I’m Keith Hollowell, and This is My Packback Story

In the fall of 2012, I was hired as an adjunct professor at Virginia Commonwealth University to teach an introduction to literary analysis course at the undergraduate level. The purpose of this class is to teach students the skill of claim-based literary analysis. 

Much of my class is based on students learning to articulate their perspective through the use of discussion in the classroom and online.

Looking for Something Beyond the LMS

In the Spring of 2019, VCU  shifted away from using Blackboard as their web-based management system with the intention of adapting to the Canvas platform. I quickly became frustrated because I absolutely detested the discussion format used by both of these platforms. In Blackboard, threads would get lost or buried and the platform was not user-friendly. Students would complain that the online discussion boards did not lead to an organic exchange of ideas and were a bit forced. Additionally, during classroom discussions, many of our quieter students felt that their thoughts were being drowned out by some of our more vocal students, making them feel as if their voice didn’t matter.

As the facilitator of my students’ learning experience, I listened to their frustration and began to search for a new platform. I wanted something different that would accommodate my initial intention of assisting my students as they developed their communication skills. My search came at a time when I was also at a point in my teaching career where I was coming to terms with the fact that my own perspective regarding complex pieces of literature was less and less important.

It became more evident to me that due to our societal surroundings my job was no longer just to be an expert on a subject and profess to young minds. Rather, my duty was to place more emphasis on guiding students to hone their creative and critical thinking skills, while learning the skill of public discourse in a world wherein people spend less and less time listening attentively and responding civilly to the ideas of others. 

I needed to find a platform that would  provide all of my students the opportunity to share their voice, not just the extremely vocal students in the classroom.

Then I Found Packback

When I found Packback, I was intrigued by the student-centered focus of the platform, allowing students the freedom to develop their online persona. Packback also provides a sense of friendly competition that encourages student engagement on a weekly basis which helps students “buy in” to the experience. Packback also offers my students the ability to pause and reflect on the ideas of their classmates before responding.  The Packback Questions discussion platform gives the opportunity for students to banter back and forth, rather than relying solely on in-class discussions that can become dominated by the more vocal students.

A Year Later, the Pandemic Hit

Prior to VCU courses going virtual in the Spring of 2020 I had been using Packback for a year. I had originally sought out Packback to offer my students a platform to share their voice, but after we had to make the change to teach solely online, it was Packback that saved my course. 

Having used the platform for the year before the pandemic, I appreciated that my students enjoyed the discussion forum as well as responding to the poll questions I would incorporate as reading checks. What I really liked most was that since my class is an introductory class on literary criticism, gauging student engagement was extremely easy because the platform translated to virtual learning with minimal effort. Using Packback, I could assess my students’ understanding of each reading through their literary critique questions and their responses to their classmates via the platform. During the first semester our classes were online, I heavily relied on all of the features offered through the web based platform. 

Once the class could no longer meet in person, I noticed a lot more engagement between the students. Prior to the shutdown, I typically had the usual handful of enthusiastic students that would always raise their hand and participate in class discussions, but many others would come to class and sit quietly just listening to what their peers had to say. However, once the class was purely online, these same quiet individuals really started to shine and find their voice. 

Later in the semester, several students expressed gratitude and even mentioned in their course evaluations how grateful they were that such a large emphasis was placed on Packback discussions and poll responses. In their comments, these students shared how grateful they were to be able to develop their voice and insight as a student. They indicated that in the in-person classroom setting, they felt very intimidated and shy. Many of them were afraid to speak up because they could not articulate their thoughts in the moment and felt that their classmates could just take the lead. That all changed once they could no longer rely on what others would say and had to use Packback for their course participation grade. 

This resonated with me so much that when classes started to meet back in person, I chose to teach a hybrid version on the course. Talking with my students, it became clear that the majority of them felt way more comfortable providing their work and continuing the seminar style of my class online. Students were actively engaging in literary criticism, providing close readings through poll responses, and really enjoyed competing against each other to make the top ten of the leaderboard.

Through the use of the features in Packback, not only did my course thrive, but it also caught the attention of the VCU English Department. In fact, they were so impressed that they recently incorporated an online asynchronous version of my class in which all of the assignments are submitted through Packback. While designing the adapted version of the course, I was able to share the features of Packback with the folks at VCU Online. The course designers and educators were amazed with what Packback had to offer both students and instructors that they now intend to implement the curriculum I developed based on Packback’s features for future semesters.

A Post Pandemic Realization

While Packback Questions breathed life into my course during the pandemic, once VCU returned  to in-person teaching, it became clear that my students had fallen very far behind in their writing abilities. Many of them had just graduated high school from an online learning environment and the other students had fallen out of practice of composing and editing complex pieces of writing. Prior to and throughout the two years of online teaching, I had heavily relied on Packback for creating an authentic space for students to raise important questions, respond to one another through a safe online literary community, as well as for me to be able to provide feedback and praise to my students in both their questions, responses and poll responses.

Once we were back in the classroom, I needed a way to really assist my students in their writing. Around the same time, Packback was launching Deep Dives. From the moment I introduced Deep Dives assignments, my students could not have been more grateful. There are so many outstanding features that come with the writing tools that have been incorporated into the assistant. My struggling students were no longer just opening google docs only to compose an underdeveloped and unassisted piece of writing, they were writing full-fledged well thought out essays!

At my core, I am a literature teacher, not a writing teacher, so I struggled to provide my students with the one-on-one feedback that was necessary to help students with their writing skills. One of my favorite features of Deep Dives is that students can work on their essay drafts while being provided direct feedback as they write. The program checks for analytical depth, sentence fluency as well as identifying weaknesses in a piece’s grammar and mechanics. This type of immediate, targeted feedback is an awesome resource for teachers and students and makes life easier for the both of us. The students get the support they need in a timely, individualized manner that a teacher is often not able to provide in a classroom full of students with vastly varying needs.  

Finally, my students had the help and tools that they needed to succeed and they were able to use these tools on their own. Many of my students that were embarrassed to go to the writing center or that did not make time to attend my office hours were able to get support through Deep Dives and are better writers because of it.

All-in-all, I could not speak more highly of Packback. Packback helped breathe life into my course and increased student engagement to levels I never thought possible. Packback truly works wonders and their platforms have helped my students and courses be able to succeed in post-covid, AI-centric world. Thank you Packback, I can’t wait to see what you do next.

Keith Hollowell, MA
Adjunct Faculty – Virginia Commonwealth University

A high school Literature and Philosophy teacher since 2003, and a college professor of Literature for nearly a decade, When not teaching, mentoring or learning, I am hiking with my Red Heeler, Cedar, or adventuring and finding inspiration with my amazing wife and fellow teacher Sharon and our teenage twins Maggie and Silas in our favorite river town of Richmond, Va. 

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