Spring 2020: A Look Back With Relief

The end of spring classes is now several weeks in the past. By this time the train has moved on and we are in the midst of another round of tasks that will eat up the summer: I (foolishly) promised online workshops on online Team-Based Learning and discussion boards; I have two week-long institutes on faculty portfolios to facilitate; I will support faculty who are applying for state-wide awards; and I’ll have to prepare this year’s new faculty orientation program, which probably will be online in some shape or form. And on top of this I’ve been pulled in to help a colleague with little tech preparation to run an online four-week course, adding 1-2 hours to five days of the week until the middle of June. And I should probably prepare a report on the assessment data that I collected last year about our New Faculty Academy. Good thing that I cannot leave the house!

So, how did the spring semester end? Not with a bang but with a whimper! (Funny how good poetry can devolve into cliché, eh?) I noticed that I was slo-mo crashing during the last two weeks of classes or so. Nothing dramatic, but working felt more and more like wading through some kind of jelly; you could do it, but it was more effort than usual. I was badly, badly behind with grading, and the class became less interactive than I wish it had been. In addition, the end of the semester provided an added need for educational development programs, so I helped write a CFI Teaching Toolbox about final exams and participated in open office hours and consults on that topic. At least I managed to record a few lectures on different approaches to interpreting the Constitution. These will be useful for future classes, even for flipping in-person classes. (And I just saw that the first video got 18 views, which means that 11 students out of 29 did not watch it—that’s a fairly typical “attendance” rate for the last week of classes. Sad in principle, but not too bad for this emergency!)

Looking back at the semester, here are some things that I’ve observed, some surprising, some not so:

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Examining Exams

Here is a CFI Teaching Toolbox email on final exams in these COVIDious times, co-authored by my colleague Emily Gravett and me.

Special Edition Teaching Toolbox:

Examining Final Exams

by Andreas Broscheid and Emily O. Gravett

One of the main concerns we’ve heard from colleagues about online teaching is connected to the integrity of grades. Online exams and other assignments give new opportunities for cheating: Students can use Google to look up answers without actually having learned the material; they can email and text each other during exams; they can take photos of test questions and distribute them widely; they can outsource their work to others who are more knowledgeable and more than happy to be paid. After all, on the internet, nobody knows you’re a dog.

Common responses to such concerns include timed tests that make it difficult for students to cheat, as cheating takes time, and various forms of online proctoring, for example, through video conferencing systems monitored by professional services. Yet these approaches can be problematic. Timed tests are not only a barrier for some students with disabilities (who theoretically can get extended time through an ODS access plan, though not all students have the economic resources to get the required medical tests to receive such accommodations in the first place), but also for students who do not have the economic resources for fast or reliable internet connections. (Try taking a timed exam from a McDonalds parking lot!) And forced video proctoring violates student privacy, as we—or the proctoring services—spy into their living spaces that now double as work spaces, and data security, as their movements are tracked and sold to third parties. (For more about problems with video proctoring, see this recent Washington Post article.)

Some disciplines and programs may nevertheless force instructors to use such “brute force” strategies against cheating, even if these strategies discriminate against otherwise already disadvantaged students and do not fully prevent the problem. We hope that the current crisis leads to a reconsideration of such policies, but faculty may have no choice but to follow suit in such circumstances. For those who have the academic freedom to avoid timed and proctored exams, we offer the following suggestions and considerations, in addition to those from JMU Libraries:

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More on jigsaws and video lectures

In my post from March 31, I mentioned an assignment in which students in my US Judiciary class were asked to create mini online lectures on aspects of the Supreme Court process. I think it was a smashing success: Six of the seven student teams have created their videos, and a seventh is on the way. Not only that: the other students are busy watching and commenting. I uploaded the videos into TechSmith Relay, since this has two advantages: First, the videos can be restricted to the class only, so that student privacy can be guaranteed and FERPA won’t come knocking on my door. Second, there is a feature that lets students comment and ask questions about a specific point in the video. Neat! I can see video views, and there now in the high 70s and 80s. Not bad for 29 students. (OK, some of those views must have been me, but still.)

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POSC 386, Monday, April 6

Here is today’s video message for my class:

Here is the sound-only version, and here is the script.

In brief, I am impressed by the video lectures that were created by the class. I hope that everybody had fun creating the videos and has fun watching them.

This week, I offer a synchronous online class meeting where we can discuss questions and comments about the Supreme Court process. Students who for various reasons cannot join the synchronous session or prefer asynchronous work, can alternatively leave a comment or question in the videos on Canvas.

I am producing and posting a series of video lectures on the writ of certiorari and the question of what leads the Supreme Court to grant or deny cert. Watching these videos will be followed by an online debate about a current case in the US appeals court: The case of the former mayor of Allentown, PA, who is incarcerated for corruption and has asked to be released because he fears to be exposed to the Corona virus. The debate question will be whether the Supreme Court should grant a writ of certiorari in that case, should Pawlowski (the former mayor) petition for it. Here is a bit more background on why this case may have some broader significance.

Stay safe!

Beyond “One Post and two Responses”

Here is the final draft of an essay that I wrote for this week’s installment of the CFI Teaching Toolbox. I thank my colleague Emily Gravett for feedback and edits.

Discussions are great teaching tools. They can help students achieve a wide range of learning objectives: better understand course concepts, apply content to real-world examples, explore different sides of a question or controversy, analyze an important question based on the class readings, and more. Going beyond the traditional learning objectives of Bloom’s taxonomy of cognitive learning, class discussion can enable students to make connections with fellow students, learn how to deal with different opinions and emotional reactions, and build community. Finley (2013) notes outcomes such as “increased perspective-taking, understanding, empathy, and higher-order thinking, and more.”

Class discussion is an activity well-suited for online learning environments; in fact, participation online tends to be higher than in face-to-face discussions (Orlando 2017). An Edutopia resource guide notes that online discussions can foster community building, reflection, consensus building, critical thinking, and student leadership (2009).

Online class discussion typically takes the form of a discussion board. Watch a video lecture, take a quiz, participate in a discussion board: this is the common trifecta of online classes. The discussion board typically asks students to post a response to a question posed by the instructor and to respond to at least two other student posts. The instructor hopes that this assignment will spark sustained online interactions among students, but often this is not what happens: students do the bare minimum, and that’s that.

This state of affairs is sad, considering the promise that online discussion offers. Even in our current situation, where we have to create online learning experiences on the fly and with little preparation, well-designed discussion boards can offer students and faculty some of the personal interaction that for many of us is at the center of our work as educators. So, how can we create and facilitate discussion boards that are effective, engage students, and help achieve the outcomes promised in the literature? It’s not easy, and it doesn’t always work, but here are some suggestions:

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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!

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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.

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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.

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!

Onlinepalooza!

(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).