Tackling Online-teaching in the Time of Transition

We’re moving to remote learning!

The Departments of Education, Institute of Teaching and Learning at the UCalgary campus and all faculty and staff have extended their full support in the transition from in-class instruction to online or virtual classrooms. The lingering question: Can online teaching REPLACE in-class instruction is, at this point, moot. The educators across the world have reflected on how a digital classroom looks like, or would take shape under uncertain times such as the present times. COVID-19 outbreak has not only claimed lives, but has forced us to think hard about our infrastructures (medical and social) and how we operate and make sense of the world. University instruction and classroom teaching is intimately tied to both these infrastructures – medical and social – and today, I finally sit down with my laptop in a room with no-one but myself, as I ponder and type away.

In troubled times, such as today, where socialization is best avoided; our concepts of co-operation and team-work plead a closer look. Strictly in a university or teaching-learning setting, how do we move forward without actual personal interaction? Numerous businesses have already done it in the past, and continue to meet over online platforms such as Zoom, Skype, Adobe Connect, and so on. Some online courses use these media effectively in both communicating and building a community.

As I type away, I realize, that I am making certain assumptions as I talk about virtual meeting spaces such as these. My assumptions include basic technological knowledge, access to stable internet connection, computer(s), power, and willing members of the team. I am also going ahead with the assumption that the educators have the luxury, or even the choice to self-isolate.

Co-operation is the key

In this attempt at strengthening the online community, co-operation becomes the key. It can be in the form of colleagues helping each other to develop the online course, or sharing the load virtually. In my case, my instructor for a course sends me the notes, which I divide and frame as power-point slides to be put up. In some cases, for difficult concepts, we have an audio narration by the instructor, that I match with the text flow on screen for the students to view on the power-point.

The online format has an advantage over in-class instruction, that you can reassess every word before it is made public. That also means, you end up spending a fair amount of time in addition to the lecture time. Co-operation in virtual environment goes beyond just recording and delivering lectures. Uploading the recorded/written content and “deploying” it, or making it available for the students to view is another part of the virtual instruction ball-game. In this endeavor, the close co-operation between instructors, educators, technicians, and the service providers is of paramount importance.

Some responses from the first weekend of self-isolation and remote teaching

Just a few days in, and I am feeling the heat of this sudden change in the scenario of interaction. Locked indoors, the mental capabilities to work are already giving up, and the video-streaming services have become a resort to impending spells of boredom. What would it be for a learner?

Generally, the online courses are preferred in addition to regular work/chores and other occupations by the students. However, when ALL (regular and online)courses are virtual, it might pan out differently. I had a chance to interview ten students from three universities in Alberta (Canada) in the wake of newly implemented remote learning that will take effect starting tomorrow (Monday, March 16th). Here’s what some of the initial reactions look like:

a) “I think it will be so much fun! I have already stocked up on food, and all I have to do is to read off the slides, watch videos etc, and I think – answer online quizzes as the final test!” – “I think the remote-learning option will be great. Even as a permanent mode of instruction”.

b) “To be honest, I am not sure of this change. Yes, it seems to be very fun and engaging; but what to do about accountability? I plan my day around my school hours, and if there are no classes, what a typical day would look like? I like the idea of kicking back and relaxing as you complete the course online. But do we really learn? I am a procrastinator. I am afraid of piling up my online work to the last day, and then stressing out about reading and watching everything to write the exam. Oh I hope I don’t bring that upon myself!”

c) “It depends on the instructor. If they just upload a bunch of reading material and then give us online exams, it will be boring. And if they make it too entertaining with videos etc, but we don’t have room to have Q&A like in class, then again, there’s no point.”

I selected just three responses to illustrate here, as representative of the seeming uncertainties with the sudden transition. My take-away from these three responses and the others is that we need an incredible amount of understanding and accommodation with this shift. Some of my adaptations for the upcoming weeks of online teaching look like these:

  1. Thriving personal contact: In the traditional pedagogy on teaching and learning, the students are at the center – rightly so. In this changing scenario, if we work towards adapting the remainder of the online course with students in mind, we might have a better chance at replicating the in-class teaching (if that is the goal). From my personal experience, video meeting as checking-in triumphs as a mode to ease student anxieties. In large classes of 150 odd people, it might get daunting, but group meetings on Zoom/Adobe Connect with regulated microphone rights, etc could be the way forward. For more tips on conducting online meetings on Adobe Connect, click here. (This is not an endorsement. I personally find Adobe Connect best for online class meetings/discussions for groups of 20 members.)

2. Clear instructions: This might come as a moot point, but we, in the shoes of instructors, sometimes take things for granted. Although the original course outline mentioned something that will continue for the online class, be sure to spell it out AGAIN. Updated course outlines with online instruction in view may create unforeseen queries and confusion. My suggestion will be to have a check-list format for the new outline with online teaching and learning modules. It will be great for the student as well as you, the instructor, to keep track.

3. Quantify and simplify: In a class with cumulative content modules (concept 2 building on concept 1 and so on), making the folders with content slides/lectures as exactly that, helps a great deal. I name the folders by week in case of a full online class. And for this adapted version, I will have the folders arranged in ascending order of concepts needed to be studied in the next four weeks (different for the universities in the US). For non-cumulative learning goals, the folders can be labeled as concepts. However, in both cases, it is great to supplement a folder number.

This is a screen-shot from the online teaching shell. The content is arranged by week. The folder “course documents” is the go-to folder for instructions, clarifications and rubrics. A walk-through video (screen capture with background narration) labelled “D2L shell walk-through” was a great way to familiarize the students with how the content is arranged in the course page. The students responded positively to this layout and simplification in the course presentation.

4. Room for timely communication: Yes, it could get too much to have 150 students write emails everyday seeking clarifications. As both instructors and students are adapting to the change, it will be great to have a place for course-related questions. A discussion thread open to all students, labeled “Course FAQs” or something similar may be a great way to establish a dedicated place for course-related queries. Let us acknowledge the anxiety that comes with the transition.

This discussion board/space will most likely alleviate a lot of stress from constant emailing and clarifications. The answers to the queries could be posted as direct links to the content, or course outline, or to the intended quiz, etc. That will aid not just the person asking the question, but many others who might have the same query. This space will hopefully bridge some gap in communication in a virtual classroom.

As a step further, discussion groups for students is another way to simulate in-class discussions. However, with the current change, I would not impose this additional layer of online participation on the students.

5. Cognizant of technological foibles: I was not smart enough in my first experience of teaching, to think of technological failures. On one online test, four of the students could not log into the system. And then, I did not have a Plan B. Going forward, it is best to assume that all the plans you have, need a backup, when going online (or even otherwise). Maybe extra exam set which is not uploaded on the blackboard/D2L for the students can be the backup. If a student writes to you in panic that they cannot get into the system, we have an exam ready to mail them! I acknowledge, that all this is much easier said, than done. And also, some students sometimes are not as truthful as one would like. But let us move ahead with a starry-eyed assumption that all our students are truthful and honest (and earnest).

And sometimes the machines really do give us a hard time. I had scheduled a timed exam, which was set to grant access to students as noon. On my instructor interface, all looked fine, but the students could not access it until 1pm in Calgary! That was because I had set the time to noon when I was in Pacific Time Zone, and even after I traveled to Mountain Time, D2L continued with Pacific time! In this case, I had probably ruined some students’ plans where they had set aside the time for the test. I learnt from this experience, that allocating extra time (at least an hour) for the online test is always a good idea. Numerous students, and importantly, YOU, benefit from this extra time to make last minute adjustments if it comes to that.

Let’s get on with that discussion board now, shall we?

Published by Kalemighty

Penned thoughts from South Asian culture. Follow for thoughts on Archaeology, Anthropology, and Pedagogy

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