Warning: this got kind of long. If you’re not interested in the online course delivery – here’s an unrelated but much shorter post instead. It’s kind of fun.
Like most university instructors, I’m teaching online this fall – 3rd year general Entomology, in my case. Also like most university instructors, I had (before this summer) no training in pedagogy for online teaching, limited experience with the necessary technology, and a certain amount of skepticism that I could teach entomology – with a lab – without ever seeing my students in person. But needs must, as they say; and here we are. Today, for those who are interested: a glimpse at my course. I poured an enormous amount of work into this, and I’m hopeful that the product is pretty good. (In some ways, it may be better than the face-to-face version.) But, since it started just last week, you’re seeing an attempt of uncertain merit, or if you prefer, an experiment in progress.
The course is fairly standard, content-wise. There’s a lecture component, which is about 25% insect anatomy and physiology, 60% a survey of major insect groups, and 15% special topics.* And there’s a lab component, in which students make an insect collection, and mount, identify, and label their specimens.** So what does this look like, online?
We happen to use D2L/Brightspace as our learning management system, so what the course “looks like” is really a question of what greets a student when they arrive at the D2L page. To start with, the Table of Contents:
Not much to this, really, but notice the progress bar at the top. That shows a student’s progress through the material – how many of the subunits they’ve completed. It’s gamification, and you can poke fun at that, but humans (including me) respond very well to gamification, so I like it. (It doesn’t make much sense for the Table of Contents, but it’s brilliant for each week’s material.)
The shift to online is new for most students (and instructors!). So there are two sections aimed at helping us all through that transition. “Start Here” replaces the traditional walk-through-the-syllabus I used to do on the first day of classes. Besides the syllabus, it includes some get-to-know you videos that I hope will humanize the instructors (me, and the course TA), which otherwise risk being a disembodied voice over Teams:
Phew! All this, and no course content yet. But: I used to think that communicating the course content was my major – really my only – role as a teacher. That was very, very wrong. It’s absolutely critical, no matter what the teaching format, to give students the tools they need to tackle the course. But even more than that: in the longer term, there isn’t much more important than whatever we can do to equip students to learn more generally: that is, to help them become professional learners. That’s even more true with our sudden shift in the dominant format for course delivery.
OK, what about actual course content? For the “lecture”, we have a single, short, synchronous meeting each week, with three functions: maintaining a sense of course community, allowing for Q&A, and hosting student presentations. Over the semester each student will do two presentations: a short “Bug of the Day” presentation (three minutes and two slides on any bug they think is cool), and a longer “Minor Insect Order” presentation (a ~10 min presentation on one of the less diverse insect orders, which basically replaces my own lecture on that order).
The rest of the course content is delivered asynchronously, in the form of many short videos and readings. These are presented in units for each week; here, for example, is Week Three, which is typical (sorry about the ludicrously tall image):
This is very deliberately structured. Each item is a DO, a WATCH, a READ, or a MEET. The week opens with a DO that’s a quiz based on the previous week, and it closes with a MEET that’s our synchronous session and a DO that’s a very small mini-assignment based on the current week. There are other DOs sprinkled through the course – these are the major assignments, none of which happen to fall in Week Three. In between: a series of WATCH and READ items – for Week Three, twelve of them. Those WATCHes marked “Lecture” are me, talking over a powerpoint as I might do in the classroom; the other WATCHes are YouTube videos: snippets of David Attenborough documentaries, news stories, and the like. The READ items are a mix of blog posts, newspaper articles, and some short excerpts from textbooks.
It looks like a lot of items, doesn’t it? (It looks like even more because of the “Additional Resources” section at the bottom; these are optional resources including copies of the lecture PowerPoints). But there are two reasons for the length of the list. First, I’ve “chunked” the content into fairly short videos – anywhere between 3 and 14 minutes, with the average around 7. Some instructors will be horrified to see things chunked into such short bits, and others will be horrified not to see it chunked even shorter. More about that in a separate post, next week; for now, let me just observe it’s a compromise between a pedagogical preference for many short videos and a practical realization that many topics don’t reduce themselves well to 3-minute soundbites. Second, a big strength of the asynchronous, online format is that I can weave together what would otherwise have been separate “lecture” and “supplementary readings” course components into a single stream of material. I’m not using a textbook, and there aren’t extra readings beyond what’s here: it’s all in the week’s menu, with David Attenborough, or a page from a textbook, or a news clip, inserted right where it can support a point I’m making in the lecture.
Will this work? I hope so. Asychronous content has some huge advantages over synchronous. I have students with course scheduling conflicts – but those conflicts don’t matter. I probably have students with child care obligations, or students with occasional migraines, or students with a hundred other reasons that it’s difficult to come to class – either in person or online – right now for a session that can’t be repeated. I’ll have students who prefer to listen to the lectures at real-time speed, while others may want to speed them up, or slow them down, or pause them, or repeat them. Being able to accommodate all that is fabulous. But asynchronous isn’t a panacea. I’m worried about two things: sense of community, and student time management. Without face-to-face meetings when we’re all in the same room, students may see themselves more as solitary learners and less as part of a learning community. Solitary learning isn’t as much fun, and isn’t as effective either. I’m encouraging students to work and study together as much as they can, and a couple of assignments are (optionally) group work, but I wonder if I should have done more with discussion rooms and the like. As for student time management: without the scheduling cue of coming to the classroom twice a week, I wonder if it’s even easier for a student to fall behind. That’s why the course website is so carefully constructed, with obvious sequences of what to do each week; with quizzes to start each week and mini-assignments to finish them; and with the little gamification checkmarks and progress bars that help students see where they stand. Will it work? Will the same students who often skip class also skip their asynchronous work? Time will tell.
The major change to the lab, compared to the usual face-to-face version, is simple. Instead of working on their collections in a teaching lab, with microscopes, a large box of books, and a TA looking over their shoulders, students are working at home. To make this work, we’re providing each student with an at-home lab kit. They key component is a USB digital microscope (this one) that they can use with their own computer. There’s also a spreading board, forceps, insect pins, vials, preservative***, cardstock for labels, and a few other things.
I work hard to have students use keys to do their identification, rather than apps (iNaturalist), websites (BugGuide), field guides, or photographic guides. All those other resources are great (I use all of them, and I’ve linked to some particularly outstanding ones) but to seriously master a group, you need the keys. This is the part I worry most about, with students at home, because keys to unfamiliar insect groups can be challenging. We’ve assembled a library of scanned and online keys for the course, and most importantly, I’ve made up a rather lengthy guide to the keys. It covers two things: which keys to use for which insects; and for which orders family-level identification is practical for a student using a digital microscope, and for which orders it probably isn’t:
The course TA will be available via Microsoft Teams during scheduled lab hours, and with the ability to screenshare the view through the student’s microscope, we hope we’ll be able to mentor our students through identification. Wish us luck!
So how do we assess the course? Not much change, for the lab; we’ll have students submit their collections and grade them as usual. There are five “lecture assignments”: three written assignments, and the two in-class presentations. There are two “lab assignments”, in which students demonstrate insect-catching and identifying techniques. There are weekly mini-assignments, and weekly quizzes. What there isn’t is a midterm exam. That isn’t actually a change associated with moving online: I ditched the midterm last year, in favour of weekly quizzes. It wasn’t an unvarnished success, but I liked it enough to keep it; and with the online format I think it’s important as a way to keep students moving through the material. What about a final exam? We’ll have one; it will be done at home, open book, open internet, and I think even with group work allowed as long as students write individual answers in their own words. What I’m not going to do is attempt to replicate an in-classroom exam, using creepy proctoring software and with a foolish expectation that it will work. Ugh. I’ll work a bit harder grading the take-home exam, to be sure; but I’ll feel much better about it.
If there seems to be a lot to digest in this post, it’s probably because the move from face-to-face to online made me restructure the course fairly fundamentally. Yes, at the core, there’s still a lot of conventional lecture content; but the way it’s arranged, chunked, and supported by and woven together with other material is very different. You can see all this as making the best of a bad situation, if you like. For the lab, I think you’d be right about that. But for the lecture, I don’t know. I think it’s entirely possible that what I’ve assembled is on balance better than my face-to-face version. If that’s true, it will come as a real surprise to all those folks crying out about online education calling for tuition discounts. But it wouldn’t be the first time that someone complaining about something on the internet was wrong – right?
© Stephen Heard September 15, 2020
Image: a pelecinid wasp – one of my favourite of all bugs, and a frequent thrill in student collections. © hspauldi CC BY-SA 2.0
*^Some smaller special topics are stitched into individual lectures – as, for example, the physics of “interference colour” comes up in the lecture on Coleoptera, because ground beetles often have iridescence that’s made that way. Others are special lectures: this year, forensic entomology, which is always popular with students, and insects in art (with a guest presentation by a marvellous local artist, Janice Wright Cheney).
**^Actually, they’re strongly encouraged to have done most of their collecting before the semester starts, because the local climate is such that collecting is easy and fun in August, but difficult and annoying in October. And identifications are limited: everything to order, and a smaller set of specimens to family. Ornithologists are horrified by the idea of such coarse identifications; but entomologists know why. (Tens of thousands of species, just in our local area, and many without published keys. Bugs are ridiculous.)
***^Ethanol, spiked with BitrexTM to make it undrinkable. I know it’s undrinkable, because the absolutely fabulous technician who helped me prep the course bravely tasted some. For this among many other things, I owe him big time.