Tuesday, March 17, 2020

Distance learning

Having just completed one online degree, and having started another, here is a arbitrary list of things I know or think.

Lots of people used appear.in for one-on-one meetings with students, but the people who used to be "appear.in" lost the domain. They're now whereby.com. The free version only allows you to share with 4 "participants."

Skype is, as always, the default for so-called "1-2-1" meetings.

Zoom allows up to 100 "participants" for free, but the meetings are done after 40 minutes. That might be a feature, not a bug.
And there's also Google Hangouts.

There are dedicated distance-learning systems which you might have access to (or even be required to use.) I've taken courses on Big Marker and a couple others. I have a couple "universal" notes.

  • One is that if you have a system that is capable of playing (say) YouTube videos -- just don't use it. Give the students links to the YouTube videos, tell everybody to watch, mute your microphone, and then tell the students to type "done" in the text box when they're done watching the video. 
  • Even better is to make a Dropbox or whatever of all the materials you'll be going over -- any videos (in .mp4 format because it's the most universal), any .pdf's, even PowerPoint presentations if you have them. The key here is you're trying to not use the Internet to stream high-resolution graphics or video. 


  1. Try to not use wifi for the computer you're using to run the class, webinar, or 1-2-1 on. Please just plug an ethernet cable into your computer from your router. Don't make us fight with whether your wifi is crapping out on you. 
  2. If you need to listen to students talk, wear headphones. And not poopity earbuds neither. 
  3. Get a microphone close to your mouth. 

I suggest wearing headphones and any of the Antlion mics. If your students are interacting with you (especially if there's more than one student) and talking, they'll end up hearing one another "directly" through the feed and also through your own speakers and your own microphone, which will get tiresome very quickly.
If you're not going to get nice headphones and an Antlion mic, then at least get a gaming headset. I want to press home with you that the mic built into your webcam is not good. It is not good. Not. Your students might be able to hear and understand you, but they will be straining to hear you through all the reverberation of the room you're in and that won't be good for anyone. They might even say "It's fine." It isn't. Your microphone must be within 12" of your mouth -- even closer if it is a webcam mic. Just don't. Get a headset microphone. If you're very fancy you can use a lavalier or some sort of boom that's within a foot (30 centimeters) of your mouth.
Can you get away with just using your iPhone if you're teaching "one-on-one?" Yes, probably. But as soon as you get into a multi-student situation, you gotta move over to the close mic.

There are some advantages to "webinars" over "seminars." For instance, you know all that stupid stuff students have to say, both to other students and also to just make a comment? Well if you're using a system that has a little comment box off to the side, they can say whatever they want without interrupting your flow. Honestly, in my experience, a lot of that is just students being polite to one another, saying "hello" and if someone asks a question or branches off-topic, another student can provide a link to whatever they needed without really interrupting the class.

When all students are on videocams and all have mics, you can get chaos pretty quickly (just like a real classroom) but the worser part is that the Internet feed will probably get very cranky and freeze and drop out and be ugly. One technique to deal with that is if you need to hear students talk (I know, what's the point, right?) just select one student at a time to talk or ask questions through their mic. Try to keep the number of open microphones down to 2 at any one time.

Yes, when teaching remotely like this you do have to be something of a live video engineer. When students are supposed to be watching/listening to other materials you need to mute your own mic (nobody wants to hear you typing or sipping tea while they're watching a video you carefully curated for them to think about and discuss later). When students come onto the webinar you need to control who can turn on their own mics (and then when they're done you need to turn them off -- you don't want everyone to have to listen to the garbage truck outside a student's house while they're watching your webinar, not realizing they're broadcasting their own sound.)

It's a bit more paying attention to the technical aspects of transmitting/receiving than you're used to probably. And you're likely to have all kinds of whackadoo technical issues and limitation the first few times you do it. It's also sort of lonely. You're not looking at your students and seeing if they're totally confused by what you're saying -- you need to use your experience and also to ask them questions to make sure they're following along. It's a bit disconcerting at first, but you need the confidence that you know what you're doing and they're all paying attention.

But I enjoyed my experience with it. You might too.

1 comment:

Rhea D. Smith said...

I shared with my team leader who cancelled the monthly Democratic Election Committee meeting. Yes I prefer to vote in absentia. Dunkin or not!