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Preparing for teaching online (#1028)

Topics/tags: Teaching, Grinnell

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Yesterday morning, the faculty received a message from the President’s office [1] indicating that we should start making preparations to teach online in case a COVID-19 outbreak or other event made that necessary. I’m glad that the College is trying to be proactive, but I’m a bit worried about the implications. As you might expect, I responded with a variety of questions because the broader context affects such plans [2]. That may not have been my wisest move. Soon thereafter, I received a phone call from a VP who said (approximately): Most faculty have no experience teaching online and have not thought about it. What resources would you suggest to help them get started?

Now, I appreciate that folks are willing to draw upon my expertise or something like my expertise. However, I’m much less of an expert in online education than I was, say, twenty years ago, when Web-based education was new and I was closely involved in the EdMedia community. Grinnell also has a variety of staff who teach online and who would probably have good suggestions and could serve as resources to others on campus [3]. So my initial inclinations were to (a) send a note to my CTLA [4] colleagues, (b) talk to a few other folks on campus, (c) send a note out to my broader community, (d) contact the folks at Global Online Academy, who I’ve worked with before and who I know do a wonderful job at teaching people to teach online.

It appears that Grinnell was being sensible. Other schools are making similar preparations. Last night I heard that Stanford has cancelled all in-person classes and finals and asked faculty to move them online. Now, there’s only a week of classes left in this quarter at Stanford, so it’s not quite as much of a deal as it will be if, say, we have to teach online for the last six weeks at Grinnell, but it’s still a huge decision. Stanford has a public notice about the issue as well as some guidance for faculty.

Back to Grinnell or at least to what happened when I reached out from Grinnell. Let’s see. My CTLA colleagues were already on the issue. They are working with ITS on identifying software that the College needs and connecting faculty with training materials [5]. I also heard a very sensible reply of something like The kind of training you do for an emergency switch from in-person to online is very different than that which you do when planning to teach online from the start. I’m also told that other faculty have been asked to think about the issue.

Other friends and colleagues on campus pointed me to a nice article in Chronicle about the benefits of doing some online teaching by someone from Grandview, another [Chronicle guide to online teaching], and a community-developed document created in response to the kinds of issues Grinnell is dealing with.

I got a bunch of replies from the SIGCSE community. Some folks indicated that they were considering similar issues at their institutions. Some discussed the particular software that they use; for example, one noted that they’ve found Blackboard Collaborate quite useful for teleconferencing and another noted that they find Piazza much better than Blackboard discussion groups for asynchronous communication. A faculty member who runs a company that makes online software to support learning in CS volunteered their online software to any institution that needed it for the rest of the semester. I’ll be summarizing those issues in an email to the SIGCSE listserv and will be happy to send it to anyone who asks.

I loved my response from GOA, which was, in essence: "We’ve decided to offer a free online class on this issue, starting next week. I’ve signed up already. I don’t know if anyone from GOA reads my musings, but if so thank you for this important contribution to the broader educational community.

I’d say that that offering and the Online Learning Consortium’s emergency preparedness resource along with other institutions’ help pages are good starting places. For the last group, Berkeley has a guide to synchronous remote course tools and Stanford has provided its faculty with a useful guide that is also helpful for others. I don’t know who is hosting it, but there’s also a broader document available.

I thought it would also be useful, at least for myself, to put together a few notes on the things individuals and the College might consider in preparing to move to online teaching. I will admit that I have no good suggestions for folks whose teaching incorporates inherently face-to-face activities, such as lab sciences or many of the arts. I also don’t give closed-book exams, so I have no good suggestion on what folks who are relying on those for finals or such should do. Nonetheless, perhaps some of my comments will be of use to someone.

First, and most importantly, we need to make sure that students have access to sufficiently powerful computers and to the Internet. I believe we own enough laptops that we can address the first issue. I don’t know whether we’re expecting to have students on campus, in which case the Internet is covered, or away, in which case we’ll need to worry about it a bit. Given lots of extra resources, we could give students cellular connections to the Internet.

We also need to make sure that faculty and staff have access to computing and the Internet. Again, I don’t know whether we’re expecting people to teach and support teaching and students from on campus or from home. Since Grinnell is rural, Internet access from home is likely to be an issue for some.

In addition to making sure that students, faculty, and staff have appropriately powerful computers, we will likely need to make sure that they have the appropriate software. I don’t know enough about our licensing to suggest a good approach. The two obvious ones are to loan College computers that already have the software or to pay to install or license software on more computers.

What about pedagogy? Like face-to-face teaching, online teaching often involves both synchronous and asynchronous teaching. That is, there are points at which you are interacting with students in real-time and points in which you are not. I’m a big fan of live discussions and even live lecture because I think much is gained from hearing from others while you learn. I also know that most small-class in-person lectures involve a good amount of dialogue.

There are a variety of systems available for synchronous teaching. Most video chat and video conferencing applications [6] work well, although I’d suggest that one that lets you do screen sharing (including allowing others to take over the screen) can be particularly useful. I know lots of people who find Zoom particularly good for these situations; I’ve used it primarily in online meetings with professional colleagues. I believe Grinnell owns licenses to both GoToMeeting [7] and Skype for Business. I’m not sure what features those provide. I also don’t know what features Blackboard Collaborate provides. My sense is that faculty who want to use video chat for synchronous work should wait for a week, hear what ITS and CTLA are providing, and do some training to see whether it will work as they expect.

One other feature I might consider is whether you can easily record the session. Recording can be useful not only for students who need accommodations but also for students who want to review part of the discussion. However, it is essential that students understand and agree to the loss of privacy inherent in recording classes.

If you rely on video, whether for video conferencing or for prepared lectures, make sure that you consider accessibility issues. Captioning is now expected for most videos to support the deaf and other hearing-impaired individuals. But you should also consider how you would support blind and other vision-impaired students.

There are also options for synchronous teaching beyond video conferencing software. Many people teach using text chat, rather than video chat. Text chat has some important advantages. One important advantage is that it likely requires much less bandwidth, which can be helpful to students (and others) who have limited or costly bandwidth. I believe text chat also provides some accessibility advantages in that it is accessible to the deaf and hearing-impaired users and that read aloud systems can support the blind and vision-impaired students. Of course, text chat is less accessible to some physically impaired students. Text chat can also help some quieter students feel more comfortable speaking up in class since they have the time and ability to carefully compose their comments. Slack is one of the more popular chat applications and seems to have seen growth not only in the computing community but also in Digital Humanities and beyond.

The online learning community has found great value in asynchronous discussions. However, most of the studies that I’ve read compare learning in asynchronous online discussions to learning in large lecture classes; I’m yet to be convinced that asynchronous discussions work as well as synchronous small-class discussions. In any case, some asynchronous discussions can be good. Blackboard provides discussion forums, which many faculty already use. I believe Grinnell has also paid for a Piazza integration. In my online class, I found the best interactions came either when I gave a pointed question on the reading or asked students to comment on each-others’ work and required a minimum number of responses.

You may find it valuable to record lectures and screencasts for your students. If you choose to do so, I’d recommend that you think about ways to break your lectures up into chunks of no more than ten minutes or so. The evidence seems to be that shorter segments help students learn better. Grinnell normally requires that you caption your videos, but I’ve found that the folks in Disability Resources support those endeavors. I’ve also found that just in time videos don’t require initial captions unless you have a student. However, it’s always a good idea to plan to caption.

One of the hardest, but most important, parts of online teaching, at least from my perspective, is building community among the students. Fortunately, that’s not an issue most Grinnell faculty will need to worry about if they have to transition their face-to-face courses to an online format; at this point in the semester, classes are communities.

And that’s what I have for now. We’ll see if I [8] come up with more in the next few days.

[1] The College President’s office, not the U.S. President’s office.

[2] More on those later.

[3] I don’t know who they all are. I hope that someone does.

[4] Center for Teaching, Learning, and Assessment.

[5] I will admit that I wish We are working on tools and training to help you consider how to teach online were part of the initial message, but I also realize that people are stressed and trying to get information out as quickly as they can.

[6] No, I don’t have a good explanation of the difference between video conferencing and video chat. I tend to use the terms interchangeably.

[7] A remnant of the DT days.

[8] Or, more likely, my colleagues and friends.

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Version 1.0.2 of 2020-03-08.