As I’m working on some new and exciting research projects, I’ve found myself going back to a few of my earlier works and reflecting on how my thinking has changed in the time since I wrote them. I thought I would share some of this here partly because I still get asked about some of these articles from time to time and partly because I think it’s valuable to show how things can change as you grow as a scholar.
So today I’m starting with my very first peer-reviewed article, first published in the Journal of Library Innovation in 2013, “Using Team-Based Learning in an Online, Asynchronous Information Literacy Course.”
I wrote this article back when I was pretty heavily into Larry Michaelsen’s Team-Based Learning model of teaching. If you’re not familiar, TBL is a model for using small groups that follows a very specific structure involving something called a “readiness assurance process” and “4S team application tasks.” (Here’s a good explanation.) The teaching center on my campus promotes it quite heavily and a lot of professors on campus find it useful as a way to actively engage students in group activities.
I first started using TBL as a graduate student teaching my first course. Having a structure to follow was particularly valuable to me because even though there was an entire course in my graduate program devoted to teaching information literacy (a rarity in library school programs), I taught my first class before I took it. I barely knew what information literacy was back then, much less how to teach it, so TBL gave me a template that helped me learn how to run my course.(1)
As a teaching model, TBL has a lot of benefits. It creates an active learning environment that’s more engaging for students. The use of teams creates a sense of accountability. And it’s structured in such a way that an individual student can’t get away with simply riding the coattails of their more motivated classmates. There’s a lot to like.
After I graduated, I got a job out of state but my institution wanted to keep me in the fold so to speak so they hired me as a part-time lecturer to continue teaching our credit-bearing information literacy course. But where before I’d been teaching in person, for obvious reasons I now had to move my course fully online.
I decided that since I’d had such success with TBL in my in-person course, I wanted to continue using it in my online course. As far as I knew, no one had adapted TBL to an online environment before so, once I’d tried it and had some success with it, I thought it would be a good topic for my first peer-reviewed article on the path toward tenure.
The article is what’s sometimes described as an “I did it good” type of article that’s common in the library literature, especially when it comes to the teaching we do. Basically, I tried something, it worked well for me, I shared what I did with others so they could adapt it for themselves. Not a lot of actual research involved, especially compared to what came later, but not a bad start to my scholarship, all things considered.
So how has my thinking changed since I published this particular work?
Well, first of all, I don’t use TBL anymore. Not the full model, at least. I gave up on the readiness assurance process a long time ago and no longer use teams in the same way. The part of TBL I did keep and still use to this day is the 4S structure for group activities when I teach in person. As the experts in my campus teaching center will probably tell you, TBL is most effective when you use the whole model, so picking off the pieces that you like and leaving the pieces you don’t tends to be frowned on but the 4S structure has a lot of benefits on its own and it’s easy to adapt outside of TBL. So…sorry not sorry, I guess.
The reason I stopped using TBL wasn’t because I stopped believing in it. I still think it’s a really good model for teaching in general. No, the reason I stopped using it was because I stopped believing it was a good model for teaching online.
The problem with the online version of TBL that I came up with is that, like TBL itself, it has a lot of moving parts for the students as individuals, the students as teams, and the instructor to keep track of. The first time I used the model online was pretty successful because the students I was working with happened to be fairly motivated. I wasn’t quite as lucky the second time. In fact, by the end of the course, I had something like mass rebellion on my hands.(2) It was all a bit harrowing at the time, but I can’t say that I blame those students for being as stressed and generally unhappy as they were.(3)
I’ve since come to believe that when it comes to online teaching, simpler is better. The structure I use for my online course now is straightforward and gimmick-free and though I sometimes wish it provided more opportunities for engagement, the feedback I get seems to indicate that the students appreciate that I’m respecting their time and not forcing them to jump through unnecessary hoops in order to be successful. Plus, a simple structure means the students are actually learning information literacy. Before, all of the information literacy stuff I was trying to teach them slipped through the cracks because they were too busy trying to figure out how the course even worked. This type of learning can be valuable too but it seems like the actual learning goals for the course should get the priority here.
Something else I’ve learned since writing this article is that if you do decide to experiment a little with the structure or content of your course, it’s helpful to tell students that you’re doing that up front and to make sure they know that if anything goes wrong, you’ll make sure it won’t affect their grade. I didn’t do that with my online TBL students but I’ve done it on occasion since then and I’ve found that students have a lot more patience when you’re open about the fact that you’re trying something new and it might not go as planned.
Of course, there’s a bit of a coda to all of this: Zoom. Zoom wasn’t available back when I tried using TBL online but now it’s everywhere in online teaching thanks to Covid. I think with Zoom it may be slightly more possible to make an online version of TBL work since it would be easier to mimic the necessarily synchronous parts of TBL. I’m sure there are professors on my campus who use TBL who are probably trying this out. I would never say no to someone who wants to give their students an active and engaging experience in less than ideal circumstances, but overall I still think when it comes to online learning, simpler is just better.
- Incidentally, I wrote about this in my first-ever non-peer reviewed article, written when I was still a graduate student, “When Teachers Are Taught to Learn.” Also incidentally, I hate the title I gave this article and wish I could change it.
- No, seriously. There was a student in the course who was openly rallying all of the other students to file a complaint about me because he didn’t like the way I was teaching the course. That student was frankly kind of a jerk who sent me frequent harassing e-mails even after the course was over but still. He definitely had at least some support from the other students.
- One of my former students is actually a colleague of mine now. His memory of the experience is a little different from mine (he’s very polite) but I think we both agree that it’s probably a good