Video chat side channel in a remote class (or an experiment not good enough to keep)

Why we did it

I firmly believe discussing new concepts helps with learning. Having students predict the output of code or answer peer instruction questions helps students see what they actually know versus what they only think they understand. Layering discussion with their peers on top helps because it requires not only picking an answer but articulating their reasoning. Moreover, if they are confused, their peer, who also just learned it, can help explain it in a way that is at that student’s level compared to someone suffering from expert’s fallacy.

How we did it

We started the semester using random zoom breakout rooms for discussion. However, on the first day, I told the class we would transition to the side channel after a few weeks (when class add/drop was over and we’d figured things out). I introduced the idea as an experiment and emphasized that it was both worth trying and experiments were allowed to fail. I framed the motivation as to give them “neighbors” to talk to while in class and not just feel like one among a faceless many.

What happened

We asked the students about the side-channel during our mid-semester survey (which most students respond to). We had Likert scale strongly agree to strongly disagree questions on if they thought it was a good idea, if it was well executed, and if they wanted to continue the side channel. 64% of the respondents agreed to some degree that it was a good idea, with another 23% neutral. However, fewer thought it was well executed at 45%. 27% were neutral and 28% disagreed, so most likely, those that thought the idea was good didn’t think we executed the idea very well. As for keeping it, less than a majority agreed to keep it (45%), while 25% were neutral, and 30% wanted things to change.


More than a semester later, and reflecting on what we did, I don’t think I would have changed any of it. I think our decision process was sound, though, at the time, it felt like we were making things up as we went. And I’m glad that we held to the process because, honestly, it would have been easier to just pretend things were fine and not measure how things were actually going. Then we would have found out at the end of the semester from the course evaluations that it wasn’t benefiting enough students, and we just regret the ones that weren’t benefiting. This process got us to change course mid-way and attempt to improve things.



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Kristin Stephens-Martinez

Kristin Stephens-Martinez

Assistant Professor of the Practice in Computer Science at Duke University