Our School systems are closing down, but there are ways to keep your classes students, or your children engaged during isolation.
WITH THE SPREAD of the new coronavirus, colleges and universities around the country are shutting down and asking instructors to move their classes online. For those of use who teach, the question is … how? What should we be doing to make this as effective as possible for our students?
There are so many issues to consider, and I’m not sure there are good answers to all of them. But as a physics professor, I’ve done a lot of thinking about teaching methods in normal times. So here I am. I’ll try to offer some guidance on these questions. My lens on this is science related, but there’s plenty here that you can extrapolate to any subject. Let’s go.Can you make your class work online?
This is the immediate concern. What exactly do you do? Well, this is pretty tough, since you didn’t have any time to prepare for this transition. But here are some options, from bare minimum to something better.
- Just give a reading assignment. Tell the students which parts of the textbook they should read and give them some homework. This is the default option, and we can all agree it’s not ideal.
- Put your PowerPoint slides online. Hopefully your class is more than just PowerPoint slides, but if that’s how you were teaching, your solution is simple.
- Share some YouTube videos related to the topic. This is still essentially the same as the previous two ideas, but in video form. I am positive you can find a YouTube video on just about any physics topic.
- Make your own videos and post them online. I’ve been doing this for a long time (here’s an example that I like quite a bit). This way I know the video matches what I would say in class, because I am the same person as myself. You might even find you enjoy this and want to keep it in your toolkit in the future.
- Use an online meeting platform. There’s Google Meet and Zoom—maybe you could even use Slack. It’s not like meeting in person, but you can at least keep the two-way communication going and avoid the out-of-sight, out-of-mind syndrome.
- Assign an out-of-class project. Maybe students can use this time to make some measurements at home and do a simple lab. What about video analysis? They could create a numerical calculations in python. There’s a lot of options here, especially if you only need material for a few weeks.
- Have some fun physics homework. I’ve got you covered here. There’s a ton of unanswered homework questions on these physics posts.
So, yes. You can do this. Will it be as good as a real, in-person class?
Honestly, I’m not sure. My first answer is no, but maybe I just haven’t found the key yet. It seems clear that you can have small group meetings online. I do that now with my colleagues. I still prefer meeting face to face, but everyone is all over the place, so that’s not feasible.
But look. If you’re just “presenting” information and ideas to students, then why not just put it in a video? You wouldn’t have to repeat your lectures every semester; you could just record them once and be done with it. Oh, even better, we’d only need one teacher for all students, someone who can make the one video to rule them all and in the darkness of knowledge bind them.
So maybe this is a good time to rethink how we do face-to-face classes too? I mean, it’s not like this is new information. We’ve known for quite a while that traditional lectures are ineffective. Sure, some students do well with the lecture format, but think of all the ones we leave behind.
Instead, a student-centered learning environment works best. In a class like this, students aren’t just watching someone work out a problem, they’re engaged, doing things: working in groups, collecting real data, analyzing real-world events. Can you do that online? Not easily, but if you choose the project well, I think it might be possible.How do you give tests online?
OK, so you’re doing online learning now. But what about the tests? I guess there are such things as online exams. I know that some content management systems have a testing mode that locks the browser so students can’t use other websites. Of course, if a student wants to cheat, they can just use their phone on the side, sneaky like.
Maybe the solution is to give a better test. What if you ask questions that can’t be solved with an internet search? Or instead of asking how far a ball travels when shot from a launcher, you could ask the student to come up with their own question. (This is called a goal-less problem.) Or you could give them a solution with a mistake in it, and ask them to find the mistake and fix it.
You could also do my favorite thing, which is to have students create video solutions of problems and then submit the video. This works really well. Basically, you’re putting them in the role of a teacher, and we all know that the best way to learn something is to try to teach it.
Yes, it’s harder to come up with your own questions, and these kinds of tests are more difficult to grade, but they are also more valuable. In fact, this is another area where the creative solutions you come up with now may be things you want to incorporate into your classes when things return to normal.If this works, will schools keep classes online?
This is the most disconcerting question. If we can make a go of this, should we meet face to face ever again? I’m scared of this. I really like seeing students in person. I like the learning community we build together. I love seeing them struggle with an idea and eventually master it. But if we can do all these things online, I guess we should. Wouldn’t that make learning more accessible to a broader range of students?
I guess the real question we instructors have is this: Will I be replaced? Will I be out of a job? Like I said before, if you’re just telling people stuff, then maybe you should just make a video. If we want real and authentic learning, then we are still going to need instructors.What is the best learning environment?
Close your eyes and imagine your ideal learning situation. (Oh wait—now you can’t read what I’m writing. Anyway, just.) What does it look like? For me it’s a bunch of people interacting and solving interesting problems. An outsider looking at such a class might not be able to tell who the teacher is. It’s just a group of humans working together and figuring stuff out.
Once you have an idea of the best learning environment, you can figure out what needs to happen for this to take place online. You can’t just make an online course without first really figuring out what you want the course to do.
If the goal is to just get a grade, that’s simple. Everyone gets a grade. Maybe you want all the students to memorize and repeat some specific ideas. Maybe some type of digital flash cards would work there.
But if the course is designed for meaningful learning, we can’t just do what we’ve been doing for ages. Remember, lectures started in medieval universities where one person would read a book aloud so others could copy it. Yeah, we’re still essentially doing that same thing—but we don’t have to. So, if we are going to move everything online, let’s at least do it right.