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March 14, 2020

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Online Teaching in the Time of Coronavirus

I’ve been spending a lot of the past week looking at different options for transitioning my teaching online for the rest of the term. There are certainly people far more expert at online instruction than I am, but I wanted to share some of my thoughts and what I’ve found.

Handling Assignments

Online Assignment Options

There are a lot of options for doing homework online. Many of these products (like WebAssign) have temporarily made everything freely available. I’m sure some of them are good, but I don’t know much about them.

This term I’ve been experimenting with using the MAA’s WeBWork system, which has been going quite well. If you can administer your own server it’s completely free; if you can’t, the MAA will give you one trial class and then charge $200 per course you want to host. I don’t know how willing they are to start these up mid-semester, though. WeBWork is hardly a solution to everything, but it works very well for questions with numerical or algebraic answers.

(With WeBWork you can even give assignments that have to be completed inside a narrow window–say, an assignment that is only answerable between 2 and 3:30 on Thursday. So we could maybe use this to somewhat replace tests. Though again, not perfectly.)

Written Homework

Of course, some assignments really need to include a written component. Written homework probably can just be photographed (or scanned) with a mobile phone; I expect most of our students have access to some sort of digital camera. I don’t know anything about the scanning apps but I know they exist. I have in fact graded photographed homework before, and my student graders have expressed a willingness to do this for the rest of the term.

We can also consider encouraging our students, especially in upper-division classes, to start using LaTeX for more assignments. That’s an unreasonable imposition on Calc 1 students but most of the people in the upper-level classes have probably been exposed to it, and it would make a lot of this much simpler. No scanning, no photographing, just emailing in PDFs.

Lectures and Office Hours

I purchased a writing tablet for my computer. This is a peripheral that plugs into your computer and allows you to write/draw with a pen. I specifically ordered a Huion 1060 Plus, which gives a 10x6 writing area and goes for $70 on Amazon. I haven’t gotten to test it yet, so don’t consider that quite a recommendation. The other thing that gets highly recommended is the Wacom Intuos, which is supposed to be somewhat nicer but also gives a much smaller writing surface (something like 6x4), so if you write big this might not be comfortable.

I’ve been looking into options to stream lectures and other content. There are really two things I want to do here: the first is to have video conferences where I can stream lectures and share my screen to show written notes, LaTeX’d notes, Mathematica notebooks, etc. The second is to create a persistent space for student interactions. I’d like to create a space where even when I’m not “holding a lecture” or “having office hours”, my students can still ask questions—of each other and of me.

Discord

I’ve been doing the second thing with Discord for my research group for the past year or so. It works pretty well. You create a room with a bunch of channels and all messages in a channel stay permanently (unless deleted by a moderator). You can scroll up to see what people have talked about in the past. Makes it great for students to have conversations with you and each other, and other students can see what happened in them. (There’s also a private messaging feature, of course.)

Discord is also good for voice calls, and has a screen sharing feature. Both of them worked very smoothly when I tried them, except the screensharing has some limitations that I believe are Linux-specific (in particular, in my multi-monitor setup I can share one window, or my entire desktop, but I can’t share exactly one monitor, which is something I would like to do). I’ve been in touch with David Speyer, who’s written up a bunch of thoughts about Discord here, with a basic tutorial for setting it up.

One thing about discord that is both good and bad is that many of our students use it already. (It was designed for online videogame playing, and is now a widely used chat and voice program.) This is good because our students are already familiar with the program and how to use it. It may be bad because that means our students often already have screen names and identities on Discord that they may want to keep separated from their academic/professional personas. If we use some software they have not used before, they can create fresh accounts and keep their online personas appropriately segmented.

Oxy’s Suggestions: BlueJeans and Moodle

My institution made some software recommendations. BlueJeans is the recommended videoconferencing software. I’ve played around with it a bit and it seems serviceable but not great. (Again, it has some specific issues with Linux that are more or less dealbreakers for me, as well.) One thing I miss from it is that it’s designed for video calls/conferences, but it doesn’t have the capacity to create a persistent chat room. So if I want that persistent interaction space, I’d need to use a second tool; I’d prefer to run everything on one platform if I can.

Moodle has a tool for creating chat rooms, but it’s awful. Do not want. It’s still a good place to post assignments and such if you don’t already have a place to post them and your institution uses Moodle. (If your institution uses some other learning management software, I can’t say much; Moodle is the only one I’ve ever used.)

Zoom Videoconferencing

I’ve been leaning towards a videoconferencing solution called Zoom. The screensharing works great, and the recording feature works great. There’s an ability to create a shared whiteboard space, that I and students can both write on, which seems helpful for virtual office hours.

Zoom has the ability to create a persistent chatroom, and it worked very smoothly in some testing I did today with a couple of my undergraduates. (One of them reported that it “felt really slick”, which is a good sign; most of the experience was pretty seamless.) The videoconferencing can work without anyone making an account, I think, but the persistent chat room would require all our students to make (free) accounts. Anyone with a Gmail account can just log in with that, so that might not be a large barrier.

One major downside is that videoconferences are limited to 40 minutes. They’ve been relaxing this for schools and in affected areas, so I don’t know how much this would be in practice. But I also think we could just start again at the end of the 40 minute period if we needed to. (Or maybe just keep formal lectures below forty minutes; it’s hard to ask students to pay attention that long anyway. If you’re posting recorded video suggestions seem to be to keep them under ten minutes.)

Closing thoughts

There are a bunch of other resources floating around to help you; I’ve looked at several but unfortunately haven’t been keeping a list. But if you poke around on Twitter or elsewhere there are many people more informed than I am who will offer help!

I know the MAA has a recorded online chat on online teaching, though I haven’t looked at it yet.

But the most important thing is not to get hung up on perfection. I didn’t plan to teach my courses remotely this term, and I’m sure they will suffer for lack of direct instructional contact. But that’s okay! And I’m going to be honest with my students about this.

This is a really unfortunate way to finish out the semester. It sucks. But I’m going to do what I can to make it only suck a medium amount. And I hope my students will bear with me and help to make this only medium suck.

We’ll get through this.


I’d love to hear any ideas or feedback you have about moving to online instruction. And I’m happy to answer any questions I can—we’re in this together. Tweet me @ProfJayDaigle, or leave a comment below.


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