Notes on remote/online teaching

3 minute read

My (first) notes about remote teaching.

Microsoft Teams

Teams is the institutional platform for online teaching. While it does need some polishing, it seems to do the job well (I have no experience with anything else to compare it against). It provides stable (despite poor wifi at home) and scaleable (up to 65 participants) participants.

The issues I have been experiencing are relatively minor:

  • it doesn’t seem to synchronise between apps (between Windows and Linux laptops in my case);
  • the chat slows down after 3 hours of usage with 60+ participants to a point where it becomes difficult or even impossible to use. As a work around, I am using a Google doc for students to type their questions and keep the chat for instant feedback (see below).

On the plus side

  • it has been very easy to create meetings and discussions with colleagues at the university and to invite external members;
  • I use it simultaneously on multiple devices, for example Windows laptop (for video/voice) and Linux laptop (for chat and checking my screen sharing) or Android phone (for video/voice) and Linux laptop (for chat and screen sharing).

In class, I used sticky notes to assess progress during exercises or to check if students understood an important concept: student stick the green sticky note when they finish an in-class exercise or understood a concept, or the orange one otherwise. During remote classes, I use the chat to ask for an immediate feedback and students use thumbs up or down to agree or disagree, which work quite well.

Software availability

The main challenge for my class wasn’t actually the videoconferencing platform. During a typical class, I exclusively have an RStudio window open and teach/demonstrate while live-coding and using the blackboard. The students have access to centrally managed computers and all software (R, RStudio and required R packages are pre-installed). Classes became remote from one week to the other, the students were suddenly left on their own regarding software. I suggested (and documented) three options:

  1. Install R/RStudio locally;
  2. Use a Renku-driven virtual machine;
  3. Use the Universal Desktop Service to access their desktop and software on the institution’s network.

Most students opted for the local installation, with Renku in second position and UDS last (which I also advised against as it can be very lagging). I have to say I liked the Renku option and consider making it the default option for other classes.

General tips

In general, it is good to have short and well defined learning outcomes in a course. It is even more so with remote learning and online teaching, where it might be even more difficult for students to remain focused (in from of a computer screen) and motivated (alone at home). Same for videos, keep them short and sweet - here’s one I create a short one to address an issue that I observed repeatedly during the lessons.

It is really important to keep in touch with the students. It is sometimes already difficult to assess their motivation and how the follow the class when they are present but quiet - needless to say how difficult it is when they are at the other end of the internet. I created a short google form to ask they opinion about the last remote lecture, how they were coping with the home work (see below) and it they had any suggestions to improve the online teaching/learning.

Students seem to like live courses, as opposed to pre-recorded videos. Live lectures might require more breaks than a normal in-person lesson. I am thus trying to set short and well defined outcomes with breaks in-between.

Home work

There was a long break between two lessons, and I wanted to avoid my students to loose touch with the topic especially while being confined at home. After checking that their schedule wasn’t too demanding, I gave a decent piece of (optional) homework. They had 5 days to complete it. They were invited to submit their solution as an R markdown document by a certain time/day and those that did would get a personalised feedback. Everybody gets a correction of the homework after the submission period.

Next activity

Among the suggestions I got in my Google doc (see above), somebody suggested to have multiple choice questions as a revision for different chapters or concepts. This reminded me of an active learning activity I saw online, where students create the questions and answer them for a double learning opportunity. This activity seem particularly well suited for a remote and asynchronous implementation. I will test moodle’s StudentQuiz module for this.

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