Coronavirus and Fall 2020 preparation

The Coronavirus has thrown us all for a loop. Most retail is closed, supermarkets are structurally running low on supplies, and selection is limited. Employees are required to work from home if they can. Those who cannot work from home, and who are not deemed essential, are either fired or furloughed. The government's recommendations ask people to limit interaction with others, and use protections such as social distancing, face masks and gloves when direct contact is needed.

We (higher education) are fortunate that we are both considered essential, and can do most of our work remotely. Since Governor Cuomo has just announced it today, we now know for sure that the remainder of this academic year will remain online. While he did not come out and say it, it is clear that this includes the summer sessions.

I believe it to be unlikely that the Fall 2020 semester will revert to business-as-usual. Even if we reopen, it just won't be possible to have 30 students in a classroom and keep all protections in place. The same is true for office hours, tutoring sessions, etc. Until antibody testing is cheap, readily available and reliable, AND we know that having antibodies prevents illness, this will be the new normal.

I am impressed by my students and their willingness to stick with me. All my undergraduate sections are full, and I have waiting lists going for students who want to over-enroll. The picture for incoming first-year students isn't as good. We believe that a good number of high school graduates will delay going to college by at least one semester.

So, that brings the thought: how should I prepare for our next academic session? Let's analyze that rationally and ask what it means to teach and learn in a college course? Many professors typically structure their courses as a sequence of topics, and students must complete specific activities for each.

  1. Preparation (reading)
  2. Instruction (lecture)
  3. Classroom discussion and questions/answers
  4. supervised lab work to develop hands-on skills
  5. independent work and/or group assignments to develop those skills when no direct supervision is around
  6. assessment of outcomes

Preparation

The general idea is that students prepare readings before they come to class. That, of course, rarely happens. However, both topic preparation and instruction are easily moved online, through the dissemination of video recordings and assigned readings. That will only be effective if the videos useful, and the instructor is concise and to-the-point.

Unlike lecture-style delivery, students can watch videos at any time and as often as they need. Active learners can benefit from this method of asynchronous delivery, and for my CSC380 Computer and Network Security, I have produced videos and posted them to YouTube. Feedback is overall positive.

Interaction

While classroom discussion and q&a sessions can be done asynchronously as well through the use of email, blogs, discussion forums, etc., these technological options are no substitute for real-time direct communication. Videoconferencing can be a solution, but it has to be a complete buy-in by students and faculty alike.

However, students (and instructors) must have a technological infrastructure in place, have a quiet place to work, and should actively participate at a given time. Those are a lot of conditions, and it isn't always feasible to do so. However, if in-person instruction in the classroom is not an option, this is the next-best option.

Adelphi University supports both Zoom and Google Hangouts. My preference is for Zoom.

Labs

I teach computer science and information systems classes, and labs are an essential part of our method of instruction. Students work in small groups on guided activities, and can ask questions of peers, teaching assistants, and professors in real-time, and as they are working on problems. I have not found a good alternative for labs yet. Videoconferencing is clumsy; discussion forums remain unused, and Slack doesn't seem to appeal to students.

Independent work

Independent work (homework) is much the same. For years, I have been assigning work on our LMS (Moodle). Since I tend to lose assignments handed in on paper, and because we all like trees, for as long as I can remember, I have required that students hand in all assignments electronically.

Assessment

Assessment is important. For me, as an instructor, it helps me understand how well my students are mastering the materials that I am teaching them. Also, grading rubrics provide clear expectations for students. Assessment typically takes place in the form of quizzes and exams.

When dealing with remote education, that kind of assessment suffers from two main problems.

First: if I administer a written exam in a traditional on-ground classroom, all my students are in the same room, at the same time, for the same duration, and everyone has access to the same resources. In other words, there is a level playing field. Such is not the case when we are dealing with remote education. Everybody's circumstances are different. It might not be possible to find a quiet place for two hours straight without interruption. Students may have to share technology with family members. Internet connections may be unstable, etc.

Second: honesty is an issue. If nobody is watching, people may be tempted to cheat, and that means that the assessment is ineffective and unreliable. While there are all kinds of browser plugins and a wide range of technological solutions, none of those methods is effective without being overly invasive.

So, as a rule, I do NOT require exams when teaching remotely.

So, what do I do? What I have always done. I give my students weekly assignments, which is the basis for a continuous assessment strategy. There are so many benefits for the students that it is hard not to go this way.

I have added two steps: each week, I expect students to submit a "summary of learning," which includes an abstract of their readings, and notes of my videos. I also administer a short multiple-choice quiz. Students get three attempts to pass the quiz; the highest grade counts, and after each attempt, they can see which answers were correct and which were not. The quiz is also not locked down, as the main goal is to see if students watched and understood the videos.

Next semester

For now, I am going to prepare my Fall classes as if I have to teach them online. That means that each week will consist of

  1. Assigned readings (asynchronous)
  2. Video instruction (asynchronous)
  3. Classroom discussion and q&a (synchronous)
  4. Independent work:
    • summary of learning
    • short quiz
    • additional work, depending on the class.

I have not yet figured out how to deal with labs, but I'd love to hear suggestions.