Like so many of my post-secondary colleagues around the world, I've been trying to figure out what it means to conduct the remainder of the Winter 2020 term in a 100% online format. I don't have an answer yet, but here is some of what I'm currently thinking.
It seems crazy to give background or provide links to what's going on, but for my future self, here is the context of the current situation. On Thursday March 12, the Ontario government announced the closure of all publicly funded schools (K-12) in the province. This measure was part of a series of closures that were cascading across the US and Canada. The effect was that suddenly every teacher, parent, student, and all their family members were now part of the story. What was happening on Twitter, at airports, or "somewhere else" had now landed with a thud on everyone's doorstep.
What we didn't hear on Thursday was any news about post-secondary institutions. If K-12 had to close, how could we possibly keep colleges and universities open? Our classes are much larger, and our faculty and student populations much more mobile. It made no sense, and many of my colleagues were upset.
I went to work on Friday in order to give two previously scheduled tests. As I was handing out the test papers, an email came to my laptop. Our college's president was announcing an end of all in-person classes, and move to "online."
The plan is as follows:
- March 16-20, no classes at all (online or in-person), giving faculty a chance to prepare, and students a chance to make new arrangements.
- March 23 - April 2, all teaching and other academic interaction is to be done online.
- April 6 - some classes will resume in-person lab work, while others will continue to be 100% online. For me, I don't think there's any need to do in-person for the rest of the term, but we'll see.
- April 13-17 - final exams are cancelled, and alternative final assessments will happen this week, as classes wrap up.
I've been working and teaching online for at least 15 years, much of it as part of Mozilla. I love it, and as an introvert and writer, it's my preferred way of working. However, I've never done everything online, especially not lecturing.
I love lecturing (just ask my teenagers!), and it's really hard to move it out of an in-person format. I've given lots of online talks and lectures in the past. Sometimes it happened because a conference needed to accommodate a larger audience than could safely fit in the room. Other times I've had a few remote people want to join an event. Once I gave a lecture to hundreds of CS students in France from Toronto, and I've even given a talk in English from Stanford that was simultaneously translated in real-time into Japanese and broadcast in Japan.
It can be done. But it's not how I like to work. A good lecture is dynamic, and includes the audience, their questions and comments, but also their desired pace, level of understanding, etc. I rarely use notes or slides anymore, preferring to have a more conversational, authentic interaction with my students. I don't think it's possible to "move this online" the way I do it, or at least, I don't know how (yet).
I was lucky to have a chance to meet with many of my students on Friday, and talk with them about how they were feeling, and what their needs would be. When we talk about moving a course online, much of the conversation gets focused on technology needs.
In the past few days, I've been amazed to watch my colleagues grapple with the challenge of doing everything online. Here's some of what I've seen:
- Some people are using Slack to have meetings and discussions
- Lots of Microsoft Teams is happening at my institution
- Many people are experimenting with Zoom to hold office hours and give lectures
- Others are trying Google Hangouts, Skype for Business, and Webex
- A few people are using BigBlueButton
- Lots of people are putting things on YouTube and other video platforms
- My institution recommends using tools in Blackboard, which I'm not even going to mention (or use).
Imagine being a faculty member who suddenly has to evaluate and learn some or all of these. I've used them all before, but many of my colleagues haven't. I spent Friday afternoon showing some of my peers how to setup a few of the tools, and it's a lot to pick up quickly.
Now imagine being a student who suddenly has faculty wanting you to use all of these new tools in parallel, and everyone doing things slightly differently! That's also a lot, and I have a lot of empathy for what the students are facing.
Understanding the Audience
Thankfully, technology isn't the problem: we have so much of it, and lots of it is "good enough." The real problem is trying to figure out how to support our students in ways that are actually helpful to the learning process.
I asked my students what they wanted me to do. Here's some of what I heard
- Many expressed concern about trying to attend scheduled times online, since they now have new childcare responsibilities to deal with (since the schools have closed and their kids are home).
- Many talked about not wanting to lose in-person sessions. "The notes aren't enough." I was asked to create some videos and post those so that they could go through them later and "multiple times."
- A lot of people were worried about how to get their questions answered, and how to show me problems they faced in their code. On any given day, after I finish a lecture, I'm always greeted by a long line of students with laptops open who need help debugging something in their code. "How can I show you my work and ask questions?"
- Others talked about their fears of isolation and anxiety at facing this alone. I have many students from abroad, some new to Canada, or who are here alone, and classes are an important chance to connect with peers, work on English, and otherwise connect into Canadian society. Losing that is losing a lot.
- Finally, some of my students expressed concern about losing the chance to celebrate successes together. My open source students have decided that if they manage to ship a 1.0 by the end of the term, I'm going to get them cake (cheesecake, actually). "What happens with our cake if we don't see each other!?"
How do you pivot "celebrate 1.0 with cake together" to purely online?
I've always wanted to do more of my courses online, and it feels like this is an interesting time to experiment. At the same time, everyone (including myself) is totally overwhelmed with what's happening in society. My wife told me to be realistic with my expectations for myself and the process, and as always, I know she's right.
I'm going to go slower and smaller than I might if I was building these courses online from day one. Here's my current thinking:
- I'm going to use Slack for communication. So many of the open source projects we interact with use it, and it's good for the students to get a chance to try it. My open source classes already use it, but my Web Programming students don't, and it will be new for them. Slack lets me stay closely connected with the students, have real-time conversations, but also allows them to drop-in later and scroll back through anything they missed.
- I'm not going to do online lectures.
- Instead, I'm going to try creating some short screencasts to supplement my lecture notes and put them on YouTube. My Web Programming students expressed that they needed examples of me writing code, and explaining what I was doing. I'll use these as a way to show them practical examples of what I've written in the notes. Luckily I wrote extensive online course notes a few terms ago, and this doesn't need to get done in a rush right now.
- In place of tests, I'm going to move to practical assessments that get submitted online. The students already do their assignments this way, but I'll add some lab work, and get them to show me that they understand the weekly material via practical application.
- Assignments can stay the same as before, which is a blessing.
- I'm not sure what I'll do for a final assessment. The other profs teaching my course with me all agreed to revisit this on Friday when we've got more information about what's likely to happen in April.
Electricity, Water, Web
All of the courses I'm teaching right now are really "open web" courses. It's nice for me because the act of moving my courses online is itself a case study of what it means to apply what we're learning in the classroom.
In the coming weeks, where possible, I'm going to try and use examples that touch on the parts of the web that are most critical right now. For example, I'd love to use WebSockets and WebRTC if possible, to show the students how the tech they're using in all their classes are also within their grasp as developers (as an aside, I'm looking for some easy ways to have them work with WebRTC in the browser only, and need to figure out some public signaling solutions, in case you know of any).
I've been amazed to watch just how significant the web has been to the plans of countries all around the world in the face of the Coronavirus. Working from home and teaching and learning online are impossible without the open web platform to support the needs of everybody right now.
In 2020, the web is a utility, and society expects it to work. Understanding how the web works is critical to the functioning of a modern society, and I'm proud to have dedicated my career to building and teaching all this web technology. It's amazing to see it being used for so much good, and an honour to teach the next generation how to keep it working.