Online teaching, week two, new adventures

Week one of online teaching is wrapped up, and week two is on its way, though with my office and classroom being the same space and also where I spend time hanging out in the evening reading or getting work done, the days are definitely blending together.

New adventures for the coming week include:

Giving an exam – this is coming up Monday morning and the students seem to feel pretty good about their ability to take an exam from home with the technology available to them. I’ve communicated many times that I’ll be understanding about connectivity glitches and the key is just to let me know about problems if they crop up. Exams are really useful checkpoints in this class so I want to see if I can keep them in the course, but if it is a disaster I’ll be prepared to adjust.

Lab session in Chat – I’m starting a hands-on coding unit in my AI course and I’ve shared a Jupyter Notebook file that has prompts for questions to answer about the code and small TODO tasks to start editing the code and experimenting with the results. Normally, this would be a lab session style class period in my classroom. I want to use a chat channel for the course to collect answers, provide feedback on the fly, etc. Because people will work at different paces and be focusing on their code at times, I am hoping text chat will work well as compared to having audio going in the background while you work which you’ll inevitably tune out while concentrating and then miss something relevant. The hope is that as students have answers to share or questions of their own, they can catch up in the chat channel.

Small group problem solving in Chat -Back in my programming class, I am going to try to break students into smaller groups and given each group their own chat channel to solve a few problems “by hand” as we get started with loops. This is an activity that I usually have students do on paper or the whiteboard in small groups before testing out their solutions at the computers. I’m hoping I can recreate that here, though I know it is going to be tempting for the students to all just solve the problems on their own by developing/compiling/testing their code as they are used to. I’m planning on dropping into each of the chats on a pretty regular rotation to prod the teams that seem to be doing less chatting.

Department Open House for advising – We always hold a big advising open house at the start of registration for the next semester for both our declared majors but also minors (who do not get an official advisor in the program), students in our affiliated concentrations, and undeclared students thinking of taking some computing courses or potentially majoring. It’s always a nice event with cookies and upper-class students helping advise newer students on good courses to take at the same time (or not take at the same time) and the faculty are available to provide more information about their courses than is available in the catalog or help review schedules. That event would have been this coming Thursday, so we’re going to move it online as a drop-in Zoom event, BYO cookies. We’re encouraging students to connect in even if they just want to say hi and be social or see a faculty member they aren’t currently in a course with. I’m looking forward to seeing how this goes, not just for helping students find the right courses for next semester but also to provide some social interaction for our students.

I’m also going to start having some “big” grading projects (as compared to the now seemingly unending checking in on CMS quizzes and forums and exercise checklists). I may be revisiting my technology choices for office hours. And if things go very well, I might try to use our department Twitter more to maintain some connection with our students.

Knit Lace Sampler: Pattern One

Lace Sampler Pattern One

Here is pattern one complete of my knit lace sampler. It’s a simple diagonal eyelet pattern, with garter stitch below and above and along the sides. You can see that I didn’t quite have the pattern down for my first few rows and the eyelets aren’t as sharply diagonal as I would like. But, I’m approaching this in the legitimate spirit of a sampler, something to demonstrate my skill but also to develop my skill. If I get a pattern entirely wrong, I’ll re-work it, but I’m going to let the hiccups in my learning process be apparently along the way.

This was a nice pattern to start with because once you get into it the repeat is nice and easy. It’s basically k4 (yo, ssk)x2 across each row, with a staggering at the front of rows to shift where the two eyelets fall (due to the yarn overs) each round.

The red thread along the top of the piece is my plan for when I do really mess up a pattern. At the end of each successful pattern, I’m knitting two rows of garter stitch and then running a length of #10 cotton through the stitches. This way, if I have to rework the next pattern (or, I shudder to think, 40 patterns into the piece I have a needle fall out), worse case I unravel back to that thread, pick up those stitches, and start over. My plan is to maintain two threads, so place another one after pattern two in the same way. Then, each pattern after that, I pull out the bottom thread, run it through the stitches above the pattern I just finished, and carry on.

Knit Lace Sampler: A New Project

Knitting Lace bookHaving just finished a pair of socks (except weaving in the ends, goodness how I hate weaving in ends), the current “stay at home” order has found me without any sort of craft project in progress, which clearly had to be remedied. So, after organizing my supplies, I decided to make another attempt at a project I tried to tackle a few years ago but got derailed on: knitting a lace sampler.

Specifically, I want to make the 91-pattern lace sampler from Knitting Pace: A Workshop with Patterns and Projects by Susanna Lewis. The sampler recreates a early/mid-19th century lace sampler from Germany or Austria. The original sampler is in The Brooklyn Museum, but the author undertook the project of inspecting it and recreating all of its patterns.

I’m deviating slightly in that I am not using size 60 cotton on wire needles. I’m using a very fine gauge yarn, finer than fingering off of a knitting machine spindle, and 000 needles. That’s putting my gauge at about twice the original sampler but places it in the realm of “challenging but doable” for me.

So far, I’ve just set the base for the sampler, knitting 12 rows in garter stitch with 65 stitches per row to start things off. Here I’m also deviating – the original sampler had stockinette as the base and reverse stockinette between patterns. But I’m planning on using garter as my boundaries because my stockinette tends to curl a lot and it will better match the garter stitch that will surround the lace patterns on the side for those with repeats that don’t divide evenly into 65 stitches.

I’m intended to update here each time I get a pattern done. There’s no guidance of how many repeats of a lace pattern to do within each section so I’ll be eyeballing it from pictures of the original. Pattern 1 looks pretty simple – a diagonal eyelet – so hopefully I’ll have more to share soon.

Zero Day: Online Teaching

Well, I survived, and my students survived, and I am now officially teaching online.

I’m also left too exhausted to do much more than a bullet list of events and lessons learned:

  • Every one of my students submitted the assignment due today (originally due last Monday when we returned from break). I am so proud of them and the effort they are putting in right at the start to be engaged.
  • Since last time I installed Java, there is a new version out, and JavaFX doesn’t appear to be part of the install, so many students were unable to do the exercise planned for the day. My first class session was split between helping half my students figure out how text fields work and helping the other half of my students figure out why they couldn’t compile. That was a rough start at 9 am.
  • I had a scheduled advising appointment and a drop-in advising appointment during my office hours. I was able to have a nice conversation in both cases about their goals for their education and some things to think about as they start planning for next year. The meeting with my research student and my committee meeting also went off without any technological hitches.
  • Students really seem to prefer to have their video cameras off during class, even when they have video capability. It’s early days, and I’m worried about bandwidth, so I’m not forcing the issue. Lots of participation through text chat, particularly if we take it out of a group meeting and they can all just individually chat at me more privately. For some purposes, that will work fine, and I’m particularly open to it as we all get our feet under us with the technology and my priority is making sure I’m in contact with them all.
  • To that end, make up a paper grid for each of my classes that lists off student names versus dates, and I’m going to check off for each student any day I hear from them, in any venue. I’m doing a fair bit asynchronously and I don’t want to lose track of anyone – I’m hoping this will make it easy to check at a glance if someone has be quiet for a few days and should be getting an email. Paper will make it much faster for me to mark down a tick mark whenever I acknowledge a chat, reply to an email, read in the forum, etc.
  • I absolutely loath grading electronically. I made it through the pile of programs that came in this morning and typed up my comments as I worked through the code, but my grading brain doesn’t work right without a pen in my hand. My prediction right now is that this is the part of online teaching that I never adjust to. Which is funny because I suspect it’s the part of online teaching that many of my colleagues may have already switched to.

T-minus one day to online teaching

Today, I didn’t prepare any new material. I reviewed my plans. I thought through what needs to happen tomorrow – what I need to communicate to my students and what questions I should be prepared for. I thought through all my troubleshooting strategies for when Teams doesn’t work, people can’t find the chat, or Sakai crashes at 9:00 AM when we all log into it simultaneously. I’m happy with my decision to keep content focused on a small number of platforms, but tell students about other out-of-band ways to reach me so that if (when?) those platforms go down, I’m not inaccessible.

I made up my to-do list for next week, but I’m also treating that as tentative until after I get through tomorrow. The good thing is that I have two MWF classes that will have students engaging in them, an advising appointment, office hours, a research meeting, and a committee meeting all scheduled. So in one day I’ll get to test out a pretty wide swath of the types of things I have to be able to do.

I also finished tidying up my home office. I had already cleaned up the bit that is visible through my web cam, but my craft shelves were a bit of a mess and I’ve been spending a lot of time staring at them. So I feel ready for a start for a new format for the second half of the term with things nice and organized here.

So, the countdown is over, and tomorrow morning we see what happens.

T-minus two days to online teaching

Today was Saturday so work on my courses was sandwiched between grocery shopping in the morning and cooking meals for the week in the evening (plus a big pot of spaghetti sauce to share with my family). It was an uneventful day in preparing for my classes, which is reassuring.

The new piece I added in to my repertoire was a couple of videos capturing my problem solving process as I developed a few programs from start to finish. There was a lot of switching back and forth between the problem prompt, the editor, the compilation/run window, and the API documentation, but I only flubbed it once. I stuck with problems I’ve had students solve frequently in class in the past so I could try to incorporate I’ve seen students make into my code and they talk through how to figure out where the error is. I’m going to be very curious to see how much students make use of these videos versus more traditional lecture content (where I do code some, but generally not start-to-finish on a complete problem).

I’ve started to get emails from students working on assignments that were handed out before the break. It’s good to have that bit of normalcy back in my inbox. I’ve got an advising appointment scheduled for Monday and think there are a couple of students who may “stop by” office hours as well.

The big news today is that Commencement won’t happen in May – the current goal is to hold it late July/early August and seniors have been told they should mark that weekend as a tentative “save the date”. Hearing that announcement from our President was the first time in this whole situation I got teary – I had realized we wouldn’t be getting our seniors back together, but having it be official was hard. We’ve already started thinking about things we can do to offer students in our department some recognition and closure, even from a distance. I’m glad that the College is going to try to provide them with a celebration at some point, even if it’s not on the usual schedule.

T-minus three days to online teaching

Today, enough pieces clicked that I have a picture of what the rest of the semester will look like.

One challenge to this transition is that one of my courses is a new offering. I had a plan for the course, but I didn’t have a bank of entirely complete materials to fall back on. But I got the detailed project document for the second half of the term done and posted with its deadlines set, and things are falling into place now that I have that as a framework.

I’m still structuring my content around “class days” because it helps me make sure I’m parceling out work at a reasonable pace. Otherwise, I could see myself pushing in just one more activity or reading each week. For students, it doesn’t particularly matter if Monday’s work happens Monday, or Sunday, or Tuesday, or sometime roughly around Monday.  But for some of them, I also think it might help them to have the work parceled out in bundles of a size they are used to thinking of as “what I do in the next day or two”.

I have got used enough to lecturing into my monitor/webcam that I can hear myself getting my “teaching voice” back. I’m resisting the urge to go back and look at my first couple of videos I filmed and seeing how bad they are.

I’m guessing that as a mass, the faculty all have enough content and information starting to flow out that students are starting to test out their technology setups and use the second half of this week to figure out what online learning will look for them. So support for student technology is ramping up. This included working with the College to make sure that students who need a computer to complete our coursework and have been relying on the computer labs have loaner machines they can use now that the campus is in essential-services only mode. It seems like the gaps are getting plugged, but I worry about the gaps I don’t know about yet.

One of today’s lectures focused on getting students set up to build a machine learning classifier using the classic Iris dataset – it’s a nice, simple starting point that is small enough you can actually look at the data as well as train the system to predict what species an Iris is based on measurements of its flower. I introduced a personal touch by going out front and taking a picture of the irises growing in my yard to illustrate where the petal and sepal are and acknowledge that I, in fact, could use a machine learning system like we are building because I have idea what species of iris I planted in my yard two years ago.


T-minus four days to online teaching

I have punted on Microsoft Teams and am now recording my lectures in Zoom, recording locally to my computer and them uploading them to the storage space in Stream. After failing to record the window I had shared several times, this morning my Teams recording didn’t even capture video of my face – it was 20 minutes of me talking over a static image of a circle with an “AH” in it. From what I can see of others talking online, all of these services are getting overwhelmed with the number of people using them.

We got the notice that we’re not just online as of Monday, but we’re blocked from being on campus after tomorrow. Course planning was interrupted by a trip to my office this evening to do a final pass for anything I might need for the rest of the semester, as well as clearing out all food. Half my department was there and we had an impromptu “department meeting”, yelled from opposite sides of the building.

I had my first on-line committee meeting today in Teams. Technologically, it didn’t go great. One person couldn’t get audio to work at all and the rest of us had some pretty bad audio feedback. And it’s disorienting when people’s heads pop in and out depending on who has spoken most recently – it makes it hard to tell if the people not shown front and center have left or have just been quiet recently. We managed to settle in and get some work done, but the first ten minutes at least were rough. I’m keeping this in mind as good expectation-setting for any attempt at an online conversation with more than three people total.

I’m have more preparation to do over the next three days, but I have at least hit a point where I have a sense what the shape of my teaching will look like. Now I have to put my head down and push out some content. I’m in pretty heavy denial that I’ll be doing all of this and back at grading as well soon, especially since I have always, always graded on paper with a pen and dread the move to electronic grading. Perhaps I should have dragged my scanner home from my office while I was there.

T-minus five days to online teaching

Back to a bullet list again today:

  • Three videos recorded today, so the monotonically increasing trend continues!
  • Actually recorded five videos today, but twice the screen capture failed and I ended up with a recording of me looking at the screen describing the code I am writing that you cannot see at all. Only accidentally added one of them to the class channel before catching it and deleting.
  • I really have to do something about this typing noise thing because it seems to make my webcam drop out the audio track periodically.
  • I have a bad feeling that I am organizing things wrong in the Forum in our CMS. I might be expecting too much to go in a “conversation” and not enough in a “topic”. I’ll see how it goes and be prepared to adjust midstream.
  • Related – I can tell that two weeks from now I’ll be rolling my eyes at how many mistakes I made my first week at this. I have to keep telling myself that I won’t go back and redo lesson plans that are already done (unless they are disastrous), I’ll just keep doing better as we move forward.
  • My attempts a video “lecture” are unsatisfying, but I actually sort of like giving students video they can review of how I’ve gone about debugging something or solving a problem. There is a chance that once this is all over and we return to face to face teaching, I’ll still record a few of these to share with students as a resource.
  • Or – gasp! – I just realized that I can re-use problem solving videos I record this semester in future semester without any additional work. Amazing.
  • Because my videos tend to be a very little of me talking at the camera, and a lot of me typing in an editor, I’ve determined that having a hand-written plan for what I want to cover is helpful. I have decided that this is what I am going to use the box of my mother’s legal typewriter paper for. It is super satisfying to write on and one sheet is about equivalent to the amount I should cover in a video before it gets too long. Hooray for very, very old office supplies bringing a sense of calm and fun to this crisis.

T-minus six days to online teaching

Today was the day that things started to click a little. I had three online meetings including one with a student. I recorded and posted two new videos (up from my prior one-a-day pace). My bare bones list of the minimum I need done to get started is shrinking, and I’m hoping will be tied up tomorrow, and then I can focus on getting enough out ahead of things that I am not literally teaching day to day.

I’m even starting to understand Teams a bit – including the fact that I’d probably understand Teams a lot more if I’d used Slack, since I get the sense Teams borrows some of their terminology and assumes you understand it. I understand that the big “Add Channel” button with the plus sign on it adds a channel to my team, Teams, but if I don’t know what a channel is or why I would want one, that doesn’t really help me.

Had a video meeting today where all of three of us were wearing glasses and observing that we could see what was on each others’ screens in our glasses. A good note to us all that clicking away from the video chat window to check your email may be even more obvious than you think.

Tomorrow hopefully gets to be more of the same, setting in with the technologies I’ve figured out and then seeing how to use them to do what I need to. I expect I’ll start panicking again on Friday.