A new initiative at TMCC will provide students with resources and support to engage in fulfilling class discussions online. Designed in collaboration with the inquiry-based discussion platform Packback, the new program provides real-time feedback and guidance to increase participation and improve academic outcomes.
“The past year has transformed so much of the higher education experience, and made it clear that many elements of remote learning are here to stay,” said TMCC President, Dr. Karin Hilgersom. “As we celebrate our 50th anniversary this year, we’re expanding our partnership with Packback because its platform has been exactly what our instructors need; this AI tool: it brings both deep research and sophisticated technology to bear on helping faculty build community and boost engagement in online classrooms.”
“We’ve found that online discussion has become an even more critical part of our efforts to help students engage in their coursework throughout the past year,” said Dr. Laura Briggs, a TMCC biology professor who has pioneered the institution’s use of Packback for online discussion. “Packback’s platform taps into students’ innate curiosity and motivation, helping students boost their academic performance and building a sense of community and connection even at a distance.”
Learning to Ask the Right Questions
Getting students to engage in online discussion boards has always been challenging for Briggs, even before COVID-19 switched her Community Health Science class to an online learning environment. While students who enrolled in her class were certainly interested in the topic of Public Health Biology, or the physiology of disease from a public health perspective, posting to an online discussion board rarely solicited the kind of critical thinking Briggs was looking for.
That was when she came across an opportunity to try Packback, a platform with integrated AI that scores students on the quality of their questions. “As an instructor, trying to ask a really good question that students could relate to and would want to answer is difficult. Yet, that’s exactly what Packback does, it teaches students how to ask really good questions,” Briggs said.
The ability to articulate a high-quality question is an important skill and helps students to take ownership of their own learning process. It also places the responsibility of learning where it belongs: on the students. Briggs explains that the AI component of Packback gives students real-time feedback on every aspect of their question, including the grammar. This feedback is also tempered with what is called “curiosity score:” the higher the score, the better the question.
“Packback is a way for students to engage with each other without the umbrella of the faculty member orchestrating all the topics,” Briggs said. “This also encourages critical thinking because it’s asking students to go beyond memorizing what material is going to be on the test. It asks them to engage with it and with each other, and to find support for their questions and responses.”
Students in the class were required to post one question in Packback per week, along with two thoughtful responses to questions posed by their peers. A leaderboard tracks each student’s curiosity points, allowing them to see where they rank among their classmates. Packback isn’t entirely automated, however: questions that don’t quite fit the class parameters are moderated and later evaluated by a Packback employee who can provide the student with meaningful feedback on how to improve their question. This kind of targeted feedback is what is essential for learning, Briggs said.
“For someone to really understand something, they can’t just read about it. They have to articulate it, they need to write about it, think beyond what the face value is. Packback provides the opportunity for students to think about the material in class in a way that’s different than they typically get to do [in an online environment.] That translates into more interest and confidence in the materials,” she said.
Moving Forward with Packback
Since Briggs piloted the software in Spring 2021, instructors from other disciplines including economics, mathematics, English, economics, veterinary nursing and culinary arts have also tried Packback in their classrooms. Briggs is adding Packback to her Biology 190 classes this semester, as well as a handful of other instructors in other disciplines.
“As an institution committed to new ideas that support student learning and boost engagement, TMCC is at the forefront of innovations that can help more students succeed in class and complete their degree,” said Kasey Gandham, co-founder of Packback. “This partnership is about enhancing the great work of TMCC faculty by providing a new resource to help them not just foster engagement and spark motivation—but also build a more equitable, participatory classroom experience.”
Founded by college students and backed by entrepreneur Mark Cuban, Packback uses proprietary AI and machine learning technology to provide inquiry-based online discussion to over 2,000 instructors and over 600,000 students, who have posted 12 million questions and responses to date. A recently released study conducted in partnership with 10 higher education institutions, indicates that students in classes that use Packback received more A, B, C grades and fewer D, F, W's than the control group, and also cited sources approximately 2.5 times as often in the treatment group vs. control group.
So far, TMCC students seem to appreciate the challenge Packback presents and find that the art of crafting a quality question is linked to their ability to engage with the material and each other, even in an online class. “Feedback from my students was really positive,” said Briggs. “Across the board, they said that they were able to engage with their peers in an online class, and felt less isolated. Also, their overall satisfaction with the course was higher than I normally see. The students felt more engaged, felt like they had a voice and that someone was interested in what they had to say.”