With the spread of COVID-19 into a global pandemic (thanks Trump!), all of my jobs are transitioning to remote instruction. CUNY Queens College remote classes go live on Thursday, March 19, and my classes at Pratt Institute are due to restart online on March 30. At NYU, where I am an hourly, contractor, we’ve been told to work from home until further notice.
As a knowledge worker, I am lucky that I can still work and earn money in this disrupted environment. My 2015 MacBook Pro works as good as it did five years ago, I have fiber-optic Internet at home, and, should I need to travel, my unlimited mobile data plan includes tethering. I also have a good USB mic for recording lectures.
For some techno-utopians, this might seem like the realization of a long-awaited reality: the mass-adoption of telecommuting and of online education. But as I think we’re all learning, transitioning to remote work and to distance learning is incredibly difficult and will certainly be less effective than being at work and at school.
I can’t offer much advice on remote working. I’m literally going through on-the-job training in that department. However, I can offer some advice on online teaching. I’ve taught many iterations of two online courses for years, namely Contemporary Media and Media Technologies during the summer and winter sessions, and here’s what I’m doing for my current classes in the age of the virus.
Just Google It
For years, I’ve been cool to using Google products. But I use Google Classroom and G Suite for assignments for a couple of reasons. First, Google Classroom doesn’t have too many features, and thus it is still pretty easy to use. For example, it’s a lot simpler than the bloatware that is Blackboard. Second, Google’s apps are what my students will encounter in the “real” world. Or, at least, these apps work like the ones other companies uses, such as Office 365. No one is going to use Blackboard or Moodle once they leave school.
Change How You Teach
Was your in-person class a three-hour lecture? Don’t run your online class with you talking to a webcam for three hours! That’s a sure way to have students do something else while you lecture, thus defeating the purpose of having the class in the first place.
You’ll have to deconstruct your class into parts. Some will have to become asynchronous, and some can remain synchronous. Let’s go through the two.
Asynchronous activities are those that are done on the student’s own timeline, not at a specific date and time. However, in order to keep students on task, you should require students to complete activities by a certain deadline.
You already assign readings from a textbook, a journal article, or something posted on the Internet. Think of other material that may complement those readings.
For example, as I teach film classes, I will assign one or two more critical essays each week that are available through EBSCO, JSTOR, or whatever databases your university subscribes. There are also some that you can access on a newspaper’s or magazine’s website, and there are other good readings on the open web. It is up to you, of course, to review and validate their value.
For years, online teachers have evangelized the idea of the flipped classroom. In this model, you record your lecture ahead of time and have the students watch it on their own. It’s called “flipped” because you do some other activity—group work, discussion sessions, a lab, etc.—during the class time, instead of having the professor lecture at the class. In the age of virus, there won’t be an in-class session for the “other activity.”
My approach to lectures is to record a slideshow with voiceover narration, export it as a video, and post it to YouTube for students to watch. I prefer to post these as unlisted videos on YouTube because students are familiar with how YouTube works.
The most important lesson I’ve learned over the years is to compress the lecture into something much shorter than you normally do in-person. My two-hour lectures, for example, become twenty-minute presentations. Because you’re not interacting with students and checking if they understand you, you can proceed a lot faster. Students can pause and restart the lecture, as well review and rewind as they see fit.
There’s some art to crafting effective slides for this medium. That only comes with practice.
Three of my four classes this semester are film classes which have screenings. I still want students to watch the films we had planned for the semester, but having them watch them on their own is tricky.
In the old days, we would have students watch films by requesting the titles from the reserve desk at the library. However, since we’re social distancing as much as possible, it would make sense for students to stream the titles online. And that is where things get tricky because each option comes with its own complications.
- Pick a streaming service that students can subscribe to, such as The Criterion Channel, and assign films from their collection. Subscriptions for The Criterion Channel, for example, are available on a monthly basis for $10.99 and yearly basis for $99.99.
- Point students to titles available for rent or purchase through Amazon, iTunes, or Google Play.
- If your institution or local library has a generous license to Kanopy, you can use that option to assign films from this collection.
Some of these options might be unaffordable for many students. After all, I have about six to seven weeks of the semester remaining. That’s a lot of films for students to rent or buy. And in the case of certain institutions, Kanopy might be too expensive. That’s why the New York Public Library did not renew its Kanopy subscription.
For essays, I’ve posted a Google Classroom assignment with an attached Google Doc that students must use to write their essays. You can configure it so there’s a copy for each student. I wouldn’t call grading essays “easy,” but you can comment on essays and return the work within the Google Docs—Google Classroom environment.
It works only if you require students to use Google Docs. Sometimes, they don’t observe that rule and upload a Microsoft Word document, a PDF, or even an Open Office document. Unfortunately, none of these work for commenting in Google Classroom, and you have to make students resubmit the assignment correctly.
Google Forms allows you to make quizzes. If you do objective questions and provide an answer key, the “robot” will grade the questions for you. Otherwise, you can grade subjective questions manually.
I prefer not to use Google Quiz for subjective questions. Students cannot save their responses to complete their work later. They have to finish it in one sitting.
Because proctoring exams is impossible without creepy surveillance technologies, I assign students take-home exams.
As I mentioned earlier, students can’t save their progress in Google Forms. Instead, I prefer to write questions in Google Docs. Students write their responses below the question. I grade the responses by using commenting feature in Google Docs. Then I add up their points, record the score, and return the assignment.
Google Classroom allows you to use rubrics, but I hate rubrics so I don’t use this feature.
Synchronous activities are those that are done at a specific date and time, either with the entire class, with groups of students, or one-on-one sessions with an individual student.
For the remainder of the Spring 2020 semester, I am scheduling an hourlong discussion section for each of my classes. We are hosting these on Google Meet, which normally allows for 100 simultaneous participants. But in the age of the virus, they increased that limit to 250 participants.
Since 2016, I have been using the self-scheduling appointment slots feature in Google Calendar. I use these so students can sign up for in-person office hours, although they can also schedule remote appointments through Google Meet.
In the age of the virus, all meetings will be remote and held through Google Meet. Students who sign up for an appointment will receive a confirmation email of their appointment. The email—and the entry in the student’s Google Calendar—contains a link to the Video Call and a phone number (with a PIN) to join the call by telephone.
Generally, I only use the audio-only feature of Google Meet, but in case you want to present something to a student, it makes sense to use the desktop web browser or the mobile apps to do this.
Need More Help?
If you’re interesting in learning more about transitioning your course to online, remote instruction, get in touch with me on the Contact page. We can discuss a plan that could work for you.
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