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On teaching online

This past semester, I’ve had my first experience of teaching online, as part of Grinnell’s partnership with Global Online Academy, a consortium of independent high schools. I believe that I am supposed to report on that experience to David Lopatto, the Director of our Center for Teaching, Learning, and Assessment, and Mike Latham, our chief academic officer. This essay, in which I think through different issues related to the course, serves as a draft of that report. It is significantly longer than my traditional essays.

In Fall 2016, I taught an online course, entitled Beyond Photoshop: The Code of Art, the Art of Code, as part of Grinnell’s partnership with Global Online Academy. Since our partnership with GOA is still experimental, and Grinnell is looking more globally at issues of online teaching and learning, I thought you would want a report on my experiences.

Background and General Issues

As I think you know, I signed up to teach with GOA because I had heard from Shonda Kuiper that she learned a lot about face-to-face teaching in her work creating an online course. As a late-mid-career faculty member, I thought it would be an interesting and valuable challenge to try something similar, particularly since I regularly like to explore new ways to think about teaching. The opportunity to teach through GOA also seemed to fit into a confluence of related activities, particularly supporting students learning online through Grinnell’s new Guided Learning initiative and serving on a consulting panel on online learning.

I had originally hoped to teach a version of our CSC 151, Functional Problem Solving, as I expected that the work I did online would help support that course. However, the GOA staff asked for a menu of options, which I presented to them. After considering different options, the indicated that they preferred that I teach a course on Coding for the Arts, using the Processing program language. I had suggested that topic because one thread of my current scholarship is on computing for the arts.

I had originally hoped to teach the course in Spring 2016. Unfortunately, demands on our department made that impossible. Fortunately, I was able to teach the course in Fall 2016, as an overload.

The class started with seven GOA students and five Grinnell students. In the first few weeks, we lost four GOA students and one Grinnell student, all of whom indicated that the workload was much higher than they expected. The typical GOA class is about seven hours per week; since these students were receiving credit from Grinnell, I designed this as a course that would take approximately ten to twelve hours per week. We ended up with seven students: two high-school seniors, one high-school sophomore, two Grinnell senior studio art majors, one senior mathematics major, and one first-year Grinnell student. I interacted exclusively online with all but one of the students; one of the Grinnell students indicated that they really needed face-to-face support, and we met in person for two hours each week.

I quickly discovered that teaching online did not necessary play to my strengths as a teacher. I know from experience that my greatest strength is my in-class teaching style, in which I am particularly successful at adapting to student questions and needs and at challenging students in what I think of as Paper Chase lite style recitation. My students also tell me that interacting with me in person shows them how much I care. I also learn a lot about my students when seeing them in person; I note when students look tired, or are absent, or are particularly engaged, or look puzzled. In contrast, teaching online did not give students the same face-to-face experience. (Lucas Ames, my instructional designer, said that my personality came through in my videos and my documents, but it’s not the same.) And it certainly didn’t give me the experience to observe my students in the same way.

In addition, while I generally do quite well at creating and organizing course materials, I am less good at handling outside-of-class organizational issues. And, I will admit, I was less organized in dealing with the competing demands of the course than I would have liked; there were certainly more moving parts (or perhaps different moving parts) than I am used to. I will return to some of these issues later in this report.

Support Infrastructure

GOA provides a rich and robust infrastructure for their teachers, and I found that I gained much from that infrastructure. Each summer, they have a bootcamp/retreat for new faculty; I was fortunate enough to be able to attend for both Summer 2015 and Summer 2016, and I’m not sure that I would have done nearly as well as I did without those experiences. In Summer 2015, I ended up thinking a lot about overall structure of the course and issues involved in teaching online, from keeping up communication to designing assignments that would engage students to work together. In Summer 2016, I thought much more carefully about the design of the course, and ended up significantly altering the overall approach, from that of a traditional computer science course to something that felt much more like what I called a studio art course in which our medium is code. The opportunity to work with not only GOA staff, but a wide variety of other teachers was eye-opening and really did help me think differently about a lot of things I do. Since I was going to be teaching high-school students, hearing from others who regularly teach such students was particularly important.

I was able to work with a GOA Instructional Designer, Lucas Ames, through both the preparation and teaching of the course. This is the first time that I’ve worked with a real instructional designer. (The Curricular Technology Specialists don’t really have the same background; they are trained less in teaching than the instructional designers at GOA.) Lucas helped me think through many of the complexities of teaching online, challenged me to keep on task, and provided a useful sounding board. I will admit that there were some challenges, since I am normally a lone wolf in my course planning and design (CSC 151 is the one exception; it’s very much a collaborative course). But it was great to have an experienced partner who I could trust to know more than me on some issues, and to have a valuable alternative perspectives on others.

There were also regular online meetings with the other GOA faculty and staff. I found those useful, but I will admit that I lost track of them as I progressed through the semester; too little time, too much to do.

When Grinnell faculty think about new projects, we often note that new projects require significant support. Working with GOA showed me just how useful that support can be and how necessary it is to success.

Course Structure

One of the greatest successes of the course was the overall structure I designed. As is the norm in GOA courses, I broke the course into a series of modules. Most were one week long (with some followup work), although a few were two weeks. Each week of each module followed more or less the same pattern: Students would learn a new approach in the first half of the week, apply them to a project in the second half of the week, critique each other’s projects, and then respond to those critiques. In addition, students were to write daily sketches (sometimes in code, sometimes by hand) and to regularly comment on each others’ sketches. Some weeks also had a focused discussion and reading. I wrote about two-thirds of the tutorials for new approaches, and relied on online sources for the rest.

I spent a lot of time before the course planning both this structure, and the individual assignments, and I think it helped the course a lot. When Lucas looked at the overall structure at the start of the semester, he noted that it was thorough enough that it looked like a class that had been taught for a few years. I’m glad that twenty years of teaching have helped me design good class structures and appropriate assignments.

The course design turned out to be even more valuable than either Lucas or I thought. I had originally planned to be a very active participant in the course, posting my own sketches and comments in the sketchbook discussion, actively critiquing student work. However, for a variety of reasons, I ended up staying out of many of the discussion forums and provided fewer critiques than I had planned. It turned out that this was among my best decisions. The students in the course formed a fairly tight-knit supportive community, and I think that community was stronger with me being on the outside, rather than as a part of it. Students knew that they had a responsibility to make each other stronger, rather than waiting for me to support them.

In some sense, I discovered again something I already knew. As a strong proponent of active learning, I try to teach as a guide on the side, rather than a sage on the stage, to quote the traditional aphorism. In this class, I moved even further to the side, stepping in only when students asked. And this approach clearly had some strong benefits. Not only did the students build a strong and collaborative community, they also learned ways to learn new material. I would frequently see posts in the sketches discussion in which students talked about identifying a new approach they wanted to take and how they used tutorials that they had found online to help them learn that approach.

I think that the course design helped the students achieve both of those outcomes. I worked hard to make sure that students worked as a community, and that approach seems to have been successful. I will, of course, admit that I was fortunate to have very engaged students, and that helped a lot. And, because I mixed types of learning resources in the course, students seemed able and willing to find their own resources. It is also likely that this generation of students (or at least this group of students) is more willing to search online.

Course Technology

GOA uses the Canvas Learning Management System (LMS). Traditionally, I have not used LMS’s in my teaching, even though I place a large amount of material online. I refuse to use Grinnell’s Blackboard system because I think it is immoral to put teaching and learning resources behind a password wall. I have always made my course materials publicly available and will continue to do so. Fortunately, it is possible to configure Canvas (or at least the GOA installation of Canvas) to have materials public. GOA also graciously allowed me to release all of the course materials under a Creative Commons license.

At times, using Canvas reminded me of other reasons that I don’t tend to use LMS’s: I find graphical user interfaces (GUIs) much slower than textual user interfaces. I also worry that such interfaces prioritize appearance over content. Fortunately, Canvas provides an Application Programming Interface (API) that allows one to upload and download documents in HTML and other forms. I took advantage of that interface to do most of my course development in a text editor using the tools I use for my other classes. In addition to making me more efficient, I think the approach also benefitted the course. I heard from Lucas that he appreciated the clean and straightforward design of my pages. That design is also more accessible.

I did, however, find some significant benefits to using Canvas. Foremost among these was that Canvas has a SpeedGrader tool in which it is easy to see what a student has submitted and to quickly enter comments and scores. I could have made better use of the system; my mechanism for assigning followup work (e.g., critiques and responses to those critiques) did not correspond well to the SpeedGrader approach.

Beyond Canvas, I relied on Slack (a text messaging application) for most of my regular communication with students. Slack provided a quick way for students to get in touch with me and to ask me questions. When we got into the nitty gritty of particular programming problems, I used an online shared programming system called Sketchpad was not ideal. However, being able to have students see changes I made and to see the changes students made, and to discuss them, was incredibly helpful.

I will note that each of these technologies (with the possible exception of Sketchpad) was robust enough that I did not need significant technical support. We had a few glitches in Canvas, but most of those were quickly resolved.


I found this to be among the most challenging and anxiety-inducing courses I have taught. In part, as I noted above, many aspects of the course play to my weaknesses rather than my strengths. Keeping up with the varied demands of the course was hard, and was made more difficult because I taught it while serving as department chair of a department with a very high number of students. Time I had set aside for the course was regularly consumed by students asking questions (face to face or via email) about everything from study abroad options to course offerings to conflicts with other students. I had particular difficulty keeping up on grading. I hate when I cannot put forth my best effort, and I was not always able to put forth my best effort in this course. I also clearly had difficulty with the other organizational parts, such as setting up online meetings.

Although I work in a technological discipline, I am not always as comfortable with technology as I should be. I don’t regularly interact in chat rooms or such (well, outside of Slack). I don’t regularly make videos of myself or create screencasts. These activities took longer than they should have, and, unlike my students, I get nervous seeing myself on screen.

Because I try to think a lot about accessibility issues, I found those coming up a lot in this course (and in the online courses I’ve supervised students in). Can I, as a faculty member, make a video without creating associated captions or something equivalent? I think not. But captioning is time consuming. I generally chose the equivalent, and less time-consuming task of transcribing each video, or of writing and reading a script. I will admit that did not feel very natural. I also realized that for true accessibility, one needs to narrate wha tis going on, particularly for code. Hence, in my experience, video tends to be less accessible than text, and I worry about the emphasis on video.

I also encountered a variety of other accessibility issues in using pre-made pages in Canvas and other materials. I dealt with those as best I could, adding alt text to images and focusing on turning appearance-based formatting into logical formatting. In fact, dealing with those pre-made pages is one of other reasons that I ended up using the API to upload pages I made using my more traditional methods.

Looking to the Future

While I found the course challenging and anxiety inducing, I did find it an interesting course to teach. I’m not sure whether or not GOA would want to see the course offered again. If so, I would be willing to try. I might also be willing to teach a different course. I would definitely relish the opportunity to participate in another one of their bootcamps. However, I note that I should not attempt to teach an online course as an overload, and I would have to do so in a semester in which my other duties were more limited. It’s clear that it won’t be possible in 2017-18, since we are already struggling to offer enough courses to allow our students to complete the major. If Grinnell and GOA consider it useful for me to continue teaching online, we will likely need to address staffing issues in my department.

As I’ve written in the past, I am sad that Grinnell has not taken more advantage of our partnership with Global Online Academy. As far as I know, Shonda Kuiper is the only other Grinnell faculty member who has taught through GOA. While I think our courses are interesting and useful, neither really leverages the most important aspect of GOA: You are teaching students from a variety of places, cultures, and backgrounds and can draw upon those differences in the discussions and assignments in the course. I also think that a successful partnership with GOA would help connect more of the students from GOA institutions to Grinnell, which would benefit both those institutions and the College.

It is likely that the GOA schools have to work under different guidelines than we do. However, I think that Grinnell has much to teach GOA about considerations of accessibility in teaching online courses. If we do continue our collaboration with GOA, we should make sure that our accessibility specialists are involved.

I hope that I have covered the important issues for your continued thoughts about online education. If there is additional information that you would like me provide, please let me know.

Version 1.0 of 2016-12-28.