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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.

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