Faculty success stories

How do you assess student engagement when they keep their cameras off?

Apu Kapadia, associate professor of computer science, IU Bloomington

Undergraduate network security course (juniors and seniors in computer science and informatics)

Apu Kapadia's long-term goal is to make his classes more interactive and active learning oriented. Before everything moved online due to the pandemic, most of his instruction was on the classroom whiteboard. He also used a lot of group discussions, having students report back and write on the board, and he had started using Top Hat to improve in-class interaction and better gauge student learning. To informally assess how students were doing, he would read the room: Based on facial expressions and eye contact, have I lost them?

Online, synchronous classes on Zoom led him to revisit Top Hat as a teaching tool. By the third week or so, none of his students had their cameras on, and it was like talking into a void. Top Hat made for a more dynamic learning environment—Kapadia could quickly assess whether to spend more or less time on a topic by taking advantage of Top Hat functionality like point-and-click diagrams, questions, and heat maps that illustrate confusion and understanding.

Learn how to do this using the Tech Recipe: Classroom Assessment Techniques with Top Hat and Zoom.

I could teach as I always did, and every few minutes I could see where the class was. And instead of students maybe tuning out on the other end, or doing other things, they had to keep answering questions and clicking on things. So it, in a way, forced students to be engaged. I mean they all, in theory, want to be engaged. But it's just tough over video. I've watched my own kids trying to learn online and there are just so many other distractions.

Kapadia is quick to note that Top Hat is not a magic tool. However, it does allow him to do more quick assessments and address points of confusion. He can glance at student posts in real time, make notes on interesting topics that come up, and quickly touch on two or three running themes. And, once you know how to use the platform, Kapadia thinks it's fairly quick to translate what you might have previously put on a PowerPoint slide into a more engaging activity.

Over time, Kapadia has refined these activities, thinking carefully about what he wants students to get out of each one and what might tell him whether they understood it or not. One thing he realized—possibly a bit late, as it came out in his evaluations—was that the way he was using Zoom breakout groups was neither fun nor effective as a replacement for in-class group activities. The majority of students weren't actually collaborating. One student complained about "being stuck in a group of mic shy people" and suggested helpful alternatives such as a more structured group discussion or assigning more stable groups. And, unlike with previous in-person classes, students were unmotivated to do a video-based asynchronous review.

But those were minor points compared to the overwhelmingly positive feedback he received from students. As one undergraduate put it, "He was very helpful and class time almost felt one–on–one even though there were 40 of us." Another student built on this sentiment, saying "I liked that class time was very flexible and the instructor took time to cover the curriculum as well as take questions about previous concepts."

Tips for other instructors:

  • Create a clear Canvas folder structure (week one, with lecture and homework folders; week two, with lecture and homework folders; etc.)
  • Take advantage of Canvas modules functionality, so it's obvious what students need to do (for Kapadia's classes, each module focuses on a key topic, with 10 to 15 minutes of practice to improve understanding)
  • Set up an appointment to go over the basics with an expert (either at your teaching center or, if possible, one who works for the vendor)—there are some technical aspects where it's just better if someone just shows you how to do these things right
  • Ask students to identify what CITL calls the "the muddiest point," meaning the point that's most confusing to them, at the end of a lecture so you can address it next time
    • Or, in a similar vein, have students post a response to discussion and vote for the Big Three (out of all the responses) they'd like to spend more time on—then focus your energy on shared issues that rise to the top

One of the students actually commented to me in office hours that you're using Canvas much more effectively than many of my other classes, and I think it's because of seeing my kids struggle with Canvas and trying to think about how to improve the experience for students.

The other technologies he found indispensable were the iPad and Apple Pencil he convinced his department to buy for online teaching. He was able to screen share directly from the iPad, using OneNote to mimic the whiteboard and teach much like he did in the classroom. In fact, Kapadia now feels like he could teach from anywhere using his new online setup. And he's committed to remote office hours with his iPad for drawing and explaining things.

Learn how to do this using the Tech Recipe: Drawing during Zoom sessions.

While he'll carry forward much of what he's done in the online classroom, Kapadia does feel like one thing was lacking: "I feel like I missed out on the personal connection with the students. That's something I'll work on next time, maybe having everyone come to office hours two or three times in the semester, so I at least get to know some of them on a one-on-one basis." Even without that, his student evaluations praised him for being "kind, understanding, and technologically informed," noting that he clearly had their best interests in mind.

How can a tourism class still be impactful when you can't travel?

Heather Kennedy-Eden, assistant professor of hospitality and tourism, IU Kokomo

100-level intro to tourism class (in person, but with some students online due to quarantine)

Heather Kennedy-Eden is always looking for ways to bring active and experiential learning into the classroom. Before the pandemic, she devised group activities and field trips to experience tourism, recognizing the importance of going and doing something that engaged all of the students' senses. Her measure of success was fairly straightforward: Was it a positive, memorable experience? (She allows that even less-than-ideal trips can make for excellent educational and bonding experiences—they learn as much from a bad tour as from a good one because it shows them what not to do!)

While she was able to continue teaching in person, with her students spread out in an auditorium, they were no longer able to get close together. And going somewhere was out of the question. However, thanks to funding from the KEY (Kokomo Experience and You) program—which normally would have supported class trips—Kennedy-Eden was able to try out a new idea. She ordered cardboard VR glasses for everyone, essentially spending $6/each for her students to travel the world.

Ultimately, her students were able to do something they never could have done previously. They took several tours in a single day: one indoor tour of Buckingham Palace, one outdoor tour of Paris including the Eiffel Tower, an aquatic tour of the underwater national park, and a once-in-a-lifetime tour of an Egyptian pyramid. With their cellphones and VR goggles (or laptops and Zoom for those who participated online), they bonded through these totally epic experiences. Even students who had been to some of these places in person were amazed at how real it felt.

Learn how to do this using the Tech Recipe: Using VR in the classroom.

It really just opens up the world to them so that they can realize there are other things out there that are different. And I'm not saying they're better or worse, but they're different and they're fun to experience. And VR gives you the richness of the experience too.

There were some interesting things that happened with each tour:

With the Buckingham Palace one, a student who had been there said, oh my gosh, this brings back so many memories that I had forgotten about because I hadn't been there in so long.

I had another student who got emotional on the Paris one because she had gone on a big trip to Paris and taken a similar tour. She said it just brought back so many good memories.

And the underwater tour was great because one student has a medical issue where she can't scuba dive, but she said I can do this and get up close to things I normally wouldn't like baby turtles.

A student's grandmother had been to the pyramids and seen the hieroglyphs. And he said, I know I'm standing in the same place because those are the same hieroglyphs I've seen all my life on her wall. I've always wanted to do this, and now I feel like I have.

It's not 100% the same, but it's about 70% the same. And most of my students want to go back in person someday. I think it pushes them a little bit to go out and experience life. It takes away some of the fear of getting out of their comfort zone.

Tips for other instructors:

  • Do your research and see what's out there in your area by searching for 360-degree tours on YouTube and Google Expeditions.
  • Try it yourself—you need to be comfortable enough that you can help them out if necessary (remember that students learn just as much from experiences that don't go to plan).
  • Find how-to videos and instructions on how to put together the VR goggles ahead of time, and post them in Canvas with direct links to the tours.

Kennedy-Eden has found that virtual reality tours are available for almost any topic including STEM education, which yields options like a tour of what a cell does or a tour of a heart beating, or history and literature, where students could tour ancient ruins or authors' childhood homes. And she had a wide age range of people—from her students, to the media and marketing person who visited the class, to the Vice Chancellor—on both Apple and Android devices, and they all got the VR glasses to work without difficulty for the tours.

Besides, for her, the outcome is more than worth the effort of learning to do something new: "When students have memorable experiences like this with friends and classmates, they become our ambassadors. They feel more connected to each other and to the larger world."