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Emergency Online: Thoughts and Resources for Quickly Adapting Your Course to Online

orange sign with black letters that say "EMERGENCY"

Last night, I went on a late night tweet storm about quickly converting your face-to-face course to an online course due to corona virus closures, so I thought I’d write it up here in case it would be useful to have it all in one place.  Also Sean Michael Morris went on a much better one, so you really could just read that and stop reading here.   University of Washington and Stanford have already closed their campuses, and it’s very likely more will follow.  So what can you do, besides wash your hands, practice social distancing, and follow instructions from the CDC and your local authorities?  Begin to prepare for the likelihood of moving your classes online.  

To be clear, I’m not suggesting that anyone work while sick!  I’m suggesting that now, while you’re not sick, is the time to think about and prepare an emergency plan for your classes, so that if you need it, you’ll have it.  I’ve already signed up for Laurel Eckhouse’s Political Science Guest Lecture Volunteer spreadsheet which is awesome- if you’re in political science, sign up; if you’re not, consider starting one for your discipline.  

And by the way, for everyone who does convert to a different modality, can I suggest keeping track of the work and time you invest?  So that after the shock of the virus hopefully subsides, we can all work to advocate for proper recognition of and compensation for that labor, especially for the contingent and lowest paid among us, both retroactively and in institutional disaster preparedness planning in the future?  How do we advocate in the future to ensure that all students have reliable home internet access?  

In the more immediate term, give yourself, extend to students, and try to build into your class as you make adjustments to it, grace & flexibility.  No one was expecting this when they built their syllabus or signed up for classes. It is serious and it is scary, so be patient with yourself and your students!!!  How you manage your class virtually/online will vary widely, as all of our classes and teaching styles vary widely. Which they should- only you know yourself, your students, and your classes.  I don’t think institutional band-aids- “we’ve created a course on Blackboard/Canvas/etc for you with everything you need- just grade it” will be very helpful, even if they’re available. Doing the same thing you do online that you did face to face does not work very well (in my experience), and also leaves a lot of advantages/affordances on the table.  You are probably going to do things differently, so here are some resources that might help you think through what you might want to do in your own class. FYI, I am only recommending things that are not too technically difficult (gauged by “can I button mash/google my way through this?” which is my usual MO and good approach because, IT Support is likely to be stretched thin)

Consider groups (which can be done in your LMS or through google docs) for building liveness and community into virtual learning; it’s also a great way to make sure folks don’t get lost in a big crowd (similar to the way small discussion sections are used in large face-to-face lectures).  If you spend time in your face to face class dissecting texts, check out Hypothes.is for social annotation (they’ve even added LMS integration.  Try focusing on what you want students to DO- replace the time students would have been in class with time spent doing/making things- editing Wikipedia (Wiki Education can help you get started), writing content for the course (check out Open Anthology of Earlier American Literature and A Student’s Guide to Tropical Marine Biology for inspiration), blogging, making videos or podcasts or memes or powerpoint slidedecks.  

My own thinking and approach on this stuff has been greatly influenced by exploring Open Educational Resources (#OER) and Open Pedagogy (#OpenPedagogy or #OpenEducationalPractices)- the more you can explore about this, the more you might find there are some upsides to teaching in the open and/or online.  Some books (available freely online) to get you started and fired up: Open Pedagogy Notebook and An Urgency of Teachers. Get on Twitter and read up from Robin DeRosa, Rajiv Jhangiani, Jesse Stommel, Maha Bali, and  Sean Michael Morris

Finally, don’t think you have to make everything yourself.  Look for things you can reuse or adapt- this not only saves you time but often results in better materials.  I’ve tried recording my own lectures, but it took a long time, captioning was a pain, and honestly, they weren’t that good.  For my Intro US classes, I find the Crash Course in US Government and Politics series on YouTube to be pretty great for the way I teach my classes; the videos are shorter than my lecture captures and far better produced (plus they’re captioned for accessibility and subtitlted in several languages as well).  

Wash your hands and good luck.  

Why I do What I do

Carrie Bradshaw: "And I had to wonder... was I making everything about OER, or was everything really about OER all along?"
this meme by @ihaveabug is everything.

These days, Open Education is one of the things that most excites me about my job- my work in open has made me an exponentially better teacher and a better scholar (open science & open access FTW!) and has given me the chance to work with faculty and librarians across CUNY and across the world.  Open has been inspiring- open has given me new research questions, new ways to see the world and make connections between my research and the classroom, and new ways to think about what I really want to accomplish in the next phase of my career.

That said, it has also been tiring!  There’s always something new or awesome to read or watch or research, people to talk to in person or electronically, all on top of my official teaching and research responsibilities.  And on top of life and family. And this is true of everyone I know working on Open in CUNY (and in most places- is there anyone in higher ed these days who has too much time or funding? :o)  Which is at least part of the reason that it took me so long to clean the 2019 data from the CUNY Zero Textbook Cost Student Opinion Survey. I’m going to share some basic analyses here to close out #OEWeek/#OpenEdWeek because it makes me so happy and I think we could all use some joy.  

So far, we have 3606 (!!!) responses from 20 different campuses (!!!).  A couple of us wrote a close analysis of the first semester of the data, and the main conclusions in that article are supported by the subsequent 3 semesters of data.  The majority of student respondents believe they learn as well with digital materials as they do with a paper one, accessed their course materials in the first week of class or even before class started, and saw the zero cost as a major benefit of their course materials.    

Bar Graph with title "Do you think you learn as well with digital material as as you do with paper textbooks?"  2501-Yes, 648-Not Sure, 427-No.
Bar graph with title "When did you first access the textbook or materials for this course?"  
2421 (67.8?)- In the first week of classes
756 (21.2%)- Before class started
67- In the third week of classes
326- Never looked at the textbook and/or course materials

And this one is absolutely getting printed out and stuck to the wall of my office:

Bar graph with title "Would you recommend a course using zero-cost materials like those offered in this course to other students?"  
3467 (97.1%)- Yes
103 (2.9%)- No

We asked this question figuring that students would only be willing to recommend zero-cost materials if they thought they were a good idea and the response is honestly going to keep me going for a long time.  97%!  

There’s a lot more in the survey (including where students did their coursework, what devices they used, how much and why they printed, and what they thought the benefits and drawbacks are).  This data has tremendous potential, and all of it is available at http://bit.ly/CUNYZTCSurvey.  I can’t wait to see what some of you all do with it!  

Finally, I can never adequately thank all of the students who shared their opinions in this survey, or the instructors across these 20 campuses who offered this survey to their students, or all of the OER coordinators on the campuses who sent the survey to the instructors, or all of the people across CUNY doing open education work, or all of the people around the world doing the work of open in so many different ways, but please know I APPRECIATE YOU.  

Syllabus Experiments

The experiment
The Experiment by Clement 127
used under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic License.

Every year, at the end of August and the end of February, I sit down to prepare my syllabi, planning out my classes and assignments, tailoring the schedule to each semester’s holidays/days off.  When I was an undergraduate, I hated vague syllabi that never bothered to include the actual dates, just Week 1, Week 2, etc, so I’ve always taken the time to put in specific dates for classes, assignments, and exams.   I usually teach several sections of the same classes- mostly Introduction to American Government, so my content didn’t necessarily change. It used to be that I would switch the days, make any little adjustments from what had worked well previously, and be done.  

But a few years ago, I started really thinking about who was in my classes.  The majority of college students, including those I now teach at a public community college, are classified as nontraditional (the fact that 74% of any population being classified as “nontraditional” is a big argument for another time), which means in addition to my class, they have a least some of the following to balance: other classes, part-time or full-time work, figuring out school after having been out for awhile, and/or caring responsibilities for children/siblings/parents.  We’re a community college with no dorms, so everyone is commuting. When I started exploring OER a few years ago, I dug into specific institutional data about the students at my campus (which is on a beautiful beach in one of the most wonderful and expensive cities in the world), whereupon I learned that 66% of our students come from households with an annual income of less than $30,000.  That’s about the time I started experimenting, a lot, with how I teach. I began to follow a lot of open educators on Twitter (@actualham, @thatpsychprof, @Bali_Maha, @Jessifer to start, and so many out from there) and got so inspired about the possibilities of teaching, if only I could let go of what I had always done and be a little brave about trying new things and opening up.  First, I tried making my own book of original sources (you can read all about how badly that went here). Then I started using an OpenStax textbook for American Government and an e-IR textbook for International Relations.  Began teaching on the CUNY Academic Commons.  Starting experimenting with student blogging.  Adopted a no attendance policy.  

Now, each semester, I make changes.  Some work well, and some are downright failures, but on the whole, opening up my teaching has been an awesome adventure.  I was explaining to a colleague that none of this comes naturally to me (20 years of Catholic School leaves a lot of marks, and my disciplinary training was quite conservative as well)-, and he asked a logical question- why do I bother with it?  And the answer was so simple I was surprised I hadn’t articulated even to myself before- what I was doing before didn’t work well for me, or for students. And a lot of these things seem to work much better. I’m so much happier with what I’m doing and how students are doing!  So it’s worth the effort of switching things up.  

This semester’s tweaks towards opening up my teaching:  choose your own adventure and self-grading. I was really inspired by a presentation Benjamin Hass gave at the CUNY SUNY OER Showcase in 2019 about how they let their classes decide what their course will cover, and how students fill a notebook with their thoughts for their grade, which is determined solely by the amount of the notebook they filled.  At the same time, I was reading a lot about ungrading.  Arley Cruthers’ thread on planning a course and assignments with students sent me over the edge on this being the semester that I absolutely have to get more student choice involved, so instead of required assignments, I’ve got 13 options, worth a total of 150 points.  Some require students to be in class, like our Congressional Simulation or the midterm and final exams, but most are meant to be done outside of class. Some are individual, some have the option to collaborate, and some compile individual contributions into a group collaboration.  And there are two new ones for this semester that offer a lot of choice- a design your own option (have never done this- who knows if anyone will even want it?) and a book review. And the biggest change is expanding self-grading to all of the written assignments. I’ll include a short checklist of requirements with each assignment, and ask students to write a paragraph explaining how many points they assign themselves.  If it works, it should alleviate grade-based anxiety and create better student learning. Who knows?  If you’re curious about what we’ll be trying this semester, you can check out my teaching page.

And I just realized, I’ve inadvertantly (somewhat) COVID19-prepped my course!  I already stopped awarding any points for attendance, and there are more than enough options/points that students can opt not to take the midterm/final exam (so if they feel like they are sick and need to stay home from class, they can, without worrying that they’ll miss something on the test).  There’s also one option inspired by an assignment used by Dr. Brielle Harbin to cover one day of class for our collaborative note-taking document, so those who miss class can catch themselves up.  If we get an official close-school order, I’ll make further adjustments, but as it stands, there is enough flexibility for students to make their own choices for what is best for them.  Pedagogy of Care for the win, again.

Hi There!

Hello internet!  As always, I’m on the cutting edge of 15 years ago, and have finally decided to start a blog.  Blogging does not come naturally to me. A complex mix of imposter syndrome (“who would want to read what I’m writing?”), academic time crunch (“if I’m writing, it should be something that should get me tenure, and blogging ain’t it”), and why bother (“if I really have something to say, Twitter is a fine place to go talking about it”) has kept me from ever blogging.  But, lately, these reasons don’t mean as much to me. While Twitter has been a great place to interact with folks, to learn and to share, it’s not a great repository or archive- I can’t easily find what I was thinking and talking about previously. The relatively bigger thoughts I’ve had- longish threads on OER, international law, or Indiana Jones as an academic, are essentially blog posts, just harder to read, find, and refer back to.  

I am lucky in so many ways, not least of which is that I landed a tenure-track job with students I absolutely love and actually managed to achieve the requirements for tenure,which I will officially have as of September 2020.  With that pressure off, I get a little bit of time and a lot of mental space back, which I am choosing to use for this blog- to have a place to develop some of the thoughts that knock around in my brain.  

I also can’t deny the impact of swimming in Open Pedagogy and OER ponds is having on me, as an impetus for blogging.  Through a very traditional education (I survived 2 decades of Catholic School!) and graduate training in a very traditional discipline, journaling and blogging were never really part of the curriculum.  Insofar as blogging ever entered the picture, it was high level analysis, mini-digest-of-polished-research-type blogging. However, Writing Across the Curriculum training and teaching began to show me what low stakes, frequent writing can do, and Open Pedagogy takes that lower stakes writing and makes it public, which I’ve seen have almost magical effects for other folks students as well as my own.  And if I’m willing to make my students do it, and if I gain so much from reading what others blog, it seems only fitting I should try it out myself. And finally, 15 years after starting graduate school, I’ve gained the confidence to own what I’m saying- no one else may want to read it, but I’m going to write it out anyway, because it’s useful to me to do so, and someone somewhere might like it. If that someone is you, awesome.  If not, that’s okay too- I’ll just be over here, thinking and writing about academia, political science, OER, teaching, and whatever else pops up along the way.  

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