On Teaching Online, Week 2

I'm finishing up my second full week of 100% remote, online delivery of my courses.  It's hard to identify everything I'm feeling, not least because my personal and professional life are now so interconnected by a global health and economic crisis.  I do know that I'm deeply tired.

One thing that has brought me comfort is knowing that I have peers all around the world doing the same thing as me.  For example, I was reading @wallingf's post on the same topic, and this line resonated with me:

My primary emotion after my second week teaching remotely is disappointment.

I feel the same.  A big part of my skillset as a teacher is mentoring and personalized learning.  I try to get to know my students, their interests and skills, and look for opportunities to push them individually toward things they would be good at.  I look for connections between ideas, technologies, projects, and people.  It's always different because the people are different, and I can't simply upload it to a CMS for people to download.

With the world all staying home, lots of the things I'm reading right now are focused on the technology and curriculum aspects of teaching and learning.  But neither of these is teaching.  Teaching isn't curriculum or the site where you access it.  This is hard for people who don't teach to understand, but if I told you that buying a textbook isn't learning, you'd be getting close to what I mean.  We're obsessed with artifacts, likely because we can buy, sell, and count them.  But teaching isn't about things.  Teaching is concerned with people and time.  

Doing this remotely isn't impossible.  But it requires a level of participation and reciprocity that most students don't yet have.  Self-awareness, knowing how to ask  questions, understanding when to get help and when to keep going alone--these are skills that students are developing, but most haven't mastered.  In the classroom and in the halls, you can overcome a lot of this through direct interaction, quick observation, and personal conversations.  But doing it online requires a much more intentional style.

I learned how to "emote" online using irc with Mozilla.  A lot of people are using online chat systems like Slack and Microsoft Teams as a place to ask and answer questions.  But what about all the in-between time when you don't yet understand the question you need to ask?  Using chat as an ambient thought bubble can be a useful way to share your presence, for people to avoid feeling alone, and for you to work out ideas as you're having them.  I can remember being in channels with developers like bz, who would narrate his investigation into some bug, ask questions (of no one, and everyone), and share the results of his debugging.  It was a text adventure where you got to pretend to be a better developer than you were, and watch bz battle monsters in deeper and darker sections of the code base.  It's not unlike what streamers do on Twitch, and it's such a useful way to build a shared sense of time and place.

Getting students to try and do this is almost impossible.  So many of my most active students on Slack spend their time messaging me privately.  When they do, they ask me amazing questions, talk about interesting ideas, and show me progress they are making on their work.  "Why don't we take this to the main channel, I bet others would find this as fascinating as I do..."  But most are afraid of looking silly.

I spend as much time as I can looking "silly" in the main channels.  If I make mistakes, I try to do it in public. If I'm stuck on things, I say it.  If I can't figure out why something is broken, I channel bz and talk to myself on Slack.  But there's not enough time this term to get most of my students accustomed to this style of working.

Thankfully, a number of my open source students are starting to trust my method.  According to my Slack analytics for the past two weeks, my workspaces have had 88 people send 4,000+ messages, 73% in public channels, and 27% in private.  It's happening, but I fear it misses too many people.

To try and reach everyone, I've also have been putting a ton of time into creating online resources to supplement my notes.  This has mostly taken the form of short (10-30 min) coding walkthrough videos.  Students have told me that this asynchronous approach is better for them, since keeping a common schedule is hard right now.  I'm good at giving lectures to a full class, but I find it harder to do by myself alone.  According to YouTube, my online materials had 1,000 viewers (700+ hours viewed) in the past two weeks.  So people are watching.  But I'm not very good at it yet, and I need to figure out better ways to do it with my limited A/V skills.

I've also had to completely rethink how I give tests.  Some of my colleagues have gone to extreme lengths to try and lock down online testing environments and curtail cheating.  I've given up on it, and moved to mini assignment style assessments.  I let the students take the "test" any time on the day it happens, allow them to use their notes, but ask that they not collaborate.  As I've been writing this post, one of my students has emailed me 6 times with questions, each time getting closer and closer to her goal.  In her seventh, she wrote: "Thank you, I've learned so much doing this!"  I don't usually think of a test as a chance to learn (vs show what you've learned), but it makes me think.  

Setting the content of the tests so as to make it fairly easy to spot direct copying has helped.  But so far it hasn't been that necessary to police.  I try to treat students respectfully, as adults, and I'm usually given the same in return.  I have had some students take advantage of this, and it's been really frustrating.  It always is.  But it's a price I'm willing to pay in order to keep my courses open, interesting, and relevant.  Thankfully, I haven't had too many students like this.

However, even the best students are having a hard time.  It's been difficult because everyone is burned out or struggling in some way. I've noticed other faculty overcompensating for their distrust of the move online by piling on more and more work, asking too much of students, and therefore eating into the time and energy reserves that students might spend on my courses.  I keep reminding myself that we're not "teaching online," but rather making the most of a pivot to online: this isn't anyone's best effort, nor can it be.

I'm also starting to hear some of my best students tell me of companies pulling out of previous co-op offers for the summer.  It's really upsetting, because these are such important opportunities for them to get out into industry.  If you're reading this and you still need interns, get in touch.  I'd be happy to connect you with some good people.

But I've also had the reverse happen, and a lot of industry people have stepped up to help mentor my students with me.  One of my former students, Ray Gervais, has used his stuck-at-home time during this pandemic to spend hours and hours helping my current open source students debug and develop code in my class.  It's been fantastic to have his help and experience.  I was also thrilled to see my friend Cassie tweet this out, and be willing to share her extensive knowledge with one of my students:

It will be interesting to see what next week brings.  I'm already feeling like there is a bit more of a pattern to this madness, and I have some sense of what I'm doing.  And yet the projections for the next few weeks don't look good.  I'm aware that there is so much to be thankful for, and lots that still worries me.

Show Comments