My thoughts, tips, and guides on teaching and administering instruction online, please see notices below*
I am posting this for the benefit of colleagues everywhere, largely in response to many schools switching to online teaching due to the COVID-19 / Coronavirus pandemic. The first best time for me to do this would have been years ago, the next best time is now. My goal is to edit this as needed.
IDEAS AND TIPS FOR ONLINE INSTRUCTION
On content/learning management systems, e.g. Blackboard, Canvas, Moodle, etc. These have their strengths and drawbacks, but after a decade plus of experience using these systems, I generally never trust them to work as intended. Because they are closed, centralized systems, features and services can’t always be relied on to work or work well*.
ADDENDUM: In line with what I’ve said here — to the extent possible, use any internet tools and/or “the cloud” for communication (and perhaps backup) — but not as your primary storage. My current real-life example: I’ve been putting grades and comments into a local Excel-type (really LibreOffice Calc) spreadsheet first, and then transferring them. Right now, as I’ve been trying to get them in, my LMS (Canvas) is throwing errors, unable to save my grades and comments, but I’m not losing much work or time because I did it this way first. A lot of very fine people and sources will not tell you to do this, and may actually warn you against it, but it serves me well and I think it will you, too.
Even if, backups are always good. A good way to start is to consider precisely what you need to do, and then figure the most consistent and cross-compatible way to do so. 80% of this is the following: When you need to communicate privately, use email. When you can communicate and relay material publicly, use HTML.
Hopefully, this is mostly self explanatory. Gather your students’ emails if you have them, now. This will ensure you can communicate even if (when?) your LMS goes down. Email certainly has its warts, but there’s a reason it’s the only “social media slash communication platform” that’s remained relatively unchanged for about 20 years or so, and why it’s still the one most of your services defaults to as a back up. It. Just. Works.
The simple beauty of HTML is that it tends to work everywhere — if you know a bit about web hosting, you can do it yourself that way — but even if you don’t there are a number of services, public, private, free and not, that will let you host your stuff. Finally, all (at least that I’ve seen) LMS’ do support HTML very well. Thus a very good strategy that works consistently is:
1) Develop your material in a format that at least exports to HTML.
2) Publish your material, optionally by multiple means.
Note: I certainly DO NOT mean that you should be writing raw HTML. There are a plethora of methods that allow you to edit conveniently. The following is a mix of technologies, standards, and services. I use all of them to various degrees.
- WordPress – More websites in the world use WordPress than anything else, with good reason. It’s probably the only good content management system, precisely because it didn’t set out to be one — it evolved naturally instead of trying to be a top-down thing.
- Other Web enabled HTML editors. WordPress and LMS’ frequently have in-built editors that will let you do a What You See Is What You Get (WYSIWYG) approach, but can also drop you in to a raw HTML editing mode. Mixing these can work very well.
- Markdown. Markdown is *wonderful* — it’s a very simple markup language that allows for decorated and formatted text with simple text methods, eg _underline_ *bold* etc. You still have to find a way to convert. (In a sane world, we’d all be using something like this instead of e.g. Microsoft Word.)
And the main thing I use:
- Zim. I rant about this program frequently, I think it’s the greatest program ever created – it’s both easy for a beginner to pick up and still infinitely extensible because it relies on simple text. It can do a lot of things, but one thing that it can do especially well is to create digital “notebooks” in a Markdown-esque format that can be exported to HTML to create full websites. It’s what this website primarily uses (though if you see my face on the side and a comment box below, you’re on the WordPress version of this page, which I’m doing to accommodate comments. Go here for zim in action, and for how it’s done, here: https://jrm4.com/Tech_Guides/How_I_publish_my_website_(Zim_and_Rsync).html
LIVE TEACHING / VIDEOCONFERENCING
It’s really curious (and not necessarily bad) that the world has not been able to settle on one “live videoconferencing” platform. Before I get into the individual services, there’s one major tip I have, cross-platform agnostic.
If you are using anything visual – slides, pdfs, videos, boards, live-coding, etc. All of the systems are going to have their own quirky ways of handling them — but the saving grace is that just about all of them will let you share a window from you computer– thus you can avoid all of this pain by making and using a virtual machine. As it sounds, its like a separate baby computer inside your real computer That “computer” is its own window and it’s walled off from everything else, so you just “share” the entire “computer.”
Complete guide here: Tech Guides:Linux:Virtual Install Complete Instructions
As for platforms, you obviously may be limited by your institution, but here’s what I am familiar with in an official capacity: Blackboard Collaborate (Classic), Blackboard Collaborate Ultra, and Zoom. In order of preference.
Blackboard Collaborate Ultra – In my view, provides the best balance. Screensharing works well, breakout rooms are usable, recordings are generally done well, and most importantly, it does work on non-computer devices like phones and tablets.
Blackboard Collaborate Classic – Battle tested, everything tends to work pretty well, but the biggest drawback is that it requires Java, which makes it unsuitable for anything other than computers. Lack of phone and tablet compatibility is the dealkiller here — but if everyone has a computer, it’s good.
Zoom – Zoom is excellent for “meetings,” that’s what it was designed for. If you have no need for breakout rooms or group work, it should work fine. But its breakout room features for teaching are (as far as I can tell) quite confusing and difficult and generally a mess.
I’m not familiar with the other official ones, but I’ve also seen consideration of other “unofficial” methods that are battle tested for other realms, e.g. Slack, Discord, Twitch, etc. I use Slack and Discord in real life for other things, I may post more here.
That’s it for now, this is a work in progress — if you’re on the WordPress version, please feel free to comment below and if there’s interest I’ll keep updating this.
Copyright 2020, John R. Marks IV. All rights reserved. I likely won’t strongly enforce copyright, especially if your sharing is in good faith. This does not represent any official school or school policy, but as I am an instructor in information technology, I do claim this is covered by academic freedom provisions of Florida’s UFF bargaining agreement and elsewhere.