Saturday, February 29, 2020

Teaching a Class Session Online in a Pinch - Some Suggestions

If the nervousness about the coronavirus continues for a while longer, it might occur to students to stay off campus and then request that their instructors hold the class sessions online, or at least provide an online alternative to the face-to-face session.  Likewise, some instructors might want to cancel their face-to-face sessions out of fears regarding their own health.  Instructors with prior experience teaching online can probably navigate this circumstance on their own without assistance, but those who lack that experience will need some help.  It is quite likely, under the circumstances, that the professional learning technologists on campus will become overwhelmed with requests of this sort from these inexperienced instructors.  Anticipating this contingency, what is needed is a virtual do-it-yourself manual, to encourage many of these first-timers to try it on their own and have a reasonably good experience in the doing.

This is a first pass at such a document.  I want to note that being retired for some time I'm no longer employed by any ed tech unit and it would be my hope that such units produce more professional materials of this sort, in which case I will happily take down this post.  In the meantime, however, something is better than nothing.  And back in spring 2011, when there was some very bad weather coming to the CU area, I cancelled class and moved the class session online, before the campus then cancelled classes for that day (so my online session was changed to being optional for the students).  Also, in that case it was clear the online session would be a one-off.  Now, instruction might move online for an indefinite period, however long it takes for the perception of the health risk to be behind us.  So an instructor might want to rethink the remainder of the semester and how the course should be conducted, if the all clear only occurs after the middle of May.

An immediate issue is whether the online substitute is conducted synchronously - the instructor and students interact in real time - or asynchronously - the instructor posts content that the students interact with after it has been posted.  If you are reading this blog post, that is an example of asynchronous delivery as I've written it and posted it before you had a chance to read it.  You can interact with me after that, by commenting on the post, sending me an email, or expressing your own views of what's said on your site, back linking to this post somewhere in your piece so I have a reasonable chance of finding it.  Synchronous interaction may more closely imitate a live face-to-face session.  For some students it will be preferred.  But there are issues with synchronous as well, particularly if done on the fly with no external tech support.  It's also possible to do some sort of hybrid.  I don't want to advocate for a particular approach here.  I want to provide some examples, most of which I've already got in the can, one or two that were made for this post.  This should give the reader some options as to how to proceed.

I want to make an important point before getting to the examples. There are technical considerations, sure.  I regard them mostly as minor.  There are psychological considerations,  if you've never before posted a recording of your own speaking online.  The psychological issues can be considerable.  That will make it seem very awkward.  I don't have a suggestion on how to avoid the discomfort, other than experience it enough, knowing the discomfort tends to vanish eventually.  But I want to try to offset that view with another.  Some of the suggestions will bring novelty into the teaching that might not have occurred except for the necessity of the moment.  And it is possible that some bits of the novelty are worth retaining even after normal instruction resumes.  So this can be thought of as an experiment in teaching method, with a possible long-term upside.  It won't make the awkwardness of hearing your own voice online go away.  But it might help you endure that awkward period, knowing it won't last forever.

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Screen Capture Video (Micro-Lectures)

I'm going to suggest that when you first are getting started (and this happens to be my view still, even after doing this for many years) you want the production to be one and done, with little to no editing after the fact.  The goal is to produce something that is tolerably good, where it is the content rather than the production values, which determine whether the goal has been reached.    For this you need some software. I've tried a variety of products over the years.  If I were on a PC now, I would definitely use SnagIt (rather than buying the more expensive Camtasia, which has the sophisticated editing software built in).  On a Mac, there are built in tools that are reasonably functional, which can be used instead.  Screenshot is a utility for taking pictures.  Quicktime can be used for video recording, including screen capture video.

1. PowerPoint with Voice Over

This is probably the first candidate that people will come up with, especially those instructors who deliver PowerPoint Lectures in their live class sessions.

The video is itself is a screen capture video that is also a tutorial about how to make such videos.  One of the key ideas is that too much text on the screen, when in a video, needs to be managed in a way to give the viewer focus.  The video presents a certain method for doing that.  I have found it quite useful for presenting the algebra behind the math models in my economics class.  A slide full of equations will seem overwhelming to the student.  Taking it line by line is more manageable.  This is the simple PowerPoint file used for the content in the presentation.  It has only 3 slides.  And this is the PowerPoint file constructed for line by line delivery.  It's a very simple modification, but one that shows some recognition of the cognitive issues students (and other viewers) have in processing the videos.

One point to stress that is made in the video is about audio quality.  Here I mean interference with your speaking voice, either from background noise or from hiss or something else that the viewers will find distracting.  Good audio quality is a must for these videos.  For what I say next, I'm not completely current with the technology.  But I believe using a USB microphone that is closer to your mouth than the built in microphone from your computer is helpful, and I would recommend spending some bucks on getting one.  Way back when, I used to believe that you needed a microphone from your headset, so that background noise could be ruled out that way.  It may be that this particular concern is no longer, as the built in equipment is just that good.  However, I'm skeptical, so I'd still suggest a USB mic.  I use a Blue Snowball mic and have had good results with that.

2.  Voice Over in Some Technical Application other than PowerPoint

My view is that PowerPoint is okay for what it does, but if you want to present about use of some application, then it is better to arrange the presentation directly in that rather than have screen shots or screen movies delivered within PowerPoint.  This next example illustrates that.  The application is Excel.  And so as not to intimidate the audience with technical subject matter where they don't get the content, I made this when my younger son was in 5th grade, circa 2004-05, and in part he was struggling with long division then, because he didn't know to use another sheet of paper rather than cram all his calculations into a little corner on the flip side of the sheet where he started to work on the problem.  The tutorial is as much about how to organize the manipulations as it is about what the algorithm actually does.  In any event, I hope that 5th grade math is available to most parents, and thus this example won't overwhelm any instructor.   The real issue is whether manipulations within the application are sufficiently clear that the students can replicate them on their own.  If so, then this can be a superior alternative for presentation to using PowerPoint.

The video explains that the Excel file on which it is based has macros.  They need to be enabled to try the Excel for yourself.  And I do want to note that I wrote this quite a while ago.  So I'd hope it has been surpassed since then.  If not, however, it might inspire the technically inclined to produce more of this sort of thing.  This is a potential way that online content of this sort can magnify, as students who view the video find it a path for their own self-expression and a way to communicate with those who are less technically inclined.

I want to note here that PowerPoint does offer some advantages about viewing on the screen - sizing the font, for example. When you go to other applications, you lose that, so you must be mindful that what you capture is still intelligible to the students and doesn't overwhelm them with too much on the screen at one time. I believe that is is the main thing to keep in mind when making such a presentation. 

PowerPoint Video Without Screen Capture

PowerPoint files in Slide Show mode can be animated so the entire slideshow auto-plays.  The effect is to deliver a kind of video, one that is increasingly common online.  I have found this useful when done as follows.
a.  There is a longer narration.  That appears in the notes panes, not in the slides.
b.  The slides are mainly images to illustrate the concept.  Not much text is utilized there.  There is a hyperlink for each image, back to the source from where the image was selected.
c.  Rather than voice over, the slideshow presentation has musical accompaniment.  If the music is familiar to the viewer, it times the entire presentation in slideshow mode - to be as long as the musical piece.
d.  So the slideshow can be considered an overview, while the more detailed and text-only presentation is in the notes panes.

Somebody looking for a an overview only, can view the presentation in Slide Show mode.  Somebody else, who wants more detail, can read the notes panes, treating the slide as a section header, as in a research paper.

Here is an example, for my very first class session in the course I taught last fall.  (The PowerPoint file can be previewed online, but to get the video effect the file must be downloaded and then launched in Slide Show mode.)  Here is some commentary based on this example.

Many instructors use PowerPoint because it is a quick and dirty way to make a presentation.  Inserting text as bulleted content doesn't require that much effort.  In contrast, finding images online to illustrate the content and do so well can be laborious.  The main reason to do this is to help the students penetrate the ideas.  The images may have more meaning for the students than the text does.  I have had several students in the recent past tell me that if I give them a post like this to read, they will skim it.  (So one might infer that they will do likewise for the content in the notes area.) They can get a quicker sense of what's going on with a presentation of this sort.  And if something puzzles them, they can pause the slideshow with a right click, resuming when they are ready to do so.

A different reason for doing this is if students will subsequently make a presentation like this, say as their part of a class project.  Then this approach models for them the kind of thing they will produce.  When I've done this in my own teaching, I've referred to the presentation in Slide Show mode as a virtual elevator speech.  Doing a project like this should help them develop skills they will use in making other presentations at their place of work, after they graduate.  And I have them write a paper on the subject matter before making the PowerPoint.  The body of the paper appears in the notes area.  The images for the slides are selected after the paper has been written.  It is a type of communication the many students don't get to practice much at all.  I think it is a useful exercise for them - trying to get at the gist of what they say in their papers and do so visually.  Also, it should teach them that even with a short presentation, a lot of preparation must be done ahead of time to make the presentation effective.

Regarding copyright, fair use, and related issues, it is my understanding that if each image is obtained from a different source and if the back links are indeed functional, then a good fair use argument can be made for this approach.  On the music, perhaps less so, since we're using a full piece.  My idea is not to eliminate the copyright issues entirely, but rather to make them unlikely to matter.  The music in this presentation is from an album that was very popular in the 1960s, when I was a kid. The back link to the YouTube video with the song says in the description that the music was used on the TV show, The Dating Game.  If you're of my vintage you will intuitively know that.   Using that music is dating me (pun intended).   It gives my students a little tunnel into what I was like when I was a student.  My limited observations about the choice of music students make for their projects is that they are likely to opt for pieces from an earlier era (the 1960s, 1970s, or 1980s).  Given that I will review their projects, that is a safer play for them, even though I've given them instructions to design their presentations for teaching other students of approximately the same age as them.  I do also tell them that they should choose instrumental pieces only, as vocals might then compete with the presentation itself for the viewer's attention.  My own actual preference for this is to use Chopin Mazurkas.  They are enigmatic pieces of comparatively brief duration.  I find them comforting to listen to.

One last comment I want to make here is that my presentations aren't slick and there are minor typos in the text that appears in the notes area.  The not being slick is actually to my liking, as it shows the emphasis should be on the content of the presentation, not the appearance.  The typos are anathema to me, as it shows either that I didn't proofread enough or that I did so too close to when I created the text so missed the errors even on re-reading the text.  But there may be a silver lining in that cloud.  If the students are to get over a bar when they make their own presentations, this shows the bar is not too high for them.  They need to feel that making the presentation is do-able.

Talking Head Video Capture

The following brief example is sufficient to explain the genre and its potential use.

I have only one suggestion in the making, which is to try to keep your eyes fixed on the center of the screen, which means you will be watching yourself as the video is recorded.  It's a little bit weird to do that, but having your eyes dart around the screen is not good.  So If you decide to do these by reading text off the screen, then you should position the text in the center of the screen so your eyes can focus there.  I prefer to wing it, but since I'm prone to senior moments now and then, I have a built in reason to keep these brief.  Also, if I do get stuck in what I was planning to say, I can ditch the video and try again.  It's no big deal to do that.

Video Chats with Colleagues

With this example, we are now entering the synchronous realm.  The colleagues who are engaged in chat are doing so live.  The chat can be recorded.  Others can then view it asynchronously.   Here is an example of a chat recorded a couple of days ago with my friend and former colleague, Steve Acker.  Steve and I met as members of the CIC Learning Technology Group.  (The CIC is now called the Big Ten Academic Alliance.)  I was the representative from Illinois.  Steve was the representative from Ohio State.  We've continued with our friendship even as memory of the LT Group fades.  One way we do this is by video chat in Zoom.  In this case, as part of a longer call, I recorded a segment near the end.  It was an experiment, as I'll describe below.

With straight lecture there is a tendency for students to treat what the instructor says as truth, with it their job is to absorb the information. Having a conversation with a colleague mixes things up.  There may be differences in style in making a point, differences in point of view on an issue, as well as differences in where to put emphasis on a matter.  The role of the student now changes and it may help them see things in a different light, perhaps to keep in mind more than one perspective on an issue.  There is the further thought that undergraduate students, in particular, may not have experienced seeing instructors in collegial interaction.  It may fascinate them, just to witness it.  Conceivably, this is the sort of thing that might continue after the crisis with the coronavirus is over.

I want to note a few other aspects of the video before discussing some technical issues.  Steve didn't realize that I was recording, at first.  Zoom actually provides an icon in the upper left of the screen to indicate that.  The colleagues all need to agree to the recording in the making, and afterward to its release.  We are very casual here, both in appearance and in tone.  That's the norm for two retired folks, but students may find it unusual if it is not the norm in the classroom.  At this point, I don't want to give a thumbs up or a thumbs down regarding appearance.  I'm not sure which way is better.  But regarding tone of interaction, I think it important to do as one would normally do in such interactions.  I'm informal as a matter of course. A more rigid style would be a misrepresentation of me.  My belief is students would like to see how the instructor actually is when interacting with other instructors, rather than with students.

The main experiment for me with this video was in regard to YouTube's automated captioning.  Though it doesn't put in punctuation (the captions can be edited later for that), I thought it did an excellent job of replicating what we said.  It probably would struggle more if we had used a lot of jargon and/or if one of us wasn't a native speaker of English.  I don't know that for sure; it is something to explore further.

Then there are a few other points to mention.  If a chat is done in the daytime, then for lighting it may be better to rely on sunlight than overhead lights, but glare can be an issue, so it is better if the outside light isn't directly behind the speaker.  There was a bit of glare in this video, though it wasn't too bad.   Regarding camera angle, many people do these chats with a laptop so they look down into the screen and consequently the camera looks up into the ceiling.  That is awkward and unappealing.  The solution is to prop up the screen, placing the laptop on a box or a pile of books, so the screen is at eye level.  In this video, Steve's camera is actually somewhat above his eye level, which is fine because it enables him to be comfortable and recline a little while he is speaking.  My iMac, even with a raised screen built in, is propped up some for my normal computer use, so what I read is at eye level.  You can be the judge whether it is set reasonably well for recording video.  My last point on this is to avoid distractors if possible.  Steve had his email program on during our recording, so you could hear the pings as new messages came in.  In some cases it may be essential for the participant to monitor email in real time, so the pings are a necessary part of video in that case.  If some real time monitoring is not necessary, however, I'd suggest turning off email during the recording.

If You Build It Will They Come?

This question, of course, also comes up in face-to-face teaching.  Here I want to point out the limited efficacy of monitoring.  Even if an instructor takes attendance in class, a student can very well be there, but not be all there.  When electronic devices are allowed, the student's head might be in that.  If there are windows in the classroom, the student might be staring outside.  When doing the analog online, clicks can be measured as can how long a video window is kept open with the video playing.  But whether the student is paying attention really can't be monitored.

Thus making the stuff interesting to the student might be more of an imperative when teaching online.  This can provide another reason for finding colleagues to do video chats.  Those colleagues might be teaching the same class on a different campus, where the same video can be used in both instances of the course, or in the same department teaching other classes, where some sort of reciprocal arrangement might be made between the instructors.

There is also the possibility of some brief assessment done of the students as a way of testing their understanding.  I'm intrigued about the possibility of having students getting a paragraph question in the LMS in a one-question quiz, offered after they have viewed the video chat.  In responding to that paragraph question, they would  pose their comments and additional questions about the video.  They'd get full credit if what they wrote is on topic and no credit if they wrote something entirely off base (or if they didn't respond at all).  These questions and comments might then inform the next video chat.

Where Should The Chats Be Posted?

There is a tendency for instructors to post their content inside a closed container (a Learning Management System), to maintain control of their own content, i.e., to avoid it being plagiarized by others, and also to protect them when they are using copyrighted content of others.   In the case of these video chats, I would encourage posting the video content publicly, where a search engine can pick up on it.  The reason is first, the content is a public good, so others who are teaching or studying the same material elsewhere can have access to it.  Then, second, if many do so it might help to create an informal network of instructors who teach the same course with regard to sharing of their content. And finally, it is conceivable that new collegial relationships can be formed this way.  Then the instructor can deliver a variety of video chats with different instructors, something like how a talk show works.  Conceivably, instruction should be moving in that direction.

Video Chats with Students

Let me say first that while some instructors might be okay with the practice of having the entire class online at one time, with students having access to the text chat but where they can't send their own video or audio content (many Webinars use this format and I did use it back in 2011 in that optional online class), I'm not a big fan of it.   If I'm speaking or chatting with a colleague, I don't want to be multiprocessing and monitoring a text chat channel at the same time.  You are welcome to try this format and see for yourself, but I won't consider it further here.

I have had reasonably good experience in a non-teaching context with group chats, where there are a handful of people on the call.  It has worked reasonably with these caveats.  Sometimes a member of the group has connection problems, because of limited bandwidth.  Other times, a group member isn't able to get their audio to connect to the chat.   On a very limited basis I've tried to have online office hours with students in Zoom.  These connection issues came up there.  If the troubleshooting can happen quickly, then it is no big deal.  But I don't want to be the tech support for my students.  So this is one hurdle that needs to be overcome before this possibility is considered seriously.

Assuming it has been managed, I can envision group chats between the instructor and four or five students, conducting an online class session in seminar mode.  The rest of the class then can view a recording of the session.  Perhaps over time the groups rotate so each student gets a chance to participate.

The single biggest issue to address with this is student privacy (FERPA).  If such chats are posted in a closed container accessed only by class members, that is consistent with FERPA.  If the instructor wants to post the chat publicly, the students in the chat need to agree to this beforehand, without any coercion from the instructor.

A second issue is getting students comfortable to open up in this setting rather than always to wait for their fellow students to chime in.  This issue can also manifest in a face-to-face class with a small number of students.   I don't have a great deal of experience with this so I'm going to speculate some about what can work.

It's conceivable that the instructor requires students to have group video chats where the instructor is not present.  The students can then view the group as making a presentation to the rest of the class.  So their discussion would concern the topic of that presentation.  If they navigate that reasonably well, it might then prepare them for a different chat where the instructor is present.   Maybe they need a few student only chats before they reach sufficient comfort to have the instructor in on the chat.  That's something to explore further. 

Wrap Up

Anxiety is running high for me now.  It seems like a triple whammy - the coronavirus, the stock market decline, and our national politics.  Individually, each of these is a source of anxiety for me.  Taken together, it can appear overwhelming.  While I can't do anything to address these directly, I am trying to cope by doing a little to help others cope as well, in this case other instructors and their students.  I truly hope it doesn't come to instructors canceling their face-to-face class sessions and doing something online instead.  But I know enough about the economics of risk that we should self-insure as best as we can in case it does come to that.

I meant this piece as a way to encourage other instructors to self-insure, by considering this contingency in advance, and then thinking through what they might do in this case.  There are options from which to choose.  Any one of them is do-able, but if you haven't tried it before it can seem a little daunting at first.  So my final suggestion before closing is to try an option before you need to use it, to feel more comfortable if and when the situation forces that on you.

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