How I Work: Distance Learning Edition

Cat and human using a computer mouse together.

Due to COVID-19, City Tech (and all of CUNY) shifted its in-person classes to online, distance learning instruction. In this post, I reflect on my current class’s transition to distance learning, show how I have configured my office and computer for screencasting and video conferencing, describe some software and services that support distance learning, and give instructions for uploading a video to YouTube.

My Transition to Distance Learning

For my current Science Fiction (ENG2420) class, this was not too much of a disruption, because I was already leveraging online technologies to support student learning and course material accessibility. I designed the course as a zero textbook cost class, meaning I find resources that I can make available to students via PDFs and handouts, and choose readings that are available freely online, such as the unparalleled Archive.org.

Also, I redesigned some of the course assignments to emphasize the importance of note taking by teaching good note taking practices and evaluating students on the quality of their notes. To support this, I recorded each lecture during our earlier in-person classes and posted them on YouTube after class ended, so that students could use the videos to fill in gaps in their notes and allow those students who missed a class to make their own notes based on the video lectures.

I collect student work via email and on OpenLab, “an open-source, digital platform designed to support teaching and learning at City Tech (New York City College of Technology), and to promote student and faculty engagement in the intellectual and social life of the college community.” I joined the OpenLab team as a co-director of the project this year, but I have been using OpenLab in all of my classes since joining City Tech in 2014.

Now with classes meeting asynchronously online, I have tweaked assignments and the schedule to accommodate students accessing materials and completing their assignments. I hold office hours once a week at a regularly scheduled time via Google Hangouts, and I can hold private office hours by appointment with students. I use email to respond to questions and concerns on a daily basis.

Now that I have reconfigured a space in my apartment to support my class and the many other online meeting responsibilities that I have with OpenLab and other projects, I wanted to share some tips and ideas to help others transitioning to facilitating their classes with distance learning.

Office Configuration

I know how easily distracted I am by busy backgrounds, I wanted to provide as neutral a space for my lectures and online meetings. To this end, I appropriated my apartment’s closet as a distance learning and video conferencing studio.

Computer desk with monitor, webcam, lamp, and chair. The desk is 2 feet away from the wall.

I positioned the Logitech C615 webcam so that I am centered in the frame when video conferencing or recording myself lecture. Above the camera, I positioned a white light to illuminate my face.

Looking over the monitor towards the wall.

I arranged the desk so that my back would be against a solid white wall as pictured above looking from behind my monitor towards where I would be sitting facing the monitor and webcam.

Webcam with carboard flap taped above it to reduce light glare.

Notice that I taped a small piece of cardboard above the webcam. This blocks glare on the camera lens from the light above that illuminates my face. I was careful to cut and position it so that it is out of frame of the camera lens. Depending on your webcam, be careful not to cover the microphone if you build a similar lens shade.

Two lamps--one lights the subject and the other lights the background.

To the side of my desk, I have a larger lamp that points against the wall and behind me. This reduces my shadow from the desk lamp in front of me.

The end result looks like this:

An example image taken by the webcam of Jason.

Software and Online Services for Distance Learning

As mentioned above, I use email and the OpenLab for interacting with students, disseminating materials, and collecting student work. And, I am using Google Hangouts for regular office hours since it is a far easier lift for students than official CUNY supported video platforms like Skype and WebEx.

To create my class lectures, I do the following things.

Google Slides example.

First, I create a presentation slide deck using Slides in Google Docs.

Screenshot of OBS Studio capturing the desktop.

While presenting my slides in full screen mode, I use OBS Studio, a “free and open source software for video recording and live streaming” that supports Windows, Mac, and Linux, to record a video of my desktop (the Slides presentation) and my webcam video and audio in a smaller picture-in-picture that positioned in the lower right corner of the screen, which produces a video like my recent lecture embedded below.

Before I can post the video to YouTube, I like to edit it (though, editing isn’t absolutely necessary). I like to use Shotcut, a “a free, open source, cross-platform video editor.” After trimming the video, I then upload it to YouTube, get the video’s sharable link, and embed the video with the link in my class’ OpenLab site.

OBS Studio and Shotcut have steep learning curves, but each have extensive online documentation and there are communities of users online who share tips and advice about how to setup and use these powerful tools.

There are many other options for working with video. On Mac OS X, one can use Quicktime Player to record a screencast or iMovie to create something more advanced. On Windows 10, the built-in Xbox Game Bar can be used for creating a screencast movie. Also, there are commercial solutions, such as Screencast-o-Matic.

In some cases, you might not even need a computer. iPhones with iOS and Android phones can use video recording software that’s built-in or with an app to record and edit video, and there’s a YouTube app for both platforms that you can use for uploading the resulting video.

In the next section, I will show you step-by-step instructions for uploading a video made on a computer to YouTube.

Uploading a Video to YouTube

Once you have a video ready to share with students, the following step-by-step guide for uploading your video to YouTube shows you how to upload and share a link to your video.

First, navigate to YouTube.com and login to your account. Then, click on the camera icon in the upper right corner and then click "Upload Video."

First, navigate to YouTube.com and login to your account. Then, click on the camera icon in the upper right corner and then click “Upload Video.”

Second, drag-and-drop your video from your computer into the center of the window that opens, or click on "Select File" to navigate to and select your video file on your computer.

Second, drag-and-drop your video from your computer into the center of the window that opens, or click on “Select File” to navigate to and select your video file on your computer.

Third, while your video is uploading and processing (updates are shown along the bottom edge of this window shown above), fill out the Title and Description boxes and choose a thumbnail for how the video will initially display before the play button is pressed. Then, scroll down the window.

Third, while your video is uploading and processing (updates are shown along the bottom edge of this window shown above), fill out the Title and Description boxes and choose a thumbnail for how the video will initially display before the play button is pressed. Then, scroll down the window.

To comply with the COPPA law, select if your video is for kids or not. Then, click Next in the lower right hand corner.

To comply with the COPPA law, select if your video is for kids or not. Then, click Next in the lower right hand corner.

Fourth, you can skip the options on the Video Elements screen and click Next in the lower right corner.

Fourth, you can skip the options on the Video Elements screen and click Next in the lower right corner.

Fifth, select the Visibility option for your video. The most versatile choices are Public (this is what I choose) and Unlisted. In these cases, you will have a sharable video link that you can send via email or easily embed in a webpage. Private is also an option, but you have to choose who is permitted to see the video, which requires students having a Google account and you knowing those accounts to grant permission to each one. After making your selection, click Publish in the lower right corner.

Fifth, select the Visibility option for your video. The most versatile choices are Public (this is what I choose) and Unlisted. In these cases, you will have a sharable video link that you can send via email or easily embed in a webpage. Private is also an option, but you have to choose who is permitted to see the video, which requires students having a Google account and you knowing those accounts to grant permission to each one. After making your selection, click Publish in the lower right corner.

Finally, highlight and copy the video link on the resulting screen, or click on the copy icon on the right to automatically copy the video link to the Clipboard. Click "Close" on the lower right to return to your list of videos on YouTube. With the link on your Clipboard, you can go to email, OpenLab, or another platform to paste and share the video link with your students.

Finally, highlight and copy the video link on the resulting screen, or click on the copy icon on the right to automatically copy the video link to the Clipboard. Click “Close” on the lower right to return to your list of videos on YouTube. With the link on your Clipboard, you can go to email, OpenLab, or another platform to paste and share the video link with your students.

On OpenLab and WordPress-based sites, pasting the link into a post or page will automatically embed the video so that students can simply navigate to your class site and watch the video on the class site instead of going over to YouTube as an additional step.

If you’re working on transitioning your classes to distance learning, it’s okay to feel overwhelmed and frustrated like Miao Miao below. Just don’t give up. We’re doing good work for our students, and it takes time to think through and implement distance learning. Also, it’s okay to let your students know that this is a work-in-progress and things might change based on what works and what doesn’t.

A cat collapsed from overwork and anxiety onto the pages of an open book.

  This post originally appeared on Jason’s teaching and research blog here.

Participation and Attendance in Distance Learning: Tips From OpenLab Fellows

We know many people who are shifting their courses to an online-only format may not have taught online before, and have questions about how things like attendance and participation work for online classes. There are lots of ways to conceive of digital attendance and participation, depending on how you conduct your course, but to get you started, two of the OpenLab’s Digital Pedagogy Fellows, Olivia and Jesse, are here to share their own teaching practices as examples. 

Jesse’s Advice: Flexibility, Access, and Compassion

Hi OpenLab pals! Writing here with some tips for integrating attendance/participation into your distance learning courses for this semester. 

First, it’s important to say that you will not get the chance to play with all available technological tools for online teaching and learning in just one semester, and that’s OK. This is a whole field of higher education pedagogy, and there are tons of options for how you want to integrate tools. For now, choose things that you are comfortable with, and make sure that you’re communicating with your students about their needs and limitations as well!

This piece about the restrictions of implementing distance learning pedagogy in the middle of the semester, “Please do a bad job of putting your courses online” by Rebecca Barrett-Fox, brings up many important points. Open digital pedagogy is super interesting, but you cannot fix the widespread concerns that are emerging in a stressful public health event like the one we’re inside of now. Barrett-Fox emphasizes the challenges that emerge when asking all of us to work from home, especially when so many of us and our students are caretakers, working hourly-wage jobs, struggling with chronic illness—and possibly acute illness, and lacking some of the ideal technological tools and devices that can optimize distance learning. 

A bit about me: I’m a PhD candidate in English rhetoric and composition at the CUNY Graduate Center studying disability, language, and digital culture and pedagogy. In the fall of 2017, I co-taught the first-ever fully hybrid first-year writing course at the City College of New York, and have continued to teach hybrid writing courses at Baruch College and CCNY. My recommendations are from my own experience as a part-time writing instructor as well as from my research on access pedagogy and educational technology. 

Strategies for Online Participation and Attendance

Provide lots of ways for students to participate! Discussion boards are a common practice in online and hybrid classes. Typically, I assign one or two short readings per week and ask several questions for a weekly writing assignment that students submit to a discussion board per week. For example, I’ll title one discussion board “Week #1: Ms. Marvel and Visual Rhetoric” and students will post their (short, ungraded) response to the readings into this board. I also ask them to respond to at least two of their peers’ discussion board posts by the end of the week (usually Sunday night, or the night before class is scheduled). I also like to emphasize that these responses do not have to be traditional text-based responses. Some of the highlights from my hybrid classes have included short videos, memes, poems, and multimedia responses that integrate text with visual and audio media. 

Practicing flexibility with deadlines is crucial for distance learning, as many factors can impact students’ access to a shared device, or unstructured time to complete the readings and think critically about them, especially in a uniquely difficult political and public health event. 

Another strategy for emphasizing peer-to-peer support is to assign students into small groups and ask the groups to post a collaborative response on a discussion board or to your course website as a post. On the OpenLab, your students can author posts on your course site, and assigning groups can build in accountability and support for students even without an in-person class meeting. These groups can work on peer review strategies together for larger assignments publicly by using the Docs feature in your OpenLab course profile, or even in a post on the course site, where other students can respond in comment form to an initial single-authored post. I have found group work super important in the hybrid courses I have taught, as students are able to develop friendly working relationships with each other, which helps establish the community ethos in a distance learning course. 

If you want to integrate quizzes and exams into your distance learning course, allow room for tech snafus. Issues with tech are inevitable, and instead of doubling down on strict policies that don’t allow for mistakes and tech failures, embrace some flexibility. If students report a tech issue, believe them and allow them to retake the quiz or exam at a time you can both agree on. Ask about their schedule and don’t interrogate how they’re spending time. 

Along this line, I strongly recommend against synchronous formats for online courses, especially taking attendance during any synchronous meetings. Especially as students are working from home (which may in fact be any number of locations; see Dr. Maura Smale’s work with Dr. Mariana Regalado on where CUNY students do schoolwork and CUNY students’ lived experiences), many factors may disrupt their ability to join and engage with a live lecture or class session. Instead of sending verbal announcements in the form of videos, send them in text format via email or to the course site so that students are able to revisit them. Include specific details about timing and deadlines in writing.

All of the above low-stakes and ungraded assignments count as participation and/or attendance. If you’re used to giving points for speaking in class, you might be surprised at students who are much more “vocal” in online contexts. Distance learning does provide some new opportunities for students to engage with the material and with each other!

Reflections

One of the critical practices for integrating new technological tools into your spring 2020 courses is creating opportunities for students to articulate their experiences, including reflecting on work they’ve done that felt successful and expressing concerns about using tech they might be unfamiliar with. I’ve adopted the practice of communicating my own reflections to my students, and although I’m not teaching this semester, my message to them might look like this:

Hello all!

You have heard by now that we’re transitioning to distance learning for the semester. I know this is unexpected and potentially disruptive, and I’m feeling a little intimidated by all of the directions this class might take as a fully-online project. Even though I have experience with hybrid teaching and using the OpenLab as a staff member, I’ve never taught a fully online course before. I’m expecting a learning curve for all of us, and I want to encourage all of you to reach out to me with your concerns and questions. 

More information will be heading your way soon; just writing to say I feel your anxieties and fears about this sudden shift in our learning, and I have many of my own as well. I’ll be sure to keep a line of communication open throughout this process, and I’ll do my best to be transparent with you about why we’re doing what we’re doing. 

Some things to note: I am immunocompromised and have several chronic illnesses that make the public health concerns very real for me. I want to encourage all of you to take a break if you’re stressed, tired, or think you may have been exposed to COVID-19. Stress is a huge factor in immune system function, so step back for a couple of days if you need rest. Please stay in contact with me if you’re choosing to take some time for yourself. Otherwise I will worry. 

Best to you all, and more soon.

It’s crucial to remember that students are people too, students are New Yorkers, students are affected by the news and business shutdowns, by people hoarding resources. Widespread fear and anxiety are impacting you as well as your students. Give everyone a break, and don’t hold this difficult situation against your students. They are trying their best as well as you are. Holding space for discussing this openly has invariably cultivated a sense of trust and openness with my students since I began the practice of being open about my own life, health issues, and why I am choosing to do things in class the way I am. 

Moving Forward

This is a huge transition for everyone, and my final recommendation is to give your students and yourself a break. Create the resources and online spaces that you need to facilitate this transition as simply as possible, and resist the urge to do more and more. This is not the time to learn all there is to know about open digital pedagogy hybrid and online teaching, and educational technology. If you’re excited by any of these, that’s great! Join the OpenLab team for next year’s events, start reading work in this field, and work towards next steps after this semester is over.  

Olivia’s Advice: From Course Site to Distance Learning Hub

Hello, everyone! I’m Olivia, and I teach English composition at John Jay. Each semester, I make a Course Site for my class on the CUNY Academic Commons, just like faculty can make on the OpenLab. While some things will have to change as we transition from face-to-face class to online class, my attendance and participation policies are actually remaining almost exactly the same.

My Face-to-Face Policies

This semester, I combined Attendance and Participation into one grading category, made up of points. If students earn 80 points over the course of the semester, they get 100% participation. 

The easiest way to earn points is by attending class (2 points for on time, 1 point for arriving late or leaving early), but students always have the option to make up missed attendance points by completing the writing prompts and other activities in the lesson plan for the day, which I post on the course site. Across the entire semester, that adds up to 46 participation points that can be earned through “attendance,” either physical or digital. The rest of the points can be earned through low-stakes writing assigned throughout the semester and a variety of other options that students can choose from. Most importantly, students are able to submit a statement explaining how they have engaged in course materials outside of the ways I’ve listed and why that should be counted for participation credit. This gives students an extra opportunity to practice persuasive writing in a real-world rhetorical situation, and it enables students to participate in a wide variety of ways not limited to the activities I could think of myself. 

Preparing to Transition

As we entered the week of March 9, I began anticipating that we would soon switch to an online format, and I assumed that some students would choose to stay home for their own wellbeing in the meantime. Originally, my plan was to continue teaching in-person for those who felt comfortable attending while livestreaming the class via Zoom. We did a test run, and it went well! 

However, after the CUNY-wide shift to distance learning was announced, I realized hosting class in real time was not going to be a viable option for either me or my students, for both practical and pedagogical reasons, many of which Jesse explains above. I emailed my students letting them know I would be in touch soon with a plan, and took a couple of days to think about it while I focused on other aspects of my life. 

It’s important to remember that, for all of us, we’re not just unexpectedly planning an online course on top of our usual responsibilities. We’re doing it while also experiencing a period of intense global distress that is affecting our lives, and the lives of our students and loved ones, in complex ways. So, instead of trying to figure out how I would adapt my course immediately, I took advantage of the five days of instructional recess to ponder.

What did I send my students, before I knew the plan?

  1. I revised my syllabus to account for the canceled days of class, removing several readings and assignments.
  2. I created an easy-to-read checklist of all of the assignments we’ve had so far, so students could evaluate their own progress and decide what, if any, work they would like to make up. I also wrote a post on the course site with links to the instructions for each one, in case students had trouble finding them.
  3. I wrote a post with tips for how to navigate the course site efficiently, since students will now be using the course site more often and for more tasks than they have up until now.
  4. I uploaded an overview of the final research paper and the scaffolded “writing process assignments” that build up to it, with the due dates for each one clearly listed.
  5. I posted instructions for their first process assignment, the Proposal, with a note that I did not expect them to begin working on it– it was only to provide a preview for those who would find that reassuring. 
  6. I wrote a list of the things I’m doing to support my own mental health during this period of social distancing, and invited the students to share what they’re doing.

Moving Forward

Because students were always able to earn “attendance” credit digitally by completing all writing prompts/activities outlined in the lesson plan, the overall policy doesn’t need to change now that CUNY is moving to online-only classes for the remainder of the semester. However, just as I asked the students to write private responses to prompts that I would not collect when we were meeting face-to-face, I also will ask students to do some writing that I will never see. If I believe in the value of private writing as a mode of thinking and self-reflection in the classroom, that value doesn’t change as we move online. I will need to trust that they will do it if they are able, and they will need to trust that I’ve crafted the prompts with our learning goals in mind. 

As for our “graded” (on completion, for participation credit) assignments, I plan on posting discussion questions on our course site and asking students to do independent research and then share out their findings with each other. For example, their first assignment after we return from instructional recess will be to read several online news articles, do their own research on one of the topics based on what sparks their curiosity, and share sources that they found valuable in their investigation. Then, they will respond to each other, and we will have a compendium of preliminary sources for their potential research projects, all on our course site! 

During what was previously our class meeting time, I’m making myself available for office hours via Google Hangouts or phone call, as well as adding a Saturday morning block to give students additional flexibility with their schedules. I’m planning on doing one on one writing conferences in the same way once they start working on their final research projects.

 

Image credit: WOCinTech Chat stock photo, March 24, 2016

“Our Stories” of Becoming a College Student: A Digital Writing Project for First Year Students

I am super excited to share our recently published article in the The Journal of Interactive Technology and Pedagogy. It expresses a blogging assignment that served as a low-stakes activity that encourages students to make sense of the social, emotional and bureaucratic challenges in their transition to college, and simultaneously develops digital literacy.

Our Stories of Becoming a College Student: A Digital Writing Project for First Year Students

Philip Kreniske, The HIV Center for Clinical and Behavioral Studies at Columbia University
Karen Goodlad, New York City College of Technology, CUNY
Jennifer Sears, New York City College of Technology, CUNY
Sandra Cheng, New York City College of Technology, CUNY

Open pedagogy in Biology and Political Science

Inspiring work in open pedagogy – both projects integrate general education competencies including information literacy.

Suzanne Wakim, Biology – Butte Community College

Butte Biology

Modern Biology 

Michael Elmore, Political Science – Tacoma Community College

http://www.openwa.org/stories/ 

View their presentations: Designing for Open Pedagogy and slides

“Ten Things the Years Have Taught Us In Ten Years”

A few of us from City Tech were invited to attend last month’s forum on instructional technology sponsored by City College’s Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning. We heard from faculty and administrators at a number of campuses, but what stood out to me was George Otte‘s presentation. He shared some wisdom he’s earned through working as the University Director of Academic Technology and the other positions he holds at CUNY. My notes might not be quite as complete as his presentation–if anyone can update, complete, or correct this list, please do!

Ten Things the Years Have Taught Us In Ten Years

  1. Don’t wait until you’re ensured the necessary wherewithal. As Otte put it in other words, “If you build it, they will fund.”
  2. Put things in writing. As that is all I wrote down for this point, and it’s not clear what he was referring to specifically, I already wish I had followed that advice!
  3. Always focus on the why and not just the what. It’s important not to use the tools for the sake of the tools, but for the opportunities for learning, working, and sharing that the tools afford.
  4. A Corrollary: Be wary of trends for trends’ sake.
  5. A Caution: Don’t sit and wait for things to stabilize: they won’t.
  6. Principles before all other Ps (procedures, programs, even pilots). 
  7. People matter more than technology. 
  8. Ends matter more than means. For any project, there is a need to articulate goals and demonstrate usefulness.
  9. Expect change, because change is the expectation.
  10. Network, network, network. That is, make sure others know about what you’re doing, and also know what’s out there so you don’t reinvent the wheel.

As I listened and eagerly took notes during this presentation, the OpenLab was at the forefront of my thoughts. We certainly need to keep ideas such as #5 in mind–otherwise, we would just keep building and building without ever releasing to the City Tech community what we’ve developed–or #7–since the OpenLab is about building community and bringing the college together, using a virtual space where a physical one isn’t available. What I came to consider afterward was how these lessons apply to our classrooms, just on smaller scales. When we assign work that uses technology, is the technology the take-away? Will the core of that assignment work in ten years, even if the specific technology is replaced with something else? When we ask students to blog or tweet or shoot video, we’re encouraging them to develop skills that are current and transferrable, and we emphasize that each of these technologies is a medium for thinking and expressing course content. We need to ensure a balance between #4 and #5–that we don’t only look to trends, but that we don’t wait so long to determine what’s fleeting and what’s here to stay that we miss both. I’m curious to hear how others in this Open Pedagogy group consider any or all of these Ten Things, and hope we can engage fruitfully with each other via comments to this blog post, since those are the means we have (#8).

Ditching textbooks, and faculty collaboration

On Friday, I attended a talk that was part of the CUNY Open Access event at the Graduate Center. Kristina Baumli from Temple University presented a project she’s involved in that provides faculty with a small stipend to ditch their textbooks in favor of materials openly available on the web, or through the college’s electronic library holdings. Also check out what the Chronicle had to say about this textbook-ditching project.

A number of us in the English Department have tried this kind of approach, with varying degrees of success. One big difference seems to be access to technology. All of Baumli’s students had access to the readings both inside and outside of class because she requires them to all have some kind of computer: a laptop, netbook, or tablet. The cost of these devices can be less than the cost of one course’s books, and can be used in all courses for the entire college career and beyond. When I used all electronic texts for my ENG 1101 courses, students often wouldn’t bring the materials to class. They didn’t have portable devices, or they didn’t have wireless access if they brought laptops, and they often couldn’t get to the printers in the computer labs on campus to even print the short readings. Some brought up the materials on their phones, but this didn’t allow for them to mark them up in a way that is productive in an English Composition class.

Difficulties aside, I love the idea of asking students to invest in resources that they can get a maximum benefit from–a netbook, let’s say, and free course readings rather than two textbooks, for example–but even more, I love the idea of building up from a series of readings to a framed textbook with students. Why not make the students contribute to the questions one might ask at the end of each reading? They can identify unfamiliar words or expressions, frame issues for class discussion, even participate in drafting essay questions for further exploration. The students’ writing, then, can be included as samples for future students to see exemplary work.

Baumli spoke convincingly about the collaborative effort from faculty. If one professor can create a couple of modules in a semester, perhaps, then think of the volume that could be created when several instructors teaching the same course each develop modules. It wasn’t clear to me how faculty at Temple would share these modules, but in addition to the variety of options available, we have a solution for that here at City Tech–the OpenLab. We could certainly create projects that would house resources for different courses: links to texts, or even full-text options where copyright permits, suggestions for questions, vocabulary, activities, assignments, rubrics, connections to other texts. This model seems very doable in my field, English. The biggest limitation I can see would be for texts that are not available electronically. What would it look like in other disciplines? What would the obstacles be for other fields?