A Peer Educator Reflects on Personal Decisions, Challenges and the Importance of Inclusivity in the Transition to Online Learning when COVID 19 Changed our Worlds

Graduating Engineering senior, Camelia Wu, considered her options when it was time to decide where to live after the Cornell Campus was closed due to COVID 19.  She chose to return home to New Jersey.  Though she lived off campus, and could decide to stay in Ithaca, she was without a vehicle, friends were all in isolation, and so she decided that the best option was working on her final college disciplinary work and on facilitating AEW workshops from her parents’ home. As we all did, college students had a lot to process very quickly.  When Camelia was asked via discussion thread to create an analogy about what it felt like, as an AEW Facilitator, to transition your workshop sessions to an online mode.  Here is what she wrote:

“(it was like)…when I first moved to the United States. After moving, I needed to get used to a new lifestyle with a different language, food selection, friend group with different backgrounds, and so on. I had to find a new flow in my social and general everyday life. It was kind of like how I used to have a good flow for how to conduct the AEW sessions in person, but had to find new online teaching tools to achieve a new flow in the virtual AEW sessions. Both involved a lot of flexibility, empathy for others, and curiosity to explore new things.”

Living at home, reconsidering everyone’s roles, thinking about internships that are likely to be substantially reduced or altered, if not completely cancelled, and considering job options as a graduating senior are a few other personal/professional concerns. These say nothing about the lost social aspects of college and being a senior: the celebrations, the kudos, the final presentations and the all-important ‘goodbyes’. Camelia shared some of her own sadness and how she attempted to cope with the abrupt nature of the transition:

“This fast transition made it kind of sad for me because I am a graduating senior, so it was disappointing to leave campus without being able to do everything that I had planned. I had been pushing off a lot of things, but I now regret that decision. It also cut short my time with my friends, some of whom I was not able to meet before leaving. Before I left, I decided to at least write a message, make a card, or leave something for my closest friends at Cornell to show them my appreciation and hopefully reminisce on some of the good memories…”

AEW facilitators have a rare opportunity to share thoughts about this emergency online transition to teaching and learning.  Facilitators are undergraduate students and experiencing their own course transitions, in addition they are peer educators struggling to stay positive, flexible and apply best practices for online learning in their AEW sessions. Camelia appreciated that students and instructors were respectful and used icebreakers that allowed students to share fun facts about themselves and their backgrounds. The game encouraged students to also be inclusive and find common ground.

As a student: she expressed thanks for her professors who were role models for the transition to online teaching practices.

“… It gave me a lot more respect for the professors who were trying to deal with this transition. In fact, some of my amazing professors were an example to me when I had to provide this transition for the AEWs…”
“ I felt that some of the professors were even sadder than we were for the missed class time and senior celebrations… they had to suddenly readjust the course to completely virtual classes. Overall, I appreciated their genuine effort and still learned a lot.”

As an AEW Facilitator: Learning the names of people in her AEW workshops, (and pronouncing them correctly) was a practice she used in her own peer education to make all feel included regardless of their different backgrounds. Camelia also shared other practices she and her co-facilitator, Matt Ziron, used to address engagement and create inclusivity in the new teaching venue:

“Being respectful and flexible to students who are under different time zones. For example, this may include using different contact methods, recording course material, or posting material in multiple places to make sure everyone has access.
“We sent out a few surveys and polls to find out best times, how to share the course material, deliver the lecture portion, and use Slack. The responses gave us a lot of direction for what to do.”
“… There was overall a very open and accepting environment and going online did not change that. One specific situation that Matt and I had to deal with was one overseas student with limited access and a different time zone. We tried to be flexible and discussed with her alternative ways to participate, recorded the lecture portions, and posted the AEW material in multiple places to make sure that she had the proper access. As a result, based on what she said in the email communication, she was able to stay updated”.

Finally, Camelia considered the occasional poor practices she experienced and why these actions make students feel uncomfortable and promote exclusion rather than inclusion. For instance, when students or the TAs are more familiar with one another and start going about some everyday conversation.

“inside jokes or personal conversations … may make other students feel left out or unhappy that it seems off topic. They are still important to address to build relationships with the students and help them on a more personal level, but it should not take class time from everyone else or suggest favoritism.”

As if there wasn’t enough work to do, Camelia and her peers on the eboard for a student organization called the Language Expansion Program decided to keep meeting to maintain that community for students who wanted to continue to share language learning.

“… I found these conversation hours very relaxing and enjoyed sharing jokes in different languages and fun facts about those languages. I think my zoom training as an AEW facilitator helped me learn how to better organize and set up these language meetings.”

Finishing her reflection on a happy note, this extra commitment turned out to be one of those personal social activities, albeit remote, that provided Camelia with some of what was lost when the physical community was no longer available on campus and she chose to head home to New Jersey. It eased the stress and feeling of disconnect from her home at Cornell.  This was, and is, a challenging time, and also one of immense growth, especially for graduating seniors who are both students and peer educators.  This resilient young professional learned how to negotiate new circumstances, to experience and facilitate inclusive learning in a new environment, and very successfully complete her college career. Congratulations Camelia, and thank you for your insights!



Putting the ‘Jigsaw’ Online: AEW facilitators implement the jigsaw on Zoom, create collaboration, and share ideas for adaptations

Practitioners of student-centered learning will be familiar with the ‘jigsaw’. Jigsaws combine powerful collaborative strategies to increase retention and encourage construction of processes and concepts through critical thinking: 1) focused group discussion, and 2) teaching others. In the face-to-face environment, groups of 3 to 5 work together to solve a problem, explain a concept, or explore some idea or theory – together.

After the group (Expert group) has come to conclusions regarding the problem at hand, the groups are re-organized into mixed groups (Sharing group) – one member of each of the original groups, now work together.  These new mixed groups are tasked with explaining their definition or solution to the rest of the group – effectively teaching the members of the mixed group. The jigsaw works well with groups between 9 and 25 but can be adapted in many ways to accommodate larger classes.

As Cornell University transitioned to emergency remote teaching, AEW facilitators immediately began training to continue supporting engineering student-learning in weekly student-centered online sessions. Emily Care and Juan Berrio, a pair of co-facilitators for CS 1112, decided they wanted to attempt this valuable teaching strategy to create engagement in their synchronous Zoom session. Here’s how they did it.

Creating a Jigsaw in Breakout Rooms:

This scenario was developed for 2 weekly synchronous zoom meetings, rather than one, in order to accommodate different schedules of students now working online.

  1. We briefly explained that students in the synchronous zoom would be placed in breakout room groups to create a solution and then split up into new groups to explain their solution.
  2. We then randomized the breakout rooms into groups of 2-3 students and told each group their assigned question.
  3. We gave them 30 minutes to prepare their solution, check it with us, and work on other questions.
  4. After the 30 minutes, we reshuffled the breakout rooms and let the students present to each other.

***The facilitators were clear to note that leaders must be very active in visiting the breakout rooms on zoom while groups are working to be sure they are on the right track, without giving answers away.

               “The online jigsaw seemed to work well! All the students were able to have the solutions presented to them from different perspectives, to hear different voices, and to work with around 3 more students than they typically would have the opportunity to. They were also more thorough with the solutions they came up with since they knew they were responsible for the learning of their peers”.  Emily Care, AEW Facilitator

Jigsaw Adaptations: The following recommendations come from an asynchronous discussion thread among AEW Facilitators in which they discussed different adaptations to improve jigsaw success for other course materials, other course online structure, and different numbers of students in class:

  • Within each group, we would randomly assign a conversation leader to share a white board screen to encourage all to participate. While checking over the solutions of each group we would also ask some students to explain their reasoning to ensure all members understand the material.
  • … But we would probably have to send the questions out during one of the Slack sessions before the zoom so that the students have a chance to work on them a little beforehand, since our zoom sessions are only one hour a week.
  • …After the jigsaw groups had been redistributed, we could ask the members of each group leading questions concerning the concepts involved in the problem, to ensure every person in each group gets the information to solve future questions.
  • … A good way to use jigsaw would be to use it for conceptual problems and not calculation-heavy ones, since students generally struggle more with concept application and not flushed-out calculations in our class.
  • … Only having one zoom meeting per week, we would have to make sure that the problem was both in-depth enough to have students increase their understanding, but also short enough to be able to do in a manner where students feel confident in their own abilities to present the material.
  • Encourage the students to use canvas examples or the textbook to help them solve the questions. Then check in with each group, shuffle the groups, and have the students teach others about their solution.

Taking the next step: Following the synchronous Jigsaw with a concept map or an asynchronous discussion thread.

  • Jigsaws can be followed by ‘concept mapping’ activities to bring all the different concepts and ideas back together into a framework, or if the work is problem-solving, then concept maps can bring problems and related series together.

  • They can also be used to develop a challenge activity or problem that can be posted on an asynchronous discussion thread. This would allow students to continue to engage while they’re not online together, and to answer each other’s questions.
  • In discussion threads it is critical that the facilitator is present, ‘listening’, and providing feedback and encouragement (not answers or solutions). After the discussion has run its course, clarifying the answer, approach and structure is important so that everybody knows they’re on the right track.
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Learning isn’t as simple as being ‘provided’ information and then immediately understanding it in all its depth and complexity, at least not for most people. There are tools and practices that can be used to facilitate various levels of understanding.  Using these tools effectively requires an awareness that learning most often occurs in a social context.  In the College of Engineering, the Engineering Learning Initiatives (ELI) team works with several groups of graduate and undergraduate students who are striving to improve learning experiences in many courses each semester.

Academic Excellence Workshop (AEW) facilitators are one such group.  AEW facilitators receive training and work in teams of two to run weekly sessions for their undergraduate peers.  Students enrolled in participating undergraduate courses have the option to enroll in one of the related AEW workshop sections. Facilitators use student-centered teaching and learning strategies to help students engage with course materials and their classmates in a variety of interactive ways to solidify and deepen their understanding.

About halfway through the first AEW training of the spring semester, pairs of undergraduate workshop facilitators are seated next to their new co-facilitators. Before they run their first session they need to learn something about the way in which each of them communicates, and figure out how to negotiate their collaboration. They need to start to develop the social context in which their work together and their work with enrolled students will happen.

After having done a group ‘ice breaker’ and having been introduced to the goals and objectives of the workshop, the teams sit side-by-side with four pieces of yarn attached to a marker and try to cooperatively write the letters ‘A’ ‘E’ and ‘W’ without actually touching the marker. In order to do this, they have to work in concert. They must verbally and non-verbally communicate to create the forces on the markers via the 4 pieces of yarn; thus learning a little bit about how they might work together. Following this good-natured competition over which team could produce the most legible letters, one of the experienced AEW facilitators debriefs the activity with leading questions about what each of the groups did to successfully complete the task. They also discuss how they would apply this to their future teamwork.

Good workshop facilitation means adding social skills to disciplinary expertise.  Moving forward into the semester, these dedicated students will continue to train and hone their skills of communication and group facilitation.

This Edu-blog is brought to you by the ELI TEAM in Rhodes Hall. If you are interested in working with us contact eng-learning@cornell.edu