Benjamin Hackl

Technology for Online Teaching during Social Distancing

Date: April 29, 2020
Tags: online teaching, software, COVID-19

For some reason, my students this semester are happy with what I have done to move my classes to online formats (which, of course, was neccessary due to COVID-19). A friend asked me to write an article containing my views and recommendations for online teaching for a magazine, resulting in the text below. The article did not appear yet – but as soon as it does, I’ll update this blog entry with a link to it.

The current situation brought about by COVID-19 and social distancing measures, which have been implemented to fight its rapid spread, have put various education systems in countries all around the world to the test. Physical events – including in-person teaching sessions – are canceled almost everywhere. As a result, lecturers and teachers have been tasked to “move their classes online”. In Austria, for example, these measures were implemented at a very early stage and physical classes were canceled almost overnight.

The University of Klagenfurt where I work has found ways to adapt to these new circumstances – and along the way we have learned several important lessons. I want to share some of them, and cast light on solutions that have worked well so far.

First and foremost, the most important action during these extraordinary times is to keep in regular contact with your students by any means necessary. None of them should have the feeling that they are being left behind. The question of how to achieve that is not so easy to answer. Unfortunately, it strongly depends on available infrastructure. In terms of infrastructure, I first and foremost recommend using institution approved software, and the software suggestions that follow can be used where institutional software falls short.

Something that works very well for our mathematics department is a dedicated Discord server for our students, which provides a very low-barrier way of contacting us. This server works better than platforms that lean more in the direction of forums (e.g., Moodle), or plain email - for many students, asking a short question in a chat feels a lot easier than typing up a reply to a forum post or email. Furthermore, discussions in chats usually move faster than in forums, which is especially an advantage if someone wants to get clarification on an exercise or something along those lines – and these are the type of questions we get most often. Moodle and similar e-learning platforms are indispensable when it comes to the distribution of teaching material, and so if your university uses such a platform it is recommended that you continue to use it.

If you and your students have access to the Microsoft Office suite, then Microsoft Teams might work well for you. For settings that involve video calls, I can recommend Jitsi, Zoom (avoid Zoom though, if possible; there are several major data protection concerns) or – in case you administer a server yourself or want to recommend something to your local administrator – BigBlueButton. The latter option, BigBlueButton, is the solution that the University of Klagenfurt has made use of to create official classrooms, and it works very well for streaming my lectures via screen sharing. The aforementioned service, Discord, has a similar feature that allows sharing your screen to a group of up to 50 people, but for data protection reasons I prefer to stick to a local solution when it comes to streaming lectures. I do enjoy the Discord streaming feature for answering student questions outside of lectures, though!

Such a teaching setting where you are able to share your screen or a webcam image to your students allows you not only to share prepared presentations, but also to share your handwriting with them. For this, I can recommend the open source software Xournal (or Xournalpp – which is Xournal rewritten in C++) or Microsoft OneNote, should you have access to it. Especially when it comes to lectures in mathematics, I believe that students profit more from developing theory together in a blackboard-type lecture than from having theory thrown at them from slides – which is why I highly recommend streaming your (digital) handwriting with a combination of one of the communication tools above together with Xournal / OneNote or a similar piece of software – if your infrastructure allows it, of course.

The platforms mentioned above are helpful for communication with students from all disciplines, including formal sciences. Many questions that I discuss with my students are on a level where reading and discussing some pseudo-formatted formulas are sufficient. For more involved questions, it is always possible to exchange pictures of hand-written notes; something that is possible within all communication platforms mentioned above.

Aside from these software suggestions, I have some further recommendations when it comes to distance teaching, apart from staying in contact. It might be a very rational first reflex to hand out a large collection of teaching material to your students so they can study it at their own pace – but try not to do that. The idea that students should learn at their own pace is a good one, but handing out too many assignments at once will certainly overwhelm some of your students. You are also very likely not the only lecturer or teacher students have that will do this; a recent survey among the students of the University of Klagenfurt has also pointed out that all students, independent of their chosen curriculum, feel that they have more to do nowadays than before moving classes online. Try even more than usual to assign a realistic amount of work to them – and keep in mind that due to the current situation, some of your students might be under severe psychological stress. People they care about or depend on might have even lost their jobs and/or be sick. For the very same reason, it is not a bad idea to be rather lenient when it comes to assignments your students have to hand in: you might get more late submissions than usual – and maybe also fewer submissions in total.

Several students I have spoken to also asked me to keep my online lectures in the same time slots as they would be usually – because it provides a bit of rhythm and structure to their chaotic days. In addition, I still recommend recording your sessions and making the recordings available to the students as not all of them might be able to attend the regular times due to care duties or other reasons.

Obviously, everyone will handle these extraordinary times in a different way. Neither teachers nor students should forget that this situation is new for everyone. Remember to show understanding if things do not immediately work out as planned. Feel free to try out some of my recommended software – or use something entirely different: whatever works, works!