic goals. Thanks for being an awesome instructor, I enjoyed being apart of the team and hope we get to work and learn together again. ~ MEd (Technology) student, Dec. 12, 2013

 

You were very responsive always to any request or question I had. I really appreciated how available you were by email — I never had to wait for a response, very much appreciate that. I, also, enjoyed your feedback and comments on my written work, you gave me clarity and suggestions to make my work more grounded and supported by evidence. I think you would be a fabulous dissertation advisor as you are able to balance guidance and direct feedback with support and guidance in professional and courteous manner. Thanks for everything. ~ EdD (Postsecondary), Dec. 16, 2013

 

Thanks for the feedback. Very helpful indeed. You have a done a great job with this course. Well structured with appropriately spaced online sessions and topics. You are extremely responsive and supportive which is very, very helpful. And your passion sure comes through! ~ EdD (Postsecondary) student, Dec. 17, 2013

 

While all of my teachers have provided similar learning environments, the effectiveness of the learning experience has been determined by the quality of the teacher…. John Hattie wrote an interesting article contrasting expert and experienced teachers which is worth looking at: (http:http://www.drbarbbrown.com/wp-content/uploadshttp://www.drbarbbrown.com/wp-content/uploadswww.acer.edu.auhttp://www.drbarbbrown.com/wp-content/uploadsdocumentshttp://www.drbarbbrown.com/wp-content/uploadsRC2003_Hattie_TeachersMakeADifference.pdf)

…. During the TED talks that were filmed in Vancouver this past spring, Melinda Gates echoed a similar sentiment in an interview published in The Vancouver Sun: “But the thing that we learned, and what turned out to be the fundamental key is a great teacher in front of the classroom,”  (http:http://www.drbarbbrown.com/wp-content/uploadshttp://www.drbarbbrown.com/wp-content/uploadswww.vancouversun.comhttp://www.drbarbbrown.com/wp-content/uploadsbusinesshttp://www.drbarbbrown.com/wp-content/uploadsTED2014+Charity+work+Bill+Melinda+Gates+without+misstepshttp://www.drbarbbrown.com/wp-content/uploads9636267http://www.drbarbbrown.com/wp-content/uploadsstory.html)

The teacher is so important in a student’s learning experience even in an online environment.  You can provide the same course outline, but the difference the teacher makes is amazing. So, thank you for providing such a great learning experience.  Your ‘expertness’ is evident in your excellent teaching. ~ MEd (Leadership) student, June 2, 2014

I have re-submitted my paper.  Thank you so much for meeting with me today.  I was really touched by your advice and understanding.  I felt that the opportunity to review my work really helped me solidify and argue the importance of the topic.  I feel that you were quite generous and I would like to thank you for giving me the opportunity to learn and grow from this assignment. ~ MEd (Interdisciplinary) July 11, 2014