Dilemma

So, you’re scheduled to teach a regular, on-campus class that starts in about 15 days.  You’re just starting finals for your current class.  Then the corona virus turns things upside down.  Next term will start off with lecture rooms closed.  Everything must be done remotely for a few weeks.  It’s even possible (likely) that the entire term will have to be done online.

Forget about the fact that you still have last term’s finals to deal with… how do you move your class online?

My college has already provided D2L (Brightspace) shells for every course.  We’ve got some of the infrastructure in place.  We’ve also been supplied with access to Google Meetings (formerly Hangouts) and Zoom conferencing.  So, essentially, move as much of the grading online via assignment boxes and quizzes.  Move handouts to D2L.  Then figure the rest out yourself…

I keep hearing that the goal is not to make an online course, but to make a “remote” course.  I agree with that!  I’ve also seen some other advice that it doesn’t need to be good… which I am not in agreement with.  That second statement comes with lots of qualifiers, such as reminding people that some students don’t have good internet so you don’t have to work hard on recorded lectures.  Fair enough, but these are extraordinary times.  I’m going to do my best to teach chemistry to my students and give them the best opportunities to learn.  If you can’t connect to my live stream (more on that later), fine, but you’ll have the recorded stream to fall back on.  If you can’t connect reliably to the internet in these tumultuous times, I’m sorry, but there’s always next term.  There’s no other way to do this at the moment!  That is, unless you opt for a formal online course where it’s already setup for varying levels of connectivity.

So, let’s go back to how exactly I’m going to teach this upcoming term.  My goal is to be as close to how I would run my class in the actual classroom.  That means I need live meetings.  Let’s look at the actual tools I have:

Google Meetings/Hangouts

Advantages

  • It works without any software and works in almost all browsers
  • You can switch to presenting PowerPoint slides or any other window
  • Students can connect via phone in addition to internet
  • Students can talk back

Disadvantages

  • Can’t record  (college doesn’t have the license for it)
  • Low resolution
  • No major customization… just chatbots

I would use Google Meetings for office hours.   I’m using it right now to answer questions from people taking my online final. (They only connect to ask questions.)  But I can’t see myself using it for lectures if you can’t record.  There are workarounds like Snagit or using Youtube Live to stream to YouTube.  (The second option is probably a privacy problem if students are speaking.)  Also, the low resolution makes me pause.  Your powerpoint slides may or may not look good… depends on how dense the info is.

Zoom.us Conferencing

Advantages

  • High resolution
  • Integrates with D2L so your meetings show up directly and can be accessed automatically
  • You can switch to presenting PowerPoint slides or any other window
  • Breakout rooms – this feature lets you split students into small groups where they can talk in private (more on this below)
  • Polling feature (more on this below)
  • Allows customization through an SDK (great if you’re a programmer like me)

Disadvantages

  • Really tries to install their software every time you access their meeting.  This can put off a lot of people.  The fallback web link only shows up reluctantly after a few seconds.
  • Not free – my college provides licenses so it’s not a big deal for me, but for others it will be a deal breaker.  The “free” version is limited to 40 minute group meetings right now… not useful.

This is what I would use if I weren’t trying to do more.  Out of the box, it’s got a lot of good features.  However, it will require a lot of setup if you want to use them well.  For example, if you use “clickers” in your classroom, the poll feature might sound great.  But, you have to add all the questions manually ahead of time into the software.  You also can’t just ask one question here and another question there.  When you turn on the poll, it lists all the questions and you have to click through them all.  The poll feature also doesn’t seem to work in the web interface.  Zoom app only.

I can’t talk too much about breakout rooms yet.  This sounds like it would be awesome if you do group-based learning.  As far as I can tell, the breakouts can be done “automatically”.  Just push a few buttons and you’ll have random groups of four where they can work through a workbook problem.  You can also set the breakouts manually.  This almost sold me on Zoom.  I haven’t tried it in real life yet… could be easy, could be horrible.  I might still come back to it… but I want more.

I noticed Zoom has an SDK (software development kit) where you can customize things if you know how to program.  Theoretically, I could write my own web-based viewer that uses zoom and add whatever functionality I want given time.  But… to get an API key (access to this tech), I need permission from my account administrator.  They are currently swamped, which is understandable, and won’t be able to review any requests for access.  Oh well.

Microsoft Teams

I really, really wanted to try out this software, but my college has it disabled.  😢  I’ve played with my personal version of it and it seems nice but I can’t talk about it much because I don’t know much about it yet.  Hey, Microsoft… convince PCC to switch from Google over to you guys.  It would make my life so much easier!  😉

So what am I going to do?

I teach using slides that are mostly borrowed from full-time colleagues.  The department makes students buy a workbook that teaches through guided inquiry.  While this could work individually, it works better in groups.  So they encourage group-based learning.  We also require students to purchase online access to a publisher that provides both a textbook and lots of online homework.  For some classes, we use Mastering Chemistry (Pearson) and for others we use OWL (Cengage).

So homework is setup already.  Quizzes can be moved to D2L or can be done on paper and scanned in.  Not a problem.

So how do I do the in-class portion of class remotely?

I want to try an experiment.

I want:

  1. Live streaming with no fuss (no downloads, ability to view anywhere)
  2. Recorded lectures.
  3. Ability for students to interact with my lecture
  4. I want to be able to write on my tablet PC like a whiteboard (maybe you’ve got an iPad instead… similar idea)

I had the idea to use video game streaming!  Did you know that many, many people play video games and broadcast their gameplay online?  There are platforms dedicated to this and many of them earn a LOT of money doing this.  Have you heard of someone named Ninja?  This guy is a video game streamer and was even on the TV show “The  Masked Singer”.  Anyhow, I just wanted to emphasize that this segment of the internet is big, big business.  That means their technology is top-notch.

And I’m not the only one with this idea.  Seems that Matt Salomone figured this out in November of 2018.

I’m going to use Mixer, a different platform than Matt used, but it will use almost the same software.  As far as I can tell, I will get everything I want by using Mixer.  It won’t be perfect, but I think it will be better than the alternatives.  Stay tuned for what my setup will look like….

** Edited 3/19/2020

Looks like my college purchased access to saving for Google Meets.  My department just used it for a meeting to discuss how we were going to run next term.  (Newsflash: We still aren’t sure!)  However, I noticed something very strange:  even though I didn’t start the meeting, I could still access the record button.  Theoretically, I could push it and turn off recording.  I didn’t try though.  Is this correct???  Apparently, there was a big warning when the meeting organizer pushed it:  that recording calls can be illegal in some places without explicit consent of the participants.  Perhaps, that’s why anyone can push it.  That’s really odd!  I wouldn’t want that access for my students.

Also, I figured out that the low resolution is only for webcams.  For presentations, it suddenly switches to a high res image… BUT it is very low frame rate.  You definitely can’t do animations in a PowerPoint (for example).  And you definitely can’t hack your webcam to output an OBS stream to put into Google Meets.  It won’t look good.  Oh well.

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