Lessons From Online Higher Ed In A COVID-Infused World

I don’t think I have ever written about my teaching duties before.  But circumstances change, so here goes.

I have been teaching online since before COVID forced most classes online.  Each semester I have an online class I try to experiment and improve.

But the COVID pandemic has forced an extra dose of creativity and a re-thinking of ideas – some new and some old – about education. Here I want to share with other educators some of what I have learned in the process.  I’ll keep it general as I hope it will contribute to a discussion about how education will occur going forward.

Flipped Classroom

The flipped classroom is not a new idea.  But since long lectures in Zoom taxes almost everyone’s powers of concentration, we made the move to a completely flipped classroom for the completely online courses that are the norm now.

What used to a live (synchronous) class that combined a lecture and some student interaction has become a workshop this semester.

The Overview “Lecture”

The lecture material, really an overview of the week’s topic, is now a recorded video that students watch before they go to the live class.  This can be anywhere from 15 minutes to an hour depending upon where we are in the course and the topic.

As before, I tend to use video of other speakers to break up the experience so that the students don’t just watch me or my slides.   This also lets the students see that some of the ideas they are being taught come from other human beings, not just textbooks – and they can see those other folks, in all their glory and with their tics, quirks, etc.  Video is also useful to practice the old adage that it is better to let someone see the story than to relate it to them.

Making The Lecture More Interactive

Because the “lecture” is a recorded video, we can lose the opportunity that students have in synchronous classrooms to ask questions, make comments and contribute to each other’s knowledge.  After creating a video in PowerPoint, we don’t just post the video online.  Instead, we use VoiceThread which enables more interaction.  Students can insert comments, questions, replies of any kind – using text, voice or video.  My students have generally stuck to text.  Then the faculty and other students can reply.

It’s not quite the same thing as a lecture in a live, synchronous classroom, but it comes close enough.  In the first three of these videos, we have averaged about 50 comments each.  That is a good level of engagement, in fact much more than was the case in the face-to-face classroom equivalents of these lectures.

Although VoiceThread integrates reasonably well with the learning management system we use – Canvas – it has its limits for this purpose.  We can set up an assignment that requires students to watch the whole video, but VoiceThread only seems to enable this to happen if the students look at all the comments that have been inserted into the video.  From the perspective of increasing their learning, that’s not such a bad idea, but it would be nice to require them just to see the video.  Apparently, that feature is coming sometime in the future.

And Zoom, Of Course

Like many others, we use Zoom for the synchronous class sessions, which are workshops in our case.  A typical session starts off with a review of any issues that arose in student assignments in general.  Then we turn to the draft of an assignment the students worked on before class.  That assignment is usually the completion of an analysis in a workbook which is relevant to the topic of the week.

By now, most people are familiar with Zoom so there is a little learning curve.  And, as software goes, it is stable.  Even when it runs into a problem, it will reboot itself and pick up in the meeting where it left off.

From the teacher’s view, there are at least two benefits in comparison with the traditional classroom.  First, you can more closely scan the faces of students to see if they are engaged.

Second, it is easy for students to show their work to the whole class by sharing their screen.  In traditional face-to-face classrooms, it would take a couple of minutes for a student to get up and make the transfer to some device that everyone could see – and in that process the momentum of the discussion would be broken.  Now, it happens in a second.

With this ability, we ask two or three students to show their work to the whole class in Zoom.  Then both the faculty and other students ask questions and provide feedback on that work.  This not only helps the students who are getting this feedback, but it helps other students to realize what they too might have missed or need to do.

Breakout Groups

Then the students are put into small breakout groups where they present their work to each other.  This is very useful especially for the rest of the students who weren’t lucky enough to be selected for the class-wide presentations.

We use Zoom breakout groups with random assignment.  When students are only paired, there can be a lot of breakout groups.  Zoom can handle this number.

However, it has its limitations which in part reflect the challenge the company faces in addressing its diverse markets.  In our situation, we have more than faculty member and want each to drop in and out of these break out groups to see how things are going.  We finally figured out that we need to make them co-hosts before the break out, but it still isn’t the smoothest process.

We had hoped to use BigBlueButton (BBB) for breakout groups.  BBB is video software specifically designed for education.  Frankly it wasn’t great a few years ago, but it has been much improved recently.  It looked like a better way than Zoom for us to do class breakout group and its user interface and features were better.  But unfortunately, BBB has a hard-coded maximum number of breakout groups, which is 8 – too little for our purposes.

Music

We all face that period on Zoom before class starts and the students are straggling in.  (This behavior seems to be a carry over from physical face-to-face classrooms. 😉) What do you do to get the attention of students, maybe even encourage their on-time attendance?

One of my colleagues suggested using music in the three minutes or so before class starts.  She had in mind some strong, percussive music to wake up the students.

That seemed like an idea worth trying.  But I didn’t want just any music. I thought it might be useful to have a song that was appropriate to the topic of the class.  And a couple of months ago, I spent more time than I should have searching for just the right percussive, but appropriately themed, music to use.  It was a mix, although mostly classic rock.

And it worked!  Students show up early chatting with each other about what the song might be and about the song when they hear it.  In my last class, I even got a request to set up a Spotify playlist of these songs.

The Results So Far

Overall, the results so far have been very encouraging – better than expected and in many ways better than traditional classrooms.  Students seem to grasp the subject matter better, which is the primary aim of course.

But they are also engaged much more.  Attendance has been near perfect.

Another measure tells the story better.  The online class is officially 90 minutes long, ending at lunchtime on a Saturday.  At the official end, I tell the students that they are under no obligation to stay longer.  Yet, in the three classes we’ve had so far, a majority of the students stay for more than a half hour to an hour more.  Several stay on in Zoom longer than that – some for two hours (when I told them I had to shut it down).

Your experience may vary, since each class and cohort of students is different.  These were about sixty students in a master’s degree professional program at Columbia University.  But before you jump too quickly to the conclusion that these lessons aren’t relevant to your students, you might want at least to try them.

Do your own experiments and contribute your own observations to this discussion about teaching in a COVID-infused online world – and the world that will be changed after COVID is controlled.  After all, it is not just the people in front of you who are students, but all of us are lifelong learners.

© 2020 Norman Jacknis, All Rights Reserved

Leveling The Playing Field?

This past week started the COVID-postponed Intelligent Community Forum’s Annual Summit – now virtual and continuing over two weeks.  As usual as Senior Fellow at ICF, I made a presentation yesterday and led a workshop on “Bringing Broadband To Your Community”.

I have previously reported on what is happening in cities this year. In the face of COVID-inspired video conferencing and the departure from offices and some previously popular cities, the question is raised again – can we level the playing field again between the biggest metropolises and elsewhere in the US that have not had broadband?

Many communities now recognize that they will be completely left out of a post-COVID economy.  They are hoping that some outside organization – a benevolent telecommunications company or some government agency – will come in and make the necessary investment so that their community has the broadband it needs.

Considering how many politicians have included broadband as a basic part of our infrastructure, it may be possible that at least the government will provide a lot of funding next year.  But it is worth noting that talk about the government investing on broadband is not new and not all that much has happened in the past.

So in my presentation at the ICF summit, I drew attention to some examples of communities that just went ahead and built this for themselves.  You may have already heard of Chattanooga, Tennessee and Lafayette, Louisiana, both of which deployed broadband through their electric utilities that are owned by the city government.

But here I want to give some credit to two examples that are not so well known.  The first is in a poorly served urban community in San Francisco.  The second is in a rural area that had expected to be the last to get broadband in England.

Although San Francisco bills itself as the high-tech capital of the world, the reality is that 100,000 of its residents (1 in 8) do not have a high-speed Internet connection at home.  This situation, by the way, is not unique to San Francisco.  Many otherwise well-connected cities have vast areas without affordable broadband – not quite Internet deserts, but with Internet effectively out of reach to low income residents for technical or financial reasons.

So in conjunction with an urban wireless Internet provider, Monkeybrains (great name!), the city government rolled out its Fiber to Housing initiative last year.  According to a report “Can San Francisco Finally Close its Digital Divide?” in November 2019, they had already free, high-speed internet to more than 1,500 low-income families in 13 housing communities – public housing.  By this past summer, the number was increased to 3,500 families.  While there is still a long way to go, the competition has already forced traditional Internet service providers to step up their game as well.

In a very different community in rural England, there is a related story, except this region, unlike San Francisco, is the last place you would expect to find broadband.  In the northwest corner of England, surrounding the not-so-big city of Lancaster (population around 50,000), a non-profit community benefit society was created to provide broadband for the rural north.  It is called B4RN.

As they proclaim on their website, they offer “The World’s Fastest Rural Broadband [with] Gigabit full fibre broadband costing households just £30/month”.  As of the middle of last year, they had more than 6,000 fully connected rural households.

In speaking with Barry Forde, CEO of B4RN, I learned a part of the story that should resonate with many others.  The community leaders who wanted to bring broadband to their area tried to explain to local farmers the process of building out a fiber network.  They noted that the technology costs of these networks are often dwarfed by the construction costs of digging in the ground to lay the fiber. The farmers then responded that digging holes was something they could do easily – they already had the equipment to dig holes for their farming!  With that repurposing of equipment, the project could move much more quickly and less expensively.

I can’t go into the whole story here, but this video gives a good summary of the vision and practical leadership that has made B4RN a success.

Frankly, if B4RN can do it, any community can do it.  Whether it’s in one of the most costly cities or in the remote countryside, a little creativity and community cooperation can make broadband possible.

And it need not be gigabit everywhere to start or having nothing at all.  Build what you can, get people to use it and the demand will grow to support upgrades.  An intelligent community grows step by step this way.

These were the important lessons of the ICF Summit yesterday.

© 2020 Norman Jacknis, All Rights Reserved