Wednesday, January 06, 2021

Blog Post: Teaching Online in Fall 2020

Having made it through Fall 2020, a bit by the skin of my teeth, I thought I would write up the things that seemed important to me. I'm not sure if these would be a lot of help to anyone else, but it seems worth having a record of how I was feeling. In particular as I'm moving away from teaching undergraduates, I thought having a record of how the last time went from my own perspective would be a good idea.

Selfie of the author, wearing a gamer headset in front of a desk artfully messy with computers and programming books.
That first day.

Things That Probably Apply to All Emergency Online Teaching

    • Students appreciated the amount of empathy and flexibility I brought to the class. 
    • Flipping two classes, while moving online and trying to be very on top of assessment was really, really hard. 
      • I ended up giving myself significantly more work than I could really manage and it made handling everything the whole semester harder than it should have been.  I ended up having to slip deadlines and cut elements from the course on the fly. In the end I think the damage was contained, but I definitely didn't have the semester I was hoping for.
      • Generally, smaller one-topic videos are the best fit to what students are looking for.
    • Students generally found that a flipped experience online (recorded lectures, with readings and quizzes) was a lot of work. I've lost the reference, but this seems to be due more to the introduction of a flipped classroom forcing them to actually do the learning activities more regularly.
      • It was hard for both the students and I to assess how long things would take for them to do.
      • In the long term I think this works out, but you definitely have to adjust your assumptions about how much work a student can get done in a week and make sure they have some time to breath around your constant low level work.
      • That being said, videos, especially where I worked topics and examples on paper were very well received and usually the things students pointed out as working very well for them.
    • I found my first year (first semester) students were much more willing to adapt and work in an online context than my returning students. This was true for the first few months, but flipped as we got into the end of the semester.
      • That may have been that I had trouble keeping up with the schedule myself, and the returning students had more context for that situation.

    Things that Apply to Learning Technology in an Emergency Online Classroom

    • Make sure you understand what the student experience of each piece of technology you use.
      • Using Blackboard, I discovered that the feedback I was writing to students, and which appeared alongside their grade in *my* view, were not shared with the students unless you changed *several* configurations.
      • Using Blackboard, I also discovered that if students are using their phone to look at the course (and they are) then details under items aren't shown, so they often didn't see links available in the description of an item.
    • Have Plan B in place, even if you don't think you need it.
      • Our primary tool for practicing coding shutdown in October. The effort to replace it was astronomic and took myself and one of our staff the better part of 2 weeks to replace. Even then, we didn't get the system really nailed down until the last few weeks of class.
    • If you happen to be teaching at Mount Royal University:
      • You are not supposed to "title" your questions in a Blackboard assessment.
    • If you happen to be using Blackboard:
      • You should, under no circumstances name a question "null".

    Things that Apply to a Programming One Class

    • Trying to stay language agnostic and approach the basic concepts of computing and problem solving using Karel the Robot worked fairly well.
      • I regretted not having a perfectly functioning Karel tool, but I started working with the students moving paper doll Karels around and I think that worked well.
    • Transitioning into Java was a bit rough. We had some tech problems (See plan B above) and that slowed us down, but also the sheer amount of extra stuff Java needs for basic programming concepts makes it harder to pick up.
      • Honestly this is the part of the course I'm least sure about. The transition to Java was rougher, but transition students on Python hasn't been as smooth as I want either.
      • I really want to have students writing 1/2 drills a day, maybe only 5 lines of code, but I just want to see them keep working on stuff.
    • I think a Programming One can do without a lot of larger assignments or projects. Generally I think the focus should be on becoming fluent and then in Programming Two they can apply it to something interesting.
    • A lot of the above things are based on the idea that the bulk of the class can't program already. I'm not convinced that's true. I did a survey at the beginning of the semester and the bulk of the students described themselves as having some programming experience.
      • I also struggled a bit keeping the more confident programmers from running away with the thread in class. I think everyone ended up well enough this semester, but I think we need to be cognizant about how experience is handled coming into a Programming One class. 
      • Worth noting that several of the more experienced programmers appreciated how Karel forced them to be clear in their programming thoughts.

    Things that Apply to a Programming Two Class

    • I'd like a giant pool of drills to draw from. Giving students a selection of application areas for a given programming topic would help broaden their perspective. One thing I didn't manage to do but want to do is show them the different solutions they produce for a drill and that generally is easier if you have 4 answers each for 5 questions rather than 20 answers for 1.
    • I like the idea of a semester long assignment or project for students, but I've struggled to find a way to introduce it effectively. This year. particularly, trying to do an assignment along side my students was a real struggle. In the future I'd rather have all of the pieces done, but I will say the students seemed to appreciate watching me build my solution to the assignment as well.

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