A post describing some of the approaches I have used to adapt to the changes imposed by safety measures.
Adapting to blended learning
I have recently been asked to provide some text for a newsletter "about how well our academic staff have adapted to teaching in a different way ie blended learning". Apparently:
"[I] have been very successful in doing this."
Before describing what I have done to adapt to the new situation I want to pause at that comment. I asked where they'd heard that (and won't bore us with the details here) but fundamentally:
I do not know if what I am about to describe has been successful or not
I take pride in using an evidence based approach in my pedagogy. I describe it here: https://vknight.org/tch-phi/. However, with COVID I have not had the time to read what research has been done on teaching in these circumstances (and there is a growing set of literature, for example: https://www.rand.org/pubs/research_reports/RRA168-2.html).
What I have done
I have aimed to stick to the following evidence based principles of my teaching philosophy:
- Remove friction from transfer of content to concentrate on an active learning framework used appropriately for inquiry, peer based activities, reactive discussion.
- Open discussion with students not just about the course but how the course is taught.
To remove friction from transfer of content
- All of my content has been written in a Jupyter book https://jupyterbook.org/intro.html (the course is a programming course so this is well suited but not exclusive).
- A lot of software is used to check the notes for me (language, typos and results). Information about how this is done is here: https://vknight.org/pfm/about-this-book/how-is-this-book-written/main.html Whatever time I spend with students I want to minimise the time I spend fixing small errors on my part (there have still been many).
- Answers to a number of potential questions are written in the Jupyter book. Many questions from students can then be answered and accompanied with a url to specific answers.
- Avoid files. This is a common practice in remote workplaces: do not send files that need to be downloaded back and forth. Send urls. As things get updated these do not go out of date (files do).
To create an active learning environment
- I use Zoom for my classes. The chat feature is fundamental here. I encourage the chat room to be as noisy and distracting as possible. We will sometimes get distracted by discussion of pancakes versus crepes but mainly get distracted by specific questions that take me down a different course than the one planned.
- I plan every Zoom class. I mainly follow the specific chapter from the notes but always do a different problem. I write my plan and like with everything else I make that plan available to students. They can look at it before class (I encourage it) but most importantly if we don't stick to the plan: that plan is available to them.
- I have started every class with breakout rooms asking students to discuss how they would solve a particular problem. This gives time and space for students to think about the problem and contributes to the aforementioned fantastically noisy chat room.
- Over the week I obtain feedback about specific difficulties students have had and go over that in a further class or record a video that I share with them. (I again plan and share my plan.)
Most of the above is not necessarily different from pre COVID times
A part from the use of Zoom that's a very similar approach to what I have done in usual times.
Specific things I have done related to the COVID
I've been aware of the lack of opportunity to "bump" in to someone in a corridor and the chats that happen that way.
As such I've setup a discord server for students to chat to me but also to chat amongst themselves. I've encouraged not only discussions about the course but also general chats about pets and other things like that. This has been something I've certainly enjoyed as it has been nice to get to know some students. Probably slightly more than I'd get to know in normal circumstances.
I have used online chat services in the past but this is something that's worked far better than previous years.
Discussions about the pedagogy.
I have had many ongoing discussions with students about how the class is going and what we are trying to achieve but these have all been very informal. Examples include using an informal poll about how some things have felt for them.
What will I do when things are "normal"
One of the specific prompt questions that was sent to me when I was asked to write a few words:
"Would you continue to use any of these methods when the pandemic is no longer an issue?"
There's very little I would change. The pedagogic principles I've used still apply.
For the specific course I'm teaching the use of zoom breakout rooms as well as screen sharing and remote controlling of desktops is arguably slightly better (on some dimensions) than face to face.
The human contact of a face to face office hour session however is certainly something I'd eagerly go back to. However, I would probably change my office hours to now both be virtual and face to face. I've had a student "come to my office hours" while walking their dog. That's probably not a student who I'd have been able to help if they had had to come my office.
As I stated at the start of this rambling blog post: I do not know if this has been successful.
For the students that I notice? Yes this is going very well. There's an inherent bias there. The chat room is often TOO engaged (which is fantastic) but is this creating barriers for other students?
The above questions are no different to normal circumstances but I hypothesise that it's easier to see the engaged students in these circumstances.
Measuring the effectiveness and reactively modifying the pedagogic approach would be top of my priority list. Frankly: it's not something I personally have capacity for right now.
This is hard, everyone is doing their best.
Be there for your students, listen and speak to them.
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