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!

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