Course planning in the time of COVID-19

Usually at this time of year, I start to regret my decision to work at a non-semester school. While most of my colleagues are starting to wrap up their spring semesters, I’m submitting final grades for Winter Term and frantically prepping for the start of Spring Term.

This year, of course, everything is different. Now, while most of my colleagues are struggling to figure out how to finish their spring semesters online, I’m struggling to figure out how to move an entire course online.

For the record, I think both situations are equally challenging. In the former case: how do you pivot the way you’ve been doing, well, everything for most of a semester, and finish out the course in a completely different environment from where it began? In the latter case: How do you take a 10 week in-person course, remove a week completely, and take it completely online, with just 2 weeks to prepare?

And, to throw another wrench in the works: what if only slightly above half of your students have “reliable, high-speed Internet access” at home or whatever place counts as home right now?

There’s a whole bunch of other things to consider, too.

  • What’s the minimum tech configuration I can assume my students’ computers have? What minimum tech configuration is fair to assume, for them and for me?
  • What do I do when a student’s technology can’t meet some minimum I’ve deemed necessary to be able to complete the coursework?
  • How do I take a course heavily centered around teamwork and team projects and move that online? Particularly when students are in different timezones and may not have the best Internet connectivity?
  • What will the mental state of my students, and my own mental state, be when the course starts and as the term progresses? How can I compassionately account for this while designing and delivering my course?

My thinking and planning continues to evolve, and there’s a lot I’m still trying desperately to figure out. But here’s where my thinking is right now.

Structure

  • Each week has a theme. This is similar to what I do now, anyway.
  • Each week is structured around 3 “days”, or topics. I’ll label these Day 1, Day 2, and Day 3, to signal to students my expectations that they’ll engage with the material 3 times a week, but that there’s flexibility as to when they engage.
  • 2 of the 3 days consist of completely asynchronous activities. This should help with the inconsistent Internet access issues, to some extent, as well as with some of the timezone issues.
  • These asynchronous activities will include short video lectures (powerpoint w/ audio, me sketching on a whiteboard, me demonstrating a technique or fleshing out a concept), followed by small group (and some individual) activities. I need to figure out how to collect something from these activities so that I can provide feedback and summarize these reports for the class.
  • The third day will have a short (30 minutes?) synchronous component, structured as a Q&A or a whole-class activity or something like that. This will always be during our class meeting time and always on the same day of the week, for consistency. And it will be recorded for those who can’t attend in person.
  • I will stick with targeted readings before each class, along w/ something they need to turn in to show me they engaged with the readings. This will largely be the same as I do now.

Team/small group engagement

I should explain here that I usually teach this course in an interactive classroom, fitted with small tables (each with its own computer and monitor) and lots of whiteboards. So there is a “table culture” in my course, where students end up interacting heavily with the people at their table in small group activities and discussions. I want to try and re-create that environment online, to the extent that I can. So far, I’m thinking:

  • Stable, small groups (3 students) that will also serve as project teams.
  • I will assign teams the first day of class, and teams will be based on timezones.
  • These teams stay stable for the entire term, unless something goes awry and I need to break up a toxic team.
  • Most of the asynchronous activities will be done in these groups. Sometimes I may combine 2 small groups if I think the activity would benefit by having more participants.
  • Having very small groups that share a timezone should in theory make it easier for groups to meet on their own synchronously. There also may be fewer connectivity glitches if they are trying to connect/coordinate with fewer students, rather than with an entire class.

Things I still have no clue about

  • I’m still working out how to manage the term-long team projects — to do this, I need to first understand what technology my students have. Can I assume, for instance, that they have some way to access a terminal? A text editor? A Python installation? Will something like repl.it work for what they’re doing?
  • Am I better served lopping a bit off of every topic, or of lopping off one or more topics entirely? One model has me cutting out the week+ of ethics material, but that seems to be exactly the wrong approach.
  • What is the correct number of smaller, lower-stakes assessments that will enhance student learning without overwhelming the students — or me?
  • How should I structure office hours? What does office hours look like when it’s completely online?
  • And, of course, since part of my research home is in computer networking, I remain deeply skeptical that any of our networks can actually support the load we’re about to throw at them….

My goal by the end of this week is to have the main structure of the course finalized and fleshed out, so that next week I can start constructing the activities, videos, demonstrations, etc. And hopefully, by the time April 6 rolls around, I’ll be ready to go….for some definition of “ready”.

Navigating the new normal

About an hour after I last posted, Carleton’s president emailed the campus with the announcement we’d all been sort of expecting anyway: Carleton’s moving all instruction online through at least Midterm Break in early May, and likely beyond.

The complete details, as one might imagine, are still very much in flux. Because how could they not be? We’re all in uncharted territory here. But what we do know: Finals end as planned today. Students have an extra day (until Wednesday) to vacate campus. Students can petition to stay if they really can’t leave, and we’ll have services to support them. Spring break’s extended by a week, until April 6, to help faculty and staff reconfigure courses and course support for online learning. Spring term will end on time, and be a week shorter than a normal spring term.

Everyone’s a little lost, and everything feels off right now. My extended Friday office hours were part instruction and part informal therapy session. I invited students to just show up even if they didn’t have questions if they felt unmoored and like they needed to be around others, and a few took me up on that, sitting and working or listening while I answered others’ questions. Some of my senior advisees are scrambling to graduate early, because they can, and I’ve been helping them navigate the ad-hoc accelerated process and think through their options.

We started immediately as a department thinking through some of the practical aspects of moving computer science instruction online, and have already agreed on some common tools to use and/or test drive before April 6. It’s certainly helped that many companies who provide online learning tools are moving to make those free to educators and students during this time. We arrived quickly at the minimum technical configuration our students need to have to participate remotely, which will help ITS plan to provide resources to students who need them. My chair has been an absolute rock star in all of this: attentive to the myriad details while still taking time to make sure we’re all comfortable in our teaching assignments and keeping us talking to each other. And our technical associate’s been working overtime to help us figure out the technical details of things like remote access to servers and other department resources. I feel as though we’re ahead of the curve as far as department preparedness goes.

This week, Grading All The Things and wrapping up winter term are my priorities, as well as making sure my kids, who are now on extended spring break through the end of the month, are not killing each other and/or spending 12 hours a day on screens. I have a ton of administrative tasks that fell off of last week’s to-do list when the announcement hit, that must get done this week. So any planning for spring at this point will be during those down moments when my mind wanders, or perhaps as a break from grading to quell my building anxiety. Next week, planning begins in earnest, and I hope to chronicle my thoughts and plans here as I, and we, navigate this new, strange normal.

How are you, and your institution, navigating your new normal?

Professoring in a time of uncertainty

The end of Winter Term is always tough and often frought. There’s the normal end-of-term stuff, of course: the projects and papers due the last day of classes, the impending final exams and projects, the day-to-day academic work that ratchets up weeks 9 and 10. There’s the unique-to-winter-term stress: seniors finishing up Comps and figuring out what to do post-Carleton, visiting graduate schools or going on interviews or finding out about fellowship applications. Everyone else figuring out how they’ll spend their summers. There’s extra stress on faculty: putting next year’s schedule into place, wrapping up tenure-track hiring, assessing Comps projects, hiring student researchers for the summer, dealing with graders who inexplicably disappear at the worst time. (Thankfully, not something I am dealing with this year, but something I seem to deal with most years.) And of course, everyone’s sick of winter at this point, and that certainly doesn’t help anyone’s mood.

Everyone is tired, frustrated, cranky, and stressed.

Now, add a global pandemic to the mix.

I find myself, like many others, glued to the news cycle. Unable to focus. Worried and uncertain. Largely angry at the nature of the (non) response in the US. Wondering what if. What if what if what if?

Carleton’s in an unusual spot in that our term is ending in the next 5 days, and we head into an almost 2 week spring break before the next term starts. This buys us as an institution some time. Not much, but some. We’re starting fresh anyway on March 30, which, I imagine, makes it slightly easier to pivot to something else. (With “something else” likely some form of online learning.) But for how long?

This morning I’m attending a workshop on online instruction, put on by our learning and teaching center and our academic technologists. I’m looking forward to learning about what we have available at Carleton to facilitate learning and instruction when we’re not face-to-face with our students. And I’m equally looking forward to being in a room with my colleagues, commiserating and sharing coping strategies during this challenging time. I’m also hoping we’ll get some indication as to what’s going to happen for the start of spring term, although I suspect we won’t get a clear answer today. (But maybe at least a hint?)

A couple of weeks ago, I started thinking, during idle moments while walking between meetings and on my commute, about modifications I’d make to my spring course should we move online. What topics could I shuffle? What content could I make into labs? How would I carry out a group project when no one’s in the same room? And, more importantly, how can I keep at least some elements of these once things return to “normal”, because these sorts of modifications likely increase the accessibility of my courses. I’m now grateful that I started pondering these questions when I did, so that I can move forward with planning and not feel quite so overwhelmed.

Beyond that, I’m trying to extend others, and myself, extra grace. Checking in with others. Writing a gentler final exam for my students. Acknowledging the stress we’re all under. Taking time for deeper conversations, and giving others the gift of really listening to them. Connecting. Remembering to eat healthy foods, get to bed (mostly) on time, and exercise. Brainstorming ways I can help out neighbors and friends should they fall ill or should we be under an extended quarantine.

It’s not much, but it’s a start.

How are you coping with these uncertain times?