No, not that kind of Easter egg.
Our fall semester is in the home stretch now, much to my relief – and I’m sure that of my students, too. My teaching this fall was entirely online. While those with strong but uninformed opinions were furiously tweeting about slipper-wearing profs dialing it in from their easy chairs, I was working hard – unsustainably hard – to produce online courses that work.
Was I successful? I don’t know. But I used every technique I could think of to make my online entomology course navigable, transparent, and engaging. “Navigable” and “transparent” are extremely important for students accustomed to the physical classroom (they’re largely a matter of course structure and website design). “Engaging”, though, is probably even more important. Yes, students can learn from dull, dry lectures, whether in-person or online – and you can even argue that a university student should be a professional learner up to the challenge. But learning from dull isn’t easy, and if I want to avoid that, then addressing students via recorded video means I’m starting with one strike against me.
Like most folks who teach, I do a lot of things to keep my classes engaging. Some involve choice of content, and some involve the way I present it. Some involve deliberate display of my personality and enthusiasm (my students may well roll their eyes at the 342nd time I’ve said “bugs are cool”). Humour is important, too. In class, I make jokes – usually lame ones.* But that doesn’t work as well in a recorded video, without audience reaction. So instead, as I recorded video after video after video, I found myself inserting Easter eggs.
The term “Easter egg” is a little nebulous, but what I mean by it is small bits of unexpected but (I hope) amusing content. In 2020, a lot of what’s been unexpected has been highly unpleasant, so we can all use some unexpected amusement. So in case you’d like to share in my course’s Easter eggs, here are a few.
My “placeholder” links. A dozen times or so, I’ve set up the course page for a week’s content, but not all the videos have been ready yet (this mostly involves in-class student presentations). I insert a placeholder, mostly so I won’t forget to add the real link later. Our course-management software will only allow this if I insert an actual, working link – so each placeholder links to a different Weird Al Yankovic video. (These are clearly labelled “PLACEHOLDER ONLY”, but my students click on them anyway – it looks like I’ve discovered the teaching equivalent of “DO NOT PRESS THIS BUTTON”.)
My dragonfly mating-system Rickroll. Many dragonflies and damselflies have prolonged mating, flying around together joined in the “wheel position” long after copulation is complete. In the wheel position, the male holds the female securely by the back of the neck with his claspers (while they both fly – how cool is that?). This is a form of mate guarding – the male is assuring his paternity by preventing a second male from copulating with the same female. Essentially, he’s never gonna give her up, never gonna let her down [to the ground]. So the “paper” I ask my students to read isn’t a paper, really. Clicking the link brings them – well, you probably know. If not, it’s here.
The ever-changing background art. I’ve been recording my lectures from a corner of my home office, where the camera catches a single piece of art on the wall behind me. Every time I start a new lecture topic, though, the art changes. It’s only easy to see for a moment right at the start, before I’ve shared my PowerPoint slides; somehow, if it were easier to notice, I wouldn’t count it as an easter egg. Now, there are a lot of lecture topics in a full course, especially since I chunked the content more finely for online learning than I would in the classroom – the 31 insect orders, for example, each got their own piece of art. I wondered, early on, if I might run out and have to borrow some pieces from friends. I did not.
The unannounced guest lecturer. The student view, once I’ve shared my slides, has the slides occupy most of the screen, with my webcam a small picture-in-picture insert. Just once, I used a stunt double. My lecture on the order Hemiptera (the true bugs – stink bugs, cicadas, aphids, and the like) was broken into five videos: “Hemiptera A: Basics”, “Hemiptera B: Feeding Biology”, “Hemiptera C: Heteroptera”, “Hemiptera D: Auchenorryncha”, and “Hemiptera E: Sternorryncha”.** For Part C, I set myself up off camera, and where my talking head would usually be, I placed… well, check out the screenshots of Parts A, B, C, and D.
Did you catch it? One of those things is not like the others. The picture-in-picture is small, though, even if you click to expand, so here’s a closeup:
Oh, and why did my guest lecturer appear for Part C? Because of course, this.
Did my students find my Easter eggs amusing? I don’t know. Did they even notice them? I don’t know that either; not a single one has mentioned them to me. (I do know that about two-thirds of them clicked the link for the dragonfly mating-system Rickroll. What I don’t know is if they giggled, groaned, or simply clicked away in puzzlement.) But I’m not really that bothered, because if I’m honest, my Easter eggs weren’t just about keeping my students engaged. They were about keeping me engaged too. It’s a little weird, lecturing to nothing but a webcam, without the normal cues you get from student reaction in the classroom.***
Now if I can just figure out how I’m going to bring Cookie Monster back for his cameo appearance, once the pandemic is over and we’re together with our students in the classroom again.
© Stephen Heard December 8, 2020
Image: Pysanky (Ukrainian Easter eggs) © Luba Petrusha CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia.org. Somewhere, if I dig through enough closets, I could find the pysanky I made many years ago (despite being not at all Ukrainian). But they aren’t as glorious as these ones.
*^Sometimes, deliberately lame ones. But sadly, only sometimes.
**^The cryptic jargon after the colons in C, D, and E denote three major lineages within the Hemiptera. Heteroptera are the stink bugs, assassin bugs, and so on; Auchenorryncha includes leafhoppers, cicadas, spittlebugs, and more; and Sternorryncha has aphids, scale insects, whiteflies, and their relatives. You asked. Well, you didn’t exactly ask, but you did click down here to the footnote.
***^Yes, I know that film and TV actors, radio hosts, and a bunch of other professions do this all the time. Most of them, though, at least have directors and crew around – and in any case, they’re doing what they’re trained to do and accustomed to doing. Not me. There’s been a lot of discussion around the fact that the pivot to online courses has forced students to learn in a way they’re not used to. But I’m here to tell you that learning from a computer screen is a lot less weird than teaching to one.