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 faculty 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 Analysis of Elections Course
Suzanna Linn, a professor in the College of Liberal Arts was preparing to teach her Analysis of Elections course for the fall 2012 semester, which would be during the height of the 2012 Presidential election. In teaching the course previously, Suzanna relied upon students in class working in small groups to discuss and answer complex questions through readings and analysis of the most current data related to the elections. Small break-out groups then discuss their findings with the entire class. As part of her preparation, she was working with the Schreyer Institute for Teaching Excellence, (SITE) for ways to enhance the learning experience beyond the classroom. The Schreyer team recommended she try Yammer, the enterprise social networking platform that Penn State had just recently implemented, to achieve her goal. Schreyer then provided her a consultation with an instructional designer in Education Technology Services (ETS) that would help her formulate effective ways to pedagogically integrate the use of Yammer into the coursework.
Guiding Principle for Use: Group Discussion and Collaboration
Suzanna’s main attraction to Yammer was the ability to create and work in groups, and that was the focus of her design efforts for the 35 students in her class. Giving students the option to work in teams of any size or even alone, she would give each group a problem to solve and let them collaborate and discuss in their individual groups. By making herself a member each student group, she would be able to observe and participate in these discussions. She also created an ‘all class’ Yammer group to include all students in the class. This space would be for all-class discussions around the the many topics that appear on a daily basis during the fall election season. Suzanna felt the Yammer environment, along with her discussion-based classroom sessions, would further promote her vision as an instructor to help students solve these problems by sharing information, providing feedback, asking questions and facilitating discussion.
Combining Yammer and Classroom Problem Solving, Discussion
Every two weeks, she gave the class a question that they would have to answer by going out and collecting information (often in the form of data), doing analysis and then sharing their points of view with the class. During these assignments, students would communicate and discuss within their Yammer groups by posting updates on what they were working on, sharing articles they were reading as well as data they were in the midst of analyzing.
As Suzanna became more familiar with the platform during the semester, she instructed her students to post many of the files they wished to share as PDFs. This allowed her to view these files in preview mode, meaning she would not have to download a file just in order to read it. She also was then able to use the document commenting feature in Yammer to quickly provide feedback on students’ work in progress.
Suzanna found that by having students post their documents into Yammer, they would use this space to share their findings in the classroom environment while presenting to their classmates. For example, since Suzanna was a member of each group in Yammer, she would log into Yammer at her podium computer that would display on the classroom projector. When a particular group came up to the podium to present their analysis, they could simply navigate into their Yammer group, access their shared files page and quickly jump from file to file in order to display what was in each one to support their point of view. They could go from a powerpoint file to graphs in pdf format to documents without having to open separate applications or multiple logins to shared drives; they were all in one space. Student enjoyed the easy transitions and were able to have more fluid demonstrations within the classroom.
Suzanna herself would remain logged into Yammer most of her working time. This provided students with the opportunity to ‘see’ her as active in the Yammer network and many used the Instant Messaging feature to contact her to ask questions and get clarifications. She wanted to experiment with this feature in order to find out how much students would use it to communicate with her.
Observations of Student Activity in Yammer
- Suzanna observed that the Yammer discussions in the groups were very active for about about half of the student groups. These active groups seemed to embrace the platform not only for discussion but also collaboration as they worked together to document their collective analysis for assignments. However, she felt the other half of her students were not using Yammer nearly as actively as the other half.
- While the individual group discussions were fairly active, she did not get as much activity in the ‘all class’ group as she had hoped. She tried to stimulate discussion a number of times in these groups but was unable to replicate the activity in the smaller, individual groups.
- Students used the Instant Messaging with her much more than expected.
Outcomes and Other Reflections
- Students adopted Yammer quickly. Since this was an undergraduate class, she feels that because Yammer’s interface is so similar to Facebook, an application almost all students use, they were able to jump in and start using it with little to no help.
- Many love it; others don’t. In line with what she observed in the group activity in Yammer, Suzanna got feedback from students in which about half of her class said they really enjoyed using Yammer
- Managing groups is not easy for instructor. As the instructor, Suzanna was a member of each Yammer group in the class. After some trial and error, she realized that she needed each group to follow a naming standard for their groups to make them easier for her to find in Yammer. Since there is little in the way of group management in Yammer, enforcing standardized, similar names was the best way for her to do this.
- Students use the collaborative documentation tools. She had groups use the Notes feature to do some of their analysis documentation and the students welcomed it. However, both Suzanna and her students wished these collaborative tools were more robust, such as they are with Google Docs.