Long ago (1988) I moved to Berkeley and started sending a monthly "newsletter" to my Boston friends. When I returned to Boston (1993), I continued the tradition for about five more years (or until I had kids). Looking back, I realize that I was actually blogging. Each newsletter contained anywhere from a few to several blog posts. Having been silent for the past decade or so, I've decided to resume these activities. Don't expect anything profound -- I tend to focus on what I find entertaining or amusing and perhaps sometimes informative. We shall see!

Thursday, September 24, 2015

Week 3: Gulping water ...

If I thought I was barely making it last week, this week is even worse in terms of material preparation. And my attempt at weekly updates is lacking.

That said, it seems that the course is running well. The students seem happy and engaged in class; they did very well on Assignment 1 (due this past Friday). My TFs continue to dazzle and amaze me. The extension students are working hard and doing well too.

Sometimes technology is just amazing: I had a quick trip to California last week (my niece got married Friday in San Diego), but I managed to Skype in to kick class off, which was kind of cool. Then I skyped in for staff meeting and that worked OK as well. And, because extension office hours are remote anyway, I was able to do those as well. And thanks to airplane wifi, I spent the flight home fighting with our grading server and getting the next assignment ready to go.

The biggest challenge we're facing this week is providing a good experience for our extension students. These students fall into a couple of categories:

  • Local students who come to classes -- these folks seem to be doing quite well.
  • Local students who cannot come to classes -- we're doing "OK" by these folks -- our schedule is such that these are at convenient times, so they can tune in for web conferences, sections, and office hours. That said, and as I'll discuss below, the web conferences are not as effective as we might like.
  • Remote students who are in timezones that make the sessions we schedule feasible (i.e., US) -- these folks are in a situation similar to the local students who cannot come to classes, but the timing isn't quite as good.
  • Remote students in Europe, Africa, Asia -- what we've scheduled simply doesn't work for these folks. I hold morning office hours on the weekend, hoping to be available for them and we've now added some additional teaching fellow office hours for them too, but the sections and web conferences will never be convenient for them. The real-time interactive nature of the pedagogy in this course makes this a real challenge, so we'll talk about that next.

Let me talk about the different parts of a flipped course and how I see them fitting together.

  • Pre-class videos are for first presentation of information -- they cover material similar to what can be found in a text, but are more biased towards precisely the concepts that I think are important -- both in general and for the problem sets. Additionally, I've been able to incorporate a more dynamic experience than a text through audio-annotated screen captures and scribbling on slides, drawing pictures, highlighting things, etc.
  • Pre-class web work is a high level check that the students have gotten the key concepts. They are not intended to be challenging, but they highlight to me areas where students have confusion so we can discuss them at the beginning of classes.
  • Classes let me address confusion in the pre-class work but are largely designed for small-group work. The key here is that these exercises connect the concepts in the pre-class work to the problem sets in a way that is supposed to help students know how to tackle assignments. My sense is that this is working well for the students who are present in class, but not well for the students trying to have this experience via web conference.
So, our current challenge is figuring out how to provide the best experience we can for the remote students. We're going to try a slightly different version of the web conferences, walking students through the in-class exercises rather than having them work individually in small break out groups. While the technology supports these small breakout groups, it's difficult to know where you (an instructor) should be at any time. You can spend all your time hopping room to room trying to figure out which group could most benefit from your presence. Additionally, the students are at vastly different levels and degrees of preparation and that makes for challenging group work. I am still convinced that while students can work alone through the exercises, they get so much more from having someone else at a comparable level with whom they can puzzle things out, bounce ideas back and forth, and share "aha" moments. Trying to produce that via a distance experience is challenging.

I'm going to get this posted now and will try to write more this weekend.

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