This morning I taught my first online synchronous class session using the student engagement platform Nearpod. In this post, I’d like to share my experience and thoughts on using this platform in the hope that my insights might be beneficial to other teachers looking to create engaging synchronous learning experiences. Before I begin discussing my use of Nearpod though, I’d like to map out my own decision-making process in designing a synchronous lesson and deciding what to focus on.
Making Instructional Choices for a Synchronous Method of Delivery
In his recent article, Remote Teaching: When and How to Use Synchronous vs. Asynchronous Methods, Eric Gardener mentions that synchronous instruction is “especially useful when teaching material that requires immediate feedback or clarification to keep students on track.” For my own class, this approach meant taking a look at the learning outcomes I had for this week’s module and consider what were areas of instruction that required the immediacy and interaction that couldn’t be as easily learned through asynchronous methods of instruction. Lately I’ve been trying to keep in mind the drawbacks of high-bandwidth/high-immediacy tools so that when I do design synchronous lessons, they are done so with careful considerations that make them worthy of not only students’ time, but the achievement of learning outcomes.
In my advanced research writing course I’m currently teaching for international students, one of the first major writing assignments students are asked to write is a summary/response essay. An aspect of genre writing pedagogy that I adopt in teaching my English for Academic Purposes (EAP) writing course involves guiding students through analysis of both the organization and language of target genres, which in the case of the genre being a summary/response essay, involves having students analyze a sample academic summary that uses APA formatting style. This modeling and deconstructing of the text seemed like a vital part of the teaching and learning cycle that required synchronous instruction.
Prior to learning about Nearpod, my approach to teaching a synchronous lesson around the contextual and linguistic features of text probably would have involved a mix of using Google Docs or OneDrive with a PowerPoint and a polling tool like Mentimeter or Polleverywhere. Trying to use so many applications to deliver a lesson often meant I was limited in my ability to put together a coherent learning experience. Nearpod was able to help me eliminate the use of so many other applications.
Nearpod Writing Lesson Features
Nearpod allows for both student-paced (asynchronous) and live (synchronous) delivery modes. Teachers can create a lesson using a mix of instructional content and learning activities. I delivered this lesson live through Zoom by sending a link in the chat to students once I had checked in with them. Below is the general formula that I’ve come up with for my weekly synchronous lessons using Zoom and Nearpod. A further explanation follows the overview to provide educators how this structure could be adopted for their own courses.
Synchronous Lesson Structure Overview
- Opener/Check In
- Background/Schema Building
- Application/Peer-to-peer learning
- Formative Assessment/Comprehension Check
- Questions about Week’s Module on LMS/Clarification
- Takeaway/Exit Ticket
Many of my synchronous lessons begin with a welcome slide orientating students to the learning outcomes and purpose of the lesson. In the next slide I listed the lesson agenda, much like I would in a regular f2f class. To build background knowledge, the next activity I included was an open-ended question that asked students what were their prior experiences to writing summaries and why would summaries be useful in academic writing. After the introductory writing activity, I used the collaborate activity to ask students to write short notes on the organizational and language techniques they noticed the writer doing in the example annotated summary. Once the students added their observations, I added one or two of my own. We then discussed these options, deconstructing the text and mentioning why the writer used specific phrases and how the text was organized.
We moved onto an applied practice activity, where I gave students the options of choosing between a number of blog articles on what it takes to be a successful online student, a topic which seemed especially important and relevant for the first week of course, especially in light of all the complications many students had with the transition to remote learning in the spring. I used the collaborate slide in Nearpod to ask students to write a one-sentence summary of the article they read. I also summarized an additional article myself and added my own summary once students had uploaded theirs. I then provided feedback on the summaries, noting areas where students had difficulty and where I would need to add an instructional video to my LMS for points of confusion or difficulty. I closed the lesson with the open-ended question activity, asking students what was one new thing they learned about writing academic summaries and what feedback that had about the Nearpod lesson. We then discussed these final thoughts/feedback and closed the lesson. One student pointed out that this felt like a ‘real lesson’ where they had to engage with the activities and do the work (I used the Nearpod timer function on one activity).
Lessons Learned Using Nearpod
I used Nearpod with Zoom and found that by sharing my screen I could show the teacher/classroom view to all students during the lesson so they could view the collective submissions of their classmates, much like if they wrote their answers on a whiteboard. I also found that by sharing the live lesson link in the Zoom chat it was much easier to make final tweaks to my lesson than send it out through my LMS. I think it is helpful to have students turn their videos on mute while working on activities within the lesson to minimize distractions. I ask them to use the Zoom chat if they have questions.
I did have some minor issues with the slides being out of order from how I designed the lesson and in how it was organized when I went to deliver it. This could have been due to my own inexperience to using Nearpod, but it is something to be aware of. I discovered that I hadn’t saved it properly, so this wasn’t an issue with the platform, but a user error.
Finally, my biggest takeaway with using Nearpod is that it allows for me to use multiple formal assessment and instructional tools in one platform. I’ve experimented with using polling tools and presentation tools in live Zoom sessions and they seemed rather clunky and disorganized. With Nearpod, I’m able to have more seemless experience from start to finish.
Last week I finished my 10-week summer research writing course for international students. I used Nearpod for every synchronous lesson that I held. After planning 10 different lessons in Nearpod, I’ve gotten fairly familiar with the platform and its benefits and drawbacks. As I consider the possibility that fall instruction could suddenly change to completely online, Nearpod will be one my go-to synchronous solutions for delivering a well-designed synchronous learning experiences.
There are a number of the features that I’ve found to be beneficial with this platform. For starters, the ability to integrate and embed a number of other applications, such as Sways, Google Slides, PPTs and Youtube Videos, make it convenient for me to design a more cohesive learning experience, without having to drop a bunch of links into the Zoom chat all the time and then wait for students to get onto an application. I had a fairly unsuccessful experience early on in the spring with using Mentimeter and Backchannel Chat in Zoom, which convinced me I needed one platform to rule them all. In teaching my writing course, I primarily used MS Word Online and OneDrive for collaborative writing through the Nearpod platform.
The collaborate feature in Nearpod allowed me to send my students into a Zoom breakout room to work together on a peer review or exploratory writing activity and be accountable for their work by having to post it on the digital bulletin board. When students returned from the Zoom breakout room, they would then explain their answer and I could give one the spot feedback. I also found that open-ended question and poll feature in Nearpod allowed me to provide comprehension checks, exit tickets, and schema-building activities. With the effects of the pandemic impacting the lives of my students, I began using the open ended question at the beginning of lesson to ask them to share something challenging in their lives along with something that was going well for them. Near the end of the term, I began using this structure for every synchronous lesson, as it seemed to help me empathize with them and identify learning barriers so I wouldn’t dive right into a lesson without considering the larger factors at work in the world that were impacting my student’s lives.
I also found the reports that Nearpod gives after you end an activity to be helpful, especially for when I asked students for feedback on my design of weekly modules or on the synchronous lesson itself. Nearpod also allows you to download a pdf version of the lesson. The pdf version has the links to anyone online resources shared and any slides that were used in the lesson, so I think this is helpful to provide to students. This doesn’t include any record of the learning activities though.
I usually end up taking my Zoom video from my synchronous Nearpod lesson and importing it into Panopto. Then I cut out the periods of time where students are in breakout rooms doing collaborative work before uploading it into the course LMS. Once this is on the LMS, I usually try to spend a bit of time curating this video and describing where students can fast forward the video so that they can review any key parts that might help them with the week’s learning and assessment activities. Since my summer synchronous class occurred at the beginning of the week (Tuesday), I was able to ask students towards the end of every lesson if they had any questions about that week’s asynchronous assignments, then I would go over any tasks that they had questions about. In my curating, I would mention where in the recorded video this occurred so that they could go back and review this section later. This was really important for when there was a student sick or absent for other reasons, and cut down on the time needed to catch up a student who missed a live class.
The other feature of Nearpod that makes it useful for the uncertainties of fall is that it has a student-paced version of the lessons you create. So if you were to have some students live, whether it is on Zoom or in the actual classroom, and some students who could only access the course asynchronously, then Nearpod allows for that option as well. I have not explored the self-paced asynchronous option in depth, but I think one might need to adjust the design of the lesson for the asynchronous environment some. But students could still do all the same activities that were offered in the synchronous live lesson and the instructor could use the reports that Nearpod provides to grade the asynchronous work.
One of the drawbacks of the built in slide editor with the free version of Nearpod is that it is very limited and the designs leave a lot to be desired. However, being that Nearpod allows for you to upload your own Sway, PPT or Google Slides, this seems like a very minor thing. In synchronous teaching sessions, I’m usually not using a lot of slides anyway, so even when I did use the slide editor, it was usually only to provide an overview of the lesson, the learning outcomes or to provide clarification on an activity. I also think Nearpod gets overlooked in higher education because it is seen primarily as a platform for K-12. I know many of the lesson packs are K-12 focused, but this isn’t a problem for anyone designing their own content.