Ontario teachers are about to embark on a “Learn at Home” initiative with the extended closure of Ontario schools. The situation will mean different things depending upon the school district that you work for and your subject area.
At Bishop Guertin School, they moved their classes online three weeks ago and are trying their best to replicate what would normally happen in a regular classroom. Alfred Thompson (@alfredtwo on Twitter) is a computer science teacher at Bishop Guertin and I asked him over the weekend to share his experiences and inspiration for Ontario teachers as they start this new adventure.
The Decision – This had to be a big decision. Who made the decision? Is a school day scheduled the same way?
Alfred: Our school administration made the decision. We draw from a wide range of cities and towns in two states. The area south of the city we are located in was starting to see a lot of COVID-19 cases and we decided that moving online was the best thing for our students, faculty, and staff. We moved online a week or two before most surrounding schools.
We are having our morning homerooms (we call it advisory) meet online every morning. Being a Catholic school, we start the day with a prayer, morning announcements, and the Pledge of Allegiance. We usually hang around for a few minutes of chit chat as well.
The Students – At the heart of education are the students. How are they handling being at home and handling the technology they’re using?
Alfred: Our students all seem to have reasonable technology and connectivity at home. Our school is committed to helping students who don’t but for privacy reasons I would not necessarily know about that. Our usual tech support people are available via email and phone. Students have their contact information available to them.
I think our students are really missing the personal contact with each other. In some of my classes I have just left the microphones open so they can chat among themselves for a while.
Timetables – How important is having a regular timetable? I know that you have a couple of students overseas. How are they handling things?
Alfred: I have two students who have returned to China. They are quarantined in hotel rooms. It’s lonely for them so I think they like “coming to class.” Being alone they are sort of still living on Eastern US time. They get up late and go to bed late. Their first class is 9PM local time and the last class is at their midnight. I don’t know how well that will work for them after quarantine.
For my students who are still in the US I suspect that having a regular schedule helps. Though they do tell me that learning online is harder than learning face to face.
The Tools – What are the tools that you and the students are using? Are they working as they should?
Alfred: Students need an internet connected device that can run Google Meet and Zoom which are the conferencing tools we are using. We have an integrated content management and student information system that we have been using for several years. It was developed by a company that Blackboard bought out some time ago. Students and teachers are used to using it for attendance, giving and returning assignments, and even creating and taking quizzes and tests. So that works out well.
Discipline has been less of an issue if only because it is harder for students to distract each other. I did switch one class to Zoom because Google Meet didn’t do enough to let me keep in control of the microphones. But other than that things have gone very well. Student seem to want to learn and make the most of the time.
The Content – What courses are you teaching? How have you had to modify things to accommodate the new reality?
Alfred: I am teaching three courses. Our freshman Explorations in CS course, a Programming Honors course, and a section of Advanced Placement Computer Science Principles. We’ve dropped a few topics from the freshmen course but I feel good that we will cover enough to make it a solid course. I was running ahead of my schedule with Programming Honors and feel confident that we will cover all the material. Will we get as deep as I would like? I’m less sure about that. My AP CS course uses the curriculum from Code.ORG which is largely online anyway. We’ll cover that completely.
One thing we have been able to do is give access for a virtual machine at school that students can connect to over the Internet. This gives them full access to all the software and tools they would have if they were physically in one of our computer labs. I cannot imagine teaching these courses without that. Not switching in the middle of the semester.
So no asterisk next to anything. Full credit.
Assessment – Since Bishop Guertin is a college preparatory school, you’ll need to provide a mark at the conclusion of the course. How do you handle tests, quizzes, and later on exams?
Alfred: Personally, I have been doing all my quizzes online for years so no change there. A decision about final exams has yet to be made. For most of my courses I evaluate a semester end project. That is still possible if we decide to have a final because of the virtual machine students can access.
One-to-one – as any Computer Science teacher will attest, there are times when you need to sit down beside a student and work your way through an issue or two. What does that look like online? Do you use any group-work strategies that work effectively?
Alfred: This is tough. What I do when I can is ask a student to share their screen by taking over as a presenter. This is not ideal but it works and it also lets me model problem solving for the whole class. When that doesn’t work I can open the student’s project directly from the shared network drive and look at it that way.
I really need to figure out some group work. On the other hand, I have had students ask me a question and another student will give the answer faster than I do. That’s pretty cool.
On-going feedback – Every teacher knows of this question – particularly for those mark hungry students. “Did you mark our tests/assignments/quizzes yet?” Since you don’t have commute time carved out of your day, do you have more time for this and return things prompter than you might otherwise?
Alfred: I have been getting to some things faster than I used to. Losing that close to an hour drive each day does give me some extra time. Students are being very patient with teachers and each other. There is a sense that we are all in this together.
No screen Wednesdays – I remember you sharing that teachers (and students?) were to stay away from electronic things like this one day a week. How’s that working out?
Alfred: We did that as an experiment this past week. The feedback is that it went well. We will have a four-day week this week because of Good Friday as well. There is some thought to keeping a Monday/Tuesday and Thursday/Friday schedule after that. I managed to spend a lot less time on the screen Wednesday. It was a good break even for a computer addict like me.
Personal Workspace – Can you describe your own personal workspace that gets you through this? Is there anything other than a computer, microphone, and camera that is needed to be successful? In a previous profession, you used to travel far and wide helping teachers so you may have seen it all. What advice could you give everyone at this time?
Alfred: I have two laptops set up on my dining room table. I find that two screens are very helpful. I might even say essential. Both of my laptops have cameras, but I only use one camera at a time. I have a headset with a microphone that I wear constantly while “at school.” It has noise canceling features which is helpful to avoid distractions. I highly recommend a good headset for teachers. Less echo, better hearing, and sends a message to everyone else in the house that you are working.
My wife retired in January, so she is not teaching. She does have her own setup in the family room which she uses. You know me well enough to know that there is no shortage of computers in my house.
A second screen and a headset are two hardware recommendations. Setting out outside the main traffic area in your house is a second recommendation. Ideally you should have a place where you can leave your computer set up and not have to constantly set it up and break it down. Our dining room is mostly for when we have guests so that works for me. It might not for everyone.
Mostly, I would tell teachers to do what they can and not expect to be able to do all that they would in a normal classroom. These are not normal times. All you can do is the best you can do.
Thanks so much, Alfred. I know that your insights are comforting and insightful for educators.
During this time, Alfred has picked up his blogging pace. You can read his ongoing thoughts and observations here – http://blog.acthompson.net