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Reflections on remote teaching in Term Two of Fall 2020 (#1121)

Topics/tags: Teaching

At the end of Fall Term Two, I mused about the workload associated with my teaching that term. Is mused the right word? I know I whined about the workload. I guess that’s part of musing, at least in my world. In any case, an alum who is also in the biz [1] sent me a note saying that they thought it was valuable to reflect back on the courses we teach. I agree. But I’m not sure that musing was much of a reflection. I did describe some of my activities, particularly my satisfaction with that model of mastery grading and my dissatisfaction with the work involved. But I’m not sure I captured much about two key aspects of the fall: remote teaching and teaching in seven-week terms.

Although I’ve taught remotely before [2], that was a special situation. I haven’t taught these courses remotely. I’ll be teaching remotely for the spring. I have no idea whether or not I’ll be teaching remotely in the fall [3]. Since I’ll be teaching that way again, it’s worth reflecting on what worked well and what worked well.

In contrast, this was the first time I’ve taught in an accelerated format. I’ll have to do so at least twice more [4]. So it’s worth thinking ahead to spring, particularly since I’m teaching CSC-151 again in Spring Term One.

Covering two large aspects of teaching in one musing seems like a bit too much. So I’ll explore issues of remote teaching and learning now and then use a second musing for issues of accelerated teaching and learning. I’m not sure that I can separate the two aspects, but I’ll try my best. Perhaps I’ll end up with a third piece in which I reflect more on how the two relate. And, particularly since there are leftover issues on mastery grading and a variety of discussions about the fall coming up, the odds are good that my muse will insist on additional musings on these topics. Oh, she’ll also want me to read and respond to student comments and scores from the EOCEs [6,7].

On to remote teaching. In Term Two of Fall 2020, I taught a largish [8], remote, workshop-style, synchronous, accelerated, introductory course in computer science using the Racket language, the DrRacket programming environment, and the Microsoft Teams collaboration platform [9]. We met daily for 90-minute sessions with an optional twenty-minute follow-up period.

In some sense, remote teaching is like in-person teaching in that the instructor needs to draw upon a variety of ingredients: preparation, instructional materials, assignments, the structure of class sessions, and such. And, of course, the people make a big difference: the students (and their attitudes), the peer educators (if you are fortunate enough to work with peer educators), and the instructor.

Teaching online reminded me once again that good teaching, or at least some of my best teaching, is often about building community. It was core to my first online course. It was core to these online courses. Community can be built asynchronously or synchronously, but it’s part of teaching, at least teaching of small classes.

I love my CSC-151 students [10,11]. They engaged with the material. They participated actively in class sessions. They collaborated with each other. They dealt with hiccups in the course. They dealt with the insanely difficult assignments I am known to give. They asked good questions. They maintained a positive attitude in a difficult situation. What more could one want?

My mentors and graders were awesome. My graders struggled a bit to keep up with the amount of material I assigned, so I’ll need to find a way to help with that. Or is that an issue for the musing on accelerated terms? Possibly both.

I’m me, whether I’m in-person or remote. I lost the opportunity to include too many significant physical gestures, although I did show the students me hitting my head against the whiteboard as a reminder that too much hitting your head against the wall is a bad thing [14]. More broadly, my teaching is gestural; as I note in my syllabus, teaching is a kind of performance. Beyond the performance, I did miss using the whiteboard to draw things, but I can look for ways to address that [15]. Of course, focused on the boards also meant that students had a nearly complete record of the course [16].

Pair programming generally worked quite well online. Students engaged with each other. For each problem, we indicated the role each student was to serve, and I think that helped. One of my students said they appreciated how clear I was that everyone can and should contribute in pairs and that everyone should respect their peers’ strengths. I’d prefer to be in a situation in which it’s easier to overhear and observe what is going on in pairs (or what is not going on in pairs), but online pairs appear to be a success.

As importantly, I hear from my students that working online in pairs helped build community among students. Many of my students tell me they got to know more students (and better) in CSC-151 than they did in their other courses.

We used a particular protocol for pairs: I’d generate random pairs and post them in the Lab channel. The first person in the pair would start a video chat and invite the second person. Since they were all in the same channel, it was easy for the mentors and me to pop in and out, and it was easy for the students to tag us to let us know that they needed help (@staff). Keeping track of which groups had been most recently visited was occasionally an issue, but not much of one.

The one problem I encountered, and it may be one that I have to solve for next term, was how to get a message to all the students. I tried using my @students tag, but it didn’t seem like they got it.

I see that Teams now has real breakout groups. I’ll have to see how well those work. (Hmmm … How does one test such things?)

As always [17], I set up a fairly rich Web site for my students. Is that associated with remote teaching? I guess not. Was it different in any way? Well, I included links to Teams and Gradescope, but that’s not much different. I cut out the hierarchical menus. Still not that different.

I recorded each class, or almost every class, or the introductory portion of almost every class (before students went to lab). I wonder if there’s a way to find out whether students watched those I know that some told me they did early in the term, and perhaps those who missed class did. I hate watching myself. I hate listening to myself. But some students told me it was useful. So I’ll keep doing it.

I also realized that I should probably make short videos separate from class. Perhaps I knew that, too. But I didn’t have time. However, there were classes in which I ended up having to give mini-lectures. Those would have been better as separate recordings, perhaps even recordings I could reuse. And if I made them separate, I wouldn’t have to use class time on them, giving more time for lab.

That reminds me: While pair programming worked well, labs took longer than usual. I’d say at least 20% longer than usual. I’m not quite sure why. Setup was certainly a bit slower. Students may have been better at waiting for each other (that’s a good thing). And there was less of an opportunity for me to call everyone back together to look through a common problem. It was also harder to think through things on paper, which is important in designing algorithms. I’m not sure whether or not I want to address that issue. It may be that a shared whiteboard is enough [18].

In full-class sessions, I did not require students to share live video of themselves. I’m not even sure whether or not I requested it. I don’t think we should require video for a variety of reasons, not least that students don’t necessarily want to share their living situation with other students. However, I must admit that I feel like I know the students who shared their video feeds much better than I know the students who did not. There are some students who I would not recognize if we passed by each other on the street. And it feels like the other students may feel similarly; when I asked students to comment on each other and gave them both specific students to comment on and optional room for additional comments, the ones most frequently on screen got the most comments.

Early on, students asked to use the class chat for assorted side notes and comments to each other. I gave them permission, although I did warn them that I would check in from time to time [19]. From conversations I’ve had with students about positive aspects of online learning, and from some conversations I had with students in the class, that seemed to be successful, at least for part of the class [20].

I’m not going to change my requirements or recommendations for video sharing. However, I will mention the above to my next set of students.

During full-class sessions, I continued my regular approach of calling on students randomly. Instead of the card decks I’ve used in face-to-face classes, I relied on a Racket program I wrote [21]. On occasion, students even made comments on it [22]. If I can find a way to run that during class without taking up too much screen space, I may use that instead of card decks.

I spent a lot of time answering questions on Microsoft Teams. I don’t know how students felt about that time, but I preferred it to both in-person meetings and email answering. It’s better than in-person help because I could quickly rotate between students, giving each a suggestion and then moving on to the next. Students didn’t always get feedback quite as promptly as they would have liked. However, many also discovered that with an extra few minutes, they could answer questions on their own. It also seemed a bit more immediate than email (and didn’t clog my inbox). I’m not sure whether I’ll set up specific teams hours in addition to office hours, but it’s worth considering. I might also want to consider whether I more regularly turn teams off so that I don’t spend too much of each day answering questions.

I appreciated using Teams for class, for lab, and for helping students because it meant we didn’t have to switch platforms for different tasks. One of the downsides of Webex is that Grinnell does not provide Webex accounts to students, which means that their collaborative work outside of class is necessarily on a separate platform from their in-class work. I’m not sure whether that also holds in Blackboard Collaborate Ultimate, but since I refuse to use BBC [23], that’s not an issue. I’m not sure about Zoom, particularly since I don’t know enough about the College’s contract with Zoom. But if the College’s agreement doesn’t include student licenses, we’re back to the problem of students having to switch environments. I also appreciated that students quickly grew comfortable with Teams and would readily screen share when we were talking. Unsurprisingly, students were better with screen sharing than I was.

There were, of course, some downsides to Teams. Unlike email, where students generally don’t know when I’ve read and received [25] their messages, Teams provides a clear indication that I’ve read a message. That meant that students knew when I was delaying a response (or thought they knew; sometimes I’d accidentally click on a message and not read it). Most students were comfortable with Sam read my message but doesn’t have time to reply right now, but a few found that situation very disconcerting and I had to learn to send a quick I read your message but don’t have time to reply right now.

When running class, I found a two-monitor setup essential [26]. One shared monitor had the eboard (text-based whiteboard) for class, DrRacket, and a session of Chrome with a student view of Gradescope and the class Web site. The other had my Teams instance, my instructor view of Gradescope, and some open terminal windows for behind-the-scenes editing. That helped ensure that I kept private information private. At times, I opened an extra Teams session on my shared monitor, but that generally wasn’t a good strategy.

On a few days, I kept a separate computer running that was connected to Teams as one of my alter egos (leumaS ykslebeR). That approach allowed me to check on the student perspective of the Team session. And, on a few days in which my laptop refused to reboot promptly [27], I had another computer to work on. I got good at making sure that I didn’t get feedback between the two.

Students in the class created both a GroupMe Group [28] and a Discord Server for the class. I stayed away from both of them and did nothing to promote them other than to allow students to mention them in class. As I understand it, students who used the Discord Server appreciated the community it built, and almost no one used GroupMe. For the future, I do have to remind students about what kind of help is acceptable on Discord (or any online community) and what citation is necessary. Maybe that should go in the introductory survey, too.

What else? I’m sure some other things will come to mind immediately after I post this. Oh well, those can be the subject of another musing. In writing this, I’ve also realized that I did put some useful information in my whining [30]. That doesn’t mean that I won’t repeat some of that information, particularly about assignments, in another musing.

In the summer, I said that I expected that online Grinnell classes would be less good than in-person Grinnell classes, but that small classes with Grinnell faculty and Grinnell students would still be better than the vast majority of classes out there. How did the online 151 compare to the in-person 151? We covered a bit less material, but that’s a consequence of the term timetable, not of being online. Students learned a lot. The students who came in with the most knowledge, or who found this material natural, may have coasted a bit more than normal, but not too much. I think the students who struggled the most still generally did better than the students who struggle in the in-person 151. That may be a consequence of fewer topics, of mastery grading, of something else. Students who wanted to be known were known. Students who were a bit less willing to put themselves out there were probably less known; that’s the part of remote teaching I regret the most. But all in all? I’d say that this was pretty damn close to the quality of my in-person CSC-151.

I’ve written a bunch here. Do you want a TL;DR? TB;DW [30]. However, I plan to write a broader summary of what I learned from my Fall 2020 Term Two class, which may serve as a kind of TL;DR [31] for all the musings about that course.

[1] Higher ed, not computer science.

[2] A class on Computing and Art, or Art and Computing, or something like that.

[3] I suppose it depends on how vaccines are distributed and how effective they are.

[4] I’m told that Grinnell is planning semesters for the fall. But someone might suggest we make terms permanent, or that we we switch to blocks, or something else [5].

[5] I’d vote for the quarters they have at Chicago, Dartmouth, Stanford, and places like that. It’s what I learned under. It gives more freedom for variety (40+ courses rather than 32).

[6] End-of-course evaluations.

[7] I consider it valuable to reflect back a class before I read the EOCEs.

[8] Large for Grinnell: 34 students. I’m starting with 37 or so in the spring.

[9] My muse reminds me that I need to write about my experiences with Teams, too.

[10] To clarify: I do not love my students romantically. I love how they approached the course and the material.

[11] When I told a colleague this about the second week of the term, they responded, Sam, don’t you always love your students? I had to admit that I almost always love my students. I’m fortunate to work at Grinnell. That reminds me: I owe that colleague a call [12].

[12] Sam takes a break from using to send an email message.

[14] I always feel light-headed after doing that. I may need to videotape that the next time I do it so that I can just show the tape from here on out.

[15] I did draw a few things on the eboards using ASCII art.

[16] Is it just me, or did that paragraph have too many asides?

[17] Always = At least since I came to Grinnell in Fall 1997.

[18] I’m still waiting for the College to approve my use of Miro. Maybe I’ll have to make do with the limited feature set of Microsoft Whiteboard. Or maybe I’ll get my students to use the Teams Class Notebook.

[19] Did I warn them that I would make my own snarky comments? I’m not sure. But after a day or two of class, they should have figured that out.

[20] The EOCEs will tell me if other members of the class found them a bit off-putting.

[21] I consider that a safe use of FERPA-protected information. The students in the class already know who is in the class and the program exists only on my College-owned laptop. There was a point during which I wasn’t sure whether or not I could use the software, since our not-quite policy on internally generated software suggested it needed review, but I’ve been told that uses like this were not supposed to be under the restrictions of the not-quite policy. Also, the not-quite policy appears to have disappeared.

[22] For example, I recall one time a student observed that my code must have been checking students off, because it report that You’ve called on everyone once, or something like that.

[23] A limited number of faces on the screen. No background blurring or hiding. A mediocre UI [24].

[24] Perhaps mediocre UI overstates the quality.

[25] Or vice versa.

[26] Well, a laptop screen plus a separate monitor.

[27] That is, my laptop took about an hour to reboot. I still haven’t debugged that issue.

[28] Is that the noun for communities in GroupMe? It’s a Slack in Slack. It’s a Team in Microsoft (or a Teams Working Group [29], if you’re at Grinnell). It’s a server in Discord.

[29] I want to call TWGs twigs.

[30] Too bad; didn’t write.

[31] I want a Tilde-R character as an abbrev for TL;DR.

Version 1.0 of 2021-01-05 .