Author: Dr Megan Argo – Lecturer in Astrophysics
For the last three years I have been teaching on AA1051 Introduction to Astronomy. This is a level 4 module which students take as a stand-alone Certificate course, or as part of our distance learning BSc degree in Astronomy. All the students study purely by distance learning, most are mature students, many are retired, and they join the course remotely from anywhere in the world from a variety of cultures and language backgrounds.
As part of the course we run regular tutorial sessions where the students can ask questions of the lecturer and can check their understanding of the material. For many years these tutorials have been run using the text chat feature of Adobe Connect – but Covid-19 has changed all that. This year, along with all of the on-campus provision, the course team on the distance learning programme reassessed our delivery to update it for the now-ubiquitous nature of video conferencing as a result of the Covid-19 situation.
Each tutorial in the module covers one chapter of the course material on subjects such as the magnitude scale, telescope optics, stellar structure, galaxies, and cosmology, to name a few. In previous years I would ask the students if they had any specific questions, and then put each of my questions into the chat, one at a time, so the students could try to answer them and I could correct any misconceptions. This year, my plans have been completely rewritten.
In order to make the sessions more interactive, I decided to make use of the polling platform Vevox. In the past, some students would attend the tutorial but would purely “lurk”, not contributing much to the chat. In some cases this was due to language barriers or lack of confidence in contributing. Vevox helps to overcome these barriers.
Vevox operates in different modes for different settings. For a live tutorial where you want the students to work through the questions at the same time, allowing time for you to respond to the results, a Poll is the appropriate tool.
Polls give you a variety of question types. You can set up multiple-choice questions and optionally specify which answer is correct, rating questions (1 to 5 stars), numeric answer questions with the option to include decimal places and an acceptable error margin, a free text response, or a word cloud of one-word responses. These have different uses, depending on what sort of questions you are asking.
It is also possible to ask the students to identify themselves by setting up “profiles”, but for encouraging participation in formative quizzes I find it is better to turn this option off. Allowing the students to respond anonymously helps overcome the barriers of shyness, language, etc. The students can watch the tutorial and answer the questions without speaking, and without fear of feeling stupid if they get the answer wrong. But the important thing is that they are still participating in a way that is comfortable to them.
(Above: the results of a question showing the students mostly understood the topic. N=15)
Even with anonymous responses, the results from each question are a great way to spot misconceptions or difficult concepts that the students are struggling with in real time. If everyone gets the answer correct we can quickly move on to the next topic, but if half the class get the answer wrong then we clearly need to go over the concept behind the question in more detail.
(Above: the results of a question showing divergence in the answers, clearly this topic needs more of a recap. N=15)
To help students get used to the technology, at the start of each tutorial I always begin with a non-technical question. This also helps the students get to know a bit more about each other and fosters building a community – something that is challenging in a purely virtual classroom environment. Questions have included things like “In which hemisphere are you located?”, “What is your favourite constellation?”, and “Have you had any clear skies since the last tutorial?”.
You can also build in open-ended feedback to the poll questions. At the end of the first tutorial I asked the class to rate the poll as a tool for helping them test their own understanding (100% rated the poll as 5 stars), and then gave them a text box where they were asked if they had any feedback on the first tutorial. Comments included “It’s a really good way to learn in a different way from reading the texts, please do it every time if you can!” and “[I] found Vevox very engaging, the polls coupled with the tutorial definitely helped visualise and explain the different concepts”.
Vevox also makes it easy to reuse polls for future classes. All you have to do is either delete the poll data, or (if you want to keep the data) duplicate the poll. Results can be downloaded, and the data is even available as a spreadsheet. This is useful for tracking understanding over the module, and provides another mechanism for keeping an eye on engagement as the course progresses.
Overall I have found Vevox to be a very useful tool for increasing the engagement in my online tutorials. The students are overwhelmingly positive about the technology, it helps me quickly discover areas of confusion or misunderstanding, and it adds an element of fun and community that the students appreciate.