Full marks to my school for giving great guidance going into distance-learning mode. I was part of a small committee in the Upper School that talked about some contingency plans, and a week before Spring Break was going to happen, our school site closed. Students had Monday of that week off while teachers met in the library, our last time in one room together, and the remainder of the week teachers worked from home, following our regular school schedule.
The biggest change for many of our teachers was an increased emphasis on providing clear, easy-to-follow, communication online that would be used by students and their parents to guide and manage student work. The website that I use for my own classes was already set up to do that, so the only adjustment I needed to make involved a lot of copy-pasting information from my website to the school’s.
Teachers were not required to meet synchronously with students on a daily basis–there’s only so much Zooming a person can stand, and the administration certainly had some sense of this. But daily check-ins of one sort or another were a must: a meeting, an email, a Google form that a student could fill out… whatever. That was left to teachers to manage, which I appreciated. The Monday of that week, teachers had also been given a brief introduction to Screencastify, so that those who wished could record video lessons for asynchronous lessons.
We coasted into Spring Break, had a couple of weeks off (my trips to Colorado and Mexico were both cancelled), and then picked things up again in early April. Our first day “back” was again a professional development day, with additional guidance from the admins on some modifications that they’d made to our plan, and then we were right back into it, providing a combination of synchronous and asynchronous lessons as teachers felt was appropriate for their courses.
I couldn’t have asked for a better response to this crisis from our administration.
What about my classes?
“How have your classes changed in the new distance-teaching environment?” The short answer to that question for my CS classes is, “not much.”
The biggest caveat to this response is the fact that we’re only a few weeks away from AP exams, so my AP Computer A classes are mostly in review mode. Those classes at my school have a surprisingly diverse collection of students, from your classic “computer geek” who loves everything we do, to students who have been academically successful in other areas and who thought it might be good to learn a little CS, to some students who mostly look to this class to be a relatively easy AP to add to their transcript. (It’s true, this curriculum is easier than AP US History or AP Bio, the two other junior AP electives that students can choose from.) I love working with all of these students, and with that diversity comes the need for extra support occasionally.
So coming back from Spring Break, students had a “Spring Decathlon” assignment, a series of assignments designed to review everything we’d covered up to that point in the year. In some cases they were required to write their own testers, but in most cases I provided testers that they could use to assess their own work.
And now we’re going over a variety of problems from years past, either together in a Zoom session (sometimes with breakout rooms so that students can work together), or sometimes in a prepared lesson that students can interact with online at their own pace. (See, for example, this lesson on the Gizmo problem, a practice problem from the Course Description.)
Even if students aren’t learning much new material at this point, in this online-version of my classes they are doing the same thing that we were doing before: engaging with me as I introduce new material, looking at a problem or project that has been posted on the website, and working–by themselves, with other students, or with me–to develop a solution to that problem. We check in with each other as work is being done, solutions are submitted to the course server for evaluation… and then we’re on to the next topic, the next project, the next conversation.
There are two things that bother me at this point. One is that Zoom, or Meet, or BlueJeans, or whatever live videoconference solution one employs, does not provide for a fully interactive experience, at least not the kind that most classroom teachers use. The spontaneous exchange between people is lost to a combination of poor sound, poor video, network lag, glitches, and software-based signal-switching as the platform desperately tries to identify whose voice should get priority in the channel. Conversation is stilted, so it’s a good thing that these students already know me. They still appreciate a solicitous “good morning” from me when we log on, and they still politely snicker at an occasional dad-joke from their instructor.
But it’s not the same as the classroom. As our Upper School director pointed out, acknowledging the challenges of distance-learning, “This is not why any of us chose to go into teaching.”
Related to that, then, is my other concern. What will it look like to begin a school year teaching like this? Nobody at my school has declared that we won’t be returning to classes on-site in the Fall, but of course, it’s not certain that we will, either. Some consideration of future contingency plans is warranted. Just ask San Jose State University. And so I wonder/worry what that might look like, for my students and for me.
It may very well be that there will be substantive changes to my course if that happens. I can envision, for example, a possible reduction in the amount of work assigned, an accommodation for the logistical challenges involved with distance-learning. It’s hard to tell at this point.
For my friends and colleagues who are working with a more sizable at-risk population, perhaps at a public school, things are much more serious. This spring, attendance has already dropped off in catastrophic ways for the very students who stand to benefit from school the most.
In the summer I work with a local public-private school program, Partnership for Success!, and it isn’t known at this time whether or not we’ll be meeting on-site this year. Teaching online, to students I haven’t met face-to-face before, many of them first-generation, will be an important test, both of my ability to develop new strategies for online teaching, and for them to develop new strategies in managing their own education.
As an example of how curriculum might change in a distance-learning context, last year PFS! students learned Computer Science using a text editor, locally installed Python3, and the Processing graphics platform, also locally installed.