The Best Laid Plans: A remote teaching journey

The postThis is a repost of The best laid plans from Dr. Rachel Obbard’s blog Pandemic Pedagogy. The post is the first in a series that chronicle her adjustment to remote teaching after the coronavirus pandemic shut down face-to-face learning. Rachel still has a few more weeks of remote teaching this term, so stay tuned to her blog for more posts.

Drawing of a horse at the left it is realistic (semester begins) the middle is more cartoonish (told to plan for remote teaching) the right is stick figured (actual teaching)

The drawing above came across my Facebook feed. The artist’s comment was “We’re stick footing it now, people!” Indeed.

Last week I took my carefully crafted syllabus for Spring 2020 and tore it up. Then I sat down with a pad of paper and a pencil and worked out what my class this Spring will look like, taught remotely. I would like to think that Technology and Sport this spring will look more like the middle of the horse than the stick foot, but stay tuned. Both the students and I need to adjust to this new way of teaching, learning, and engaging.

How I Hope to Adjust – Fortunately I have been using the learning management platform Canvas for four years. It is fairly easy to upload reading assignments, either by downloading a PDF from our library or scanning a few pages from a book. I can also collect and grade student work through Canvas. Faculty who teach in the spring are still allowed into the office to use the scanner, and we even have one at home. I much prefer to mark up physical copies, and can do a better job that way, but it is possible electronically.

The hard part, I think, will be replicating or replacing the classroom discussions and in-person individual conferences with students. With video conferencing apps such as Zoom it is technically possible, but as with many things, the devil is in the details. One of the problems I’ve always had with Zoom meetings is that the dynamics of speaking in turn are pretty kludgy. It takes time to get everyone’s attention (and unmute yourself) when you have something to add, and this means missed opportunities, awkward pauses, and people accidentally talking over each other. Moreover, the latter is harder to sort out when all those voices are coming from the same direction.

Perhaps this is a good time to add that I’m hearing impaired. I have a congenital hearing loss in both ears, and grew up supplementing my hearing with lip-reading. As a result, I really need to read lips to hear people. This makes the challenges above even more difficult for me. Another problem arises when the audio and video aren’t synchronous. I note lags of even fractions of a second. As the lag gets larger, my difficulty with understanding increases. I hope that all my students have good internet bandwidth, and that the internet and Zoom don’t get bogged down by all the demand!

On the plus side, Zoom seems better than some other video conferencing applications I’ve used because in gallery view it puts a green frame around the person speaking, and in another mode it makes the speaker’s face larger. Also a tremendous help is that I have an ADA accommodation for remote captioning for our Zoom classes. Speech-to-text applications still don’t work great (as was the case when I worked at a firm in the 1980s who made one). Remote captioning means having a real human being listening to what is being said (using either a telephone or Zoom itself). They type what they hear and this text appears on my screen. It’s amazing!

What About the Students – Notwithstanding all of the challenges above, I know that many students this term will have an even more difficult time. Not everyone can return to a stable environment conducive to scholarly pursuits. I couldn’t have in my first year of college. Some of our students don’t have internet access at home or a quiet place to work. Some return to family responsibilities or will need to get jobs (having lost the ones they had at school). All will have to work harder to access the services and resources they had on campus. That’s on top of having to adjust to living at home again, and at the same time meeting our expectations of them. Here are some comments from my past students:

“The first thing that comes to mind is the mixed challenge and blessing of being at home with family. While school has its own (quite extensive at times) set of distractions, it is fundamentally a place of learning where most of your peers probably spend at least a few hours every day studying, there are many different places to go to study, and you can study whenever you’d like and really make your own schedule. In high school, I must have mastered the art of getting my work done in spite of my family, but it was a bit jarring to come back to it.”

This student and others talk about how even with supportive, understanding parents, it can be difficult as an adult to resume the ‘child’ role and live by someone else’s rules. Aside from general friction, it forces students to alter their work routines and creates new demands on their time – family dinners, babysitting, chores, and as one student puts it, to “generally be an active and contributing citizen of the family.”

For many students it can mean difficulty working at the times they find best and finding a quiet place to do work. Getting it right, if even completely possible, can take weeks.

Another past student writes, “I’ve had an idea of how disruptive this pandemic is, but as spring term gets closer, I’m realizing more and more how this really complicates and changes things for the worse.… I’m certainly anxious to see how this will all work out. I do have internet access at home, but my house has never been a great place to study (noise, commotion, etc.). I’m hoping I can find my way to the library or coffee shop, but I live pretty far away from both.”

And so … – We are encouraged to teach as much as possible asynchronously, which means in ways that don’t require the students to turn up at the same time via high-speed internet. I have decided to hold a short (~1 hour) Zoom meeting twice a week, attendance optional but encouraged, and to hold most ‘discussions’ on Canvas (i.e. students type their responses to a prompt into a text box, which other students can read and respond to). It is going to be super hard to have really complex discussions and build community this way, but we shall try (again, stay tuned).

I will have to replace one of their major projects, a group one. The project requires in- and out-of-class group work and culminates with a presentation to the whole class. If that isn’t bad enough (for asynchronous teaching in times of social distancing), the project requires that I work with one group at a time to help them understand a peer-reviewed engineering paper. Sooooo…… NO. I am replacing that with an independent assignment, and, hopefully, some great discussions as a class and in breakout groups. I think more than anything this term, I want to see if I can build the kind of community we do in on-campus classes. I don’t mind if my horse has a stick foot, as long as he has friends.

white woman with ombre green hair wearing maroon sweater in front of treesRachel Obbard: I am an Adjunct Associate Professor and Senior Lecturer in the Institute for Writing and Rhetoric at Dartmouth College (New Hampshire), and a Senior Scientist at the SETI Institute (Mountain View, CA). I teach writing in science and first-year college writing courses. The latter revolve around the intersection of technology, sport, and ethics. My SETI research involves exploration of planetary ice (Earth and Mars) and I am currently leading a project to develop instrumentation for a future mission to Mars’ north polar cap. I am congenitally hard of hearing (HoH) and lip reading accounts for at least 50% of my access to speech. While I wear hearing aids, I need to see a face and mouth, or captioning, to have full access and understanding. 

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