Online Jigsaw!

Today started with another oops moment. Yesterday, I spent several hours creating class activities, a feedback survey about the first week, and another short video lecture. I posted everything in a Canvas module—and then forgot to make the module available. One missing click! and the students couldn’t access the materials. Welcome to LMS land!

Continue reading Online Jigsaw!

POSC 386: March 26, 2020

Today’s video message covers a number of topics:

  • Future video messages will be on Sundays (or early Monday) and Thursdays
  • Summary comments about discussion boards
  • Some participants will need more planning than others.
  • “Men at work” signs in your home?
  • The Pomodoro technique!
  • Fixed and growth mindsets
  • When you have online learning, make lemonade: Learn how to be effective in an online work environment!
  • Stay tuned for optional (that is non-required) online activities.

You can find the transcript here (docx), and the audio-only version here.

Adopt, adapt, and improve

Ready for our back-to-school-but-now-online week. I’ve posted a series of online-learning orientation activities that I had used in a 2015 online course. For more substantive work, there’s still a discussion board that I started last week, asking students to find court cases on government restrictions of civil liberties in times of national emergency. This will get us through this week. For next week, I can use some of the materials and activities of that 2015 course, which was also on courts. Then new materials for the following week.

I am so lucky, having taught a related online course before. I have videos, video lectures, ideas for discussion boards, even some quizzes that can be re-used. I can only imagine how much work it is to create these things from scratch, for three, four, five courses. In a week.

We really may not pretend that the coming month is anything like regular online teaching. It is an extended period of makeup classes in face of a national disaster—and one that is exceptionally, criminally mishandled by the federal government to boot.

Continue reading Adopt, adapt, and improve

POSC 386, 03/23/2020

Welcome back to the semester! Let’s get this cow off the ice. Here is today’s video message:

(As usual, youtube finds the nicest still pictures.) And here is the sound-only version if you don’t want to see me speak; and here is the script of the video (docx).

There are two things to work on this week: First, a series of activities that will introduce you (the students) to online learning, including recommended practices to help you succeed. Some of these activities will be (lightly) graded. Please do these activities by Wednesday night. Second, we will continue to work on our discussion board on court cases and news stories dealing with restrictions of individual liberties imposed by governments in response to national emergencies. Please try to complete this work by Friday. You can find all information on these activities on Canvas under “Modules.”

I’ve updated the syllabus and posted in on Canvas. On the Canvas course front page, you’ll also find updated information about student hours and how to get in touch with me.

I am here to help you and am committed to making this semester work out for you! Please do contact me if you run into anything that may interfere with your participation or your success in this class. Or for any other reason—or no reason at all.

On Rigor

When I moved to Harrisonburg, I got a history book about the Shenandoah Valley from the local public library. This was not a scholarly history but a popular book from the 1950s or 1960s, full of anecdotes about places with drawings illustrating the stories. I wanted to get a sense of the local mythology, the stories that people who had grown up in Harrisonburg and Rockingham County had learned in school and connected to specific places. As expected, the book was full of stories about the Civil War from a Confederate perspective, complete with the usual racist tropes; I remember the story about a freed slave sad that the South lost the Civil War and pining for his “master”. I don’t know if the library still has that book (I forgot its title), but I hope they have replaced it with something that is a bit more, let’s say, contemporary.

Another story that I remember from the book was about Stonewall Jackson as a professor at the Virginia Military Institute before the Civil War. As legend has it (or maybe there are even sources, I don’t know), Jackson prepped for classes as follows: He sat in a stiff wooden chair facing the wall, maybe 10 inches or so away from it, and recited by heart whatever he was going to lecture, later, to the students.

Don’t be like Stonewall Jackson.

POSC 386, 03/18/2020

Welcome back to my bi-weekly class post! Here is today’s video:

You can find the transcript here (.docx), and the mp3 sound file here.

In the video, I announce a number of things: The fact that the JMU Counseling Center is still open (I suspect that more students than usual will need their services;; the class goals for the reminder of the semester; a virtual clubhouse on Canvas—a discussion board where we can talk about all kinds of things that are relevant or just interesting (or just irrelevant but funny); and an activity that we’ll be working on until Friday in a week. Take a look at the updates on the Canvas front page and the Modules! More to come!

Thanks for your survey responses! 24 out of 29 participants responded, which is a pretty good response rate, as surveys go. If you did not respond, you can still do so (check your email for the link!). You can also email me or talk to me during my online student hours. Please make sure I know if it is difficult for you to connect to Canvas, etc. I want to make sure that everybody can fully participate!

The good news is that all respondents had access to a laptop and wifi or wired internet. This means we should be able to use Canvas to communicate and some streaming media. Please let me know if you find that your connection doesn’t have the band-width for any materials that I post!

Not everybody has a camera and microphone, and several people noted that they had little experience using video conferencing tools. On the other hand, everybody seemed to like (or be fine with) discussion boards. Many said they would prefer to communicate with me via email, and a number preferred Canvas discussion boards, text messages, and Canvas messages. To me, this means that I should use mostly discussion boards for interactive work and go light on WebEx and the like. Let’s do this. I’ll also continue using email and Canvas announcements to keep you informed about the course.

One person suggested GroupMe. That’s something a colleague suggested to me as well. I don’t think, though, that we should introduce many new tools, since everybody is already super busy. But if a bunch of you would like to use GroupMe, please let me know and I’ll set something up.

If we are using discussion boards a lot over the next couple of weeks, you may want to upload a recent picture to your Canvas account, to make the interaction a bit more personal.

Hang in there! Scary and exciting times, but we’re in this together and will support each other!

Do as I Say…

…not as I do? Oopsie! The other day, I tweeted about the current mental health crisis among students, likely to be made worse by a pandemic, and added the url for JMU’s Counseling Center, which is still open and doing amazing work with students. And then I forgot to talk about it in my welcome-back video to the class. So today, I added the following to the course front page in Canvas, our LMS:

Spring 2020. It’s going to be a fabulöses semester! [this was part of the page from the beginning of the semester]

… and it has become a wild ride. We’re online now, folks!

Crowley (Good Omens) says "Can I hear a 'wahoo'?"
Now, seriously, this has been an unexpected and worrying turn of event. You had not planned to take an online course, and I had not planned to teach one. So let’s all acknowledge that the next month will probably be a bit chaotic, and we will need to improvise a little. Add to that the stresses caused by a pandemic going around that may affect friends and family as well as ourselves. At points during the next month, we may all feel overwhelmed by what is going on and what we have to get done. If this is the case with you, please talk to me. We will figure out how to provide you with some breathing room that allows you to be successful in this class.

Canvas course site

I’ll say something in Wednesday’s video as well. There has been quite a bit of annoyance among JMU faculty that crowds of students showed up in downtown Harrisonburg over the weekend to party and go to bars, putting the community at risk. As a result, I emphasized the importance of social distancing in my first video; students need to understand that this is important. But at the same time we have to recognize that not all students view the crisis as an extended spring break, and that some are likely to be in crisis mode. And going out for drinks may very well be a way to try to forget something one is afraid of…

When I was looking for the Crowley gif, I came across the following, somehow more appropriate, option. I decided against it, prudently, though it fits my mood:

Aziraphale (Good Omens) says "Welcome to the end times"

Two articles that I found interesting and useful: Alexandra Milsom, in Inside Higher Ed, wisely counsels not to overdo things and recommends a type of technological simplicity that’s still full of good ideas. I might steal some for my class, such as the “clubhouse forum.” We are now not only teaching whatever we’re teaching but are also in charge of building online community in a time when students badly need it. The other piece arrived by email: Cassandra Sardo’s and Justin York’s Faculty Focus article on student autonomy in discussion boards—a welcome reminder of some ways to avoid the “write a post and respond to two others” approach to discussion boards.

My little brother suggested that yesterday’s welcome video looks like from Die Sendung mit der Maus, a German children’s show that combines cartoons (of a mouse, surprisingly) with educational films about how things are done. Well, then!

Not many reasons to be cheerful these days. One thing that helped was a flashback to a 1990s Japanese band, Pizzicato Five. My favorite album by them is fittingly called Happy End of the World. Cheers!


(The photo shows my current home work place. Luckily, I managed to clean it up a bit last week, after it became buried under all kinds of stuff. The GIANTmicrobe is a corona virus, but a fairly harmless one: the common cold.)

Sunday night, and I managed to get my online course portion off to a start: Recorded a first short video greeting (to keep some liveliness in the online environment and show the students that we are making an effort—OK, also because it was fun); created a survey to get a sense of tech resources and skills that the students have; got a Google Voice number that students can call and text to; and wrote a short blog post and an email to inform students. Tomorrow, I’ll have to update the Canvas site with information about how to reach me during student hours.

I will try to keep things fairly simple. Two short videos per week, so that students see me moving and alive (keeping fingers crossed here!) and are possibly nudged to engage with the rest of the content. Maybe I can communicate some of the excitement about the material.

It’s always surprising how long it takes to create and upload a short video. I didn’t have time to produce closed captions, so I provide the video script to students as well. I write the script before recording the video (on Camtasia, which I was able to buy a few years ago with some of my faculty development funds), which is a great way to keep the length of the video under control.

I hope I can communicate some excitement because the course material for the rest of the semester rocks: Supreme Court behavior, Griswold v. Connecticut, same-sex marriage cases, Masterpiece Cakeshop. This is the fun stuff! First, though, I’ll ask them to research what cases there are that would apply to government measures that restrict individual liberties in the face of national emergencies. And maybe that’ll take over the rest of the course—I’ll be flexible here. One way or another, the material is exciting.

I am lucky: I teach only one course a semester, as my other responsibilities are focused on creating faculty development programs. Since my main work doesn’t revolve around learning technology and design, I am not swamped with help requests right now, though I try to do my share and offer my time wherever I can help. And I don’t have children to care for at home. I can’t imagine suddenly having to teach three or four online courses while at the same time having kids at home as schools are closed.

I noted that I started a class blog where I can post the welcome videos. You can see the first post below. I’ll pipe this into Canvas with the Redirect Tool. If I find out that all students can easily access Canvas, I might cancel that blog again and create the content directly in Canvas, to simplify things. But for now it might be an idea to keep things also in an open environment that students can access without passwords and the dreaded Duo Security app.

If you’d like to use the tech resources survey that I sent to the students, you’re welcome to do so; download it here (MS Word doc).

Welcome to POSC 386 2.0

Dear US Judiciary students: Good to be back! To start our special Onlinepalooza, please watch this short message…

… or read the script (Microsoft Word document). If you want to see less of my face (FINE!), you can also listen to the audio only (smaller file size!).

Make sure to check your email with a short survey and more information on how to contact me during student hours. Please take the survey until Tuesday evening. If that’s not possible, please drop me a quick note. Thanks!

Questions? Contact me at