When COVID-19 hit 11 years months ago, it occurred exactly two weeks before our third annual “History Day” event at the private school where I worked as a faculty member teaching ninth-grade Pre-IB World History. Inspired by the National History Day program, I had organized and interwoven the full-day event into my curriculum, making it the signature event of my department and the opportunity for the entire freshmen student body to display their finalized history projects. As soon at the school announced that we would be taking off the week before Spring Break and would reassess afterwards, I knew in my gut that we would likely not be reopening for face-to-face classes.
My 88 students had poured hours into research, writing, and creating these projects, and I didn’t want their hard work to go unnoticed by their families and the wider school community, so I began looking for alternative options given the challenging remote-learning situation.
Pandemic-teaching 2020: Adapting to change
I wanted to recreate the History Day experience in a virtual environment. I needed a platform that would allow my students to work on the project simultaneously and it needed to be easy enough for teenagers with mostly-limited coding experience (and myself with no coding experience whatsoever) to work with. I eventually settled on Cospaces, a platform that I knew a bit about, as some former students had used it for individual projects. Fortunately, they were offering free use for up to 30 students to work on a team project at the time due to the pandemic. I signed up and then began thinking of ways to make this work.
I knew I would need a teamwork platform to organize the construction of the exhibit, and I had always wanted to try out Slack, but had been intimidated. Remote teaching seemed like the perfect opportunity to take chances and make mistakes, so I signed up and within minutes historydayatgulliver.slack.com was realized.
Remote teaching seemed like the perfect opportunity to take chances and make mistakes.
The result was really nothing short of miraculous and better than I had hoped (I was envisioning a catastrophe). Luckily, I had phenomenal students who pulled together and really indulged my clumsy attempts at making this massive project work in record time.
Below is a breakdown of how we brainstormed, designed, planned, organized, and marketed our “Virtual History Day at Gulliver” using Slack and Cospaces.
Teams: This was the first step in organizing all 88 students into manageable teams. It was honestly the step that I would revise the most the next time I try a project this large. I initially had the students choose from one of the following teams: Cospaces, Design, Project Support, Editorial, and Marketing. The biggest issue I had with these teams is that they were somewhat poorly defined — more on that later.
I limited the Cospaces team to only twenty students, as I didn’t want the building to get out of control, and I asked that only those with coding experience or a strong desire to learn sign up for this team. I then set up a Slack channel for each team. Getting everyone to sign up and onto Slack took the better part of an entire week.
Slack exceeded my expectations in every conceivable way throughout this project. Once the students had joined their team Slack channel the communication was intuitive. I was reminded multiple times that Slack works similarly to “Discord” – the gaming communication platform they were more familiar with. The communication was organic, and the ability to pin conversations, share files, and issue polls was easy and helpful to the success of the project.
I discovered the “Grow” app a couple of weeks in, which allows members to give and receive feedback that takes the form of a baby tree. Giving feedback helps the receiver’s tree to grow, and the app provides feedback “starter” sentences to help users find the right words. It was a delight watching the little trees grow and the gamification helped to make the practice stick. I encouraged the students to use it as a way to keep track of their own contributions to the project.
After settling into the teams, I set up Trello boards for the teams to use for project management. Some teams would use these more effectively than others.
First, I asked the designers to come up with a plan. They needed to determine how to divide up the projects into different “rooms” and choose the design for each. This proved very difficult. The first challenge was determining the number of projects and how best to divide them. The historical topics varied widely, as did the modalities. Once a rough division was made, the design team broke up into smaller teams who worked on “their room.” Any elements required for the room was delegated to the project support team, who then procured or designed the features for later use. Finally, the CoSpaces team took the designs and built the project on the CoSpaces platform.
All of this required collaboration and communication on Slack, and I allowed the students plenty of time with their teams during Zoom class meetings to discuss face to face. Many of the teams organized meeting times outside of class via Slack. I encouraged the use Trello to keep track of team member contributions and overall workflow. The marketing team reached out to the school communications office and coordinated with the school SGA to promote the “Virtual History Day” event through social media channels using flyers created with Canva and Adobe, and video trailers created with imovie.
Building on Cospaces required an immense amount of communication on Slack, as it was easy to undo work. I got used to creating backups and eventually the team decided on a system of posting updates on Slack to minimize redundancy. Due to the need for frequent and close communication, the Slack team divided up the work based on class period sections and each section worked on one room at a time.
Cospaces fulfilled almost every need I had for this type of undertaking. It was relatively user friendly, multiple students could work on the project at one time, and we could build a virtual building that could showcase videos, text, and even audio.
The only downside to a project like this was that there was no way to embed documents or even hyperlinks. Now, given the purpose of CoSpaces, it’s easy to see why: clicking a hyperlink would take the user out of the VR world immediately. Our work around was to simply showcase each non-video project with images and abstracts and include bitly links to the associated content. It wasn’t ideal but given our short timeframe it was the best solution we could come up with at the time.
If [let’s be real: WHEN] I redo this project, I would have the students start with Cospaces and design their own museum exhibit collaboratively from the get-go. Each student would have space for their own exhibit and/or work in teams to create a room that displays several exhibits organized around a central theme. Each student would be required to write a succinct abstract and include primary sources with museum-style annotations to form a collection. Sound can be coded and it is possible to include 3D images.
Despite the rushed timeframe the project ended up being a resounding success and a learning experience to build upon moving forward. Like most of 2020, the necessity of change pushed myself and the students to modify, collaborate, experiment, and invent, which resulted in a project that was intellectually and personally rewarding.
We launched the project the last week of classes, and you can experience it for yourself here.