Teaching Online During a Pandemic

The 2020 Fall semester is almost over! Hurray! While part of me (maybe 95%) is tempted to put this semester in the past and never think about it again, I know that with all the challenges and difficulties I was forced to learn and grow. I’m going to take a moment to reflect on what I did and what I learned this semester with the hope that it is helpful to someone else out there. I learned a lot from my students and from my colleagues leading up and during this semester and really tried to apply any good idea that wasn’t too labor intensive.

Some Context I taught our regression course with about 30 students, and a new Bayesian Statistics course (using bayesrulesbook.com) with about 20 students. There was a mix of students living on campus, students living in the U.S. and students living many time zones away. I taught both classes on Tuesday and Thursday afternoons. Both of these classes required using R, and I had the students download R and RStudio to their own computers rather than using a server or the cloud.

Disclaimer: I’m not necessarily recommending anything here, or trying to give the impression that I have “the answer” to teaching under these circumstances.

My Set Up I have a laptop, a large screen connected with HDMI, blue tooth headphones, and an IPad and Apple pencil. The Ipad and pencil have been indispensable for me for teaching. I will get more into that below.

Online Tools and Communication Smith uses moodle, so I have all my course content posted there. Moodle has the option to have collapsible topics, and it really helps the moodle page from getting too cluttered. I use slack for all of my course communications. I use zoom for videos for classes, for office hours, and for appointments.

Start of the semester I really see the start of the semester as a time to get students to buy into the kind of environment I am trying to create. Here’s the main things I did to get their investment:

  1. Meet with each student one-on-one via Zoom for 5 minutes. During these short meetings I ask the students to tell me about themselves. I ask them what their concerns are, and see if I can reassure them, and I let them know that this semester will probably be more challenging than they are used to but that I am here to help. Taking 5 minutes per student to connect really changes the whole feeling of the class. I think the students are more willing to believe that I am here to support them and are less likely to assume that I am some evil professor person who just wants to penalize them for being a human being with other things going on in their lives. This is a huge undertaking and I both love it and dread it. I’m someone who is a bit introverted so it feels emotionally draining for me to talk with so many new people, but I really believe in this activity.
  2. Prime the slack workspace My goal is to get zero emails from students and for all communication to be on slack. It really helps me compartmentalize and stay organized. To get this started, I assign them to post a cute animal meme or gif with an introduction in slack. In the homework assignments I remind them that they should bring their questions to slack and not to email. My slack name is “Miles Ott doesn’t work on Saturdays” so that if students DM me they are reminded that I’m not always on slack and maybe that I am a person who sometimes needs to rest.
  3. Start the assignments the first week I like to start the assignments (homework, quizzes) the first week so that students get into the rhythm of the semester early. The first assignments are usually not content based, but it lets them feel comfortable with how they submit their work. For the first homework assignment, I had them write up answers to a survey in RMarkdown, knit the file to a pdf, and submit it to moodle. That way we separated the difficulty of knitting and submitting from the difficulty of the course content, and let me address problems before they became more stressful for the students. Here is a video I made about installing R and RStudio, here’s a video I made about making an RMarkdown file and knit it.

A Typical Class Day Here are all the things I do for a day of class. I am using Class 10 from my Bayesian Class as an example:

  1. Slides that have space for me to write key definitions, derive results, write interpretations, etc. Here are example slides about MCMC.
  2. An RMarkdown document that contains all the code used to generate results or figures in the slides. Here is the lecture code about MCMC.
  3. A PDF of a Handout that has an outline of the key concepts from the lecture and also practice problems. Here is an example handout also about…. MCMC
  4. A video recorded to the cloud in which I give my lecture using the slides from (1) and annotating them with my IPad and apple pencil. Here is an example video about MCMC under the hood.
  5. I post all of the above on moodle before class begins. If the video is x minutes long, I say that the interactive portion of class starts at the class time +x minutes so that students know when to show up.
  6. Students can watch the video from (4) before the traditional class time and/or during the first x minutes of class.
  7. Students show up to the class zoom at the “class time”+x minutes. I put them into breakout rooms of 3-4 to brainstorm topics they want to ask questions about.
  8. I start recording to the cloud. We go over their questions (often using IPad or RStudio) for about 10-20 minutes.
  9. Last bit of class: we work on the questions in the handout. I live code in RStudio sharing my screen. I ask them to tell me what to do and let me know when I make mistakes.
  10. Class ends. I post the “interactive” video to moodle, along with the code that I wrote with the class.

Assignments All assignments are posted and submitted on Moodle. Having the students submit pdfs makes it easier to annotate the assignments on my IPad. Also here is my syllabus for the Bayes class. I ended up not totally sticking to the syllabus as the reality of the semester asserted itself.

  1. Homework: Knitted RMarkdown document saved as pdf once a week on Thursdays (Assigned the previous Thursday). I automatically drop the lowest homework grade.
  2. Quizzes: Online moodle quizzes that are automatically graded. The students can take the quiz two times. After the first quiz attempt they are told what questions they got wrong. Then they can take the quiz again. I basically give unlimited time to take the quizzes, but they are assigned Thursday and due on Tuesday and cover the previous week’s homework topics. I discontinued this in the middle of the semester because coming up with quiz questions and setting up the quizzes ended up being more work than I had time for. In an ideal situation I would have kept this up all semester
  3. Exams: all exams were open book, open note, open internet, but not open person. They could only talk to me about their questions. Before assigning the exams I posted practice exams with solutions and a list of topics that are fair game for the exam. I held a review session in the class before the the exam was posted. I cancelled class on the day that I post the exam.
  4. Project: I allowed students to work by themselves or in teams of their choosing, but strongly encouraged teams. The project is pretty involved and could be its own blog post. Honestly I borrowed so much of it from my colleagues so I won’t go into much detail. The overall gist is that first part was for students to submit their group roster. Then as a group they submitted a project proposal with some initial visualizations. Last they submit their projects. I didn’t have a final exam, so they have the last week of class, reading period, and the whole exam period to work on this.

Office Hours I had office hours Monday -Thursday, and gave myself a break on Fridays. I had the office hours be at different times of the day to try to accommodate people in different time zones. I had extra office hours on Thursdays since that was the day when homework was due. Right before office hours start, I always post a reminder on slack with the zoom link to make it easier for students to show up.

My Takeaways The most important thing I did during this semester was to repeatedly let students know that it was OK to turn things in late, that it was understandable that it took them longer to complete work, and that it is totally reasonable that it is harder to focus. I kept telling students that I wanted to support their learning and growth, and sometimes what that means is not being too hard on yourself during a pandemic, election year, etc etc.

  1. I always try to do this, but I really prioritized not making things more complicated than they needed to be. It is so much work to teach online, I really don’t need to be making my life harder in any kind of way.
  2. Students liked having the class broken up into the pre-recorded lecture portion and the interactive portion.
  3. Giving students more resources (code, slides, handouts) helps all students even if all students don’t use all the resources that you make available.
  4. I have a lot less capacity to convey nuance over video than in-person so I avoided sensitive topics so that everybody could focus on the statistical content.
  5. I tried to find humor and enjoyment when I could. Most often that was in the form in me laughing at myself and my silly ideas.
  6. At various times I acknowledged how much this situation profoundly sucks. I love teaching. But I do not at all love teaching like this. I’m stressed out and depressed, and some days I could barely keep it together. I think its important to name that this was not a great way to learn and that everybody is having a hard time in different ways.
  7. I had to be willing to change plans when I recognized that something was unreasonable or not doable. I decided to not force things just because I thought I would be able to do them at the start of the semester. For example, I needed to give up on quizzes half way through the semester. I also gave students a much longer amount of time to get their midterm back to me since the election was happening at the same time. I think this was the right move and will try to bring this lesson with me to the spring semester.
  8. The students were so willing to try new things, give me helpful feedback, and also give me the benefit of the doubt. Cultivating a learning community with them was wonderful. Thank you students!

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