So, after all the building that took place over the summer, we launched Fall 2020 last week. I promised that I would continue to tell the story about these courses once we got the semester off the ground. One week in, here's an update of what's worked so far, what hasn't worked as well, and what I've learned.
- Things have actually worked pretty well so far. Despite all the talk and doomsaying about Fall 2020 in the midst of a pandemic, my students have done a great job of engaging with their work; the staggered hybrid setup has worked reasonably well; and all early formative assessments point to the notion that students are learning what they ought to be learning at this point. I's been hard – some of the things I planned turned out to be unworkable, and there were a lot of unknown unknowns that I didn't see coming that have required quick adaptation. My teaching is rusty from so much time away from the classroom, and I have a lot of improvements to make. But, in no way has this been an unmitigated disaster, as so many (especially on social media) have been saying it's going to be.
- The hardest thing so far has been managing a split classroom. All of my classes have some F2F component, and students can come to those meetings or join synchronously on Zoom. I've been getting about a 50/50 split lately in class meetings between F2F and online, and keeping tabs on both groups has been difficult. Not impossible – just draining, and it's easy to miss things like chat questions. I've found that when it's time for F2F students to work in pairs, I can let them work on their own while I put the online students in breakout rooms and then talk with them in groups with headphones on.
- The importance of timing and smooth workflows has never been greater. I've had to think carefully about how I do things like set up my microphone and camera, and how I can make these processes smoother and faster. The first week was rough – I kept forgetting to hit the Record button in Zoom; once I forgot to unmute myself when coming back from a breakout room session; and more. So I made a pre-flight checklist that I tick through whenever I set up for class, and I haven't missed a step since. I've started enlisting F2F students to serve as the "chatmaster" during class, keeping track of questions and comments in the chat and having permission to interrupt me if needed. I've practiced in an empty room with the setup and Zoom controls to get the amount of time it takes to set up my stuff (microphone, USB camera, laptop, and software as well as the items in the room) down to under 3 minutes. I've started posting all the links to Poll Everywhere, the Jamboard for the day, etc. in a Campuswire post the day before classes and telling students to open these links up when they arrive. This one act of opening links before arriving has freed up 2-3 minutes each meeting. When I can find 4-5 of those tasks, I've added 10-15 minutes back into our meeting times. I'm continuing to work on this.
- I am lecturing way too much. I don't apologize for this on the one hand, because I told myself prior to the semester that I was going to take a gradual release of responsibility approach to flipped learning in my courses, by starting with a mostly-unflipped course setup and then drawing the direct instruction down to zero by the end of the first 3 weeks. That's still the plan, but I'd hoped to be "50% flipped" (whatever that means) by now, but I'm still talking far too much and therefore running out of time to do all the activities I'd planned. This morning I took the action of cutting out a segment where I was going to lecture over the solutions to the students' daily preparation work; this freed up almost 5 minutes of time and students were perfectly fine without it (because their formative assessment in the class meeting said so). I'm relearning the truism that students are perfectly capable of understanding material without my lectures, and this time is better spent on middle-third-of-Bloom active learning tasks where I know they have questions.
- Staying focused on learning objectives saves an incredible amount of time and energy. I am trying to stay three weeks ahead of classes in terms of preparation this semester, and so far so good — but only because I put in work over the summer to write out clear, measurable learning objectives for my classes and continue to remember to align everything with those objectives. The writing of learning objectives is pre-emptive decision making about what you will do with your students in the moment. You no longer have to think about what you should do during classes in that module – you just look back at the list and ask what the learning objectives are, and then come up with an activity to build skill on those. That last part isn't always easy because it's creative work; but at least you have a ballpark idea of what to design, instead of having to find where the ballpark is located first.
- I took a slash-and-burn approach to the content in my courses and it was one of the best decisions I made. There are topics that I cut from my Calculus courses this Fall that I have always taught in Calculus, over almost 30 years of teaching that subject at least once per year. I actually don't want to mention what those topics are, for fear of getting in trouble with my department. Suffice to say that I would get a lot of pushback from the math people reading this if I listed them, and there would be a lot of doubt about the "rigor" of my course. To that I would say: A college course is a set of experiences, not a list of topics. My interest in "rigor" is very close to zero right now. What I am interested in, is whether my students have good experiences going deep on a small number of core ideas in the subject and demonstrating that they have learned how to think deeply with and about them. Let's take students from an unabridged calculus course, and students from mine, and then a year from now test them over their mastery of a topic that you covered and I didn't. My students will score close to 0 on that test, obviously; will yours be statistically better? If not, is there any reason to ever let those topics back into calculus? Or should we just slim the whole subject down for once and leave it that way?
- Lastly, I am actually glad we tried doing F2F instruction, even if just for a little while. I know this isn't what I am supposed to say. According to social media I am supposed to be in a state of perpetual vein-popping outrage, or sadness, or both, that I'm being forced to be on campus teaching my classes. But just as the narrative about Fall 2020 being a disaster doesn't have the ring of truth when you actually get to work and start getting things done, the more I work with students F2F, the less bad or anxious I feel at being F2F with them. Don't get me wrong: The health risks are real. And in higher ed in general and at my home institution, which I love, we've seen our fair share of bad decisions, poor communication, and missed opportunities. And, frankly, I would prefer to be 100% online right now, simply because I really love working from home and it would eliminate all the cognitive overhead of managing a split F2F/online class, to say nothing of the public health benefits. But I am glad, despite everything and even if we end up going back 100% online tomorrow, that we had a week or so just to be physically together, see each other's faces (at least the top half), and establish something like a culture that signals that we view each other as human beings. Not that this doesn't happen in fully online courses, because it does. But if/when we move online later, we have a strong foundation for moving ahead.
I'll check in next week with more updates.