ReaderWriterVille

Blog in progress

Category: technology

Slouching toward HyFlex

In my part of the Coronavirus world, one of the biggest questions is how we are going to teach in the fall. Our Chancellor has assured us that we will have a fall semester. But what that semester is going to look like is still being hashed out by various committees. The ambiguity is not just hard on students but on faculty who teach (faculty research is already a mess but that’s a whole ‘nother post). We know we’re not going to be teaching Fall 2020 the way we started Spring 2020, but we also know that we have to be more prepared and put together more coherent instruction than most of us managed in the week and a half we had to pivot to emergency remote learning.

The Cal State system just announced that it would be fully online in the fall. But most colleges and universities, especially elite residential institutions, fear losing a substantial number of their fee-paying students if they do the same. The on-campus experience is a major part of the attraction they charge such high prices for, and the comprehensive undergraduate and professional experience depends on face-to-face interaction. This interaction is not just about classroom- and lab-based learning, but all kinds of extra-curricular and extended learning activities, from clubs to internships to clinical placements. And, though no one really wants to talk about it, housing and fees are lucrative for most institutions now. If it turns out that the health situation makes bringing students back to campus too risky, then we’ll have to go fully online. But as of now the administration is looking for ways to have something resembling campus life.

We have been told what is not happening. We are unlikely to begin earlier than usual; we aren’t going to shift to block scheduling; and the overall duration of the semesters is going to remain close to the same. What’s left is starting at the same time or later, but if it’s later then we’re essentially time-shifting and that’s it in terms of the schedule. I wondered about this, but then I realized that it would be very difficult to reschedule all the classes. You’d essentially have to make up the new timetable with course times and days, go back to the departments and have them reschedule all of their classes, then have the registrar assign classrooms on this new basis, and then run student registration all over again. It’s possible but becomes increasingly more difficult the larger your student enrollment is.

What will teaching look like (everything else is above my pay grade, thankfully)? Students and instructors in classrooms will have to practice social distancing, which means the number of students per room has to shrink considerably. Small seminars have to be moved into bigger rooms, medium-sized lectures into larger lecture halls (of which we only have a few), and so on. It’s probably not logistically possible to have everyone physically in class even if they’re in residence.

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LFH: Days 18-21

Twice a week seems about right for these check-ins. Maybe I’ll even get to writing posts about books and travel again. A girl can dream. The week almost had a normal rhythm, with classes on Wednesday and a bunch of admin stuff on the other days, but at a pace which was closer to normal.

On Wednesday I got to talk about some of my favorite readings in both classes: Bill Buford’s study of English football hooligans in Among the Thugs and a couple of law review articles on Google Street View. Both classes went well, with no Zoom dropouts. I did most of the talking in the morning class but they felt OK, and my one-on-ones with my students later in the week reinforced my optimism. Obviously it’s not like teaching the usual way, and there are fewer students attending synchronously. But TheH, other colleagues, and I have all heard from students that they appreciate having the synchronous class times available. They prefer it to listening to recorded lectures and it structures their time. I can see that, since having to teach twice and week and hold office hours on other days forces a schedule on me that keeps me from frittering or stressing away the days.

I’ve been following the stories about privacy issues with Zoom and they make me more and more uncomfortable. The CEO is saying all the right things, but it’s clear that the program was not even remotely designed with an emphasis on security and privacy. A lot of the articles focus on Zoombombing, which is definitely a problem, but the Washington Post‘s discovery that it’s trivially easy to find and distribute the URLs of recorded video conferences that were intended to be private is at least as worrying. I’m doing what I can in my classes: sending invites and links to recorded sessions only through Canvas, using all the exclusion settings possible given our use-case, and having the sessions stored only on Zoom’s servers (although I can’t control downloaded copies, as far as I know). And I’ll delete all the cloud recordings as soon as the semester is over. But it’s still ridiculous that so many educational institutions jumped to use it without any real investigation of the possible problems. At this point I don’t have an alternative, but after this semester I hope there are changes, either to Zoom or to our use of it.

Speaking of which, the stay-at-home orders are widening across areas and causing more closures. The county closed a number of its parks because too many people were showing up and failing to observe social distancing rules. One of the most popular county parks was so full that they had to close access to the parking lots. Our biggest city park, Forest Park, has blocked off some of the roads to try and reduce traffic and also to allow bicyclists and joggers to use the roads, since the pathways get very busy on nice days.

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LFH: Day 13

It was a relief to get through the teaching part of the week. I turned my attention to the admin stuff that I had put aside while I was figuring out classes and Zoom. In addition to the usual department and university tasks, I also needed to finish setting up my laptop

A couple of weeks before spring break I finally pulled the trigger and nuked the Windows 10 OS on my work laptop. I got Debian 10 up and running and installed a few of the additional programs I knew I wanted, and I got the dock, external keyboard, and mouse working. But I was short of a fully satisfactory system, and now I also had to manage new video and communication programs. I’d been switching between computers and between different Zoom apps and it was frustrating because each option had drawbacks.

Yesterday morning I managed to get the Linux Zoom client for Debian installed successfully, and what a difference that made. It seems to be full-featured and I can keep it running in the background. I also discovered that Microsoft Teams has a Linux version and that turned out to be relatively easy to install as well. Once both were up and running I uninstalled Google Chrome. I also installed my preferred alternative to Microsoft Office for simple tasks, which is the desktop (non-server) version of OnlyOffice. I’m a long way from a Linux expert so getting everything I wanted felt like a major accomplishment. And I got my bluetooth earbuds to work after a little bit of tinkering and dowloading.

That done, I logged into Zoom for yet another admin meeting. I’m on a college scholarship committee for incoming students. It gives research-focused students a full scholarship in one of four areas, and I’m on the one for social science. I’ve done it for years and I enjoy it a great deal. Usually we invite the finalist candidates out for a weekend and show them the campus and then interview them. The university visit is frequently a deciding factor for these kids, who are highly sought after. Obviously this year the campus visit, which would have taken place this weekend, wasn’t possible, but the College decided to keep as much of the schedule as they could, switching to virtual hangouts with current scholars and then video interviews with the committee.

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LFH: Days 11 & 12

I missed writing up Day 11 yesterday because I was busy making PowerPoints for my classes. I should have done that on Tuesday, which is what I’d promised the students, but Tuesday I was busy putting out administrative fires and holding Zoom meetings. So here’s a recap of both days, what I can remember.

The administrative stuff is winding down a little, but we still have upcoming faculty meetings that we have to prepare materials for. As part of the department’s governance this semester I’m included in a bunch of stuff that in ordinary times would have been mostly routine but is now more work. On top of that we’re still trying to find solutions for students whose study abroad programs ended abruptly. Luckily it’s a subset of the overall population of study-abroad students, but each one takes work. Then there’s the book chapter I completely forgot I had to finish revising this past week, so that was another round of emails with my extremely understanding editor who was mostly worried when he hadn’t heard from me. And so on.

I know I did some other stuff on Tuesday but I can’t remember what it was. On to Wednesday: up early to finish the slides for my classes, which turned out better than I was afraid they would. I had technical glitches in the first class (the whole screen-share while seeing the chat window thing, plus my microphone and earbuds not working well together on the Surface Go). But we eventually got those problem straightened out and had a decent class, with less than usual interaction but more than none. We went the whole class time and then I had 35 minutes to catch my breath before a committee meeting which I had to leave after an hour because I had to teach my afternoon class.

That class went really well, with plenty of interaction and some very good discussions. I noticed that on both teaching days the classes that started with technical difficulties didn’t rebound as well as the classes that went smoothly from the beginning. Which is not surprising, I guess. Also, the material in yesterday afternoon’s Privacy class was more engaging, so that probably affected it.

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LFH: Day 10

We held our first classes yesterday, and they went pretty well. TheH and I both have classes in the 10am slot, so we went into our workspaces, which are in side-by-side rooms, closed the doors and logged into Zoom. I had about 75% turnout in both classes, which was pretty good I thought. TheH had even more. I hadn’t scheduled any readings or discussion, they were just check-ins and chances to ask questions about the revised syllabi and requirements.

It was so good to see their faces! Since most of my students are juniors and seniors, quite a few were still here in St. Louis. Another big group were on the east coast, mostly in the NY area and in isolation. I got the first class to work smoothly but in the second class I managed to start with my audio muted and didn’t realize it despite the chat messages piling up on the right: “Prof. P., you’re muted!” But I eventually got myself straightened out and we chatted for a while. I explained the changes and that they could take the class pass/fail and still get major credit. I also emphasized, though, that I was going to teach as much of the material as I could, because our interest hadn’t gone away. There were professors who were talking about ending their classes, giving all As, and the like, but I wasn’t going to do that. (Although my grading is going to be more forgiving this semester, that’s for sure.)

It was stressful getting ready for the classes. TheH and I did a test run on Zoom beforehand since neither of us had initiated a meeting before. I set up all the class meetings in the Zoom option within Canvas but they only showed up in the class lists for one class even though all the sessions had been successfully created. I also picked a bad time to switch my work laptop to Linux. It doesn’t work as well with Zoom and I couldn’t get the audio to work. Zoom, along with Microsoft Teams, works best in the Chrome browser and doesn’t have all its features working in Firefox. So there I was, in Linux, but still having to download and install Chrome. Grrr. Anyway, I abandoned Linux for the day and set up my little Surface Go, which I knew worked with everything, and hooked it up to the dock and monitor so I could have a big screen to see the Brady-Bunch squares of my students in the bigger afternoon class (46 in the afternoon, 25 in the morning). I’ll see if I can fix the Zoom problem on the Linux laptop today, because I’d like to keep that setup if I can. I’ll just dedicate all my communications stuff to the Chrome browser, which isn’t a bad deal (Zoom has a Linux app but people have audio problems in that one too, from what I hear).

By the time my second class was done I was exhausted. I caught up on some work email and then crashed for an hour or so. I woke up in time to walk the dogs with TheH.

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