CovidCampus: how to move quickly to 100% online courses? #1

Well, how to put those ideas back in my head ?

Today I am starting a sequence of reflections on e-learning, following the Coronavirus crisis. Indeed, even if to date the French government has not yet taken a position on the shutting out of universities and grandes écoles, I prefer to anticipate, even if only mentally, on how I am going to move my face-to-face courses to online classes.
I will use these posts to document, like a log book of a journey, the progress of my thoughts.
Context is extremely important here: it is not a reflection carried out in advance to design a future distant course. We are in the middle of a crisis, my school may close overnight, and I would have to transform all my face-to-face courses into a 100% online equivalent with 24 hours notice… Thus I wish to share my reflections as a work in progress, and I hope to receive suggestions, comments, and sharing of experiences on this subject.

Before talking about the practicalities, it seems important to me to define a few fundamental principles that will serve to guide my choices.

In the moral compass that I set for myself, there will be a double magnetic north:

  • My top priority will be to take (even greater) care of my students. This crisis is extremely difficult for them, knowing that the majority of my students are non-French. We have a lot of Italian, Chinese, Indian, German students, and so on. These students are far from their families, they are housed in Paris or the surrounding area, in (basic) student accommodation. In a normal situation, they are already very often in need of advice and support (and it is an important part of my profession to answer those questions). If my school were to close and their only contact became the online courses they would have to take, it would require even more listening, understanding and adaptability from my part.
  • The 2nd magnetic north that will guide me is the conviction that a rapid transition from a face-to-face class to an online course can only result in degraded conditions. My current courses were not designed to be taught online, and if some people think that it is enough to have a film shooting of themselves teaching, they clearly demonstrate their incompetence on the subject of online courses. IMHO, the mistake comes from the vocabulary used: I see a lot of business schools talking about immediately switching to online classes. If I had to find an image, it wouldn’t be the image of the switch, which makes it seem as if you just flip a button to change the modalities, but rather the image of the machine translation. A machine translation allows us to quickly get a text in another language, but the speed has a negative counterpart: the product that is delivered is a (very?) degraded version of the original text. This can be used to understand the general meaning, but without the quality and subtleties of the original text.

Before moving on, I would like to specify 2 personal things:

  • As far as online teaching is concerned, I was not born yesterday. I have designed several courses that were intended from the very beginning to be 100% online, some of them even being totally self-supported (i.e. my role was limited to moderating the discussion forums, answering students’ questions by e-mail, and grading the final exam – zero hours in teaching). I also had the chance to collaborate in writing pedagogical videos, I lead a pedagogy seminar in the school’s doctoral program, and for more than 2 years, I have participated with pleasure in pedagogy co-development groups, where we regularly work on online teaching issues in different programs. So it’s not like I’m discovering the subject today (even though there are people who are far experienced on this topic…) But I persist: switching overnight to a 100% online course will automatically result in a downgraded product.
  • On the other hand, all this thinking and planning comes as an unexpected addition to a rather busy agenda. I have 2 books I’m working on for my publisher, a research article to modify, a magazine to publish, one or 2 conferences to organize, a son in internship and a daughter who is going to take the French Baccalaureate… So my posts will probably be short and badly written 🙂 (remember : it’s a log book).

Now let’s get to the subject: where to start?
I started with the most urgent: my next course sessions, which were originally planned to be held face to face in an amphitheatre, and could be converted into online sessions. For me, the first thing to do is to make a typology of each session. Indeed, not all course sessions are the same: some sessions consist in correcting a case previously handed in by students; other sessions incorporate activities that the students have to carry out, followed by a discussion; others consist of a more controlled course, where I show concepts and ask questions. It is therefore necessary to measure the characteristics of a given session in order to see what can be done in terms of distance learning.
For instructors / lecturers / professors who might be interested, I am sharing with you my first draft of a basic typology. It’s a tentative list of the main characteristics of what will happen during the lesson (to be improved):

  • Distribution of speaking time or activity time: my students x% vs. myself y%
  • Is the course delivered by several instructors (on different sessions, within the same session, invitated professionals…)
  • What percentage of the course is devoted to students’ questions?
  • What is the percentage of the session that I devote to the different media: slides %; writing or drawing on white board %; work on the computer with projection (Excel); video %…
  • What percentage of my session is dedicated to student reflective work? How do the students give me/hand me back their reflections?
  • How do I interact with the students? Do I choose who I ask the question to, or do I wait for someone to answer?
  • Do I have focus more on a one-to-one style (I show my students that I recognise their individuality) or a more universal style (it doesn’t matter who asks the question, or who answers it, as long as it’s interesting)?
  • Do I have a lot of students coming to see me at break time or at the end of the course? Do they ask the same questions they might have asked during class, or do they come at these times because they have a particular request they don’t want to make in front of everyone?
  • To what extent do I feed on interactions or reactions? (even if only nods from the audience)

I’m sure the list can be expanded to provide a more accurate mapping of what the lecturer expects from a given session before it begins. While perusing this list of questions, you probably saw the value of doing such a mapping: it helps to know what is (more or less) transposable to an online class.
As a matter of fact, I put those class activities into 3 categories:

  • Activities that can happen in more or less the same way whether it’s a face-to-face course or an online course. For example, displaying slides and commenting on them. This doesn’t challenge my idea of degradation: staring at your computer with a slide on it while you hear the teacher’s voice on the speaker is not the same as being in a classroom with the same experience – just because it is NOT the same experience.
  • Other activities are not transposable as they are. They will require to find an “automatic translator”: how to replace writing on a whiteboard? How to question students online in order to create a dynamic? How to deal with individualities?
  • Finally, there is a third category: activities that cannot be transposed online. Example: instantaneously capturing subtle reactions, or dealing with chatter (which indicates either a loss of interest in the class, or, on the contrary, a renewed interest in the subject that requires an exchange with classmates). In this 3rd category of things that cannot be put in an online class, what should be done? Should we reinforce the first 2 categories, at the risk of losing part of the wealth of the 3rd? Or should we be looking for shortcuts or innovations to meet the needs of the 3rd category, at the risk of spending a lot of time there, considering this is an emergency, last-minute situation? Once again, we have to accept that the course will be degraded.

That’s where I’m at right now. What are your thoughts on these subjects?

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