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30 May 2014

Tools for Online Teaching

Last semester (Fall 2014), I organized and taught an interdisciplinary, collaborative class titled Probability for Scientists. Getting 4 separate teachers on the same page was a challenge, but as scientists we're used to communicating over email, and CC'ing everyone worked well enough. Throw in a shared dropbox folder, a shared google calendar, and a weekly planning meeting, and instructor collaboration went pretty smoothly.

It was more challenging to organize the class so that we could easily provide students with up-to-date course information and supplemental material. We ended up using blogger, which has some key benefits and disadvantages. It was *really* easy to set up and add permissions for multiple individuals. This allowed any of us to put up images (for example, photos of the whiteboard at the end of class) and post instructions. One downside we heard from students was an apparent lack of organization. I attempted to organize the blog with intelligent post labels, along with the "Labels widget" (which shows all possible labels and the number of posts per label on the right hand sidebar). I also included the "Posts by Date" sidebar, so all the content could be accessed chronologically. I understand their comments, though I'm not convinced that a single, monolithic page of information is the right direction either.

One feature of blogger that proved helpful was its "Pages", static html files or links that appear (by default) at the top of the blog. These links are always present no matter where in the blog you navigate to. We added the syllabus and course calendar here. And here's where things start to get interesting.

All four instructors need the ability to collaboratively edit and then publish public-facing material with students (like the syllabus), as edit private course material, like grades. Dropbox makes a natural choice for private material, whereas a collaborative source repository like GitHub makes a natural choice for public material. Personally, I'm more familiar/comfortable with Google Code, but I don't think the choice of services here is material. [Sidenote: If you have a pro GitHub account, the choice seems easy: use a private GitHub repo.]

Using a public git repo gave us a few things that I really liked. First off, our class schedule was a simple HTML table in the repo that we pointed at with a static link via the Pages widget, above. When I needed to update an assignment due date, I did a quick edit-and-commit on my laptop, pushed it to the archive, and magically appeared on the blog. If several instructors are simultaneously working on course material, this essentially provides an audit trail of who did what. This is kindergarden-level stuff for software developmers. But these are tools that teachers could benefit from and aren't very familiar with. For example, getting colleagues to set up git represents a non-trivial challenge. Nonetheless, there are other benefits of learning git if you're a scientist (that I won't address here, though see here for some thoughts).

In our class, I also used R for data visualizations. I let the awesome knitr package build the appropriate .png files from my R code (along with pdfs for download, if needed). Again, it sounds simple, but adding the generated figures to the git archive allowed me to quickly link to them in blog posts, and then update them later if needed.

I would have preferred having the blog posts themselves under revision control (only "Pages" can point to an external source html without javascript, which I didn't have time for). But, for the simplicity of setup and the low (e.g. free) cost of use, I didn't find posts to be much of an issue. Blogger allows composition in pure html, without all the *junk*, which helps. But having to re-upload and link a figure every time I find an error? Definitely a pain.

For this class, we also set up an address that pointed to my email box. This allowed me to publicly post the class address without fear of being spammed forevermore, and allowed me to easily identify all class email. Having a single instructor responsible for email correspondence worked well enough. As an early assignment, students were asked to send a question to the class email address. This is a nice way to get to know folks, and incentivize them to go to "digital office hours", e.g. ask good questions over email. We did have some issues with towards the end of the class. This *sucks* - students panic when emails get lost, and it's hard to sort out where the problem is. Honestly, I don't know the answer here.

As a sidenote, I pushed the use of Wikipedia (WP) heavily in this class, and referred to it often myself. This is not possible in all fields, but WP articles in many of the hard sciences are now both technically detailed and accessible. Probability and statistics articles are some of the best examples here, since the "introductory concept" articles are used by a large number of individuals/fields, and aren't the subjects of debate (compare this with the WP pages of, for example, Tibet or Obama). I also discovered WP's "Outlines" pages for the first time. If you ever use statistics, I strongly recommend spending some time with WP's Outline of Statistics. It's epic.

One final tool we used quite a bit was LimeSurvey. As I was planning the class, I went looking for an inexpensive yet flexible survey platform. I was generally disappointed by the offerings. My requirements included raw data export and more than 10 participants; these features tend *not* to be free, and survey tools can get pricey. Enter LimeSurvey (henceforth LS). It's open source, well-documented, versatile, and simple to use. I was reluctant to invest *too* much effort in tools I wasn't sure we'd use, but I got LS running in less than 2 hours. To be fair, our lab has an on-campus, always-on server, and apache2 is already installed and configured. This would have been an annoying out-of-pocket expense had I needed to rent a VPS, though you can now get a lot of VPS for $5/mo. [sidenote: getting our campus network to play nice with custom DNS was a whole other issue...]

LS allowed me to easily construct data entry surveys, allowing each student to enter, for example, their 25 flips of 3 coins, or their sequence of wins and losses playing the Monty Hall problem. Students can quickly enter this data from their browser at their convenience. At its best, visualizations of the class data can give students a sense of ownership and purpose of in-class exercises. LS also allowed us to conduct initial background surveys, as well as anonymous, customized class "satisfaction" surveys mid-course to find out what was working and what wasn't. We ran into a few administrative issues with LS, but it's an overall powerful and stable data collection platform. Students seemed happy with it, and it provided us with valuable feedback.

What would I do differently? I failed to set up an email list early on. It would have been trivial using, e.g. Google Groups. At the time, it seemed redundant, both for the students and us. Didn't they already have the blog? In retrospect, it would have proved useful at several points to communicate "New Blog Post" or "Due Date Changed, check calendar". I've learned this semester to expect that spoken instructions are not necessarily heeded, and that receiving administrative details in writing from multiple sources (blog, calendar, mailing list) is a Good Idea ™.

Along this vein, a minor needed improvement is breaking making a separate table for assignments. I originally combined assignments with the course calendar in the interest of simplicity, giving students all the relevant information in one place. In the end, it was just confusing.

Overall, the class went very well. We have received positive feedback from the students, and we now have a detailed digital record of the course. PDFs of their final project posters are now in the archive, where they will live in perpetuity. Personally, I'm not ready to teach a MOOC yet, but I'm sold on digital tools as useful supplements to in-class material. They allowed me to spend less time doing more. These tools helped the class "organize itself", and reduced communication overhead between instructors. To older or less technically-inclined teachers, some of this might seem difficult or confusing. On one hand, you really only need *one* instructor to coordinate the tech - it's not very hard for instructors to use the tools once they're set up. On the other hand, some of the above pieces are very easy to implement, and support from a department administrator or technically-inclined teaching assistant (TA) might be available for more challenging pieces. An installation of LS shared across a department, for example, should be trivial for any department that has its own linux server (e.g. math, physics, chem).

In my mind, a key goal here is that technology not get in the way. Many of the commercial "online learning products" that I've seen adopted by universities make simple task complicated, while lacking the flexibility. In trying to do everything for everyone, they often end up doing nothing for anyone (or take a high level of skill or experience to use effectively). I far preferred using several discrete tools, each of which does a single job well (class email, blog to communicate, git repo to hold files).

Are there any interesting tools worth trying out next time? I wonder how a class twitter-hashtag would work...