Coping by learning

It’s been one of the more heartening sides of all this that colleagues have been so forthcoming in sharing their ideas about how to move teaching online: I’m guessing you’ve seen at least half-a-dozen pieces on models and techniques and how-tos in the past week alone.

Rather than add to that, I want to think about another aspect of this crisis: coping.

This matters not only because it’s a very stressful time, but also because the move to self-isolation has deprived us of one of the most powerful tools for managing that stress: face-to-face interaction.

Sitting around your home, with time on your hands and limited options, is not a good recipe for positive thinking.

But learning can be a help in all this.

Giving people the tools to rationalise and explore their situation more dispassionately can be support more general efforts to keep our shit together.

In essence this is about Type I and II thinking [I’m not even going to put a link to that – it can be your task for the day, to lose yourself in some behavioural psychology]: we can balance our gut reaction to the situation with some more systematic and unemotional reasoning.

Indeed, all this time we have on our hands will be the perfect opportunity.

So what does that look like, in practical terms.

To take one example, I used my (online) class last week to ask students to do some quick digging on what the different institutions of the EU had done so far in the crisis, putting their notes into a Google Doc. 5 minutes later we had a good list of elements and the basis of a discussion about it.

That discussion was partly about why some institutions had done lots and others had done nothing, but also it become a discussion about more abstractedly models of how political systems react in such situations and how it taps into our feelings about it all.

In particular, we ending up talking about “something must be done” as a social/media demand and how that balanced with what could actually usefully be done.

As a result, we moved from a comment about the European Parliament doing nothing – except stopping plenary sessions – to a recognition that its role as law-making and overseer of due process means its time will come a bit further down the line.

None of this was an attempt to say “everything’s fine”, but rather to help students have more tools for making sense of what’s going on around them.

And this can be more generally applied: as one of the many who has had to deal with the vast complexity and rapid mutability of Brexit over the past few years, the principles are much the same.

Think of your subject area as a set of analytical skills and models more than as a description of ‘how things are’: give students tools and language to get a grip on it all.

Invite students to put themselves in the position of others, so they can see why those others reach the decisions that they do: your own way of making sense of the world isn’t the only way.

Get them to consider hypothetical extensions of the current situation and how they might act then: this can help make more sense of choices being now.

And remind students that politics – and life – is rather tricky. Even with the best available information and the most rational decision-making, missteps happen and costs are incurred.

Those costs are human lives and that is a terrible thing and cannot – should not – be smoothed away (especially as this pandemic comes ever closer to us individually), but it does not mean we have to stop trying to help our students, our families and ourselves from becoming better equipped to get through these exceptional times.

Syllabus Boilerplate for Online Teaching

You are welcome to copy and paste any of this text into your new syllabi. Documenting these types of policies at the beginning will save you time and trouble later on.

Time Commitment

Although this course does not require your physical presence on campus, it still requires that you commit the same amount of time as you would to an on-campus course. Per federal requirements, a 3-credit course equates to, on average, a minimum of 3 hours per week engaging with course instruction and an additional 6 hours per week completing assigned work outside of class. You will need to devote the same time and effort to an online course that you would to a course that meets in a physical classroom. 

Self-Directed Learning

This course may require independently engaging with information in text, video, or audio format; contributing to online discussion; completing writing assignments; and/or conducting research. While there might not be mandatory simultaneous interaction with the instructor or other students, regular and substantial participation in the course is required.  

Communication Plan

Contact me with questions about the course using your university email account or [LMS] communication tool (a [LMS] mail message, comment in a designated course discussion). I check my university email and the [LMS] course website daily during normal business hours and you can expect a response to your question within 24 hours, except on weekends or official holidays. 

Confidentiality

Students might connect concepts being studied in the course with personal experience. Confidentiality is necessary for a welcoming and effective learning environment. Students should not repeat, forward, or otherwise communicate information about other students to individuals not enrolled in the course, nor should they allow others access to the course. Violation of this policy can result in removal from the course. Do not reveal personal information that you do not want made public or that might place yourself or others in legal jeopardy.  

Civility 

The university is committed to maintaining a respectful learning environment in which students can express a variety of ideas and opinions. Uncivil, obscene, or disrespectful communication negatively affects the learning of other students and is not allowed. Disruptive behavior can result in removal from the course. 

Technology

This course might require the use of hardware and software that meets certain university-established compatibility standards; the ability to access, securely store, and export files in specified formats; the use of integrated video, anti-plagiarism, or other applications; or the access of externally-hosted course materials. Contact the university’s [insert name of IT support office and contact info] if you experience difficulties with any of the above. The instructor is not able to diagnose technical problems.

Online Lesson Planning for Suddenly Teaching Seminars Online

I know many of us are struggling with having to learn how to teach online in a very short period of time. For those of you about to turn your small discussion seminar into an online class, I thought it might be useful to go over some basics of online lesson planning.

Online seminars should, whenever possible, include a combination of synchronous and asynchronous approaches.  I want to help you build lesson plans that maximize the benefits of each approach to online learning. Even if you don’t have the ability to use synchronous tools, you should still find this useful.

The choice between what kind of activities to choose for your suddenly online class should be driven by content needs, learning outcome priorities, and efficient use of limited time for interaction during live online discussions.  If an activity can be done asynchronously without sacrificing quality, then do it. For example, if you normally start class by asking students to identify something they found surprising or interesting about the week’s readings, keep doing that! Just have them answer in a blog or discussion forum before class, then concentrate on the points of common interest during the synchronous discussion.

Asynchronous Activities

Students complete asynchronous activities on their own time, before, during, or after a synchronous class session. You give students a window of time in which they need to complete the activity, and they do so at their convenience within that window, not necessarily at the same time as their classmates. 

These activities should meet at least one of the following needs:

  • Prepare students for a discussion or presentation (individual or group)
  • Check student understanding of a specific term, concept, theory, case, or idea.
  • Follow-up on a discussion topic that needed more time
  • Initiate discussion on a topic there wasn’t time to cover at all.
  • Reduce the amount of time needed to deliver content synchronously
  • Give students meaningful work that will enhance their understanding of key content.

Synchronous Session Activities

Synchronous activities occur within a voice conferencing style virtual classroom. In these sessions, everyone meets live online at the same time for class. In some cases they will directly follow or precede an asynchronous activity, as the two types of activities should complement each other.

These activities should be used to meet one or more of the following needs:

  • Host a discussion that is well-suited to instantaneous response.
  • Review points of confusion in the readings, lectures, or asynchronous discussions
  • Student presentations and small group problem-solving
  • Introduce, discuss or review particularly complex topics, procedures, or ideas.
  • Identify and assess key take home points for the week and build bridges and connections to previous or future material
  • Give students meaningful work that will enhance their understanding of key content.

Example Activities

This is not an exhaustive list by any means and while they are written as paired lessons, faculty should be creative in how they build their class sessions. But for those just getting started, feel free to draw from this list and combine activities as you see fit.

Samples Lessons Combining Asynchronous and Synchronous Activities
Asynchronous ActivitiesSynchronous Activities
Quiz on prerecorded lectures and readings before class to check understanding using a quiz function like Google Forms.Discuss common points of confusion and focus on those to ensure understanding of key terms. 
Ask students to propose discussion questions for the next session on a discussion boardPick a handful of the discussion questions, have the student explain their question and invite responses.
Ask students to work in small groups before class to complete a prompt or activity.Have each group present their work and invite other students to critique and offer counter arguments. If the group work requires a short period of collaboration, use the breakout group function in your VTC.
After class, post a couple of discussion questions for students to answer on topics that you were unable to cover in class. Ask students to respond substantively to one or more questions by the next day and to offer a counterargument to another classmate by the day after that.During the class session, cover as many discussion topics as you like, but recognize that you may not have the time to achieve the desired depth and breadth. Stop discussions as needed to move on to the next topic, but provide a forum for them to continue the conversation after class.
Upload a short lecture on content that needs to be delivered. Alternatively, send them a link to a video. Ask students to post questions, take a quiz, or respond to a prompt in their LMS blog before class.Address any student questions about the lecture or video and highlight a couple of key points before initiating discussion on a related topic. Poll students using the chat function or ‘reactions’ within the VTC to check understanding. 
Ask students to annotate or analyze a key reading. They can annotate in the free software Perusall, or ask them to create a single slide that notes key points.Compare student key points or annotations and make sure that everyone has consensus on the takeaways. Apply the concepts or lessons to a case.
Have students use the Wiki function in the LMS in teams to collaborate and build an entry on a key theory, process, concept, or case.Challenge students on elements of their wiki, including assumptions, missing information, questionable conclusions, or other points of improvement.

One final piece of advice:When designing lessons, be clear in your own minds and communicate to students about the purpose of asynchronous activities. Provide feedback to students (individually or as a group, in writing or during a synchronous session) on their performance so they know their work has value. Estimate how much time a particular activity will take, and make sure you aren’t overburdening them with assignments when you also account for time spent in synchronous sessions.

What ideas do you have for lessons that combine synchronous and asynchronous tools?

What tools are we using? And why Discord should be one of them.

I’m really curious as to how different institutions are managing the sudden transition to online learning. For some, they are trying to maximize the use of synchronous learning with the use of video conferencing software such as Zoom, webex, or Blackboard Collaborate Ultra. For others, asynchronous tools like discussion boards, blogs, and social media are the main option, perhaps because synchronous is impractical or out of reach, perhaps because that’s how online teaching is already done there and that’s where people have expertise. I imagine many schools are using a mix of both.

We have asked faculty to include a significant synchronous component using Blackboard Collaborate Ultra to most closely recreate the in-residence experience. We have a number of advantages in doing so that other institutions don’t have–our students are all adults and paid to be here, and we already had the software in place. Devices may vary and home-based internet connections can be spotty, but we are well positioned to continue classes at their regular times without interruption. The biggest issues are those everyone is facing–quickly training up faculty and students.

For asynchronous tools, we benefit from having access to the Microsoft 365 suite–so things like Tools, Sharepoint, and Forms are available in addition to Blackboard’s discussion forums, blogs, and journals and Panopto for lecture recording. But I’m always on the lookout for other useful tools that can recreate multiple features at once. I’m not talking about Audacity for podcasts or Perusall for document annotation–I mean something that can do discussion boards and chat and voice discussion and allow for file sharing.

What I want to use is Discord.

For those not familiar, Discord is a free to use social media platform originally used by gamers to communicate with their fellow players and fans. Many content creators use it as a community-building space, particularly podcasts, but the platform would work very well for educational purposes. You have to be invited into a particular server, and then once in, you have access to a series of channels dedicated to discussion on particular topics. The channels can be text only or voice-based, restricted access or open to everyone in the server, and you can upload images and share links. The creator controls who can delete comments, create new channels, and can set up something called ‘slow mode’ which prevents a single person from dominating a conversation. Combined with a google drive to store documents, Discord could be a powerful space to connect students and faculty, many of whom may be scattered by time zones around now.

This is a sample server I created. The left side bar shows all the available text and voice channels. The right side bar shows who is currently online. In the center is the chat within a particular channel. Its easy to scroll up or down through messages or do a search, and you can ‘pin’ messages that are particularly important. You can also make channels read-only to communicate important information.

I’ve used Discord to connect with fans of various podcasts, but never for a class. I think it could work very well, though. Its pretty user-friendly and students will pick up on it quickly. The server creator has a lot of ability to customize settings to control who can access what, so it would be easy to build a channel and hide it while you are working on adding content, then let everyone see it. Group work is a breeze–you can assign students different roles, such as ‘Group 1’, and then give that group its own chat and voice channel. Sure, Discord doesn’t have video access or screen sharing, but voice-only access puts less of a strain on the system and doesn’t leave out students that don’t have cameras. Combine this with links to documents (in a google drive or shared one drive or dropbox), and I think Discord will do everything you need it to communicate with students and have high quality discussions.

I’m not teaching right now so I can’t try this out myself, but if someone else wants to take this idea and run with it, please do. I can walk you through the server set up and how to invite your students. All I ask is that you tell me how it goes!

Yet more tips on moving teaching online

Chad and Amanda have already given their ideas on the crash move to online, so here’s my version too, in graphic form.

You can download a PDF version here.

As the others have said, you need to triage your teaching: what absolutely must happen and what’s just nice to have?

If you’re struggling, then ask colleagues, both within your institution and beyond: there are lots of great people on Twitter (start with the @ALPSblog follow list).

More Tips for Moving Instruction Online

What a time to come back to ALPS! I’ve been absent the last few months as I started my new job as Associate Director of the Teaching Excellence Center at the US Naval War College. But with the sudden move to online teaching due to the coronavirus, I wanted to stop by and offer my top five things for faculty to consider as you make the move to online.

#1 Accept we can’t do everything we had planned. This is okay. We are ALWAYS making choices about what content to cut, as we know there is always greater breadth or depth we can bring to the table. A US Politics course has already cut content on Congress to one week, when they know they could offer an entire course on it. So, be brutal, focus on essentials, and cut back as needed. 

#2: Build in redundancy if you are using synchronous tools. Students may have trouble connecting from home, so if you are using Zoom or BB Collaborate Ultra or any other web-conferencing to hold classes, record the session and allow students to participate via chat, Teams, discussion boards, social media, etc.

#3 Remember that suddenly teaching online is not the same as fully online education. Those courses have months of prep and are intentionally designed for an online environment. We still have to deliver courses in as high a quality as we can, but don’t worry about making everything look pretty or be overwhelmed by most online advice you see online.

#4 Use the tools you already know, and then practice with 1 or two more that are needed to keep the course going. Its okay to record a podcast style lesson with the free and easy-to-use Audacity rather than learn Panopto. Hold virtual office hours before class if you are doing synchronous classes. This will give students a chance to check their equipment set up, troubleshoot problems, and familiarize both professors and student swith the platform.

#5 Communicate extensively with your students about changes, assignments, due dates, etc. Give them a space to talk about what is going on and to socialize. Physical social distancing doesn’t have to mean there’s no human contact, so give them that space.

These are tough times, but its when those of us who care about pedagogy can be useful resources to our students and colleagues. Help where you can, and take care of yourselves.

Tips for Moving Instruction Online

Still this?

Higher Ed is in crisis mode in much of the USA, with faculty at a growing list of universities being told that on-campus instruction is suspended until further notice. If you work at one of these institutions, here’s some advice:

First, a great analysis by Rebecca Barrett, assistant professor of sociology at Arkansas State University:

Please Do a Bad Job of Putting Your Courses Online.

Some mundane advice from me:

Design according to student learning outcomes

  • What activities will help students learn what you want them to learn? There are multiple options that serve the same goal, and some function well in an online environment.

Students benefit from consistent difference

  • Organize the course as a series of similarly-structured modules that include varied tasks; for example, readings + writing assignment + graded discussion + quiz in each module. Spaced repetition of activities with different cognitive demands aids learning. Students appreciate a routine — it helps them develop a schedule in a new environment.
  • If your students are (or were) full-time residential undergraduates without families, set deadlines for 10:00 pm so they aren’t awake past midnight.

Use a variety of content delivery methods

  • Convert lecture notes to brief essays or outlines. Create visual presentations with PowerPoint or Prezi. Assign e-book chapters or journal articles in the library’s databases.
  • Producing high-quality video is very labor intensive and nearly impossible to create on short notice without professional expertise. Audio must be captioned for the hearing-impaired. Instead use existing resources like Crash Course.

Include opportunities for student-student interaction; e.g., discussions

  • Require that students post substantial discussion comments by the halfway point in each week/module, and that they meaningfully respond to the comments of others.
  • Interact with students by regularly posting your own comments in discussions.
  • Grading discussions in Canvas is easy with a rubric and Speedgrader.

Testing

  • Your university’s learning management system (LMS) will grade multiple-choice and true/false tests for you.
  • Create a question bank first, then draw questions for a test from it. This will save time and effort in the long run.
  • Timed tests where students have on average only 1-2 minutes per question will minimize cheating. Some universities have purchased tools that are integrated with the LMS that lock down browsers (to prevent new windows from being opened) and monitor students activity during tests.

Writing assignments

Short, frequent writing assignments (1-2 pages per module) are better than only one or two longer assignments. Frequent practice and feedback = better student work.

Time spent grading can be greatly minimized with rubrics.

Specify file types (doc, docx, pdf) to ensure that you can read what students submit.

Build support networks

Your colleagues down the hall and across campus are valuable resources. Benefit from them. Someone probably knows a solution to the problem you’re struggling with, whether it be a technological obstacle or carving out work time at home when your child’s elementary school has closed.

These actions also improve your teaching in on-campus courses by making it easier for students to learn and by reducing the time and effort you expend on unsatisfying tasks.

What’s the point of student engagement anyway?

So, we’re doing a thing in our Department.

FFS Google, with your heteronormativity…

Despite doing lots of L&T innovation, we’re making a point of going to our university-organised training sessions, to scope and refresh our practice. Just because we think we’re doing good things, doesn’t mean we aren’t potentially missing stuff.

So last week I went with my colleague to a workshop on student engagement.

It was really good to spend time devoted to this, because it’s one of those topics that floats in the background, but often fails to get enough attention in of itself.

Much of the session was ‘how to get and keep students engaged in a classroom’ [spoiler: keep things active and reinforce positive behaviour], but for me the best bit was considering the question of what ‘engagement’ might actually be.

This might seem odd, since it’s almost axiomatically good to have student engagement, so why even bother going there?

But with even a moments’ thought (and we gave noticeably more than that), it’s really difficult to pin down what it might involve.

Sure, part of it is ‘are they paying attention’, but it’s also about their attitude towards learning, their emotions. We want them to be participating, but also to be actually really into it.

Which is odd.

Because once you start to unpack engagement, you have to also start unpacking the paths of that engagement. And those paths don’t have to run through your classroom or your activities.

I’m sure you, like I do, examples of students who really never turned up, or contributed, but totally aced their exams. Or students who were passionate about the subject, but never could formalise that into performances in assessment.

Yes, we offer students a framework for learning to help them make the most of their potential and their motivation, but it’s a framework that has a pretty reductive palate of outcomes, based around formal assessment. You might be able to write them a glowing reference, but it’s not quite the same (nor does it carry the same weight) as an A in their assessment.

Education systems are simultaneously liberating and constraining.

I can easily say that I learnt much more from the non-assessed aspects of my time in education than from the stuff I revised and sat exam for. Things about myself, and about people, and about the work (about teaching even) that just weren’t on the syllabus (and never will be).

And that’s fine.

The most rewarding experiences I have had as an instructor/teacher/facilitator have come from seeing individuals discover themselves and their world, from taking their steps into their futures, almost totally disconnected from how they did in tests.

Perhaps that’s why I love active learning; for its potential to open up new paths for individuals to act, without prejudice about what’s right or wrong.

That’s not an abrogation of responsibility, but rather a reconfiguration of our role relative to our students. We have many ways to become ourselves, so surely we have to respect that diversity and to acknowledge that what works, works.

None of this is to say that I don’t love it when I see an entire class of super-focused students, lasered-in on the task. But it’s also to recognise that this is rare and that the value of education lies as least as much in what students construct as in what we build for them.

So next time you through in the line about the centrality of student engagement, maybe consider what that actually means.

Simulating for Instructional Continuity

My university is feverishly* trying to prepare for the disruptive effects of Covid-19. The main concern is a campus shutdown while the semester is still underway. I have created a table-top exercise on instructional continuity that I’ll be using for a hastily-scheduled faculty training workshop on Wednesday afternoon. The willingness of our library staff to host this event on such extremely short notice is greatly appreciated.

Don’t be this

My plan is for small groups of faculty members to sit at different tables with copies of the disruption worksheet linked above available for everyone. I’ll bring dice so that people at each table can generate random numbers. Faculty will discuss their answers to the questions with their table-mates and then I’ll convene the entire room for a short debriefing. There should be time for me to do some quick and dirty teaching on using a few basic Canvas LMS features to increase instructional resilience.

Feel free to use this simulation exercise for disaster preparedness efforts on your own campus.

*Yes, that’s an attempt at wordplay.

Brain meet meme

So we did the meme thing in class.

As I discussed last week, I wanted to check whether it did really bring anything to the discussion, given my doubts.

And it did. Just not what I thought it would.

I’d asked students in the lecture to drop memes into the collaborative document, on the theme of “the EU as it was, the EU as it is.” (not the most meme-y title, but whatever).

From what we got, I can tell you a number of things.

Firstly, most students clearly just googled “EU meme” to see what they could find, rather than making their own memes. Perhaps that’s a refinement to consider, using something like this.

Secondly, most of my students aren’t that well disposed to the EU.

Thirdly, the EU isn’t the subject of much meme-making.

And fourthly, most of those memes are about the EU banning memes.

[sic]

We talked about this last point the most, mainly because there was a long struggle on their part to consider the most logical reason for why, despite the EU banning memes, we were a) able to find lots of memes, and b) I was allowed to run a session in class about memes.

If you’ve not worked it out, I’ll leave it to you to go and check (hint: look for news sources that talk about what happened, rather than what might happen).

Any way, it became a good opportunity to talk about being a rigorous researcher and sense-checking what you find. That’s not a point just about the EU, but about everything you study.

The jury is still out on using memes like this, but it was good to have this discussion. My concern is whether we might have it again.