When an instructional technologist returned from an annual meeting for Canvas users with a new platform for asynchronous online discussions, a light bulb went off for the folks at Brown University who partner with instructors to foster innovative teaching.
“We saw Harmonize's potential immediately,” said James Foley, Assistant Director for Digital Learning & Design at Brown. “Its user engagement model is very intuitive—it just works in a way that people expect,” he said.
Traditional online discussion platforms are often hard to navigate as discussions grow more complex. “The discussion threads can be so pinched,” James said. “Harmonize provides many options for how to arrange discussions, including a tile view,” he explained, referring to the way discussion topics can be arranged as cards that flip over with a click to display more information. “Even if faculty decided not to use all the features available in Harmonize, we often recommend it for that reason alone,” James said.
Harmonize was quickly adopted by a number of faculty eager to explore different ways that the new platform could be used to support their curricula. “At Brown we have an ‘opt-in’ environment,” James said. “Faculty are required to post a syllabus online, but teaching technologies, including use of the LMS, are not mandated. Faculty are free to adopt the tools they believe will bring the most value to their teaching.
Because James had worked closely with faculty in the Hispanic Studies department, he knew they would be excited about the engagement options in Harmonize. “Language departments typically have challenges with scale,” James explained. Unlike other disciplines like Chemistry or Psychology where large introductory courses are common, language classes demand different solutions.
“Language courses are about direct practice and engagement,” he said. “You can add more students, but you still need to maintain the same engagement to achieve learning outcomes.”
For that reason, technology had always been a part of every language course offered by Hispanic Studies. “They have always involved a designer from our team to make sure they are making the best use of the instructional tools available to them,” said James. Before adopting Harmonize, faculty in Hispanic Studies had been using Wordpress blogs to provide their students with a platform for sharing their writing.
That created a lot of work for the technology teams on the back end—configuring the Wordpress environment for each course was a particular headache. “I knew Harmonize was going to save our team a lot of work,” James said, “but I was pretty sure faculty and students would like its interactive features. It has that social media aspect to it. It lets students make posts, like a post, respond with a comment, and add other media quickly and easily,” he said. Other departments at Brown using Harmonize include German, English, Japanese, and Archeology.
While those interactive features keep students engaged, faculty appreciate the ways that Harmonize makes teaching, assessment, and grading much simpler.
Evaluating how well students were expressing themselves in their posts and responses became easier. “With Wordpress, faculty in Hispanic Studies would have to scour student posts to make judgments about them,” James said. Once faculty began to use Harmonize, they were able to see a student’s initial post alongside their responses, which gave faculty a more holistic view of how well students were mastering written work. End of term grading was easier as well. “We showed them how thoughtful the integration was with Speedgrader,” James said, referring to the grading tool in the Canvas LMS. “Faculty are finding that because Harmonize is much easier to use, it’s saving them a lot of time across the board,” James said.
Like other colleges and universities in 2020, Brown is working hard to prepare for multiple scenarios as it relates to teaching and learning amid the COVID-19 global pandemic. “We have a diverse and global student body,” James explained. “For our team, ‘online’ means asynchronous,” he said. “We’re putting together workshop programming that we’re running this summer to help faculty convert classes and select tools. For faculty looking for a great discussion platform, Harmonize is our recommendation. It’s a robust tool with a strong engagement model. That’s core for us.”