6 minute read

After I was told last Sunday that it was likely I had picked up H1N1, whether on top of a case of bronchitis or masquerading as a case of bronchitis, I took myself back to bed with my laptop and started emailing.

Fortunately, we’d had a presentation from the Dean of Students about our response to H1N1 at our first faculty meeting. Even before that, I’d already told my students that in the event of flu, I was prepared to be seriously lax about my attendance policy, begging them to stay out of class if there was any chance they might be contagious. The Dean of Students backed that decision up — but also told the faculty, who are all prone to feeling like we need to push on through an illness, that if we got sick, we should stay home, too.

“Make a contingency plan,” she said. Figure out who can cover your classes, and how you’ll manage if you have to miss a couple of weeks.

Seemed like good advice to me at the time — Friday, September 4 — but it never would have occurred to me that I needed to be taking it already.

So Sunday, after getting home from the urgent care place, I first emailed a group of my colleagues and asked if any of them would be able to meet with one or the other of my classes on Monday, and possibly Wednesday as well, saying that I mostly just needed them to get the classes started, that I’d post instructions online for how the students should use their class time. A couple of friends responded right away, each offering to cover one class, so that was set.

I emailed the dean of students and the dean of the college, telling them what was going on, and that I was making arrangements.

I emailed both of my classes, telling them I’d be out but that they should come to class anyhow, and that they should bring their laptops if they have them.

And then I set up the classes themselves. We use Sakai as a course management system in Claremont, in an installation managed on one campus but serving all five of the undergraduate colleges and, to a lesser extent, the graduate school. Sakai is tied into both our (very differently structured) LDAP servers and our (somewhat less different) student information portal, such that students from any of the undergraduate colleges are automatically added and dropped from Sakai classes as their registration status changes. We’ve also got pretty good control, as instructors, over the configuration of the Sakai modules we want to use in our classes; we can shut off and make invisible anything we don’t want cluttering up the system, and we can use a pretty wide range of tools as we see fit.

Because I’ve been teaching with blogs and wikis since about 2003, I’ve only used Sakai as a server for course materials that need to be behind a password wall — stuff for which I want to ensure fair use by restricting access to my students. But now I had the opportunity to test the system out a bit more.

I added the colleagues who’d offered to meet with my classes to each class as an auditor, so that they’d be able to log into Sakai on the classroom computer and project anything that needed to be displayed for the class. I then posted announcements in each class’s Sakai site describing the day’s work, listing the questions I wanted the students to discuss in small groups, first, and then how I wanted them to present the results of that discussion to the larger group and to collect lingering questions thereafter.

I also turned on Sakai’s chat room function, and created chat rooms for each of the small groups, asking that each small group use their chat room to take notes on their discussion and to raise any questions that they had for me. And I asked that, at the point they move to conversation as a full group, that someone take notes in the main chat room, and that they use that chat room to collect their lingering questions for discussion next time.

Each class on Monday was structured more or less the same — half an hour in small groups discussing a set of questions about the texts they’d read, then a transition to presentations and discussion in the larger group. Unsurprisingly, this worked better in one class than the other. One of my classes is a 14-student seminar, and they took rather brilliantly to both the discussions and the note-taking; they seemed overall to get to the key points of the texts they were to discuss and they seemed engaged in what they were up to throughout. The other class has 36 students, and their response was more mixed; probably two-thirds of the class had what seemed to me, based on the chat room evidence, to be a productive and compelling discussion, and the other third… well, not so much. Honestly, though, I’m not sure how different that ratio would have been had I been in the room.

Given that it worked well enough on Monday, and that I was clearly not getting out of bed anytime soon, I set more or less the same thing up for Wednesday with the seminar, and it seemed to work well again.

With the larger class, my colleague offered to give a short lecture on an area within her specialization that bears a strong relationship to the work that we were doing that week, and to use that lecture as the jumping-off point for a discussion that she’d facilitate. I asked that somebody take notes in the chat room, so that I could have a sense of how the discussion went — and, in fact, several somebodies did, giving me a pretty rich view of at least the ideas floating around in the room, if not of where they originated or how they developed.

I’m pleased with this outcome, on the whole; rather than entirely throwing off the flow of the semester by canceling classes for a week, I was able, thanks to my colleagues and to the technologies I have available, to keep the students moving forward, and I was able to get at least a partial sense of what they did in my absence. It felt a bit like peeking through a keyhole, but that limited view was far, far better than nothing.

I’m now thinking that I want to keep that backchannel active for the rest of the semester, even once I’m back in the classroom — which I’m still seriously hoping will be Monday, though I’m not at all sure. I want to talk with the students themselves, anyhow, and find out what they got out of the experience of using the backchannel in their discussions — did it help them coalesce ideas, for instance, as they were able to see how other students in the room understood what was being said? But I want to keep it in place in no small part for the benefit of the students who I fully expect are going to be in the same position I was in the coming weeks — if they can get even a narrow sense of what’s going on in class discussions, and participate even a bit in them, it might help keep the semester from breaking down for all of us.



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