I know the blog has been quiet lately. Like so many others, I have been learning how to juggle everything in this new reality. What time I have found to share with others online has been spent on the page of remote teaching resources I have been curating.
Well, now the semester has finished and I am doing my usual reflecting on how it went and what I can do better for the next round of remote learning in the Spring 2021 semester. A lot happened, so the thoughts are long, but here they are.
Summary of Efforts
The driving forces of the conversion of the lecture portion of Physics 132 to an online course were flexibility and community. Development of a valuable laboratory experience that was doable remotely was an additional challenge.
The varied home situations, many of which were non-ideal, coupled with the fact that many of my students work as front-line workers during the pandemic required a lot of flexibility to be built into the course. Students could attend sessions either synchronously via Zoom or watch the recordings of the sessions later at their convenience. Quizzes associated with nearly every class session helped ensure that students were prepared for each class and kept up with the material. These quizzes were given both during the synchronous sessions and then online where students had one-week to complete them. Even exams were made as flexible as possible. For each exam, students were offered a window of at least 12 hours to complete the exam.
Establishing a sense of community, known to be beneficial to student success, is already difficult in a 300+ person course. Online/remote, the challenges are amplified. I tried to begin the establishment of community at the beginning of the semester with a H5P interactive syllabus (http://openbooks.library.umass.edu/toggerson-132/front-matter/syllabus/) which presented much of the information in video format. As laid out in recommendations, video provides an opportunity to humanize me as an instructor before the course even began. Video also provided an opportunity for me to acknowledge up front the challenges my students were facing associated with remote learning and the societal impacts of the pandemic more broadly. I feel that these efforts helped students feel comfortable coming to me with their challenges.
Beyond the syllabus, I also used teams to try and create a sense of community. While teams are a standard part of my pedagogy, I felt they were more important this semester. Teams were organized to be as diverse as possible while ensuring that students from under-represented groups were not solo. Research shows that such groups are the highest performing. Beyond my usual structures, I added questions to the team-formation algorithm regarding time-zones, out-of-class schedules, and intent to take the course synchronously. I also created a “team contract” assignment in Moodle to facilitate teams setting their norms and expectations for the semester. Several students mentioned in the FORWARD FOCUS survey that they found the teams helpful in connecting to the course: “I absolutely loved my group this semester… I made such great connections with the other members. Our group worked really well together. We got the work done and even had time to laugh and get to know one another.”
To facilitate out-of-class communication, I created a Slack workspace. I chose Slack as it is a tool that students are likely to see in the professional realm and I thought that exposing it to them now would be beneficial. In line with recommendations from Slack, I created a #random channel for the sharing of information unrelated to the course. For example, I posted information and discussion about the Nobel Prize awardees. A few students also contributed with interesting questions tangentially connected to the material or even just funny memes.
Constructing a genuine and valuable lab experience that could be done remotely was perhaps the biggest adjustment for the course. To help keep student costs down, particularly in this time where many students are facing additional financial stress, I wanted the labs to use materials that students already had access to at home. Aidan Philbin, and undergraduate physics major interested in education, and I built upon the work done by Paul Bourgeois and David Nguyen to create a lab manual: http://openbooks.library.umass.edu/p132-lab-manual/. This series of five labs explored data analysis techniques and experimental design while teaching valuable spreadsheet skills that students will use in the workforce.
What Worked Well
The lecture portion of the course, on the whole, I think went quite well. I think that I received more questions than usual. The anonymity of the Chat in Zoom, I think, encourages some students to ask questions that would not in a 300-person lecture hall. These perceptions are supported by some of the FORWARD FOCUS results which show that students felt like I was a real person, felt supported to learn, and found the lectures to be the most valuable component of the course.
Several students mentioned in the FORWARD FOCUS survey that they found the teams helpful in connecting to the course: “I absolutely loved my group this semester… I made such great connections with the other members. Our group worked really well together. We got the work done and even had time to laugh and get to know one another.”
Challenges to Fix in the Future
One change, that was more time consuming than I had anticipated, was the chunking of the synchronous sessions’ video recordings. My course sessions are centered around problem solving: I will typically do an example and then give students time to work similar problems on their own or collaboratively. While students are working, I am moving around Zoom breakout rooms helping students progress. I do not want to include these interactions in the recordings as I suspect it will make students nervous of being wrong and therefore less likely to engage in the process. The time students are working is thus not particularly useful to the recording as it is a silent blank screen. Furthermore, I want the recordings themselves to encourage the viewer to pause the recording and try to solve the problem out before proceeding. Finally, in line with what is considered best practice, I want my videos to be on the order of 10 minutes or less. Such chunking allows students to easily divide up the content to fit into complex schedules.
The solution is to edit the videos into chunks based on topic and remove the “thinking/working time” that I provide during the synchronous sessions. When the “thinking/working” time is removed, I add a title card to the video encouraging the viewer to, “PAUSE HERE: Try to solve it on your own before moving forward.” The result is that a single 50-minute synchronous session may be divided into two-to-five sessions of five-to-fifteen minutes. After editing, the total time of the session is typically around 25-minutes. These mini-videos are then uploaded to Echo360 as a “Collection” both individually and all strung together. Again, the goal is flexibility. Based upon a Midterm Assessment (MAP), some students prefer to watch the session as a continuous unit, while other really prefer the divided nature.
All this editing was extensively time consuming, particularly removing the “thinking/working time” and then rendering all the videos associated with each class. My goal was to get the videos out within 24 hours of the synchronous session. A goal that was very difficult to meet as I was also trying to write lecture and lab materials. Getting the videos for the Friday sessions done quickly was particularly challenging as I taught a graduate seminar on Friday afternoons.
The Slack workspace was not as active as I would have liked. There were a few students who engaged, but they were the same few people over-and-over. Even their participation fell off over the course of the semester. I am comparing the activity to prior semesters where I have had a comparatively active Piazza forum. I am not sure exactly why the community was so quiet. I asked my students in the FORWARD FOCUS survey for their perceptions explicitly stating that I did not want make it for credit as that encourages folks to just post-to-post. A few common threads were:
- “Looking foolish in front of the entire class”
- “One more platform to check”
- “Too many channels”
- “No incentive”
The “looking foolish” concern, I think, is a significant difference between Slack and Piazza. In the Piazza platform, the default is to be anonymous. The tutorial I made for Slack, however, did not really encourage the use of pseudonyms. Adding to the tutorial video would, perhaps, help as would reducing the number of channels. As for the issue of platform-fatigue, I am not sure how to get around this. Some students suggested a Moodle forum. I have not had great success with Moodle forums in the past, but, but that was before all my students’ courses had extensive use of technological tools. As one student put it, “We are on Moodle all day, one more platform to check is just too much.” I need to think about what is the best option going forward.
Given that this semester represented a first attempt for this lab, there were the usual challenges involving the clarity of directions etc. There were also technical challenges associated with hosting the labs in Moodle and providing multiple attempts at questions. However, the biggest challenge involved getting students to engage with the lab early and get help from their TAs. In line with the goal of flexibility, I designed the labs so that students could do them asynchronously on their own. However, they were also designed to take about four hours in the company of a TA. The problem arose that few students actually attended their synchronous lab sessions. In addition to compounding the expected clarity issues, failing to work with their TAs resulted in the labs taking an excessively long time for students. I am considering ways to encourage students to attend lab while still acknowledging the need for flexibility.
Another challenge with the lab is cultural. Given the focus on experimental design, I expect the data from students’ first attempts to not be very good. In fact, I specifically design procedure outlines (students are expected to fill in the details), that will have large statistical or systematic uncertainties. I want them to critically think about their procedures and devise ways to refine them. However, their prior lab experiences have taught them that poor quality data on the first attempt will lead to a poor grade. Overcoming this fear is a challenge for the future as well.