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Threaded Discussions Just Don’t Cut It at Copiah-Lincoln Community College

Instructor Spotlight: Betty Jo Harris, History Instructor at Copiah-Lincoln Community College

Betty Jo Harris Instructor Spotlight

Colleges and universities were hit hard by the Covid-19 pandemic, which disrupted traditional ways of learning. Community colleges were hit the hardest — some experiencing as much as a 21% drop in enrollment in the fall of 2020. The numbers are alarming — particularly since community colleges have typically seen robust enrollment during economic downturns.

We’re beginning to understand some of the many factors that have contributed to this decline: vulnerable populations, exhausted students, and technology inequities to name just a few.

Educators at community colleges across the country have responded in unique and innovative ways to the pandemic, leveraging their ties to the community and their laser focus on relationships to weather these unprecedented times.

Betty Jo Harris knows first-hand how important relationship building can be in the community college classroom. She has been teaching history at Copiah-Lincoln Community College in Mississippi for a number of years now. Like other instructors at community colleges across the country, the shift to online learning was abrupt, requiring not just a retooling of her syllabi and lesson plans, but a change in how she thought about engagement and participation.

With a class of both traditional and nontraditional students, many of whom are working during the day, Betty Jo opted for an asynchronous classroom, recording her lectures and using Harmonize to engage her students in the course material.

“One of the biggest challenges for me was how to put a face to the 40 students in my classroom,” Betty Jo told us recently. “Without that face-to-face interaction, it’s difficult to promote meaningful discussion.” The traditional threaded discussions available through her institution’s LMS didn’t excite students. “Students were really only interested in doing the least amount of work to fulfill the assignment,” she explained. “They were just tallying up points.”

That all changed when Betty Jo began to use Harmonize to support an 8-week World Civilization course. Twenty years of experience teaching history helped too. “When it comes to history, it’s critical for students to understand how things are connected, and how historical facts still have an affect on their day-to-day lives.”

Using Harmonize, Betty Jo included six discussion questions to help students think more deeply about the course material and, critically, talk to each other about their ideas. Students were impressed by how easy it was to use Harmonize.

“Looks matter,” Betty Jo joked. “Harmonize is just so visually appealing and so similar to things that they use every day, like Instagram,” she said.

In the third week of classes, after students had gotten to know one another through other Harmonize assignments, Betty Jo introduced a module about the Atlantic Slave Trade. “I wanted students to consider how the inequalities we see around us today could be connected to a history of enslavement,” she said. “But it’s difficult to talk about race, especially if you haven’t established a level of trust in the classroom.”

To help students make those connections, Betty Jo posted her discussion assignment in Harmonize, using a Washington Post article about the wealth gap following emancipation and a podcast from scholar Ibram X. Kendi, who directs the Boston University Center for Antiracist Research.

“The uptick in participation was significant,” Betty Jo said. That topic garnered 31 posts, 66 comments, and slews of reactions. “I really think being able to include something like a podcast made a huge difference to my students.”

In other posts, Betty Jo posted graphical representations of data, links to articles, and photographs.

“I would really encourage other instructors to take a look at Harmonize and consider how they might use it in their classes. Participation in my classes definitely rose thanks to Harmonize. You still have to do the work, but Harmonize gets students to the door and that’s important.” Betty Jo Harris History Instructor Copiah-Lincoln Community College
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