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Sunday 28 June 2020

Hippogriff-wrangling Advice Corner (aka sharing spot for online teaching resources)

This space is for posting any helpful teaching advice for the upcoming experiment academic term. We've had some great ones already (DEH please add yours you mentioned last week!) and I think it would be good to have a place to collect them where it could be easy to find. If you have useful advice from your institution or elsewhere please do share! Book recommendations, links, personal experience, ideas are all very welcome!


  1. Have to share this little gem first...

    1. Loved this! Sounds almost exactly like what's happening at my university....

  2. Thanks for starting this, Daisy! Here's the advice I copied from the (formerly the Fora at the Chronicle of Higher Education), from a poster who goes by "Hegemony." She (I believe) has done a lot of online teaching, and all this advice sounds very sensible to me. Though long as a post, it's short compared to a book or an online course. It is long enough that I need to divide into more than one post---sorry!

    I am heavily in favor of asynchronous. You will have students with all kinds of challenging situations. Some will have poor internet in their buildings. Some will live in rural areas, where internet is still very spotty. Some will be taking care of children during the day, or working, or sharing a computer with other people who have time essential requirements like working from home. I had a student who couldn't be online one day because he was living back on the family farm and had to help with the lambing, which doesn't stop for a synchronous class. Don't assume they're all carefree young adults with lots of time and technology. When some of them want to get online, they have to drive to McDonald's, which has free wifi, and sit in the parking lot. Sure, they "should" be more available, and they "should" have other childcare or jobs that don't interfere. But if we want to help the students where they are, and not make things worse for the segment that are strained in time or resources, I think it behooves us to be flexible.

    The thing about successful online teaching is that it is not just classroom teaching broadcast via computer. It is a whole different ballgame. Don't try to just import your regular teaching style online. Your in person classes sound great, with all the real time interaction, but that's just not the strength of online classes. Instead of trying for a third rate version of in person classes, instead magnify the strengths of what online teaching can do.

    One real bonus to online teaching is that both you and the students will have more time to think before you discuss. In asynchronous teaching, nobody is put on the spot, everybody genuinely has an equal chance to contribute, and the formerly shy and hesitant people can also shine.

    As an example, my own son has a stutter that only comes out when he feels everyone is looking at him. Occasionally he feels confident enough to speak in class, enough so that his teachers deny to me that there is a problem. But I know there is one, because he's confided in me and because I've observed it. The real result is that he very rarely speaks in class, because he dreads the stutter coming out. But he's voluble and thoughtful in online classes, because he can write out his thoughts and post them when he's ready, and no one will ever hear that he has a stutter. There are more of these hesitant students than you may think. You will love hearing from them in an online discussion board.

  3. Hegemony's advice, part II:
    But about the lectures. They simply don't work. It's not a format that works online. It is boring as hell — a talking head droning online. Even if it were synchronous, it's far removed and impersonal seeming, and students will feel very awkward chiming in. They will also not watch long videos. YouTube has done a lot of study of this, and the average YouTube video is watched for under 4 minutes. I don't mean that the average YouTube video is under 4 minutes — I mean it's longer and the viewer gives up in under 4 minutes. I also had occasion to watch a number of recorded lectures of my fellow professors, a while back. OMG, the tedium. Not only are they grueling to watch, but you are competing with the polish of TV, which every student will be familiar with. Look at how news broadcasts do it. They break frequently, they have fancy graphics, they have clips — there is no footage of just a head talking for many minutes in a row. That's for a reason. And TED talks? Massive rehearsal, polished script, polished graphics, walking around — those are as good as it gets, and none of us are going to have that degree of polish.

    Go ahead and watch these online lecturers, who are trying hard: (quick roundup of the history of philosophy) (introduction to psychology)

    How long before your attention started to wander? And these guys are doing a good job. They are much better than a random prof talking in front of a computer screen. But still — I can bet you stopped watching partway in.

    Also, if you have a either a video of you talking or a lecture in real time, how do hearing impaired students access it? You will need to interpret or caption it — in fact the ADA requires it. Hearing impaired and deaf students take more online classes in greater proportions than other students, because they are more accessible. So when you think about formats, think about whether it's easy to make it accessible for them.

  4. Hegemony's advice, part III:
    Instead of lectures transferred online, put the same information up spread between a variety of formats. If you insist, have a 1 2 minute video of you talking informally and showing something visual that is relevant to the course — a Napoleon hat, or a fossil, or something you can light on fire, or something. Then have a little online video made by a professional outfit, like a TV documentary about Napoleon, or whatever. There are tons of these for almost every subject. Bonus: they will usually be already professionally close captioned. You can also include the occasional delightful video, like a relevant song from Horrible Histories, or a clip of Monty Python doing the Philosophers' Football Match.

    Then have a little sheet of interest facts and questions about Napoleon, with pictures. TOP TEN MYTHS ABOUT NAPOLEON, or whatever. Sneak a lot of learning and thinking in there. Then have a substantive PowerPoint about Napoleon's campaigns, with snazzy graphics and information they should know. Then have the readings, which will be the same readings as an in person class.

    Then have the lively discussion board, with an intriguing question that requires real thought (but not outrageously complex) and allows for differing interpretations. They have to make the first post by a certain point in the week, and then two substantive responses to others' posts later in the week. Grade these posts afterwards by slapping a number on them. (I give full points for each unless the post is really, really stupid — but I make it clear up front that saying "I agree!" or "I really like your remark" gets a failing grade. But you won't have that trouble — they love the discussion boards.) Comment widely yourself on the boards, in supportive ways, but redirecting in a kindly way if they start to get facts wrong or interpretations that really won't fly. Divide your discussions ahead of time into groups of 8 12, or they become too big for everyone to read everything. The computer will divide them automatically (be sure to do this at the beginning of the course — it won't divide them once discussion has started).

    Then have a short computer graded multiple choice quiz about the essentials. Make sure it's uncheatable (have the system select random questions from a larger question bank, have it mix up the order of the answers, and make it time limited). That will keep them on their toes, focused on the facts as well as the interpretations, and give an incentive not to slack on the reading.

    At regular intervals you also have short writing assignments (2 4 pages works best, I find) that allow them to integrate the material and work on questions at greater length.

    These elements let students go back over the material and find things with ease, and the combination of words and visuals makes providing the visual material easier than in an in person class. Another bonus is that you can set it up ahead of time (indeed, you have to) and push a button and it does run by itself. Then what you do is to send out chatty reminders when deadlines are approaching — summing things up and providing a personal touch — stop by the discussion boards when discussion is going (this part is really fun and you will have to restrain yourself from being on there too much), and grade assignments when they come in.

    I've done this for a number of years and I find them really great. The student feedback is that they find these classes engaging, admirably organized, and very worthwhile — and that they really appreciate the flexibility and the lack of demand to be synchronous. That's in normal years — even more so in a pandemic.

  5. Dame Eleanor's own tip, based on n=1 (my spring course on Chaucer): let students choose a "character" whose views they represent in online discussions. For my spring class, these were travelers in late-14th century England, some based on Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, others add-ons: the Man of Law (plus his wife and two daughters), a priest, two nuns, a Reeve, etc. In other courses, these could be characters from novels, historical figures, composite characters based on real people but personalized/fictionalized by the students, such as a 19th century naturalist, a 1920s woman researching a scientific topic, a voter in 1948, whatever is relevant to your class. Let the students add details that help them identify with their characters or that pique their interest in doing the necessary reading/research to flesh them out. Then for discussion boards, post scenarios or questions related to the week's reading/other work, and require students to respond in character. For example, I had my travelers gather at the Tabard Inn, in Southwark, and then respond to scenarios such as Chaucer and Gower coming in for drinks and discussing their works-in-progress. Students also have to respond to two posts from classmates, in a substantive way. This got conversations going. Students were invested because they were interested in their characters, but they also felt protected because they were developing their characters' views, not necessarily their own.

    As I say, n=1. It might have worked for this particular class, this particular semester, and maybe it will never work again. But my experience was excellent so I am going to try something like this again in the fall.

  6. I will add the OpenLearn course - free, an example of online learning as a student (always useful), and so far (I'm in week 6) very useful - carefully curated reading lists, good materials, useful prompts to help you relate it to your own work, and produced by the Open University who are experts in online learning (and it doesn't take as long as they say it does each week).

    Click here

  7. Second the OpenLearn course - it is very good and had been infinitely less rage-inducing than our university's very sketchy effort.
    For a book: definitely recommending "Small Teaching Online" by Flower Darby and James Lang. Very sensible, with lots of practical tips and advice, and examples of specific approaches.

  8. Should there be another persuasive post you can share next time, I’ll be surely waiting for it.
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