Engaging Learners in a COVID World

Usually I base my stories on what other educators are doing. However, this winter I had a chance to teach an Osher course for Carnegie Mellon University (CMU). I really wanted to test out some of my ideas about engaging learners during this period of remote learning. In this blog article I’ll share some of my successes as well as many of my failed attempts working with senior adults.

Before the sessions began I decided to create a survey to find out what my class knew about tools for engagement and what they hoped to learn in the class. For any type of learning it’s important to assess your learner’s and customize your learning activities based on the interests of your students. I also decided before the class started to test out some features of Zoom. One of the best ways to engage people in addition to the Chat Room is the Poll feature. When I tried to create a poll for my first class with Ani Martinez and Jason Swanson to look at the Tomorrow Project powered by Remake Learning, I found the polling feature didn’t function for me. I thought: maybe I’m missing something. I’ll contact CMU. Well, guess what? CMU disabled the feature for study leaders, their term for instructors of Osher classes. They suggested I send them my questions. I didn’t like that idea. It would be cumbersome and difficult to do each week. I thought about other online sessions I had joined and remembered a few years ago one of my colleagues used an online tool called Mentimeter. I thought: I’ll create my own polls and pose them during the class.

At the end of our first class Ani Martinez suggested that we save the Chat discussion. I never had done that, but I agreed it made perfect sense. Guess what CMU had done? Yes, they eliminated the ability to share any comments. Why? I asked but never really received an answer. It would have been a wonderful tool for engaging the class at our next session, but I had to think about another way to handle the challenge. I asked my teaching assistant, Bev, to write down the key ideas that people shared and sent them to me as an email file. It worked. Not as seamless as just saving the Chat conversation, but it proved again how you sometimes have to pivot in ways you don’t expect when you teach online.

It was easy to create a Word Cloud activity in Mentimeter, but when I went to have my class access the poll for my first class, it didn’t work. They couldn’t see where to enter information. I used the opportunity to talk about how we learn from our mistakes. I decided I would search for another polling tool. Were there some other challenges for that first class? Yes, of course. Jason Swanson wanted to show a video, but that didn’t work. Fortunately, he had planned for an interactive activity using Padlet. It had been years since I used this online tool. I never would have thought about it for an online class activity. It worked quite well.

The senior adults in my class quickly entered their ideas for the activity that Jason had developed around the Futures Triangle. Jason spends most of his time working for KnowledgeWorks as a Futurist. He’s not a prognosticator, but a person who analyzes the past, the present and the future by looking at major trends. The Osher class added their comments online and then Jason shared the Padlet board with the class. It engaged everyone and provided a wonderful first step for the class to look at the future of learning – one of my goals.

Tom Lauwers, the founder and CEO of Birdbrain Technologies, joined the class for Week 2: Remote Robotics. Tom and his team at Birdbrain struggled in the early days of COVID. How did you engage learners in Physical Computing when students don’t have access to robots at home? After doing some research Tom realized that there was a tool, Netblox, developed by Vanderbilt years before the pandemic that would allow remote users to control physical devices. It was an Internet of Things (IoA) solution. Tom then had to work with his team to make the Hummingbird Kit and Finch robot work with Netsblox. That was an easy challenge. For my class Tom highlighted two pilot projects using Remote Robotics from the Pittsburgh area and then set the stage for my Osher students to control a series of Finch Robots from their remote sites. The Osher students would manipulate some variables using Finchblox, a Scratch-like programming language that Birdbrain created.

Photo by Norton Gusky CC BY 4.0

While some of the students had great success, others floundered. Adult learners are not as open to new ideas and working in a digital playground. That was my key take-away from Session 2. You need to have more guided instruction. I should have remembered that from my days training teachers. However, the Osher students enjoyed their experience and we discovered another way to be engaged learners. I also observed how important “feedback” was for student success. Tom Lauwer’s did an excellent job observing how the students tested out ideas about moving the Finch. For any learning experience, especially for an online activity, immediate feedback is critical.

For Week 3 I invited Stephen MacIsaac, the executive director of the Neighborhood Learning Alliance (NLA) in Pittsburgh, to bring a team of students to talk about the World of Virtual Learning and Work. NLA had created a pre-COVID a program, High School U, that combined taking college classes in high school with job placements related to the courses that the students were taking. A local group. Partners4Work, helped to fund the project. What was unique about the High School U program was the opportunity to get paid for time in class as well as time on the job. In the original model NLA tried to place students with work partners that related to the student’s college classes. How can you do that during a time of Remote Learning? How do you keep students engaged as both content learners and workers? Stephen invited Deb Smallman, the NLA coordinator for the High School U program, to join him and share the High School U success story during COVID with my Osher class. Deb sent out the word and four students and one tutor joined us. My Osher class first heard from Deb about NLA’s pivot, but it was the student stories that really made a difference for the class. I learned a great lesson – always include personal stories. Building relationships are key for any learning and especially in remote learning you have to find creative ways for people to relate to each other.

I also discovered another tool for engagement for the session with the High School U students. During an earlier online event I had attended one of the presenters used Slido. I discovered that Slido had an AddOn™ app that was designed to work with Google Slides. That solved my earlier problem with Mentimeter. Slido made it easy to project a poll and then have my students see the results.

For our fourth session I turned to Jessica Lee to look at virtual art, especially music, as a tool for engaging learners. Jessica and I had worked together on a number of projects in the past five years, especially a series of Design Challenges for the Energy Innovation Center. However, Jessica had a personal interest in using Music as a tool for Wellness, or what Jess calls “A Healthy Body, Healthy Voice, Healthy Life.” Jessica not only entertained the class with wonderful exercises such as doing mouth percussion, “Za, Za Zoom,” but she also provided wonderful guidance around developing a Life Performance Lifestyle. The class didn’t need any slides to be engaged. It was more fun to actively participate in the exercises and hear Jess outline what she’s discovered teaching music online during this COVID period. It’s not easy to teach music remotely, since you cannot have people sing in real time. Zoom and all of its competitors have a sound delay that challenges any in-person music collaboration. However, as Jess pointed out, you can still use the same tools for one-on-one teaching and as my class demonstrated be very engaged by music. Social and emotional learning are keys for learning success. The arts are a wonderful tool to use to provide for new opportunities with social and emotional learning.

Justin Aglio, a colleague who just took over the leadership for the Penn State Readiness Institute in Pittsburgh, provided another lesson- don’t expect Internet connections to work in remote locations outside of your home. Justin thought he could create a hot spot for himself at the senior care facility where he was in the process of moving his father. The connection did not allow for a robust enough connection to make a Zoom session work. Fortunately, I remembered one of the key mantras for distance learning – always have a Plan B and Plan C. Justin sent his slide deck to me ahead of the class. That proved to be the key ingredient for sharing Justin’s story. I know I couldn’t be an animated and engaging as Justin, but since I knew Justin’s story and had his slide deck I was able to make his story come alive, especially getting my class engaged thinking about a Growth Mindset and participating in the Hope Moonshot that Justin had organized for the Readiness Institute.

Engaging learners requires us to think beyond today, but it’s critical to have real world connections. The Readiness Institute is designed to provide learners with connections to the community and business to make that real world connection.

I’ve always believed that in order to achieve “Deeper Learning” you need to apply what you’ve learned. In order to demonstrate to my class what a “capstone” project might look like, I created a movie for my class. This article is another example of how to process what you’ve learned.

My final session brought the pieces together. Justin Aglio joined the class and responded to people’s Hopes. He also explained that he’s had over 30 countries submit responses and some countries, like Ecuador, are thinking about a national campaign around the Hope Moonshot. Most of my Osher students shared their Personal Stories. They found the class rewarding and gave them new ideas for their Lifelong Learning. All of the projects were very anthropocentric, looking at a variety of needs for people ranging from veterans to educators with learning challenges to kids with cancer.