Retrospective: Context and Communication

Context and Communication was the third Guild of the Rose course. The course served as an introduction to communication and spanned the four weeks from 12/01/2021 to 01/01/2022. It followed our established flipped-classroom model and was taught by Olivia, one of our Guild members. Topics addressed included:

  1. The transactional model of communication; a framework for thinking about communication as an exchange of messages distorted by noise
  2. Nonviolent communication; a strategy designed to maximize clarity and focus a conversation on the needs of both participants
  3. Body language; including five broad strategies for using nonverbal cues to supplement spoken words
  4. Context; or the environment, medium, and culture in which a conversation takes place

Communication is an incredibly important skill because our society is so interconnected. Improved communication helps in every area of life: from the workplace, to romance, to large scale organizations. Despite this, communication is rarely taught in a formal manner. We are instead left to learn it on our own, resulting in a patchy and incomplete skillset. Intuition is a powerful force, but it cannot carry us alone. One four-week course on communication cannot remedy decades of neglect, but it's a start.

Successes

As a broad introduction, Context and Communication was a success. Many members said the lectures, homework, and bonus content was helpful. Several people also praised Olivia's choice of sources and willingness to acknowledge alternate viewpoints.

Youtube

We experimented with third-party videos in Practical Decision Theory, but most of our courses had stuck to in-house lectures. With Context and Communication, we went all-in with third-party videos. To contextualize this content, we also included a short teacher-written document for each week's lesson. Communication as a topic was well suited to this approach, since it's a popular subject with many high-quality online lectures.

Overall, we consider this experiment to be a success. People generally enjoyed having the document be the primary point of engagement. Moving forwards, we expect to rely on a mix of third-party and in-house content.

Communication

One of the major problems in the Guild Alpha was a lack of clarity around course information. In particular, we fielded numerous questions about scheduling. People were often unsure where to find assignment documents, lecture videos, and other course content.

At the start of the Beta, we tasked a Council member with pinning this information to the #course-content channel. This solution turned out to be clunkier than anticipated. People complained about having to dig through dozens of pins, and often resorted to asking in the general channels.

As a result, we implemented a new system during Quantified Self Assessment, our previous course. Course documents, lectures, and other content were linked on the website instead of pinned in Discord. This system was in place for the entirety of Context and Communication and reduced these questions to zero. We consider this an unqualified success.

Mistakes

New Year's

The biggest mistake we made was in running a class shortly after New Year's. We were concerned that skipping two weeks in a row would cause people to become disengaged. For the few people who did show up, the hit to morale from seeing half the class absent was likely far greater.

In the future, we'll likely have an optional class session for the people who want it, but we won't push for full attendance. It's important to remember that ROSE is a relatively small part of most people's lives.

Deeper Content

Context and Communication was intended to be a surface-level introduction. In part, this was because providing a deep dive would have required a prohibitively high time investment for a volunteer effort. However, the main reason was that the Alpha courses's intensity resulted in burnout and disengagement. We wanted to avoid the risk of creating a course that half the people couldn't understand.

Nonetheless, multiple people wanted more. For a future version of the course, we'll probably want to hire a domain expert to provide a more rigorous experience in the form of bonus content. This is the approach we're taking with some of our upcoming courses.

Cohort Activities

The cohort activities were largely of the form "discuss the homework". This certainly has value, but it's also very monotonous and doesn't leverage the full value of the cohorts. In the future, we'll look to provide more interesting activities.

An example of this might be the blankface exercise, where students had a conversation while suppressing their body language. Many people skipped the blankface exercise because of the associated social awkwardness. Doing it as a cohort would have removed that obstacle and provided immediate feedback.

Lessons Learned

  • Be mindful of people's schedules and avoid making unreasonable requests on them
  • Provide both an easy-mode and a hard-mode for courses, to allow members to customize their experience
  • Offer cohort activities that go beyond discussion

Attendance

Our average attendance rate was 50% (49% for the weekend session, 52% for the weekday session). This rate remained roughly constant for all four classes. If this seems low, remember that online classes have a notoriously low completion rate around 3%. In-person classes do better, but (as anyone who's been to college can testify) students frequently skip lectures. Nonetheless, improving engagement remains a primary objective for the Guild.

Rose Points

As part of the Context and Communication course, we trialed a Rose Point system. This was intended to boost participation by creating a sense of healthy competition between cohorts. Points were tracked on a cohort level and could be earned by doing the homework or the bonus content for each week's lesson. At the end of the course, the cohort with the highest points-per-capita won a prize of a silly hat for each of its members.

Points were awarded as follows:

  • 1 point for completing the homework (2 points for the first week's homework)
  • 1 point for completing the bonus content

Average Rose Points

The maximum points a cohort could earn was nine, and the average final score was 46% (4.2 points). Engagement fell off as the course progressed, likely due to scheduling conflicts with the holidays.

Our hope was that having a leaderboard would encourage people to participate more, in a sort of intentional Goodharting. Unfortunately, the point system was largely a failure in that regard. Almost no messages were sent in the cohort channels regarding Rose Points. Attendance rates also remained approximately the same (50%). Taken together, this suggests that people ignored the point system.

Part of the reason for the lackluster response may have been due to confusion about what counted as "completing" the homework. If someone did half the homework, do they get partial credit? What if they did all of it but modified the instructions to fit their circumstances? Does it count if they did it late? These were all questions that arose during the four weeks of Context and Communication.

In the absence of a strong set of guidelines, the cohorts were largely left to interpret it as they saw fit. There was some oversight from the instructor, but since Guild homework isn't "turned in", it was easy for subjectivity to sneak in.

To make matters worse, a clear point ranking emerged by the second class. Two cohorts were far in the lead, with the remaining five trailing behind. It's hard to fault those five cohorts for giving up, especially since points weren't tied to a meaningful prize. Future iterations of the point system will need to address this issue, but it's also important to avoid invalidating a cohort's hard work.

Compared to the Alpha point system, Context and Communication's Rose Points measures up as follows:

Lack of clarity in what points meant: Resolved. Points were only acquired in two ways. These were explained in the course introduction, and nobody expressed confusion about how to earn points.

Excessive administrative overhead: Resolved. Since points could only be earned by doing homework and bonus content, tracking them was very easy.

Insufficiently motivating: No change. Similar to the Alpha points system, the new implementation was mostly ignored by members.

Wrap-up

Overall, most people said they found Context and Communication valuable, even if it was only as a review of material that mostly knew. We consider the course to be a success, and plan on running an improved version at some point in the future

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