As Penn State’s Teaching and Learning with Technology (TLT) unit rolled out Yammer to the entire university in 2012, it’s Education Technology Services (ETS) group was called upon to identify faculty interested in trying Yammer within their teaching practices. After soliciting proposals during the summer of 2012, ETS settled upon five engagements in which they would partner with these faculty members to integrate Yammer into their course and then provide necessary support throughout the fall semester. Such support included pedagogical consultation, training needs, and conducting a number of basic assessments.

Use of Yammer in Master’s of Health Administration Course
Jonathan Clark, a professor in the College of Health and Human Development, was looking to utilize a number of educational technologies available at Penn State when he was tapped to teach a fully online class (Health Services Organizational Behavior, also called HPA 503) for the College’s first cohort in its new online-only version for it’s Master’s in Health Administration in Health Policy and Administration program. He was already using the Penn State course management system (CMS),ANGEL, for his residential classes and had planned on using VoiceThread for providing his instructor summary of case studies. But these tools alone were not going to be enough.

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Yammer at Penn State is the university-supported social networking platform.

Jonathan’s goal was to try to emulate an active learning approach he uses in his residential course in which students work in groups to discuss topics in order to form analysis, opinions and solutions. He knew this cohort would be working adults in the field of health care administration and he wanted to bring his classroom teaching philosophy to this online, asynchronous course in a way that would be simple yet engaging for these students. For consultation, Jonathan turned to instructional designer Wendy Mahan for advice on how to create the type of experience he wanted to provide his students. To carry out the  group-based discussion format he was hoping for, she recommended Yammer, the enterprise social networking platform that Penn State had just recently implemented . They both saw Yammer as an opportunity to move well beyond the current conversation limitations in the ANGEL discussion boards.

Guiding Principle for Use: Facilitated Group Discussion and Collaboration
After evaluating Yammer, Jonathan decided to create an external Yammer network for his HPA 503 course. He wanted his students to be in an “uncluttered space”, feeling that creating a group in the psu.edu Yammer network would have too many distractions. He also liked that he had access to analytics for his external network, something that is unavailable at the group level in Yammer.

To implement his group-based discussion format, Jonathan put his 30 students into 5 groups and then created these 5 groups in the HPA 503 network. He placed each student into their assigned group and also made himself a member of each group so that he could monitor discussions separately. From there, he ran weekly assignments that were structured this way:

  • Monday-Wednesday: Had the students read a framework and discuss in their respective Yammer group. Jonathan first posed questions to each group and each group member would then reply into the discussion thread. He would go into each of the 5 group’s discussion and immerse himself into their conversations, helping guide them with feedback, clarifications, further questions and so on.
  • Thursday-Sunday: Provided the students a case study and had each group, in their own group Yammer thread, discuss and analyze the case study.
  • Due on Sunday: As the student groups discussed the case study, each group would collaboratively work on their Team Summary Response to the Case Analysis which was due on Monday morning. Jonathan had the students use Yammer’s collaborative document tool, Notes, to create this Summary Response.
Screen shot of Yammer Discussion Thread

Sample Yammer conversation for student group in HPA 503 course.

Observations of Discussion Based Activities
Jonathan noticed that some of the discussions were very rich, including dynamic learning that was initiated by students sharing current work experiences that related to the material they were covering in the course. He noticed one group immediately got into deep discussions and engagement in their Yammer conversations, including high numbers of quality responses to each other in various threads. He felt that these types of discussions replicated the type of group discussions that happen in his face to face classes.

Observations of Group Collaboration
By requiring the groups to create their weekly Summary Response assignments with the Notes collaborative tool in Yammer, he was able to do a number of things to efficiently evaluate and provide feedback to the student groups:

  • Used the version tool in Notes to track team members contribution to the assignment
  • Provide feedback directly in the document to the team; no need to download and then upload a document,
  • Use the @person feature to direct feedback to individuals

The groups were able to use the Notes collaboration tool effectively throughout the semester and Jonathan quickly learned how to use it’s features. He felt this web-based collaboration tool and method of communicating was a time-saver during his evaluation and feedback cycles. The only thing he could not do in this platform was provide grading, a recurring wish from both Jonathan and his students. Grading information can currently only be conveyed via ANGEL.

Outcomes and Other Reflections

  • Students really liked Yammer. How does he know? They were very forthcoming in telling him so in Yammer itself. But a more telling illustration of their attitude is that this cohort collectively took a course in Spring 2013 that did not require the use of Yammer. However, they decided to start a Yammer group for the course anyway to continue discussing and collaborating the way they had the semester before.
  • Students learned how to use Yammer quickly. Even though these were ‘non-traditional’ students and there was concern they would struggle with a new technology platform, they had little problem learning how to use Yammer for the required work in Jonathan’s class.
  • Moderating discussions takes time. Jonathan noted that it took him more time to moderate discussions than compared to his face to face classes. This is not surprising, especially for instructors new to teaching in an online environment. Another factor that needs to be considered is the student audience and the depth of their conversation. While Jonathan’s face to face class is populated with ‘full time’ students right out of college, this particular course was populated with part time students with at least three years of experience in their field. Its more than likely these students would take up more of Jonathan’s time as discussion moderator if they were in the classroom with him.
  • Wish there were more instructor tools. Jonathan used a very basic rubric to assess student engagement in the Yammer discussions but he had to record these assessments manually. While Yammer is strong as a discussion and collaborative platform, it lacks the type of instructor tools that most CMS’ provide, such as grade books.
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