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”.