Thoughts on Teaching Online… From a First Time Teacher!

Some thoughts about remote teaching an ethics course to computer science students during the Covid-19 pandemic as a first time instructor

Before starting my current PhD program in Public Policy, I spent a half decade in Philadelphia in the non-profit k-12 education space, working on various programs and policy and research initiatives. It was here that I got a taste for some of the nuances of education, ranging from teacher preparation and professional development, to debates about school funding and pedagogy, to the ways in which numerous social policy issues were tied together in affecting educational equity. This — along with many years of personal experience as a student — motivated my desire to be a great teacher.

Fortunately, Georgia Tech has a wonderful program called Tech to Teaching. The program involves taking two courses on foundational teaching practices or their equivalent across ten workshops. It culminates in a capstone teaching experience, where participants are expected to teach or co-teach a component of a course (with the support of a cohort of other graduate students, an expert teacher, and a mentor). I can’t emphasize enough how important a program like this is, given that many postsecondary instructors are not formally trained on teaching and learning, and that emphasizing teaching can (incredibly) be seen as a deficit to one’s professional profile.

So I was thrilled to have the opportunity to serve as a full instructor for a university course in the Summer of 2020 (thanks to encouragement from a mentor of mine, one Prof. Ellen Zegura from GT’s School of Computer Science). The course was CS 4001 – Computing & Society. This course is one of a few options to fulfill the ethics requirement for accrediting engineering programs according to ABET. It’s roughly a social science and ethics-focused course, often serving as the only exposure to these ideas from engineering and computer scientists students. Since one of my biggest passions since my undergraduate thesis on “The Ethics of Artificial Intelligence” has been AI ethics, delving into computing ethics was of great interest.

Little did I know that my first time teaching would be over a webcam!

Like countless instructors around the world, I had a handful of weeks to design/redesign a course for an online format. The number of challenges to consider was overwhelming! There were best practices in remote learning pedagogy, for ethics education, and for STEM education. There were scores of nuances in the learning management system and video conference platforms (Canvas and BlueJeans respectively). I lost sleep several nights worrying about students spread across multiple time zones and whether they would have reliable access to computers and the Internet. This was definitely more than I had planned for! But it worked out ok.

So, if you are finding yourself in a similar situation, trying to teach an ethics course or discussion-focused course, or just an online course for the first time, here are some things that I learned:

  • Organization is everything
  • Technology can foster student engagement
  • Ultimately – remote learning can work really well for discussion-based classes

First, organization is everything. I ended up structuring the course as primarily synchronous, with one class session together a week over BlueJeans. However, given students in different time zones and with conflicts like internships, there was an asynchronous option available (which required watching recorded class meetings, filling out a share group activity document, and posting extra to the class’s Piazza page). Students would watch recorded lectures, come to the class session and engage in group activities, and write a short 1-2 page case study applying lessons from the week to their own case study of interest (e.g., autonomous vehicles, targeted advertising).

The tool that helped me manage this complexity was Canvas’s Modules feature:

(Tip: set Modules as the Home Page also, and students will land there automatically).

The Modules page provided clear guideposts to students about the structure of the course. Each week, they would see required readings/videos, prerecorded class lectures to watch, a link to the in-class activity page (more on that in a bit), and any assignments (the weekly case study, a Piazza post). It’s also an easy place to put links to the midterm exam or an early course feedback survey.

By keeping this material in a clear order, students know exactly what to do each week, and by when (not that they don’t miss deadlines!) You can also set up requirements for each part of the module in order for students to ‘progress’ – I required students to view each of the readings and lectures, and submit the case study each week, for example. You can force this to be in sequential order or not.

From: https://muw.instructure.com/courses/3388/pages/set-module-requirements?module_item_id=53215

Another one of my goals during this trying phase of human history was to make life as easy for the students as possible. I rewrote the syllabus and chose all new readings to make sure that every reading was available without students having to purchase a textbook. Instead, each assigned reading (or video) was directly linked from the Modules page. No scraping around the syllabus, googling an academic paper and trying to get the right permissions and two-factor authentication working to get the paper! Those kinds of barriers will keep a significant chunk of students from bothering to do the readings.

Hence: organization is everything.

Moving on to another key aspect of online learning relevant to many instructors – recording lecture videos. One way that some instructors do this is to present a life and record their videoconference. (BlueJeans will automatically upload the recording). But in my course design, I wanted to pre-record the videos, so students could watch these before class. This let me use the synchronous date together for group activities and discussion – this is known as a “flipped classroom.” I highly recommend instructors consider this as a go-to course model for online learning, whether for discussion-based courses or larger lecture courses.

In brief, here is how I recorded videos:

  • PowerPoint slides, separated into Sections to mark where each video started and stopped (and to organize the ideas clearly for students). Best practice in online education is 5-10 minute video chunks. Any longer and people get bored. I often had 3-6 slides in an uploaded video.
Add new sections in PPT on the left. I used these as the ‘intro’ slides when starting each recording. Students got familiar with it as a way to organize the material and thinking about concepts.
  • OBS Studio. This is free recording software and works as well or better than any paid recording software. Just click “Start Recording.” I had my PPT Presenter Slides in one screen to read any notes and see what came next, and OBS recording my other screen with the full-screen slides visible. Yes, this is *much* easier if you have at least two screens.

A few tidbits about recording. I often found it helpful to use OBS’ option to “Pause Recordings” (after you press Start Recording). This came up when I realized there was a typo in my slide, and animation that wasn’t working, or I wanted to open up a YouTube video. Simply exit the presentation, make the appropriate changes, and unpause the recording.

Another tip: when you are trying to get through a tricky slide or are redoing a slide you messed up (happens a lot if you don’t have a script), consider waiting 5/10/20 seconds before jumping to the next bullet point or slide. This makes it very easy to tell in the video editing software where you need to cut. It will appear as clear white space in the audio. Otherwise, you have to parse down to the micro-second, and will probably still end up with audio glitches unless you re-record.

See that big flat line of audio? That’s the pause I deliberately created after messing up a bunch. After editing, I cut out a bunch of white space and the ‘bad’ takes of the audio, and end up with a newly spliced segnment.
  • Filmora Pro. I sprang for a paid one-time license, but there are a bunch of free video editors which are sufficient for the average course. There are really only a few features you need to use.

This includes: 1) Uploading video. This involves dragging the recorded OBS Studio videos (or any source videos or images) into your media library

I usually had one video file, since I used OBS Studio to pause recordings. But you can also upload multiple video segments and combine.

2) Cutting/splitting. This is used to cut away bad takes or white space (you cut on both sides of the bad material, click that chunk, and click delete. Using this, you get rid of all the bad stuff, and keep the good stuff.

Video editors all have some version of this splitting feature – it’s available in Filmora in at least two easy places (see the scissors)

3) Very occasionally, when I didn’t want to re-record video of the slides, I would use the screenshot feature. This allows you to take a static image and slice it into your video layer. For example, suppose you accidentally jumped to the next slide 30 seconds too early. Screenshot the previous slide. It will show up in your media library. Drag that screenshot to the video layer and expand it so it’s 30 seconds long (the audio layer stays on track). Viola – no need to re-record anything.

See the tiny camera icon in the middle right? That takes a screenshot and posts it in your media library.

4) Very, very occasionally, I did something else, like split the audio from the video track (right click on a video segment you have ‘cut’ at two ends).

5) Export the file! You don’t need high frames per second (FPS) because it’s a PPT. 720p or 1080p resolution are more than enough. It can take a few minutes unless you have a very fast computer.

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