Pandemic teaching, round four, now with the Delta variant

Classroom OWLI have lots of thoughts about today, our first day into a semester that we’re hoping will be “back to normal” and yet very clearly isn’t. But my main feeling, at the end of it all, is that I actually feel like a teacher again.

I suspect that if we had gone all-in on remote teaching, I might feel differently about the past year. But hybrid teaching, with its demands to provide both in person and remote students an equal experience, and the compromises that meant on both sides, left me feeling like I spent as much energy each class session directing traffic as I did attending to the learning taking place.

Today, I walked into the classroom with my printed out roster and notes and a couple of pens, and I looked at my students, and greeted them, and learned their names, and had a conversation without watching for a raised hand icon or chat message. Nobody was a black rectangle with a name in the middle. In retrospect, perhaps we should have all been issued t-shirts with that image on it so we could recognize each other from this past year.

Today, I walked around the classroom. I looked at computer screens. I read error messages. I fixed typos. And it was much more efficient and interactive than I ever managed with technology sitting in the middle.

Today, I wrote on the whiteboard and it was as glorious as I thought it would be.

Today, I spotted the look of a student who has something to say but isn’t sure they’re a “speak on the first day of class” type of student and learned that, even wearing a mask, good eye contact and a smile can break through that hesitancy and result in a raised hand. And I had to wonder, how many of those moments did I miss last year because someone’s camera was off or I just missed that look in the obscurity of video.

Today, class wrapped up, and students came up to talk or ask questions, and I did not have to shoo them out. I didn’t have to ask them to leave so I could sanitize their desks and keyboards and mice for the next professor, and unhook my technology, and sanitize myself, and scurry next door to set it all back up for my next class, in just ten minutes.

It was not perfect. It was stressful having the building so full and having every seat in my classroom filled, after a year of low occupancy. Masks were not always fitted properly in place. And we know that campus is not COVID free. We’ve already been told of students getting tested and possibly needing to start the term remote, and we’ll be having to find ways to include them – which means some amount of hybrid teaching still taking place. I have reacquainted myself with my OWL. I have a Teams site made for each course, just in case. And I’m thinking about whether I should plan to get myself tested periodically, now that the college is no longer testing me. I’m aware that, yet again, despite all of the precautions in place, because of my job I am the biggest potential vector for bringing COVID into my family, and there is a decent chance I could do so while being entirely asymptomatic.

But today, I taught and I loved it.

Knit Lace Sampler: Patterns Eleven and Twelve

Knit Lace Patterns 11 and 12The next two patterns in the sampler are done, and I definitely like one more than the other – you can probably guess which looking at the photo (eleven is on the bottom, twelve above it).

Pattern eleven was, frankly, an absolute pain to knit. I’m not entirely sure I ever got the combination of cast-offs, yo twice, and then k1,p1,k1 in the double yo correct and I had more issues being off a stitch in the repeats with this pattern than any other in the sampler so far. The end result is very open and the heavier, filled-in knit parts don’t stand out the way I wish they did.

In contrast, pattern twelve was both easier and turned out nicer. I’m a big fan of the patterns that have “Even R: P all sts” in the header – not just because of the easy rows that require less attention, but also because it makes it easier to recover from slight issues in the previous row.

I meant to do an overall photo of the whole sampler after pattern ten, but I forgot, so here’s how it’s looking after 12 of 74 are done. Nothing is blocked, but just laid out as is it’s currently just under 45 inches long. At this pace, the end result should be 7 to 8 yards long!

Knit lace sampler, patterns 1 through 12

Limitations of the Fall, Possibly by Design

Something I’ve been thinking about a lot, reflecting back on the Fall term, is a conversation I’ve heard both at my own institution and in a number of online settings. It boils down to the observation that in a hybrid course setting, many students who in theory should be coming to class in person (are living on campus or have indicated they will be attending in-person in some manner) have settled into attending remotely as the semester progresses. A question that arises is: does this bode ill for in-person learning in the future?

My opinion is – no. Or, at least, the fact that students are opting out of the classroom experience right now doesn’t necessarily mean they will always devalue a classroom experience. To me, the key observation is that the classroom experience they are opting out of right now is limited in ways that make it less clearly better than the remote experience.

In part, this is by design! For equity reasons, we spent the summer trying to ensure that our in-person and remote learning experiences were as comparable as possible. And at my institution, at least, we were told not to accomplish this by developing separate in-person and on-line experiences, but rather to design from an online perspective first, and then adapt to an in-person setting as possible. If the end result is an experience that students feel they can benefit from equally whether they come to the classroom or stay in their dorm room, that could well be a natural result of the task we set ourselves.

Additionally, there are elements of the current situation that make in-person learning lesser than what students are used to. For my classes, I simply can’t interact with students the way I usually would. I can pair students up to work together, but they can’t share a notebook to work an example or stand at the whiteboard together – they can talk to each other from opposite sides of a long desk while typing into a shared file.  With the need to clean surfaces, it isn’t realistic to rotate through work partners the way we might usually. I cannot walk around the classroom looking at their code while they work – I can view them with monitoring software from the lectern. I can be in the same room as them, but I must be distant, even if I can see they are frustrated or upset. When I would usually walk over, squat down to eye level, and talk them through whatever they are struggling with, now I have to try to do so loudly through a mask from the front of the room, or through text chat if I sense they’d like a less public conversation. In that setting, how much is really lost by being in their own room, with the computer setup they prefer, and all the same abilities to screen-share and talk with me through text or video?

In a usual semester, I spend a lot of time in class trying to get students away from their computers, exactly because of the type of engagement it creates with their classmates and the problems they are solving and myself. I’m hopefully that when that’s what an in-person learning experience looks like again, students will welcome and value it. In the meantime, I’m focusing on the fact that (counting both in-person and remote synchronous participation), my attendance was outstanding this past semester and however they were present I was able to regularly get my students engaging with each other. They were part of a classroom community and they learned and I’m pretty satisfied with that.

Knit Lace Sampler: Pattern Ten

Getting back into lace knitting is going slowly, but I liked this pattern a lot. It had a simple 12 row repeat over 11 stitches and straight forward stitch-work. The large diamonds look great and the tiny little diamonds in the middle of the open work area will probably stand out more after blocking. Attractive and easy to follow – a good combination!

I meant to stop at ten patterns and take a photo of the whole sampler unrolled for perspective, but I forgot so I’m now thinking of doing this after pattern twelve. Pattern eleven is turning out a bit rough (spoilers) so I’ll probably want one more good one to balance things out before a more extensive photo shoot.

Knit Lace Pattern Ten

Knit Lace Sampler: Pattern Nine

With the cold weather arriving, I got back into knitting my sampler last week. This time, we have a nice solid diamond pattern with small eyelets in the middle. Working this pattern, it didn’t look at all like it was coming together as I knit it. I expected I wouldn’t like it very much. But the end product is very nice. I feel like my center eyelets are a bit lower than they should be, and I’m thinking about why that might be. Perhaps I am doing my yarn-overs wrong? I’ll have to review what the book suggests is the right process before I start my next pattern.

Getting back into the flow of the school year

Tomorrow is the start of our Fall 2020 schedule, pushed back a week from our original plan and now fully online for the first two weeks before transitioning to in-person instruction for those students who have returned to campus (or, from an instructor perspective, hybrid instruction as essentially all of us have some number of students studying remotely).

I am, on paper, prepared. My CMS is loaded up with day-by-day details about what we’ll be doing so everyone can follow along. I’ve met individually with each student in my intermediate-level course to make sure they have the needed software installed and working, that they know how to screen-share, and to make sure I’ve had a chance to meet all of them and ask about their questions and concerns before the start of the term. My upper-level course got a welcome video and guidance on what to do to get ready as well as an invitation to meet if they wanted, which a fair number took me up on. I felt less urgency to ensure each of those students had met with me before class started as I’ve taught them all before and, at the upper level, it felt appropriate to trust them to make sure their Eclipse install was working or reach out to me if they needed help.

With instruction beginning on-line, I’m being able to separate out the stress of starting classes from the stress of how to safely return to a physical classroom with students. This is hugely helpful and, while not the reason we are following this plan, is a benefit of the plan. I’m hoping that these first two weeks also reassure students that, while we will try to meet in person, things will be okay if we have to be online.

But, it doesn’t feel like the new school year is about to start. We had a faculty retreat, but it was virtual and lacked the usual chatting about summer activities and plans for the Fall that usually takes places during breaks. I haven’t been going to campus to make sure the classroom is set up or printing out copies of my syllabus. We didn’t have departmental receptions to welcome our new students or put on our regalia and gather for Matriculation. The tempo of that last week of summer before classes start was totally off, and apparently I count on those cues to get my head into teaching mode.

Assorted Masks So I am trying to spend this weekend doing things to  create the right mindset. I don’t need printed copies of the syllabus, but I have my roster printed out and a folder set up for each class, though I know the paperwork will be lighter than usual this year. I’m reviewing my course plans, practicing the conversations we’ll have to get things started, practicing the demos I want to give – much more than I usually would at the start of the term. And, while not necessary yet, anticipating the days when I’ll be teaching masked and likely wanting to be able to change out masks between my morning and afternoon classes (plus backups if needed), I spent yesterday evening sewing up enough face masks to get me through a week without any stress about laundry.

The big decision – I’m also going to try teaching from my campus office, at least for the first day. Getting up, getting dressed, and driving in to campus feels like a good mental cue that summer is over. As a nice side benefit, I suspect it might set more of a “we are back at school” tone for the students than seeing that I’m still at home. I might not do it for the full two weeks (prudence suggests that I be prepared to teach from home as needed at any point this semester). But I’m actually a bit excited to have my first day back to school actually be back at school.

Wrapping up 19-20, launching into 20-21

As of today, we are one day out from Virtual Commencement 2020, 14 days out from our annual faculty retreat (format TBA!), 16 days out from Matriculation, and 17 days out from the first day of the Fall semester. My to-do list is getting increasingly specific “Revise HW1”, “Add video sharing policy to syllabus”, though with some terrifyingly broad items still remaining like “Determine tutoring format” and “Create lab access policy”. But I did my last trip to campus today to make sure all of the seating and tables in our open social/study spaces are appropriately distanced and hung some signage and admired the new doorstops that have been installed to help keep classroom and lab doors open and the air flowing, and I can see the pieces coming together. Having a hand sanitizer station located directly outside my office, due to its proximity to the front door, is a nice extra bonus.

I’ve mentioned to a few people that part of what I’ve been working on is updating my Data Structures course for a new textbook, and the response has been universally “Why would you do that?” But I’m actually pretty happy with the decision. The old text wasn’t working for students, and with the risk that some or all of us will be remote at any particular time, it’s not a good time to have a sub-optimal text. And, it is turning out to also be a reasonably good time to adapt my course for a new text. After all, I am having to rethink everything about every class session anyway.

I’ve settled on a general structure for my hyflex teaching that will have me meeting every class session with all of my students, but for shorter stretches of time. I’m setting up very specific pre-class preparation, usually a reading, perhaps sometimes a short video lecture, and an activity or exercise to do and bring to class. These will be the sorts of things that usually students would spend 15-20 minutes on individually during class time, and I’ll explain that rather than having us all sit in proximity to each other doing this work, we’ll now be doing this on our own in advance. Once we gather, we’ll focus on sharing solutions – and the problems we ran into along the way. My intent, which I’m going to try out for the first couple of weeks and see how it goes, is then to make a short video AFTER each class session, summarizing what we discussed, the strategies people used to solve the problem, the issues that came up and how we solved them, etc.

My experience in the spring was that video lectures got fewer views than I would have hoped and even students who watched them didn’t necessarily glean a lot from them. But students did like being able to watch videos of me doing live coding. I’m hoping that both students who were in class and those who are remote may be more likely to review these recap videos when they have a general recollection that something was discussed in class and know there is a specific resource they can turn to. Overall, the structure of read some background – try a problem – discuss the problem with others – get some wrap-up about what you learned from that problem appeals to me.

But I have a note in my planner, for thirty-one days from now, to check in with my classes about how this approach is going. We’ll see what I’m doing in class then on day thirty-two.

Planning for HyFlex – Initial Thoughts

The announcement was made a couple of days ago that we’ll be back “in person” in the fall, for a revised definition of “in person” that includes knowing some students will still be remote and off campus entirely and some may need to be remote at times, either because they are exposed to the virus or because our classrooms simply cannot accommodate a full class all at once. While this isn’t surprising – it’s the sort of HyFlex model many schools are pursuing right now – now that it is known, we can start digging into the details and making specific plans.

As incoming chair, I’m trying to think about this both on a course level and on a departmental level. So I’ve been thinking about the classroom spaces a lot. How we can adjust the layout and other things we can do to help maintain reasonable social distance while we’re together. Would tape markings on the floor help us remember to be mindful of where others are? And also help make sure furniture stays where it needs to?

I started calculating how many wipes we’ll need across the semester to clean off keyboards after each use. For just my two courses, I’ll need close to 1000. At least one of my instructors is planning to bring their own keyboard to class and I’m thinking I might do the same. Many students have laptops so they could bring their own devices and cut down on shared surfaces. But since I know I’ll have to stop having students pair-program at the same computer, I was hoping to do a lot more sharing of student code at the front of the room for us to discuss as a group. I also won’t be walking around looking over students’ shoulders anymore and will be viewing their screens as they work from the lectern. Both of those are simple if everyone is on the classroom network. I’m researching platforms for having students share code and collaborate online because that could be useful, but everything I’m seeing so far seems to have a lot of overhead – set up and maintenance for me and another tool to figure out how to use for the students.

That’s the balance I’m trying to figure out right now. How much time should I invest in learning new tools and finding technologies to enhance online interaction and then work through configuring them and creating documentation to help students learn how to use them? At what point am I better off keeping things simple and spending time getting very clear about what I want my students to be able to do and figuring out the cleanest, sharpest way to get that across to them?  My inclination leans towards prioritizing the later, but I’m taking the time now to make sure there aren’t good options I can introduce that still stay on the “fairly simple” side of the equation.

Knit Lace Sampler: Patterns Seven and Eight

Knitting has slowed down as the days are my recreation time turns more into sitting outside reading in the evening than knitting while watching TV. But since my last update I have two more patterns completed in my sampler.

Sampler Pattern Seven

Pattern seven has a subtle diamond shape formed by four small clusters in the middle of a diamond of eyelets. This didn’t turn out very distinct for me. The end fabric has a nice balance of openness and bulk though. I could imagine this pattern even scaling up to a fingering or sport weight yarn nicely.

Sampler Pattern Eight

Pattern eight is a very simple repeat of an open netting type lace. With just an eight row repeat and the pattern worked over a multiple of six stitches, this could be a good pick for a larger piece where you don’t want too much complexity to keep track of while you work. I’ve got some yarn I’ve been saving for a summer throw (something to keep the chill and/or bugs off sitting outside once it starts getting dark) and this could fit the bill.

Spring 2020 Goals, Revisited

Back in January I posted some goals for the Spring semester here, with the intention of revisiting them at the end of the term to see how I did. I was tempted to let myself off the hook, but I did have half a term during which things were relatively normal, and reflection is good, so let’s see how I did.

Goal 1: Provide feedback as guidance more than correction in my object-oriented programming course.

I think I did pretty well here. I definitely kept this in mind all semester; as I graded I tried to focus on whether there was either (1) content in the assignment I could point towards or (2) a test case I could provide to help illuminate the issue. Having those two options for providing feedback at the top of my mind seemed to work pretty well for distinguishing cases where the student needed to rethink their problem solving, perhaps looking again at the guidance given in the assignment, versus cases where the student had a syntax error or misunderstanding of a method that I could clear up.

Something that I think also helped was I told students I would be doing this. I told them that I also knew it would be frustrating to have an error pointed out to them and just be referred to elements of the assignment and test cases that helped show that error if they had already found it but hadn’t been able to fix it. So, if they included a comment in their code documenting the issue and what they had tried, I would provide feedback specifically responding on their comment. This worked well – students were good about documenting the issues they knew existed and so even in the cases where I did provide specific guidance of what to try next to fix their code, it was after they had reflected on the problem.

And, I don’t think moving online had a big impact on this. In fact, because I was providing feedback electronically without writing directly on their source code, it was probably easier to remember to provide this type of feedback.

So, goal met and was very successful. I intend to keep doing this.

Goal 2: Keep careful notes on what works and what needs to be revised for the next offering of my artificial intelligence course.

I made this a goal because I knew I was bad at this, and I would say I did okay. I certainly did well marking where my lesson plans for a class session had too much or too little in them to help plan ahead for adjusting the pace next time – this offering, I ended up just rolling content into the next day or pulling content planned for the next day forward as needed and it worked out fine. But I’ve added a task to my to-do list for next week to write up some of the changes I ought to make. I ended up entirely changing the plan for the final exam to be focused on research presentations and structured conversation and I think that worked great, so I want to wrap that into the course as the plan from the start, even if we’re meeting in person. On the other hand, I made the final implementation project less open-ended – originally I wanted them to find any data set they were interested in and work with it, but I pre-vetted some options and then had them choose from among those. I think the open-ended version will be better but given the situation, it made sense to prioritize some level of consistency and reliability this time around. So, overall, I did okay on this, but it’s a practice I need to get better at. I’m considering if I need to actually come up with a structure that I use for all my classes for this type of note taking to make it a habit.

General Goal: Be present for my students while in the classroom.

I’m glad I had this goal, because I think this became even more important as we moved to remote instruction. I can’t honestly remember how I did at this in the first half of the semester – I think okay? It’s usually the second half of the term when things get chaotic that I struggle more with getting distracted by thinking about the email I have to answer or the meeting I’m going to have while students are working together in groups. Being online certainly made that harder – when we met synchronously I pretty much always had students working in pairs or groups and rotated between them, checking their progress. It would have been pretty much invisible to them if I had quickly checked my email during class. Fortunately, “walking” between groups in their various channels or chat rooms gave me plenty to focus on.

The biggest issue was having chat messages crop up from students in another class while I was working with a class in session. Perhaps there would be a way in Teams to set myself as available to just one group but unavailable or in do not disturb mode for the rest of my students. But that is the place where I did fail here. In person, I would never have other students wandering into the classroom with a quick question, and if they did, I’d have felt comfortable pointing out that I was in class and could they email me or find me later. I felt more pressure to answer chat messages that came in during class – clearly it wasn’t the same on the student side, as they were just sending a message, not knowingly walking into my class. But on my side, when a message popped up, I had to read it to tell if it was from a student in the class I was running with a direct question. And there were many cases where, once I read the message from a student not in my class, I was already halfway through formulating the answer by the time I finished reading it, so it seemed easiest to answer it at the time. I also don’t think there was a way to mark those messages as “unread” to make sure I remembered to go back and deal with it later if I did ignore it at the time. So, there was a bit of blurring between being present just for the students actually in class with me and fielding questions from other students.

So, overall, not bad for a semester disrupted halfway through…