Reflections on a digital semester (2)

This is a continuation of my reflections on the digital experience. This time I want to focus on the tools that I found useful.

  • Limnu is a great whiteboard tool. I learned to appreciate it already within a classroom to encourage student participation in a modelling of IT systems class where drawing and sketching as well as visual support for discussing alternatives is key. What do I like about Limnu? It is simple, works on every plattform (browser-based), it’s realtime – and extremely simple to share a link and invite others to a whiteboard. This has proven to be a very useful general-purpose tool. It was successfully used for sketching and storyboarding in a group work for a user-centered design course, and for supporting practice workshops for modelling or discussing about BPMN, UML, and other diagrams.
  • For more powerful whiteboard support, Miro is definitely worth a recommendation. It has excellent PDF export (which is important for providing participants a more linear documentation), it has plenty of pre-defined templates and powerful grouping support.
  • Stormboard was a surprise. While I had mixed feelings about it after using it in a project meeting, I was absolutely astonished about how much students liked the virtual cardboard. It boosted student engagement in a highly unexpected way. More than 90% of the students used it one way or another, which is far more than any other tool (including chat in the webconferencing solution). We used it for brainstorming sessions on ideas as well as their assessment, for developing a business model canvas, for applying the scenario technique, and for collecting and deciding about course topics. It is simple and highly visual – and again realtime, although it has its glitches with more than 20 users working simultaneously.
  • RocketChat as a communication tool is a great improvement over email as a general purpose tool for communicating with students asynchronously. It is much faster, has less communication overhead – and it provides the context of the previous conversation. You can easily create group conversations. And it provides cross-platform support, and notifies via email (important for casual users). And it is self-hosted (or can be) so that you don’t have to worry about whether data protection rules are compatible. Apart from answering all kinds of questions, it was also used as an announcement channel and discussion space. Furthermore, it was used as a backchannel during synchronous workshops to accomodate different speeds of students (so they could share their results for feedback while others were still working on their part).
  • BigBlueButton has a big advantage over my otherwise favourite Webconferencing solution GotoMeeting. You can create breakout rooms, which is important for group work. Setting it up was a bit of a hassle, but after the second installation it worked out smoothly. Be aware that you need a decent machine for it, otherwise sound quality degrades. No matter which webconferencing solution, my experience is that video (which tends to be the most important thing for overcoming distance) is not so important. Particularly not important to see you as a teacher. I wouldn’t go that far to see it as a narcisstic trap, but it is definitely overrated, and many students also feel awkward in turning on video, too. Much more important are the visuals (via screen sharing) and their annotation (to help students follow your arguments). Faces help to establish trust, but are definitely not essential, even more because video transmission still puts a strain on student’s internet connection for little added value. What establishes trust is what you say and do, how you facilitate the process.
  • Drawboard (Windows only) is a decent PDF annotation tool and turned out to be my favourite tool for presenting handwritten drawings (e.g., spontaneously during a conversation), and for annotating student submissions. It is powerful and with its radial menu very slick to use. The only thing that I sometimes missed was the infinite canvas of Limnu.
  • WordPress and BuddyPress-based blogs provide a decent alternative to heavy-weight LMS such as ILIAS (which are deployed in many universities, including ours) and are by their design much more suited for participatory activities, such as students posting their contributions, commenting on others’ contributions. And this is also valuable to share student’s final presentations and summaries, which are otherwise often buried in the teacher’s realm. And its video player feature is much more advanced. YouTube can be great complementary channel for curated videos, which you can easily embed into the blog.
  • Realtime-collaborative document platforms such as Google Docs (but there are many others nowadays) are not only a good tool for student groups, but also for shaping topics for student’s projects, fixing group memberships and scope. And it is also a good and flexible way of signing up for exam slots (oral exams or presentation slots). This takes the hassle out of this activity and thus encourages more flexibility, which in turn allows students to better choose the best time for them and leads to higher quality performance.
  • Finally: Doodle. If you want to adapt to student needs, finding time slots is a recurring problem, and doodle facilitates this process in a way that you’re not going crazy about it. For me, this ranges from finetuning the slots at the beginning of the course (and later) up to scheduling the exam presentations.

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