At the end of our second term, all teaching was shifted to online delivery because of concerns relating to the novel coronavirus and the related illness. For me, this meant I had to deal with two new preps, one on a completely new topic, all in the course of a couple of weeks. This was far from an optimal amount of time to prepare materials for a different form of delivery (on top of usual teaching and administrative obligations), but it was a valuable learning experience.
What I did
Lectures were recorded as per-slide embedded audio files in my PowerPoint slide decks. Recording the audio pretty much tripled my usual prep time, as it’s a bit unnerving speaking to a slide. I took this route because it seemed to be the simplest solution. I don’t usually record my lectures (for a combination of reasons, ranging from consent issues and IP control to the aim of fostering active engagement), and didn’t want to deal with the start-up costs associated with configuring new software.
I ran most of my seminars over Blackboard Collaborate Ultra, which is built into our Moodle class webpages. One of the seminars was primarily run through Microsoft Teams, as Blackboard was experiencing region-wide connectivity problems. The activities focused on small-group research and collaboration, with short slide presentations and class discussion at the end.
What went well…
From the comments and questions I received on the lecture slide decks, students remained engaged despite the physically-disconnected medium. An audio problem on my first lecture made this very apparent (although it meant I had to repeat the audio bits live and then re-record them). My group-focused exercises generally translated smoothly to remote learning with few modifications, and the medium seemed to break down some of the barriers for participation among the usually quieter students.
And what didn’t…
With the lectures, as I prepared them, it was impossible to gauge engagement beyond ex-post student questions and comments. Ignoring the substantial time-related costs for both preparation and consumption, important questions remain over the extensive margin of consumption. That is, the number of very engaged students is smaller than usual relative to the number of marginally engaged or unengaged students; ideally, there would be a shift towards increasing engagement across the spectrum.
One of my seminars ran into technological problems, which meant that I had to fix things on the fly. Teams does not allow bulk-adding to teams, nor does it do a particularly good job of identifying in-organization emails or names. Breakout groups in Blackboard work very well, but the program itself is an extremely greedy bandwidth hog, meaning that up to a third of my students in any given session would experience connectivity problems. Another issue is that, if students upload content to Blackboard, I can’t directly download it to make it available out of session on Moodle.
Because our IT department either didn’t or couldn’t bring online in-house tutorials for using some of these tools from a student’s perspective, I ended up playing tech support quite a bit. This became annoying very quickly, but I won’t rant about computing literacy here.
There are additional participation concerns, with 50% of my smaller class taking part and only up to 20% of my larger class engaging in the online sessions. To some extent, these figures are likely to have been driven by responses to the pandemic (such as students moving across international borders), but low expected opportunity costs were not a good predictor of participation. Ultimately, that’s not my problem, but it is a concern regarding learning outcomes, particularly if this becomes a longer-term arrangement out of necessity.
What I might do
Ultimately, any steps for moving forward will depend on a lot of currently unknown variables. Some of this uncertainty revolves around the extent of online teaching over the coming academic year: will it be entirely online, partly online, or all on-site? Some of it concerns class sizes, while availability of tools is another consideration. If I want to use an alternative tool for lectures and/or seminars, like Jitsi, is this a possibility?(1) One of the biggest considerations is how technologically literate my students may be, and whether any of my preferred solutions is feasible for students who regularly need help with more familiar software.
Most of my lectures are divided into three or so topics. Doing away with the ‘lecture’ as a format would make a lot of sense if it’s not a required delivery component.(2) Instead of lectures, I’d focus on short topic-driven slide decks that would lead to a short activity of some sort, potentially involving discussion-board participation or preparation of synchronous-discussion materials for each topic. My lectures typically bridge the gap between readings and applied/active exercises, so the aim of these short individual exercises would be the same.
Our seminars are aimed at providing students with an opportunity to actively engage with the class materials. These are, in person, smaller groups, but online there’s no real need to place the same caps on the active synchronous sessions. Most of my offline seminar activities adapt somewhat easily to online delivery, although some new preps may be warranted to take advantages of the new medium.
Some of the logistical aspects of seminars are more easily delivered online. Dividing students into small groups, either through breakout groups, or a list of student names, is easier done in a virtual classroom than trying to get students to physically move around a classroom. End-of-session discussions are more easily facilitated because it is simpler to provide clear deliverables online than in person. By specifying exactly what needs to be fit onto a slide or document, I can direct students to focus on the most important take-away points from their exercise; in the traditional classroom, if they haven’t considered this, everyone has to suffer through someone literally reading all of their notes from the previous half hour or more.
What about when we go back offline?
The most interesting longer-term question relates to what – if anything – gets translated back into normal teaching practice after this online experiment is no longer required. I’ve been restructuring most of my lectures over the past couple of years to feature more interactive discussion components, an I expect this to continue. I also intend to continue to explore the use of asynchronous communication tools to improve student engagement beyond the typical lecture/seminar/office-hour format. I’ve used Moodle discussion boards in the past with little success, but see Teams as a more natural environment for this sort of thing, especially if I can use it to foster discussion over recent research and ongoing policy debates.
I am also likely to adopt a combined online/traditional approach to office hours. In a typical term, my office hours are limited to the days when I am on-site teaching and one additional day, when I typically handle additional administrative or teaching-related tasks. I try to avoid traveling during crush, which provides additional limitations to on-site availability. My Teams-based office hours since we’ve gone remote have worked out well, so I intend to use these to supplement on-site availability in the future.
(1) Zoom didn’t even work the last time I tried to use it for work, although it was funny watching my collaborators move their lips as if they were speaking.
(2) During my PG Cert in Higher Education training, I attended a class on improving lecturing. It was informative that every single suggested approach involved not lecturing. The addendum regarding class size and disciplinary requirements was YMMV.