Online Strategies due to COVID-19, Part 1

In this series of posts, the StatTLC blog team describes how we are managing with the abrupt changes to our courses. In this, we share some of our decisions (and the thinking that went into them), the tools we are using, and tips. We are teaching a diverse set of classes this semester at institutions with many different technology tools. We hope that you find this useful as you make some decisions for your classes moving forward in the time of COVID-19.

Doug’s Situation

Classes: Introductory Statistics (algebra-based, about 80 students), Introductory Probability (calculus-based, about 20 students)

Switched to: Asynchronous classes (with synchronous office hours and review sessions)

Technology: Institution uses Moodle with Collaborate Ultra, videos made with a variety of free and open source software that are posted to YouTube

Doug’s Thoughts

  • The introductory statistics courses I teach have a course coordinator – this has added an unanticipated layer of planning to all changes and discussions. 
  • My campus uses Moodle which has built-in integrations with Collaborate Ultra. There seem to be two paradigms emerging: 
    • Use Collaborate Ultra and teach synchronously with recordings made available.
    • Make videos for asynchronous learning and then use Collaborate Ultra for office hours. 
  • I’ve chosen to go with asynchronous videos and then use Collaborate Ultra for office hours because I’m already comfortable with making videos. For colleagues with less experience teaching online at my institution, the synchronous approach with recordings seems to feel more accessible from what I’ve been seeing in emails.
  • I make videos using OBS Studio and upload them to YouTube. It is very easy to embed them into Moodle – just drop in a link. Students are familiar with YouTube, and the process is basically painless. (If I need to edit videos, I use OpenShot Video Editor, but with the amount of videos I’m making I’m just going for quick right now.)
  • If I’m making a video of anything other than PowerPoint, I use PenAttention to highlight my cursor. Remember to zoom in on text and applications (e.g. I normally use a small font in RStudio but enlarge it for videos).
  • All of my YouTube videos are unlisted (anyone can watch, but only with a link). I don’t have a good reason for this instead of making them all public. I make a playlist for each class that I add every germane video to; I share this playlist link with the class often.
  • Some students have logged into my office hours expecting content delivery – establishing norms for virtual office hours seems to be something I need to proactively do. 
  • In changing to online, we’ve also changed our grading schemes. We decided to use two different weighting systems (with students earning the higher grade) because of all the uncertainty surrounding this transition and the lost opportunities for improving grades by doing well on a heavily-weighted final.
  • For many of my students, this is their first online class. Explaining the different options for submitting assignments needs to be explicit. I find myself intentionally repeating the same information in multiple messages and on different platforms (email and Moodle).
  • I’m also teaching an introductory, calculus-based probability course this semester. Many of the students are not math or stats majors and don’t know LaTeX. Being very flexible in terms of how assignments are submitted is key – I’m fully expecting some students to email me photos of their homework, and I’m okay with that. 
  • I’ve decided to try to use Zulip with my probability course (about 20 students). This is similar to the Discord app that Chris Engledowel talks about in his StatTLC post, but also includes the ability to use LaTeX, syntax highlighting for code, and is open source. Lots of pros, but the cons is that it is less familiar to students than Discord. So far about ¼ of the class has signed up, but there has been very little use so far (only been a day or so). Students seem to be using it mostly for private messaging me rather than for interacting with each other.
  • We were supposed to have a project at the end of the probability course. This is still happening, but recognizing that I will be less able to support some students, I have developed a few “canned projects” for students to do that are essentially some readings and problems on new topics. (I would offer the same thing in a statistics class with a few pre-selected datasets rather than having students find their own data.) I am still encouraging students to pursue a more creative project, but I recognize that that is not likely to happen for everyone this semester.
  • This blog post has been circulating among my colleagues and raises some really interesting points. Since reading it, I’ve resisted calls to poll students about their technology availability (e.g. webcams, scanners, printers, etc.) because a) this was never an expectation for the course and b) I know some don’t have them and I will already have to accommodate that. I’m trying to meet students where they are and be even more flexible than usual right now.

Laura’s (Z.) Situation

Classes: Introductory Statistics course (6 sections with about 60 students each, course coordinator), Advanced Regression course (about 28 students, half upper-level undergrad stat majors/half MS non-stat majors)

Switched to: online classes (asynchronous and synchronous)

Technology: (Introductory Statistics course: StatKey and JMP, Advanced Regression course: R)

Laura’s Thoughts

I am currently teaching 2 courses; an introductory statistics course and an advanced regression course. The student audience for these courses are very different, and therefore will teach them online differently. I have been reading an overwhelming amount of tips for teaching online, and I am sharing what I have decided will be my best approach to teaching “online in a hurry.”

These are my recommendations for any course, which I will use for both of my courses:

  • Keep it simple, not just for the students’ benefit, but for your sanity as well.
  • Make videos to share with students.
    • Videos should be short for two reasons. First, students will lose interest if they are too long. Second, if you make a mistake, you won’t have to redo as much.
    • Videos should be imperfect. No matter how much of a perfectionist you are, you need to focus on the bigger picture. Don’t worry about having perfect sound quality, saying “um” too much, or having your kids or cat run into the room. Just get it done and out there for students.
  • Try to keep things as similar to what we would do in class with the possible exception of being asynchronous. Students are stressed and if we can keep things similar to what they knew before, that may help relieve stress.
  • Send a detailed weekly checklist to students with recommended dates on when to have videos watched, upcoming due dates, etc…
  • Avoid sending too many emails. We are getting a lot of emails, so we should expect students are also getting a lot of emails. Try not to overwhelm them. Try to write one email per week, ideally on Mondays, providing an overview of what is to come with the checklist that is kind, empathetic, and encouraging.
  • Don’t forget about your TA’s, they are nervous too! Have weekly online meetings with them to ask them how they are doing. Give them the opportunity to ask questions not just about the course but also about life in general.

For a large introductory statistics course, I have additional recommendations. For some background information, the introductory statistics course I work with has 6 sections, each with approximately 60 students. I am the coordinator for the course, and therefore have been in charge of getting it ready to be online.

  • Teach asynchronous with videos. Students are across the country, in different time zones, with different access to internet.
  • Provide software output on assignments in case students do not have access to software.

For my advanced regression course, I have 28 students. Approximately half are upper-level undergraduate students and the other half are Masters-level, non-statistics students.

  • Have spent a lot of time talking to myself creating the online videos for my introductory statistics students and am missing the live aspect of teaching. I am planning to do synchronous teaching for students who want to attend. I will record the lecture during that time and will post it for students who choose not to attend. This is going against most of the recommendations I have seen, but I am going to give it a go anyways!

My plans are not perfect, and will likely change after the first week of online teaching, but that is OK! Be honest with your students and they will appreciate the effort you go through to help them through this challenging time.

2 thoughts on “Online Strategies due to COVID-19, Part 1

  1. Thank you for this very timely post! I’m curious to know how zulip works out. It’s not something I’m familiar with, but some of my colleagues have been talking about creating a slack channel or using discord to create a general stats group (rather than specific to one particular class) to help foster a sense of community among our students. I’m concerned about ways it could be misused though, and about the time required to moderate. Do y’all have any thoughts on this topic?

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