I have never taught an online course and now I have to

Background

Michigan State announced it was cancelling face-to-face instruction today at noon. That was perfect timing considering that I teach an advanced undergraduate physics course to about 25 students every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday at 4pm. I have always taken the teaching part of my job very seriously. It is important to me that students in any class that I lead feel comfortable, empowered, and intelligent. If you want to see a super slick summary of how I teach this class, check out this video that MSU made last year. I love this part of my job and working with students is my favorite part. But, for at least the next month, I have been asked to teach it virtually.

I have never taught an online course and now I have to.

The course I teach is an advanced electromagnetism course for physics and astronomy majors. It’s been redesigned over the last 3 years to use research-based active learning pedagogies and tools. Sure, I still lecture, but there’s activities, clicker questions, and lots and lots of discussion. I have tried to make the classroom space inclusive where students feel welcome and respected by me and their classmates. And now, MSU is asking me to teach them virtually – an instructional space that I have no experience with, that I personally loathe, and that appears to have little positive effects when not carefully designed.

So, this afternoon, I started testing different potential technical solutions to make the instructional aspects of the virtual course as close to the classroom that my students and I share. This is my reflection on just one class meeting. I hope that by providing this information and continuing the conversation, we, online teaching amateurs, can collectively provide quality instruction to our students. I also want to recognize the privilege I have teaching at MSU – a school with significant resources and wealth that is not shared by all schools affected by COVID-19. Also, I want to own up to the biases that I have – I believe that face-to-face instruction is incredibly valuable and important and online proxies simply can’t yet provide the same value.

Lecturing Online

If you simply want to convey information to students through lecture, you can stop reading here. There’s plenty of tools to record and upload video lectures for students to watch. In fact, someone probably has already created an entire course that you would teach and put it on YouTube. But the classroom interaction and discussion are quite important for students to develop their understanding. Also, live writing helps slow the pace of lecture down and gives space for students to interject, ask question, and provide alternative explanations and understanding.

So, my instructional model needed to include a live lecture to students who could interrupt, question, and generally control the pace of the class. Fortunately, MSU has a Zoom license that 300 people can join. My class has about 25, so this was plenty. Zoom has a lot of features that you can use like breakout rooms (for discussion, which I haven’t used yet), whiteboarding (which appears to use the mouse unless you use a tablet), and polling (which seemed overly complicated for me). But the main thing Zoom had going for it (for me) was the ability to share an iPad screen via AirPlay. This meant I could write notes on my iPad live and students could follow along.

For notetaking for lecture, I tend to use Notability, which has a simple design and collects notes under a single heading. It’s like writing on a single sheet of paper that can continue to be extended. I can also export those notes to PDF and share with students directly. All my long form notes are posted already, but sometimes they asked questions where some follow-up and off-script analogies were used. I suspect that any note-taking app that you are comfortable with would work well here.

Clicker Questions

I saw an additional benefit to using the iPad when asking students clicker questions. I use clicker questions to break up lecture, illustrate challenging conceptual points, and check understanding. They are my go-to instructional tool and I have written a lot of them over the years (here’s one class period’s worth). Fortunately, they are written in markdown and processed using reveal.js, so they are available online for any device with a browser. So, pulling them up was a simple as shifting between Notability and Google Chrome.

Normally, I use the i-Clicker system, which is adopted across MSU for clickers. I really like the i-Clicker system, it’s simple, intuitive, and stable. We have used it for years. But, in teaching a class online, you can’t use this clicker system unless students have bought the app, which most of my students haven’t. My colleague, Vashti Sawtelle, told me about Poll Everywhere, which is a simple polling app that is free for up to 25 users (and $79 for up to 700 students for a month). I created a single question called “Virtual Clicker” with just 5 options (A, B, C, D, E). Then students navigated to the link and simple 5 button form came up. I could ask clicker questions that students could reply to and get real-time information on what they thought. It was similar to i-Clicker in its responsiveness, but I was unable to tell when all the students had clicked in. I could see percentages but not raw numbers.

Class Discussion

This is where I need to do some work. By default, all the students’ cameras were off, and they were muted. This was suggested to me by Vashti as a good idea because it can be quite a cacophony if they are all logged in with mics on. I sent the norms when class started to leave the mics off unless you had a question or comment. Then you could either use the raise hand feature (which provides a nice notification) or just unmute and ask a question (this happens in class frequently and I have no problem with it).

Students typically raised hands and spoke, but there wasn’t the back and forth between students I have come to see in class. The building and combining of ideas that are really important in a class. A student would speak, ask a question, express an idea or explanation, or provide a clarifying statement and then back to awkward, awkward silence.

When using clicker questions, I frequently ask students to discuss two or more debatable ideas and vote again. In this first attempt, I was unable to think in the moment how to get that started without having 20 people shouting at each other. (Perhaps, the thoughtful use of breakout rooms might help do that, which I might try.)

Reflections

Overall, I don’t think teaching this class online was the disaster I thought it was going to be. There are several things I need to work out:

  1. In class, students can see the board work and clicker questions at the same time. They can use the ideas on the board to debate and answer clicker questions. The iPad allows one screen at a time to be shown, so it’s either clicker questions or my handwritten notes. I will need to think about this because students use that board work a lot in their reasoning and discussion, which I didn’t see as much today.
  2. Asking clicker questions a second time is awkward if students don’t have a forum to discuss with each other. I would either seek a correct explanation only (which positions knowing and knowledge in a weird way) or answer the question myself and move on (which I hate doing and is terrible pedagogy). One time, we left a question unanswered and a student spontaneously brought it up later in class because the answer the majority of the class gave (the incorrect one) confused him. I asked the question again and they almost all got it correct and the reasoning that student then provided was solid. Maybe building more space to revisit questions is a model for the kind of clicker practice I want to use?
  3. Oh…the awkward silences. I use wait-time a lot in class. It’s not uncommon for me to wait 15-30 even 40 seconds to hear from students. Someone is almost always to present an idea and we try to build it up. Today, probably because of the online format and the new-ness of Zoom to some students, we had wait-times close where I explained the concept and moved on.

There’s probably more to say here, but I will reserve it for another post after a couple more classes. I did ask students to give me their honest feedback on what we did today because if it’s not working for them, it’s not working, and we need something else. They deserve the best class that can be made in the current situation. All the feedback so far has been fairly positive. I do think they are being generous in a difficult situation and I truly appreciate that.