Capturing conversation to build ideas collectively

April 5, 2021

This post is republished from Into Practicea biweekly communication of Harvard’s Office of the Vice Provost for Advances in Learning

Ryan BuellRyan Buell, Finnegan Family Associate Professor of Business Administration, leveraged Scribble for his remote course to help students engage with case discussion longitudinally and collectively. The virtual board platform allowed students to engage online in lieu of an in-person experience in which the blackboard operates as a coordinating element for case discussion. “It helps students put the pieces together, allowing them to track any idea shared by the faculty and shared by the students.”

The benefits: Much like a physical blackboard, the virtual board allows students to connect new ideas in the discussion, provides the opportunity to understand their mistakes, and gives them sufficient autonomy to correct them. Yet this digital tool can go further, opening up new opportunities for faculty to co-construct notes, or even allow students to contribute too. “It’s very powerful for collaboration to allow people from different parts of the world to build something together.”

“If you don’t give them the connective tissue to let them come back and say, ‘Oh, that was that thing!’, and the light bulb comes on – then it’s gone.”

The challenges: It can be difficult to maximize access to a digital board while still being cautious of the psychological safety of the classroom, since the link to the board can be viewed long after class ends. To address any concerns students might have about something they said being in writing, Buell and his team make it a point to delete the board after a few days. This practice also mitigates against boards being shared to future students.

Takeaways and best practices

  • Embrace the visual and the variety. Buell encourages faculty to use the virtual boards to help visualize the lesson in order to be more inclusive to all learning styles. “Don’t just make lists. Draw pictures and diagrams, chart out students’ reactions, and most importantly, build it with them.” The variety often significantly improves student engagement. “It’s a powerful medium,” Buell reflects. “Relative to a slides-driven class, it’s a little bit more fun, more vivid, more visual, and I think it makes an impression.”
  • Build an environment where everyone is learning. It’s critical for students to embrace the fact that no one knows everything, including the professor. Whether class is taking place in-person or virtually, “there’s something powerful about the shared humanity of learning something and boards can facilitate the unpacking of that moment,” Buell says. Seeing their statements on the board helps students better internalize ideas and also feel less alone in grappling with new ones. “We want to be sure to create those opportunities to go back and say ‘Wait, I thought I had my finger on this one, but now so-and-so said this, and it made me go back and understand this thing more deeply.”
  • Use the board to facilitate other classroom activities. Buell also uses the board to identify questions for breakout groups to help them focus their discussions. “It gives you structure and scaffolding so you’re not losing time,” Buell notes. On top of that, the virtual board’s flexibility allows the discussion to be reactive, and it can be folded into a variety of other classroom activities, or easily toggled away during guest visits. “You can communicate outside the confines and constraints of Zoom when you’re trying to facilitate learning and you’re not in the same place.”

Bottom line: Ultimately, the board should show students how they can build upon ideas together in a way that may change how they think and act moving forward. So, when using boards as this coordinating mechanism, both physical and virtual, make sure you have a plan. Buell recommends instructors think about what that looks like before class and practice showing how it all connects.