The COVID-19 pandemic and the turn to emergency remote learning pose numerous issues with respect to the health and well-being of students.
Research suggests that prolonged isolation and environmental stress factors could lead to significantly heightened depression and physiological problems.
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These risks, nevertheless, can be mitigated through shared experiences and the maintenance of interpersonal communication. As it relates to children, through the integration of collaborative assignments as part of a pandemic pedagogy, schools can play an important role in supporting student resilience.
In this vein, as a high school social studies educator, I have devised strategies to ensure that collaboration is incorporated into the classroom with an emphasis on critical thinking, problem solving, and inquiry.
Collaborative song writing and art
At the end of a unit on environmental issues in my freshman Global Studies course, students are typically tasked with writing and performing rap lyrics from the vantage point of teenagers from the future (e.g. 2100) suffering from the effects of climate change and communicating their feelings in a letter to previous generations.
This activity enables students to employ their empirical knowledge of climate change to articulate a point of view, attain practice with a form of civic engagement, and experience empathy towards others.
Despite the constraints of the online learning environment, this activity was reorganized with the requirement that students write and record the rap via video conference.
The student outputs were, in fact, nothing short of astonishing. Some students produced video conference raps in the mold of the excellent Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestra quarantine performance and others complemented their music with dance break figures, images, and original cover album artwork.
Digital education can also be employed effectively in social studies as a platform for student creation of art. The availability of numerous digital tools for art collaboration makes these types of projects conceivable and advantageous.
In my Global Studies course, after engaging with the topic of globalization through case studies highlighting the dynamics of the process, for example, students are tasked with the “puzzle” of communicating the concept of globalization to younger children through the development of visual storyboards and allegory.
Student-created political cartoons also provide an effective vehicle for students to engage in dialogue using content knowledge to articulate opinions on historical and contemporary topics.
By steering students toward the writing of music and design of digital graphic art in response to concrete challenges, students practice universal critical thinking skills and develop technological know-how.
Facilitating constructive student discussions
Virtual education can be a challenging setting for promoting constructive discussion. One inclination might be to assign individual work and use video conferencing time to lecture and/or briefly discuss tasks with students. This approach, nonetheless, limits interpersonal communication.
The conventional assigning of texts and video content need not be a source of solitude, though. Break-out groups via video link and/or Google Documents can be utilized by students to complete tasks.
In my World Geography classroom, students were assigned resources on the historical development of the UAE and the contemporary lives of different people in the country. After completing individual work, students were divided into groups and proceeded to engage with three questions:
1. Which of the five people/stories did you find most interesting/compelling? What was most shocking? Why?
2. Would you be open to living in a country like the UAE that places restrictions on freedom of speech? Why or why not?
3. Conduct online research together for newspaper articles on the UAE and report discoveries that you find.
Each group then summarized their group discussions in our course Facebook group and via video conference.
This type of discussion-facilitation method provides students both a shared experience and interpersonal communication that are crucial to maintaining their well-being.
Role plays, debates, and simulations
Online student collaboration can also be integrated through role plays, debates, and political and historical simulations.
In a unit on stereotypes and prejudices in Global Studies, for example, students participate in a “Gender Fishbowl” activity in which students take on different roles in real-life situations and play out different scenarios. An example:
A hiring committee has been interviewing candidates for a position. They are hesitating between two applicants, one a man and one a woman. Both candidates have the same skills and professional experiences. As the hiring managers, you begin discussing the inconveniences and advantages of choosing a woman for this job.
Despite the lack of physical space, students are still able to act out the different scenarios and subsequently reflect on their roles and reactions to the situation.
In my junior World Geography course, meanwhile, students are participating in structured debates (two pro, two against) on a variety of seminar related topics. And there is no reason video conference format can’t also be effectively employed for Model United Nations-style mock conferences in which students conduct independent research, prepare policy statements, and debate issues from different country perspectives.
As digital education becomes more widely adopted, the types of assessments presented here can be incorporated into educator toolkits to ensure that students gain interpersonal experiences and employ content knowledge to practice critical thinking, research, problem solving, technological, and civic oriented skills.
The social distancing measures introduced during the COVID-19 pandemic make the integration of collaborative activities, however, particularly vital in the present emergency.
If designed well, collaborative assignments could not only play a part in bolstering student resilience, but also in preparing them for the tasks and challenges they are likely to encounter throughout their academic and professional lives in an increasingly digital world.