Neither Rain nor Snow…

Classroom alternatives for a snowy winter

Of the many things that come to mind when one thinks of Boston, good schools and lots of snow ought to make the list. As we’ve watched Boston collectively plow the distance to the moon so far this winter, it has become clear how easily these two superlative characteristics of our city come into conflict with one another. Boston Public Schools have already closed eight days this winter (not to mention Punxsutawney Phil recently seeing his shadow), prompting Governor Charlie Baker to publicly state that “everything’s going to be on the table” when it comes to making sure students get in enough class time this school year.

And there are a lot of options on this metaphorical (and likely snowy) table. Canceling spring break, instituting Saturday classes, waiving the 180 day school year requirement and extending school into July have all come up as at least somewhat plausible alternatives. The Governor also mentioned the possibility of instituting virtual classes or handing out “blizzard bags”; take home assignments for snow days that, NPR notes, have yet to catch on in many states.

It strikes me that alternative learning experiences such as these aren’t the de facto option for cities and towns that frequently face such wintry winters. Ideologically, I see two distinct barriers towards cultivating such expectations. First, there seems to be a general unease towards validating out of school playful learning as capital-e-Education. School districts that are increasingly pressured to teach towards tests do so at the expense of discovery and reflection — educational goals that can often be achieved outside on a snow day just as well as in a classroom. Second, despite a great deal of rhetorical praise of virtual learning in certain contexts (namely community colleges, professional development courses and MOOC platforms like edX and Coursera), such enthusiasm rarely penetrates into residential learning environments.

Like Boston Public Schools, many local universities are struggling to maintain the rhythm of this “spring” semester. With fewer liability and privacy issues facing university students than schoolchildren, one might expect to find greater affordance for either self-guided or virtual learning experiences on snow days. Yet as I write this, one of my roommates is trying to figure out how he is going to make up three lost Monday’s of coursework in next week’s seminar and another roommate is outside building a snow fort BUT until very recently was reflecting on alternative assessments for an upcoming midterm that students (to no fault of their own) likely won’t be prepared for.

There were, however, exceptions on Tuesday, the fifth or sixth snow day in the past two and a half weeks. Two courses decided to brave the virtual cold and host class on Unhangout, an open source platform developed at the MIT Media Lab. Designed in the spirit of unconferences, Unhangout consists of an embedded Youtube window in which participants can watch a recorded presentation or speak live to their co-learners, a chat window, and a series of breakout rooms built on top of Google Hangouts, allowing for smaller video discussions of up to ten participants.

In T-553: Learning, Teaching, and Technology (Harvard Graduate School of Education), students clamored together to run an optional Unhangout session in lieu of class, which about half the class attended. Having read the first chapter of Brian Fay’s 1996 “Contemporary Philosophy of Social Science: A Multicultural Approach”, participants were greeted by this 25-second prompt. They proposed their own discussion topics in the chat and then engaged with their peers in breakout rooms. One group challenged the author’s conception of “knowledge”, and another critically analyzed the purpose that this particular chapter served in the course. A third group took on a major question in the field of multicultural learning that was posed in the chapter title itself: do you have to be one to know one?

Not only does Unhangout allow for co-learners to connect with one another when there is a yeti on the loose, but it is designed to foster participant-driven learning and accommodate various learning styles. Karen Brennan, the T-553 Professor, summarized this well in an email exchange after class:

“The Unhangout platform is well aligned with my beliefs about how to design powerful learning experiences. It makes possible multiple scales of interaction — you can be connected to a large group and to smaller breakout groups. It makes possible multiple modes of interaction — you can communicate through video, audio, sketches, and text. It makes possible multiple pathways of interaction — you can fluidly move in and out of themed sessions based on your interests. In many ways, an Unhangout is about learners and directed by learners, which is what learning should be.”

Jared Fries, a student in the class, added that “Learning with Unhangout was not better or worse than learning in a classroom; it was different…[For instance,] joining breakout sessions by topic interest rather than the students and friends immediately surrounding me brought richer perspective to discussions and introduced me to people I might not have met in a large class.”

Later in the afternoon, Justin Reich hosted 11.125: Understanding and Evaluating Education (MIT Scheller Teacher Education Program) on Unhangout. Justin went through the lesson materials (sharing his slides over a live Hangout on Air), and then students broke into small discussion groups around a number of pertinent topics: Have you ever gotten a high grade when you felt you didn’t deserve it? What are some well-designed assessments you’ve taken? What does “understanding” feel like to you?

Unhangout is just one example of how students might remain pedagogically engaged on snow days. Alternatively, a teacher might ask students to find articles from diverging viewpoints online and engage their peers on Twitter, or construct a load bearing bridge out of snow and document the results, or go for an evening walk in the resounding stillness of the city after a snowfall and write a reflection.

What each of these possibilities has in common is that they entrust and empower students to cultivate learning and make meaning of the world for themselves, echoing Karen’s emphasis on students directing their own learning. Following up after the Unhangout, Justin offered a similar reflection, remarking that “Unhangout lets students explore the frontiers of online learning while participating in it.” With this in mind, he added, “The days of snow days may be numbered.”

Interested in hosting your own Unhangout? Get in touch via the Unhangout website before our next snow storm on Thursday. It’s free and only requires a Google account.

Unhangout has been utilized in online learning environments many times before. Recently it was used for weekly live events in Learning Creative Learning (MIT Media Lab) and featured in GSE2X: Leaders of Learning (Harvard Graduate School of Education and HarvardX) and Massive: The Future of Learning at Scale at (Harvard Graduate School of Education). Beginning in March, Harvard Law School, Harvard Extension School and Harvard X will host JuryX:Deliberations for Social Change, a course that will engage participants in discussions on contemporary social issues using the Unhangout platform.

Read on the Unhangout blog here.

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