Online, Week 3

Last week was a shortened week, with the Easter Friday holiday, but I wanted to write about some of what I saw and experienced "online" during week 3 of covid19-teaching.

This was the final week of classes, and we only have one more week of "final assessments," which look different in different courses.  For my open source students, that means shipping a 1.0.0 release on Friday (which I'm pleased to report will happen!).  Today they reached their 1,000th Issue and Pull Request on GitHub, which was amazing to see.  For my web students, it means doing an extra assignment related to responsive design and static web hosting, as well as writing a paper.

Learning to Lecture Online

I've finished my final online lecture and uploaded it to YouTube.  I've learned a bunch about how to do these, mostly what I want to improve.  For example, I've been using a really basic recording setup with QuickTime and no video editing.  It's been really uneven in how well it works.  Sometimes everything goes great, and I'll finish a single take, save the file, and upload.  However, sometimes I'll play back the video and find that it's only recorded the first 10 minutes, or it will refuse to save with bizarre error messages.  Quite a few times I had to start over and re-record the whole thing.  Not knowing enough about video editing made it harder than it needed to be.

I've always avoided creating videos like this because I felt like I don't know how to make finished products that look good enough (e.g., compared to things I see on the web).  It doesn't help that I spent years working alongside an award winning filmmaker at Mozilla on Popcorn.js and Popcorn Maker, and saw how good "good" can be (check out his latest documentary).  I'm a fearless writer, be it code or prose, but creating visuals intimidates me.

The move to online has pushed me to just do something, and do it fast.  I've had no choice.  But more than this, I found myself in a unique situation where the end product wasn't the point: the new goal was to support my students, which is so important to me.  That freedom from perfection was critical. I am a perfectionist, and despite all my (eloquent) preaching to students about "just trying something!" and "don't let perfect get in the way of good enough," I've avoided getting started on this type of work because I knew I couldn't nail it.

To be clear, I didn't nail it.  But I did it!  And I'm proud of myself for getting this far.  It's shown me that this is something I could do more of in the future.  I need to invest some time in a better setup, both hardware and software.  For one, I want to experiment with OBS, which Chris has been doing.  I need to get a better microphone, too, and I've bookmarked this great post to study in a few weeks.  My brother is really talented at this stuff, and I'll likely get him to teach me more as well.

I'm also surprised to see myself thinking that I'd like to figure out what the best uses of video conferencing vs. pre-recorded YouTube videos vs. real-time streaming might be for my teaching.  If I switch to OBS, I could experiment a bit with streaming some of my coding walkthroughs with students.  I feel like I've gotten a pretty good education on YouTube and Zoom/Microsoft Teams, but I need to get James to help me understand what streaming could do for my teaching.

In addition to using all this for my work at Seneca, I've realized that there are probably some interesting opportunities for side-projects.  For example, I've had a lot of people ask me about creating a course on git and GitHub workflows.  I now see a better way forward to create a course like this using some of the knowledge I've gained.  Maybe I'll do that in the coming months, who knows.

The "Telescope Podcast"

I also observed another interesting emergent behaviour this week: my students combining multiple platforms and collaborative tools to create hybrid media experiences.

I've been using Slack with my students for a number of years.  I used to use irc, but when the world moved to Slack, I decided to do the same so that they would get experience using the most common communication platform.

During this "online" period, we've all been more open to experimenting with new tools and platforms for collaboration.  For our weekly triage meetings in my open source class, we were using Zoom.  But with all the recent security and privacy kerfuffle related to Zoom, I decided to try something else.  Our institution has an enterprise license for Microsoft Teams (which I've been ignoring), and I decided to give that a try.

Teams is Slack + Zoom + Dropbox + Google Docs/'s kind of everything in one.  To be honest, I'm really impressed with it.  I created a Team for my open source students, and invited them all to join.  I also left the Slack workspace running, mostly because I was curious to see which they would prefer.

The "Slack" parts of Teams are different than Slack.  Not bad different, just unfamiliar if your muscle memory is tuned to where Slack puts everything.  I don't think I'm alone in feeling this way, because I noticed that everyone continued to chat (i.e., text based chat) on Slack.

However, Teams became the place where people met outside of a text-only world.  Part of why I wanted to use Teams was because I watched my students using the free version of Zoom, and getting kicked off of calls after 40 mins (sometimes they'd end up doing multiple calls back to back to overcome this).  It felt like a waste of their time, and I wanted them to have freedom to talk long into the night if need be.

I want back and looked, and in the past 2 weeks, our small open source team spent 17.2 hours doing online meetings using Teams.  Their calls were mostly voice-only (I was surprised to observe that they almost never used video), with either screensharing or Visual Studio Code Live Share (collaborative editing, syncing between editors).  I think Cindy was the first to call it the Telescope Podcast, which I loved:

The "Telescope Podcast" is an interesting phenomenon to me, because it's not possible to realize it using only one tool or platform.  This is a "Worse is Better" Google Wave without a single product or product owner and with loosely connected, swappable layers:

  • GitHub for code sharing and review
  • Zeit Now for quick deployment and testing without local setup
  • Microsoft Teams for voice chat and screensharing
  • Visual Studio Code Live Share for remote pair/group programming
  • Slack for text chat
  • Blog posts for documenting knowledge outcomes and shared learning

All of this is happening at the same time, and to me, this is what "online" is all about.  Rather than looking for the One True collaboration tool, we use the best features of all of them.  It's not about the tool, but the people who use it, and the fact that they are all present across these different platforms simultaneously.  While we can't be together, this provides us something much richer than any one approach is capable of doing alone.

Re-Learning How to Communicate

A third theme I noticed this past week was well articulated by James in his most recent post:

Overall, collaboration has changed for a lot of people – especially  online – where this skill has not been taught. And yes, it’s a skill that you need to learn

I've seen varying takes from other professors around the world.  Some have found ways to engage their students online, but many of us are struggling.  None of us really knows how to do this well enough.  Normally we can all fall back on higher-bandwidth, in-person interactions to overcome our general lack of ability with pure online communication.  Since this isn't possible now, we've been left with whatever skill we have (or don't) as teachers, students, and peers.

Another complication is that many of my students are international students and/or ESL, and moving to a learning environment that's predominantly mediated by written language has been difficult.  For some it means they don't even try.  For others it adds a lot of frustration and confusion.

But it's more than how literate we are that's limiting how we work.  We're now also coming up against a new kind of illiteracy: technology, web, and online interactions.  Despite what you read in the media, this generation of students aren't "Digital Natives."  Sure, they all own a smartphone, but owning technology isn't the same as knowing how to use it, especially as a replacement for doing things in-person.

I think we could do more to prepare our students for a life lived partly on the web.  When I compare how well many of my open source students are coping with how my early web students are doing, you can see how important it is to have these skills.  Take another look at all the technology involved in the "Telescope Podcast" above.  Now add to that the million and subtle cultural, ethical, and normative behaviours that are necessary to participate in such a complex setting.  Succeeding online is so much more than simply installing half-a-dozen pieces of software.

In the end, I'm pleased that even when we aren't doing all of this perfectly, we've still managed to cobble together the rest of the term.  We're only one week away from the end but I have promises to keep, and miles to go before I sleep, and miles to go before I sleep.

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