CovidCampus #3: the 3 Laws of Pedagogics to switch to an online course

This blog post is part of a series of reflections on the Corona virus crisis and the immediate transition from my face-to-face courses to online classes.

Updated job title, same pay, but… new outfit!

Here is the report of some experiments I have done in the past few days, with the corresponding links. To use again the idea of Magnetic North that I mentioned in an earlier post, I applied the equivalent of Isaac Asimov‘s 3 laws of robotics. For my readers who don’t know about these, those 3 laws are interlocked

  1. The first law is the one with the highest priority;
  2. the second law has a slightly lower priority, and is only applied as long as it doesn’t violate the first law;
  3. the 3rd law has the weakest priority: it is only enforced if it does not violate the 1st or 2nd law.

I have therefore established my 3 pedagogical laws according to this scheme.

  1. The first law is: « take care of my students »;
  2. the second law is « accept that courses are in degraded mode »;
  3. the 3rd law is « use collective intelligence ».

Here we go with descriptions and experiments.

  • First law (priority over the others): take care of my students.
    • Communicate on a regular basis. Following the announcement of stage 3 in France, I sent several collective emails to my students. In accordance with what I said in the blog post on communication, the main idea was to inform my students that they had a contact person available if they needed help.
    • Conduct a survey. I realized very quickly that the technological solutions mentioned by my school (especially the digital team), or on the Internet (especially on Twitter, with the hashtag #CovidCampus) were solutions that assumed that the students had an advanced digital environment. However, between the closure of the school premises – where there is Wifi everywhere and we have dedicated and comfortable workspaces – and the return to their home countries, I needed to know what the working environment of my students was. So I sent them an online survey to learn more about their hardware + Internet setup, to check whether they had already had online courses, and to find out what their needs might be for the next sessions. Fortunately (thanks to the 3rd Law), I was able to use an online survey that an American Professor had designed and shared (link here). It was also interesting for statistical purposes: for students that I had already encountered in real life in class, just under 50% of the students responded to the survey, and only 20% answered questions that required slightly more detailed answers (for example, expressing their personal needs); on the other hand, for those courses in which I had not yet met the students in real life, the response rate dropped to less than 25%. Although the sample is not statistically significant, having had face-to-face courses might increase digital engagement when moving to an online course.
    • React quickly. In the needs expressed by my students, there were concerns about different aspects of the course: would there be an online presence/absence check? How to organize for group assignments? How to ask questions during an online course? Was it possible to avoid using the whiteboard in the classroom, as it was not legible on video (this was before the announcement of total confinement in France)? For all these general questions, I sent emails with adapted rules. For special requests, I used individual emails.
    • Show adaptability and imagination. Here’s an example that amused me in its different layers of complexity: several students worried about the poor quality of the work they would have to hand in by Monday. Indeed, due to travels home or other mishaps stemming from the coronavirus crisis, they could not communicate as smoothly as before with their work group, so they were anxious about the poor grade they might get. My first response was to say that this assignment would not be graded, because the most important thing was not to get a grade, but to learn… Then I thought of the opposite case: a group of students who had been working for weeks to deliver professional quality work. How would these students take the last minute announcement that their work would not be graded, and their efforts unpaid? So I opted for a slightly more complex proposal: all groups had to hand in their work by the deadline, regardless of the level of completeness, but each group had the possibility to request individually that their case not be graded (even though I promised to give them a detailed feedback). One can go very far in imagining all possible scenarios. Suppose a group had asked to be graded, and then got a bad mark: how should we deal with this siuation, compared to a group that chose not to be graded, and whose average grade would not suffer from the last assignment’s quality?
  • The answer lies in the application of the 2nd law: avoid complicating things, deal with each situation as it comes up, instead of trying to foresee everything at the beginning (theory of incomplete contracts) .
  • 2nd law to be applied (only if it does not violate the first one): accept that the course will be in degraded mode.
    • KISS (keep it simple and stupid). Telling myself that the online course will not be as interesting as a face-to-face course was ultimately quite liberating: it’s not about striving for perfection, but aiming for a minimum of efficiency. This can be done in a few very simple steps.
    • Rely on the tools I already know. Rather than investing time in reading, judging, and self-training on new tools, I prefer to capitalize on the solutions and environments I already know. And whenever possible, by aiming at technological frugality: not all students necessarily have access to a webcam or a broadband connection that allows video broadcasting. For example, recording a PowerPoint presentation with an audio commentary will end up in a degraded version of a lecture that has the advantage of being very light to transfer (even though it is probably dreadfully boring to follow…).
    • Reasoning in terms of piling up bricks. Following Maslow’s hierachy of needs, it is only once the basic needs are met (here, being able to display slides with an oral comment) that one can worry about adding more things. Here is my indicative pile of bricks to date, starting from the basic need and only moving up when the previous level is secured:
      1. scrolling through slides with an oral commentary
      2. give students the opportunity to ask questions live (for example, in writing in a shared Google drive document or – more complex – a chat utility or – more complex – an oral interruption)
      3. have an online whiteboard solution to be able to draw or type text
      4. Allow students to vote live on issues (e.g. with Wooclap or Klaxoon).
      5. Allow students to group together from time to time in small virtual workrooms before returning to the collective digital « amphitheatre ».
    • Back to basics. For me, the seminal question is pedagogical, not technological. It’s a question of very quickly identifying the key messages that you absolutely want to get across during a course session. Moving to an online course will require adapting resources to ensure that these key messages are actually conveyed. In other words, we follow the logic of Mies van der Rohe, less is more.
  • The 3rd law (only to the extent that it does not contradict the first 2 laws): use collective intelligence.
    • I see 3 sources of collective intelligence: my colleagues; my students; the Internet.
    • My colleagues. The digital department of my school has quickly set up training in face-to-face or with distance learning, and this has helped enormously to spread knowledge about our digital tools. At the same time, we exchanged a lot of e-mails on the mailing list of all the professors. This allowed me to notice that there are a lot of profiles with a lot of different pedagogical needs within the school (school in the broadest sense, since we have several thousands of external lecturers…) Faced with this great diversity of questions, I realized very quickly that appealing to collective intelligence would most of the time contradict the 2nd law (go for simplicity).
    • My students. With the survey that I sent, I was able to collect some opinions from them, but not really advices on how to do an online class. Except for one student who suggested that I do the lectures with a touch tablet, I only received contributions focused on questions, not suggestions for solutions. I also opened a shared Google drive sheet, so that students could ask questions before class. To date, no questions have been asked. My conclusion is that here too, we cannot expect too much in terms of collective intelligence. In the long run, it will be worthwhile to come back to the respective roles of each one and their respective commitment. I summarize my views by deliberately exaggerating: in an extremely controlled course, where the professor announces strict rules of the game and a pre-set framework, it is not enought to have a Coronavirus crisis and an empowerment message (« do not hesitate to take charge and organize collective solutions among yourselves ») to change the behaviors established since the beginning of the semester. Our economy of attention very easily becomes an economy of passivity.
    • Internet. Praise be given to Twitter, which has made it possible to federate the individual efforts of hundreds of higher education professors around the world. Using the hashtags #CovidCampus, #CovidCampusFr, #PivotToOnline or #PivotOnline has saved me precious time by reading the advice posted by professors who were faced with the same questions as I was. It also made me realize that I really had to keep on track with the 2nd law: indeed, driven by their pedagogical enthusiasm, and most often, by years of investment in setting up online courses, most teachers were suggesting tools and solutions that would require several weeks – maybe months – of design and self-training before one could effectively deliver an online course session. Besides, not all universities have made the same technological choices: Moodle or Blackboard, Microsoft Teams or Collaborate, Google drive or Dropbox?
    • In short, the resources available online allowed me to learn very quickly about the possible options, but it was the filter of the 2nd Law that allowed me to avoid getting drowned in solutions that were too costly in terms of time and/or energy. Once again, the pedagogical quest has priority over technological tools. This is why, paradoxically, I chose to put collective intelligence as the 3rd priority…

That’s about where I am right now. What about you? Do you have any advice or comments?

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