Saturday, April 25, 2020

To Zoom or Not To Zoom: Week 4 Teaching Full Distance

Resting student Doggies in my campus office.
Students were working on these when we
transitioned from the classroom to online.

Five weeks ago most faculty and students in the United States went home on a Friday for spring break week.  Over the next few days we were told we were not coming back to campus for the rest of the semester and we needed to get our courses converted to 100% online for the rest of the spring semester. This past week was our fourth week back.

The last few weeks for me has been focused on fine tuning my asynchronous course content. I’m teaching an intro robotics course (EGR 110) at Holyoke Community College that was originally scheduled to meet 5 hours per week. Students spend time building and coding Lego EV3 robots. The interactivity in the classroom is a lot of fun and students seem to enjoy the class.

The Lego Mindstorms EV3 kits are expensive and we have a limited supply – not enough of them for every student in the class to take one home. With the shift to online 5 weeks ago we had to find an alternative and pivoted to an EV3 simulator. The students have picked up using the simulator on their home computers and are doing a really nice job completing different projects. I’m very impressed at how the transition has gone so far.

My original intentions were to provide 45-50 minute live (synchronous) lectures twice a week at the start of each class and if a student needed some extra help, hold individual Zoom sessions sharing screens. An attempt at this over the first couple weeks was not successful. 45-50 minutes was just too long and the individual Zoom sessions tended to drag, produce frustration and not lead to much learning.

BBC Worklife interviewed a couple of workplace experts - Gianpiero Petriglieri, an associate professor at Insead, who explores sustainable learning and development in the workplace, and Marissa Shuffler, an associate professor at Clemson University, who studies workplace wellbeing and teamwork effectiveness. Their views reflect in many ways to what I’ve seen in my online robotics class. Here’s a few highlights from the interview that mirror my online classroom experience:
  • “Video chats mean we need to work harder to process non-verbal cues like facial expressions, the tone and pitch of the voice, and body language; paying more attention to these consumes a lot of energy.” I wrote about processing non-verbal cues online last week – very difficult if not impossible. 
  • “Silence creates a natural rhythm in a real-life conversation. However, when it happens in a video call, you became anxious about the technology.” My experience - as a result students end up either anxious, distracted or zoned out.... crickets chirping is the best way I can describe the result. 
  • “The video call is our reminder of the people we have lost temporarily. It is the distress that every time you see someone online, such as your colleagues (or classmates), that reminds you we should really be in the workplace together.” We all miss each other. 
  • “Aspects of our lives that used to be separate – work, friends, family – are all now happening in the same space. When these aspects are reduced, we become more vulnerable to negative feelings.” Crowded homes, abuse, children to take care of, loss of income, lack of food, lack of computers and broadband are impacting learning (and teaching) in a huge way. For many the classroom is a safe and comfortable place to get away. 
  • "Big group calls can feel particularly performative, People like watching television because you can allow your mind to wander – but a large video call “is like you're watching television and television is watching you”. 
  • “Both experts suggest limiting video calls to those that are necessary. Turning on the camera should be optional. In some cases it’s worth considering if video chats are really the most efficient option." 
  • “When it comes to work, shared files with clear notes can be a better option that avoids information overload.” I wrote a little about this in Week 1.
  • "When online sessions are held, it is important to take time to catch up before diving into business. “Spend some time to actually check into people's wellbeing,” It’s a way to reconnect us with the world, and to maintain trust and reduce fatigue and concern.”
From my experience these observations are spot on when it comes to the online classroom. My robotics class has shifted strongly in the asynchronous direction. I rarely get on one-on-one sessions with students now. I don't do the 45-50 minute lectures at the start of each class but I am on Zoom for the first 45 minutes with student attendance optional. I’m there to help out, answer any questions, talk about how much we all need haircuts and maybe tell a knock-knock joke or two.

Most questions come in during off hours via email. If students have a problem I ask them to first email me a picture of their code (screen shot, cell phone, etc.) I can take a look and send back a hint or two. The student can then make changes in their code. This method is working well and has reduced a lot of student (and my) stress. It does require watching email closely.

 I continue to be impressed with the students in my classes. They are learning and getting their work done!

Friday, April 17, 2020

Hanging Out With Starman - Week 3 Teaching Full Distance

Four weeks ago most faculty and students in the United States went home on a Friday for spring break week.  Over the next few days we were told we were not coming back to campus for the rest of the semester and we needed to get our courses converted to 100% online for the rest of the spring semester. This past week was our third week back.

Another week online. This week I got to hang out with one of my idols – Starman. He hasn’t figured out the answer to life, the Universe, and everything yet but continues his quest.

Back on earth, in the classroom things are settling down a bit and it feels like we’re getting into a groove. Here’s my bullet list for the past week.
  • Email volume has really increased and it has become a real time suck. My comfortable number of unread emails averages around 30 ~ if I’m close to 30 I’m feeling pretty good about it. My inbox right now is sitting at 259 unopened. I clean it out and a few hours later I’ve got another 50 sitting in the box to go through. I’m hoping our students are not having a similar experience but suspect many are. I’m now closing out my email client and only checking it by the hour.
  • The one document instruction tip I wrote about a couple weeks ago continues to work well. Students are comfortable being able to go to the could learning management system (Moodle at Holyoke Community College) to one place to get the most recent information and I’m not burying them with email.
  • I’m locked in on keeping my lecture video recordings between 15 and 25 minutes max. This seems to be working well.
  • I’ve got a set of Apple Airpod Pros and they have been fantastic. I’m using them for just about everything – Zoom meetings, phone calls and video recordings along with the occasional YouTube Curb Your Enthusiasm segment or two.
  • The Apple iPad and Pencil remain exceptional – especially when the Airpods are included. Lecture recording has been easy. I’m thinking about upgrading to a 12.9” Ipad for the extra screen real estate. If you are considering purchasing an IPad for lecture recording I would strongly recommend the 12.9” model. Also get yourself a screen protector for the iPad that adds some texture to the screen when writing with the pencil. I like the Paperlike protector. It gives nice tactile feedback and it feels like you are drawing and writing with a pencil on paper.
  • The Pomadoro Technique I wrote about a couple weeks ago makes a big difference when I actually use it. I’ve had problems with stopping and taking a break, walking away from the computer. I think the email volume increase has had a lot to do about that.
  • Meeting with classes online has been challenging at times. I did not realize how much I rely on body language in the classroom.  I look at their faces on camera and not sure if they are confused, scared, bored, frustrated, lost, upset….. I’m encouraging them to give feedback (negative and positive) and they are. I think this would be a different if we had started the course online – I got to know these students in the traditional classroom and could usually pickup pretty quickly on things just by looking at them.
  • I continue to log my time with Klok 2.
Overall I’m pretty satisfied with the way things are going. I’m still going with supercomputer Deep Thought - the answer to Starman’s question is six by nine, 42.

May the tech remain with you fellow earthlings. Have a nice weekend.

Friday, April 10, 2020

Some Notes: Week 2 Teaching Full Distance

Three weeks ago most faculty and students in the United States went home on a Friday for spring break week.  Over the next few days we were told we were not coming back to campus for the rest of the semester and we needed to get our courses converted to 100% distance for the rest of the spring semester. This past week was our second week back.

This spring I’m teaching the second half of fall/spring electrical engineering circuits course sequence at Holyoke Community College. Students in this class are in the second semester of their sophomore year and will be transferring to a university next year as electrical engineering majors.

The fall Circuits 1 class is direct current (DC) focused and the math is pretty straight forward.  DC frequency is 0 Hertz (Hz) and at 0 Hz things don’t change much. That first course is a lot fundamental stuff like Ohm’s Law, Voltage Dividers, Current Dividers, Kirchoff’s Voltage and Current Laws, etc. These laws and theorems are used frequently in more advanced classes.

The spring Circuits 2 course is much more mathematical. We’re dealing primarily with alternating current (AC) and that means frequencies greater than 0 Hz. Reactive devices (capacitors and inductors) are used throughout the course and as a result voltages, currents and power change with frequency and time. Calculus and complex (phasor) math is used extensively throughout the course and I need to be really on my toes when it comes to lectures. It is very easy to mix up things like units, times, frequencies, etc.

Last week I wrote about how I’m pre-recording my lectures and trying to stay two weeks ahead. In the class session yesterday one of the students picked up on a simple mistake I made in one of my homework solutions. I had added radians and degrees together and then took the sine of the sum. Can’t do that. You can add (radians + radians) and take the sine as long as your calculator is in radian mode. You  can add (degrees + degrees) and take the sine as long as your calculator is in degree mode. But – you cannot add (radians + degrees) and take the sine regardless of whether your calculator is in radian or degree mode! I missed it.

This has me thinking about the value of live in class lecturing. If I had made an error like that on the chalkboard one of the students would have picked up on it immediately. Stuff like this happens all the time. We would have corrected it and moved on. Sitting at home by myself recording I missed it and just cruised right by it.

Here’s where I’m going with this. There is value in traditional face-to-face lectures for students and faculty. Students pick up on mistakes, they can easily ask questions and faculty can look at their faces and pickup when they are lost. Pretty valuable stuff when it comes to learning.

How close can we get online to a live classroom experience? Should I shift to live online lectures? 1.5 hours watching me write on an iPad screen - ugh. Don't think so.

Right now I’m going to back off trying to stay two weeks ahead and make it one week. I’m also going to segment my future lecture videos up as best I can, trying to keep each to 20-25 minutes. That will get me a little closer to real time. I’m hoping the segmenting will allow students to focus for 20-25 minutes, digest, take a break and process the material. It will also give me a chance to do the same as I put materials together.

We’ll see how it goes!

Friday, April 3, 2020

Some Notes: Week 1 Teaching Full Distance

A couple weeks ago faculty and students went home on a Friday for spring break week.  Over the next few days we were told we were not coming back to campus for the rest of the semester and we needed to get our courses converted to 100% distance for the rest of the spring semester. This past week was our first week back.

It has been an interesting week – frustrating at times sure but I feel like we’ve worked through a lot of the startup problems and overall right now am feeling pretty positive. Here’s a few things I’ve jotted down in no particular order.

1.     The one document instruction tip I wrote about a couple days ago is working very nicely. Students are comfortable being able to go to one place to get the most recent information and I’m not burying them with email.

2.     Making your content mobile friendly is critical. Most of my students are accessing course materials using their phones. We’re using Moodle at Holyoke Community College and the Moodle mobile app works great. Zoom runs nice on mobile.

3.     Live lectures? Recorded lectures? It does not matter. I’ve been recording (see #4) lectures and using class time on Zoom for homework problem review, general Q and A, etc.
4.     I’m recording my lectures on my iPad and posting online. I wrote about how I do this a couple years ago when I was faculty at the University of Hartford. I’m trying to stay two weeks ahead with my recordings in case I get sick.

5.     Live sessions for my circuits class are done using Zoom running on the iPad. The screen shot here is from my circuits class yesterday. Briefly (I’ll write up a post with detail on how to to this over the weekend) I share the iPad screen and launch GoodNotes, a note taking app. I use the Apple pencil to draw circuit diagrams, work through problems etc. Zoom allows sessions to be recorded and those mp4 recorded files can be posted online for student access. Sessions can also be recorded directly on the iPad. GoodNotes allows export to PDF. So during a classroom session I can:

      Write on the iPad screen while talking and recording using the GoodNotes app.
      Save the recording as an mp4 video/audio file either using Zoom or direct on iPad.
      Export my handwritten notes from GoodNotes to PDF.
      Post the mp4 file and also the PDF online for student access.

            Better than a classroom chalk or white board? I sure think so!

6.     Routine is important for us all. I’m meeting with students at the start of each class period and maintaining regular office hours. The tips I posted in an earlier post have also been very helpful.

I’ll be writing about a few of these in detail along with a bunch of other stuff.

Overall at the end of week 1 - I’m sooooo impressed with the way students, faculty, staff – every single person I’ve had contact with at Holyoke Community College has pulled together and really gone to task on this. Flipping a course midstream to distance is not easy, especially for our students. Pile the fear and unknown of COVID-19 on top of that it is all pretty daunting. So far so good!

Thanks especially to all of the great students!!

Wednesday, April 1, 2020

Online Instruction Tip: Communicate But Don't Over Communicate

After spring break, most faculty and students are back in their courses online for the rest of the semester. Spring break 2020 for me was not early morning fishing and afternoon napping in Florida, it was spent in Massachusetts converting my in person lecture and laboratory classes over midstream to full online delivery.

With the transition, many of our students are overwhelmed and confused. Faculty are struggling trying to figure out how to complete a semester worth of material in the next five or six weeks, how to handle lectures, homework, exams, laboratory experiments, etc. Lots of decisions, changes in decisions..... often overwhelming change that needs to happen very fast.

The tendency for many of us faculty with each change is to over communicate. Communicate, communicate, communicate right? Make a change, fire off an email to the class. Make another change, fire off another email. Change something back, fire off another one.  You get the picture – flooded mailboxes, overwhelming and confusing our students and ourselves...... it does not work very well.

My solution is to keep a single dynamic “Rest of the Semester” Google Doc that I share with my class. Any changes I make go in that document. I have it linked up in the Learning Management System (LMS, at Holyoke Community College we use Moodle) and students understand they have one place to go to get the latest and don't have to worry about missing an email.

Each online Zoom “lecture” starts with a 5 minute review of the document, allowing students the chance to ask questions, clear up any confusion, etc. Simple and effective.  

Here’s a link to an example of a sanitized Rest of Semester document for one of my electrical engineering classes

Like all of my course materials it is a work in progress. You'll notice in the template - I like to stay two weeks ahead of the class (in case I get sick and need to take some time off, etc) but not any more than that because things can change pretty quickly these days.

Feel free to download a copy and use as a template for your classes.

I’ll be posting here with additional tips. Stay healthy and safe!