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Apr 23, 2020

The convertible course or How to prepare for the unknown

Like many universities, we cannot make a call yet about the modality of the Fall semester. New science findings come up every day, and most reasonable state governments have determined neither the exact day of reopening, nor the restrictions imposed on the reopening. It is tempting to just declare the fully online Fall, but we have no idea how it will affect the student experiences, and how many of them will just sit it out. However, the semester is going to end soon, and faculty want some certainty. It is not like they spend the entire summer preparing, but our minds crave settling on a version of predictable future. No one needs more anxiety.

The best strategy, in my view, is to start thinking of a convertible course that can be easily converted to the f2f mode, a hybrid mode (which may come in several variations, from split classroom to a double hybrid, or yet another option), or the fully online mode. Moreover, we should be prepared to switch from one mode to another mid-semester if needed. This may seem like an overwhelming task. Some have asked already if they have to prepare three different syllabi. However, like many new problems, if you really break it down into elements, it is not that hard.

As I have written before, think of a course as a combination of three basic elements:
  1. Content that includes your live or recorded lectures, or video/lectures created by other people, course readings, demonstrations, and other organized curricular materials.
  2. Activities or exercises where students apply learned concepts and practice skills.
  3. Assessments.
Content and assessments actually do not change that much from one modality to another. You can make content delivery more or less interactive, interrupting delivery with questions, short exercises, blitz-discussions, etc. But it is actually more important to make it active: give students a task to do while they listen, watch, or read. It is a good idea for f2f, hybrid, and online courses. For assessments, it is best to create some performance-based assessments such as projects, essays, products, etc. No proctored exams with multiple choice tests, please. They do not work well in any modality, while creating an illusion of objectivity. See more on online assessments.

The middle part of the set is a little more difficult. Start with making a list of practicing activities that you already have for f2f class. For example, in my undergraduate classes, I had 10 or 11 projects for most weeks of the semester: there were role games, experiments, discussions, debates, interpretations of data, individual exercises with group reflections, skits, and group presentations. 6 or 7 of them could be easily replicated on Canvas, in an online mode. The other 3-4 I had to redo from scratch, and design some sort of alternatives that would work online. How? - begin from the end: what do you want students to practice? What skills and understandings? And then go down from that, considering the limitations imposed by the online communication technologies. But it is a manageable task, and actually a creative exercise.

Here is the benefit: while you are thinking how to replace a project, you are forced to confront your own assumptions about what it actually does, and how do you know it does what you think it does. It is a humbling and eye-opening experience. For years, I failed to explain to my students what counts as a good written argument. Only after I failed one more time in an online class it became obvious to me. While some students definitely got it, I never explicitly explained what I want, because I did not know it myself. I could recognize it, and I could produce it, but I could not explain it.

F2F teaching is vulnerable to the narcissistic trap, a common problem for beginning teachers. You did and sounded good in class, and felt it was a good class. You performed well, like an actor after a successful show. But did they learn anything? - it is a very different question. A good instructor makes herself/himself invisible, while student learning comes up front. Just watch Debora Ball’s videos of her lessons – you don’t notice her the most of the class. All the drama, all the action is with students, and their struggle to figure something out.

Forcing your ego through the shredder of online teaching makes us better f2f teachers. Even if by some magic we pop up in the pre-COVID world before Fall, the exercise of thinking through convertible courses is not going to waste. And this is what we will do our best to help faculty to do.

Apr 19, 2020

The double hybrid

The great reopening has overnight become a political issue. It is sad in general, but for higher ed also adds more uncertainty. Like agriculture, our business is seasonal and needs advanced planning. If Fall goes online, it will not only present a huge logistical problem, but also may deal a serious blow to enrollments. Who wants to start one’s college career completely online? Why not take a year off, and then go to college like normal freshmen? The traditional young undergrads come to campus for experience as much as for a degree.

It looks like I am the only one who worries about the possibility of partial reopening. It would make me happy to be wrong on this. However, I believe a partial reopening would be much better than staying online for another semester. I wrote about the split classroom model last week. Here is another option; let’s call it the double hybrid model.

Let’s assume you teach a class of 30 students, in a room that has a capacity of 30 or so. To provide social distance, you cannot have more than 15 in your room. The simplest way to do it is to have them take turns. One half comes in on Tuesdays, and the other half on Thursdays. You teach the f2f portion of the hybrid class twice. However, they stay on the same schedule in the online portion of the class. The option does not need any fancy technology; just your regular good old Canvas shell.

The double hybrid is much simpler than the split classroom with respect to technology. However, it may be a little more labor-intensive. You would have to keep track of double the number of f2f sections. Those of us who taught multiple sections of the same course know that they never come out exactly the same. Groups have different tempo, different character. As an instructor, you forget where you already explained something, and where you ran out of time. You forget where you told a particular story or a joke, and where you have not. It is just not easy to teach the same thing two or more times.

On the plus side, converting a regular class into a hybrid is a much simpler task than going all the way online. This is why we normally advise instructors to try a hybrid first, to get the feel for online tools, and then eventually take the second step of a fully online course, if needed. Hybrid courses gain more popularity, because they offer a compromise between convenience and flexibility of online instruction on one side, and the ease of human connection on the other. For campuses with space shortage problems, hybrids offer a unique opportunity to increase classroom availability at little or no cost. Hybrid programs can extend the geographic range of evening programs for working populations. Students who are unwilling to drive to campus twice a week, may be OK to drive once a week.

In other words, experimenting with hybrids is useful regardless of the quarantine. It builds new competencies, and expands the range of options for any campus. When an institution confronts new challenges, the broader range of skills and options is a definite asset.

Apr 14, 2020

Phased reopening and the split classroom model

The two main governors have spoken, and both are talking about phased reopening. In other words, we are not going back to normal normal, we are likely to go back to a new normal. The pat of the new normal will be retaining social distancing, plus a certain number of people will always be on quarantine, because of their contact with infected. For the higher ed, especially for large campuses like ours, this presents a challenge. Our classrooms are normally full, and there is no way to be 6 feet apart without cutting down the numbers of students in EVERY class. Even if this does not happen, a small minority of students will be in isolation and we need to be able to include them into regular f2f classes.

Many of us know that f2f and online worlds are not easily blended. It is easier to teach all in f2f or all in online mode. Try to have half of your class f2f and the other remotely, and you will discover a whole can of worms. However, many pioneers tried to do that for years. There is a model that does not even have an established name in the literature. Let us call it the split classroom model. It is not hybrid or blended, where the same students have both online and f2f experience. No, it is when there is a smaller f2f classroom that generates much of content, and another set of students accessing it remotely. I know people doing it successfully. Our Child Development Cohort programs has run like for many years and is now in 9 remote locations, but they hire separate off-site seminar leaders. Mark Rodriguez tried that for the Ed Technology Masters Program. Anatoly Kasprzhak experimented with a similar format years ago in Moscow, where he had optional f2f sessions for his hybrid program. I am sure there are hundreds of other examples out there. To my knowledge, no one had described the split classroom model yet. If you know of a good research on it, please let me know.

The advantage of the model is that as an instructor, you do not need to generate additional interactive content. Your f2f small group generates it: the interaction, the live lectures, the small group discussion, and all the countless ways in which a good f2f classroom helps digest knowledge. However, there are also serious technical challenges for which we should start preparing now. The problem is, you need to capture all that rich content and beam it to your online group. You also need to allow the online students to interact back, for learning cannot be all vicarious. There are some adjustments to pedagogy, but they are not overwhelming. Zoom can handle the communication between the f2f and online portion of the class.

The technical challenges are these. If you don’t sit in front of a computer, but move around, you need a wearable microphone or a much better stationary one. Your laptop or tablet mics are useless. You also need a tracking camera or multiple cameras capturing the entire room. We have only a handful of teaching studio rooms in the AIRC, and perhaps in some other buildings. They don’t come cheap, and will run tens of thousands of dollars.

The next best thing is a Zoom-ready room with a wide-angle camera and a good microphone. We probably have another dozen or so throughout the campus, including three in Eureka that Binod set up in the last year. Most of them actually are conference rooms, not classrooms. Binod found several solutions on the market: there are wall-mounted or stationary consoles that are able to pick up audio, and have digitally tracking and/or wide-angle cameras. These will stay within a few hundred dollars. However, with hundreds of classrooms on campus, and uncertain budget, I don’t know if we can invest much.

However, to hedge our bets, we should probably identify a portable solution that can be carted from classroom to classroom, test it, and be ready to scale up for a possible split classroom expansion. If we don’t need to expand, great. It is not a bad capacity to have anyway. The split classrooms may be useful for all kinds of accommodations for sick or quarantined students. The split classroom may even mainstream, especially for smaller programs struggling with enrollment. Why not have a few online students in addition to the normal f2f class? In the future, the split classroom model may also go international for a cheaper alternative to going abroad. We just don’t have years to work on it.

Apr 11, 2020

Teaching online: Week four tips

If this is your first time, by now you did the heavy lift. Congratulations. Next week, all the frustrating limitations and inefficiencies of online teaching will become painfully obvious. You may be doing either too much zoom time, and it is difficult to engage students. Or you assign them too much independent work, which makes it difficult to engage. Or else, you spent all your waking time providing individual feedback to students, which maintains their level of engagement, but is killing you. Welcome to the joggling world of the online teaching circus!

If you are still zooming the entire time, feel entitled to reduce the zoom time. Use it for weekly check-in, emotional support for students, and Q&A time. Use the break-out rooms in Zoom to add variety. Ask small groups to do a specific assignment, let them select their reporter who will present the highlights of the discussion back in the common room.

If you must lecture, pre-record several 5-8 minute segments rather than an hour-long lecture. It is much easier for students to watch, for they can skip, take breaks, and re-watch. It is actually easier for you to produce in chunks. But also, try searching YouTube or open lecture databases of other universities – there is a chance someone has done the same lecture better than you, or at least acceptable. It is all fair game: your job is not necessarily to produce content. It is to curate content, to select it, and include it in your class’ structure. You know how a school teacher will never let kids loose in a museum without a worksheet? It is the same with any kind of content: give students something to do beyond “take notes.” For example, “Draw a mind map of today’s lecture,” or “Build a list of key concepts.”

You manage a face-to-face discussion with your tone of voice, facial expression, and comments on comments. These allow students to learn what kind of thinking is good and appropriate in your discipline, and what kind is not. None of this subconscious communication machinery works in a Canvas discussion thread. You worry about student comments being shallow, and factually wrong. Adapt by building a very structured discussion. For example:
  • Write an example where the concept A is applicable. Google and link the best illustration of the concept B.
  • Comment on at least two of your classmate’s entries, using one of the two patterns: (1) I agree, and can further develop your point, or (2) I disagree, because.
  • Find an error in this statement, explain why do you think it is an error (You would have to prove the statement)
  • Self-assess your skill doing… What do you need to do to grow?
  • Define С in your own words, differently than your textbook does it.
  • Develop a test to assess your classmates’ knowledge of today’s reading (thanks, Aaminah).
In threaded discussion, do NOT read and give feedback to every single entry; that would make you miserable. And you will find yourself repeating the same point over and over again. The frustrating limitation of online environment is that students do not automatically “hear” what you said. Rather, glance through quickly, spot most common errors and good examples. Point out to the rest of the class, whose response was especially brilliant, encourage them to re-read those. Comment on common errors without naming those who made them, of course. Make it clear students have t read ALL of your comments. Your voice has to be on loudspeaker.

While high stakes standardized tests are almost always problematic, short low-stake quizzes are fun, and can be highly engaging. Both Zoom and Canvas have polls/quizzes. There is a number of external quiz-making platforms, but stick to Canvas if you can, because it will automatically add them to your gradebook. Putting the quizzes together will save you time on grading, and will make your course more interesting. Besides multiple choice, consider fill-in the blank; those are not automatically graded, but still very easy to grade, and help spot misconceptions.

If you use final essays in your assessment, make them shorter; it will save you time on grading. Also consider progressive assignments: an idea one week, an outline the second week, a draft third week, and the paper at the end. This kind of process discourages plagiarism, and lets you do the last grading more cursory. Most students won’t read your feedback on the final paper, sorry. Recycle your comments. If you wrote an especially good feedback, same it in the comment file. There is a very good chance another student will need exactly the same comment.

In general, online teaching is about relentlessly prioritizing, simplifying, defining what is the bottom line, what essential skill or set of facts you need students to learn. And it is about making explicit what you used to convey implicitly. It is a lot about reflecting on your own assumptions and expectations.

Apr 6, 2020

The COVID denial land and failures of imagination

In retrospect, American reaction to the COVID-19 pandemic looks excruciatingly slow. WHO declared the public health emergency on January 30, Wuhan was on quarantine for a week, and a first US case was already ten days old. No one has really done anything, other than some travel restrictions. Everyone saw the huge hospital build in China in a few days, but no country rushed to build their own. It is easy to blame Trump’s administration, and the blame is probably well deserved. Many other world leaders were in denial, including the Chinese. But let us not ignore the collective failure of imagination. We all have visited the denial land. Some were there only briefly, some longer, and some are still there. But we all were there at some point.

There is a very completing argument that the denial is partially explained by the West’s cultural superiority. Indeed, the Italian lock-down on March 8 had actually prompted some action in the US, but it was too late for New York. However, let us look at ourselves. I went into our weekly updates. The first time I carefully suggested we may go online was not until March 9. Yet by that time, millions of school children and university students in Asia and Southern Europe were already out of school. We could have had 2-3 weeks of planned preparation rather than rush and transition in one week. It did not take a gigantic mental effort to imagine we will close campus soon.

Both the human mind and human cultures have elaborated mechanisms of denial. No one wants to panic, and then look silly if it turns out to be a false alarm. The society places heavy sanctions on the one who panics too soon. I guess it makes sense; you don’t want to go to overdrive every time a small chance of a disaster appears on the horizon. There is, of course, the Monday morning quarterback phenomenon: in retrospect, things look a lot more certain that at the time, because we know what happened. Yet fear of shame is what prevents us from letting our imagination work.

We have a hard time dealing with an invisible threat. It is just hard to generate the right amount of adrenalin without some visual representation of the danger. The graphs CDC and others put together do not do the trick. More paranoid people who have hard time trusting anyone, go immediately into one or another conspiracy theory, imagining a man-made panic. I have seen a lot of them, in both English and Russian social media. Russians, are unfortunately, are much worse. Their minds have been massively infected by paranoia after years of distrust and state-sponsored fake news. However, the general trend is this: I can see people talking about the danger, but not the danger itself. The fear misplaces its object: instead of fearing the danger, one begins fearing people talking about the danger. It is basic projection, both primitive and powerful. Shooting the messenger is the universal human sin.

Imagination originates with memory; it is the ability to remember extended on things that have not happen yet. This is why it works so well when the future is familiar. It does not work very well when the future is unprecedented. Because no one has been in the lock-down situation before, we failed to accept its reality. We perceived as a safe fantasy of science fiction, and just could not imagine it as a reality.

If there is any lesson in all this, it is that we have to be aware of the limits of our own collective and personal imagination. Humans are not that smart after all.