This is our third Guest Post related to the impact of school and university closings that are catapulting schools into distance teaching on the fly!
Here’s Part 1 from Martin – Online Teaching in the Trenches (Thanks, Martin!)
Online Teaching In The Trenches
So, my credentials here are different. I do have some teaching experience but my main experience is with curriculum development and implmentation with a heavy dose of technical expertise and focus on assessment. I’ve chaired statewide initiatives and worked as an advisor for a number of K-12 districts. My main experience is with STEM instruction, including writing instruction at the university level. I’ve developed and led online learning initiative with varying degrees of success. There are valid individual objections to online instruction, but now we have no choice, so let’s make the best of this.
There’s a right way to do this which can produce better outcomes than traditional in-class instruction, but they take a lot of time to set up. We don’t have that, so we’re going to have to MacGuyver this shit and accept a lesser outcome. I’m assuming an environment where you have access to your campus, but where work-from-home policies or quarantine may be in place leaving you with minimal technical support. Assuming here you’re pretty much on your own.
Your first decision is whether to do live instruction or recorded. Live takes less work since you’re mostly just doing what you do in class, but technology problems are more critical at a time when your IT support is at its worst, and students may not always be able to make that time work. Some may have to share computers, some may be dealing with other realities of a pandemic. Recorded affords you time to sort through some of these issues and is more flexible on both ends, but takes more work to do. The upshot is that you will always haveyour recorded content so if we are still doing this in the fall, your fall offering is now mostly set up. My instructors typically do both – recorded lectures, with live discussion sessions and office hours. Effectively a flipped classroom model. It preserves some of that direct interaction without relying on it working for everyone. When we do have live lecture instruction, I typically insist we have a tech support staffer in the room simply due to the frequency something goes wrong.
Zoom is the go-to standard for live instruction. Most institutions have licenses. Students are often familiar with it. It runs on all platforms, and Zoom Rooms allow you to schedule your Zoom session just like a course. It can scale to 100 participants for a standard license or 300 for an institutional one. Do some practice ahead of time to learn how to deal with muting, getting the interface the way you need it, making sure your screen sharing works, etc.
Zoom can also record your session so you can use it as a poor-mans recorded lecture tool. It works both as a tool for simulating a discussion session, as well as for something like office hours with students dropping in.
If you have a TA or some other assistant, having that person able to monitor a chat space where questions can be posted and feeding them to you to answer makes the whole thing go massively better. They can also triage questions and if they feel it only applies to that student, they can just answer it in chat.
I’ve heard some questions about whether Zoom can ramp up to handling every unviersity course in the the country overnight, and I think the answer is yes. They built out on AWS and then moved into their own cloud stack, but have retained the ability to do surge capacity on AWS, so yeah, I think they can scale just fine. They may have some outages as they work out what the real demand will be, but I think they’ll move in front of that quite quickly. They have a good team.
Also, in my experience, Zoom works better on mobile devices than computers. So if you aren’t doing screen sharing, just run it on your phone. It’ll probably be easier, better quality, and more reliable. If you miss your white board and you have an iPad Pro with Pencil or a Surface or a Galaxy tablet with pen, then you can do screen capture on those devices and work out problems for the class. These can vary a lot in terms of quality. A standard iPad with a 3rd party stylus isn’t very good. I have a 12″ iPad Pro with 2nd generation Pencil and it’s amazing.
The worst outcomes result from taking your traditional 50 minute or 80 minute class, recording it, and putting it online. That may be where you have to start, but try and change that as soon as you have time. We have to break down some basic conceptions here. The 50 or 80 minute lecture is not the product of some grand pedagogical consensus. It’s an administrative construct designed to operate schools efficiently, particularly in an era before computers. It’s the factory model.
Armed with that set of constraints by administrators, instructors have developed means to make that work relatively well. There is something to be said for physical presence, subtle non-verbal interactions, reading a room, etc. But we can shed that administrative constraint here and adopt better approaches for students. You likely have an intuitive sense of the pacing of your course by week, but the students don’t particularly care about that. That’s your time management need, not necessarily theirs. As we go thorugh this, the pacing may shift relative to where you want to do assessment. And that’s okay as long as it doesn’t get too out of hand. Online courses generally give students some flexiblity to adapt the pacing to their needs.
So, start by thinking about how you choose to learn. It’s generally in short bursts allowing for time to review and apply it, reinforce whether you understand it, and then tackling the next concept. If you are recording your lectures consider taking your normal 50 or 80 minute lesson and break it up into conceptual elements that are 5-10 minutes long. They should be a complete concept, they should look back slightly to remind students what this module will build on, and they should look forward to the next module. This helps anchor the concept in the larger context. As a result, your 50 minute lecture may not fit in 50 minutes of recording. That’s okay. The other benefit of smaller modules is easier maintenance in that if you need to revise or re-record a module, you just need to do 5-10 minutes.
If you take a 45 hour of instruction class and break it up into 5-10 modules, you’re looking at maybe 300-400 videos. You want to be able to create one of these, maybe do a little bit of editing – add a title screen, trim a bit from the start and end and push it out to your campuses system fairly efficiently. Our faculty generally prefer Youtube hosting with embedding the link in a Canvas lesson. That also makes it a bit easier if you need to re-offer the course and you can copy everything over to the new course space and just edit it. With so many videos, you’ll need to do some extra effort to make the listing/directory easily navigable with clear titles. If you number your videos, don’t put them in the title of the video. Often times instructors want to add a new video and that throws off the numbering. Number them in Canvas and break them up in a chapter/video manner so that if you do need to renumber, you won’t have to renumber all of them.
And a course is rarely actually linear. Typically you’ll build off of something you introduced several weeks ago, and here you have an opportunity to point students to review a set of concepts as an introduction to something new. ‘Go review videos 3-4, 3-5, 4-2, and 4-3 before starting 7-1’. That’s something you can’t easily do in a traditional class, but is trivial to do here.
Don’t go crazy with technology. You want solid, reliable over flashy. If your institution has a service or software such as Replay, you may be best off sticking with something that your institution will provide support for, even if it’s not the best for your use case. Most faculty just want to go through a Powerpoint presentation with a voice-over. Using a camera is better as students are more engaged looking at you than just listening to you. If you feel a bit more technically capable, I’m a fan of Filmora for recording. It does a good job of screen capture (your Powerpoint) as well as your video camera and microphone in an overlay window and giving you good editing tools. It’s a nice bit of software that runs on Mac or Windows. Not terribly expensive. But if your school has Replay and support for it, I’d just stick with that to start.
This does afford you the chance for supplemental instruction. Don’t be afraid to point students to other content. Professional YouTubers are very good at this, they have full editing gear and experience, and they know how to do the ‘performance’ of engaging teaching, and making things interesting. That doesn’t come naturally to many instructors, particularly when you are just speaking to a camera. You don’t need to replace your own instruction with this content, but students may find a lesson that came with a week of planning, professional
editing, and animations to be more illustrative. Especially here in the beginning when you’re scrambling to get something working, leveraging the work of others can take some pressure off. EEVBlog, Physics Girl, Wootube, etc. Every discipline has someone passionate about that discipline out there creating content. This will work better for lower-division than upper-division instruction, but you’ll be surprised at how much advanced content is out there.
If you’ve lost your labs, you’ll have to move to demonstrations since presumablycyour institution is still open and you can simulate the lab. Again, record thesecrather than trying to do them live – it will never go well. You may be able to pull the demonstration off perfectly, but having to do the cinematography at the same time will break you.
If you have more time or you have TAs who can help with this, a really good model I’ve seen work is to take a problem or a demonstration and record it 3 times. Do a 1 minute solution (advanced), a 3 minute solution (typical), and a 5 minute solution. Students that feel like they have this down, they can do the 1 minute video. Most will do the 3 minute, but those that are stuck might need the 5 minute – which may be more detailed, cover some remedial material, walk through the math in more detail, give a 2nd or 3rd explanation, etc. This will obviously take longer, but may help reduce the amount of live explanations if students get stuck.
You may be surprised at how much experience your TAs have with video or audio recording and editing. It’s not that uncommon.
Tools of the Trade
Most people can get by very well with Zoom and either Replay or something like Filmora. If you can afford a bit of gear, take lessons from pro YouTubers. They’ve driven the cost of much of this stuff down, so you can really up the quality of your instruction for not much money. Your laptop camera and mic will certainly work fine to start, but a separate camera and mic will make your results much better.
1) Lighting – Get a softbox lighting setup: https://www.amazon.com/Soft-Boxes/b?ie=UTF8&node=14014901 These provide diffuse lighting from a non-point source, so they knock down shadows. You need more light than you realize. $40 and up.
2) Camera – Logitech StreamCam. $150. This probably also takes care of your microphone needs. It’s not as good as a dedicated mic, but it pretty good. You may need to add a stand for flexibility.
3) Microphone: The best reviews of these, IMO, including audio samples:https://marco.org/podcasting-microphonesRecommend the Audio-Technica ATR2100x-USB. $100. This assumes you’re sitting and presenting, not standing. If you have a decent camera like the StreamCam, you can probably skip this. But get a USB mic so you don’t need to deal with other hardware.
If you’re doing demonstrations, the camera with stand and lighting will be key. Alternatively, your phone can do a servicable job here – especially a recent flagship Galaxy or iPhone. There’s software for using an iPhone as an external camera such as iWebcam. Depending on what you’re doing you can step up even to a DJI Osmo Mobile 3 Gimbal – $120. Really amazing bit of hardware for stabilizing video, even does motion tracking, etc.
If you do have access to your campus, see if your department can set up a few classrooms or conference room as studios. Or set your office up as one. Mount a camera, lighting, etc. so you can present in front of your white board or at your desk.
And many disciplines really benefit from recording their lessons out in the world. An iPhone and gimbal setup and you can give an urban planning lecture in a setting that illustrates your topic. Or from a museum or what have you. The change in venue is engaging for students, and you may enjoy the opportunity to get away from things a little.
I’ll do a separate post on assignments and testing.
Note from WaterGirl:
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