Adventures in Online Learning: Software Issues

Online learning technology has come a long LONG way in the past few years. We are able to engage virtually in a way that we couldn’t do even 5 years ago. In some ways this is awesome! It lets us deal with emergencies, like a global pandemic, without loosing some of the most valuable aspects of our education. But with advances in technology come bugs. In your online learning adventure, you’re going to come across software issues.

As colleges and universities have moved to embrace more online learning models, they have been presented with a variety of platforms from which to choose. Some of these platforms are better than others. But they all have software issues. The reason is because in many ways, all of these platforms are still in the beta stages. Widespread online learning is still not the norm for many schools. This creates two interrelated issues.

Software Design

First, many of these platforms try to accomplish several tasks all at the same time: they attempt to be a supplement for in person courses and they try to be a platform that supports asynchronous course delivery (an online only model). These two tasks are often at odds with one another.

As an instructor, I’ve had the opportunity to use multiple digital platforms to supplement my teaching (including blackboard, canvas, and Sakai). Sometimes a platform (take Blackboard for example) is set up really well as a supplement platform for in class learning. Blackboard’s structure is ideal for posting readings, recording grades digitally, and sharing announcements or reminders with students. Other times a platform is better formatted to serve as an online only learning model (take Canvas for example). Canvas’s structure is well organized around individual lessons, which students can self pace through, teaching themselves the material in an asynchronous manner. However, try to use either platform for the other major purpose, and it causes no end to frustration! Currently, I use canvas as a supplement to my in person classes. It simply doesn’t function nearly as well for that purpose—it’s too cumbersome because I don’t need each individual lesson to have its own space. At the same time, I can imagine using blackboard to try and make it through a self paced course would be very frustrating as it’s not organized well to accomplish that task.

The problem is that universities choose their software package based on what they expect that majority of their professors to need because it is too expensive to purchase more than one site license. (And honestly, you’d probably be upset if they raised your tuition to do purchase two different software programs!). BUT, this means that the software you are trying to use in your online class may not be well suited to an asynchronous learning environment.

Software Development

The second issue you’re likely to face is that online learning software hasn’t been adopted widely enough to be able to identify and fix all of the design flaws. Consider when any software you use comes out with a new version. Take apps on your phone for example: after a new software update, it takes several iterations for developers to identify and address multiple bugs in the newest version. Course delivery software is no different—it will take developers time to identify and fix bugs within the system. However, for course delivery software, this is process is likely going to take longer than it does for your phone. The reason is that online learning is not universal: it has far fewer users than you might expect given the size of the college/university industry. Most universities (and most professors) still specialize in face to face classroom interaction. Fewer users mean fewer opportunities to report problems to developers. Few reported problems mean a longer lag time in between software releases and the eventual fix.

In today’s world, where nearly all universities have abruptly moved online, these bugs are going to become more apparent a lot faster. The bad news is: this could be a rough semester (for you and your professors!) The good news is that when life returns to normal, everyone is likely going to have an easier time using online supplements or complete course delivery platforms. So in the meantime, think of yourself as a beta tester. It won’t solve every problem, but with that mindset, you’re less likely to pull your hair out in frustration.


Adventures in Online Learning: The Importance of Creating a Schedule

“Things that can be done at anytime are often done at no time” —Gretchen Rubin, author

One of the beautiful and ugly things about online learning is that it is (very) often asynchronous. In other words, you do not have a scheduled class time during which you are expected to show up and be focused on the class in question. You get to complete the work when it is most convenient for you. Sounds great, right?

Now, don’t get me wrong, there are a lot of aspects of asynchronous learning that are pretty fantastic: it’s more convenient, you can move at your own pace, and you don’t have to deal with that one annoying student who always manages to ask a slightly off topic or tangential question that runs class over. BUT!

The problem with a class being asynchronous is that it becomes incredibly easy to fall into one of two traps. Trap #1: you procrastinate like crazy and never get anything accomplished. Trap #2: you never really start or stop work and everything just blends all together so that you never have real “time off” or real “work time.”

So how do you avoid these two traps? Well, we can take advice from someone who has experience with a radical asynchronous, zero work-life separation lifestyle: Scott Kelly, who spent nearly a year on the International Space Station. In a recent opinion piece in the New York Times (see below for a link to the article), Mr. Kelly describes the importance of creating and keeping an appropriately paced schedule.

He notes that a schedule of will give you a structure to your day, including the all important bed time. A schedule will help you to both accomplish the tasks you need to get done and ensure you make time for the fun things: whether that’s a Netflix party or a walk around the block (time outside is also critical!). In short, Mr. Kelly emphasizes the importance of pacing yourself. In the same way that you can fall into Trap #1, never getting anything done; you want to avoid falling into Trap #2, of feeling like you’re never able to turn off work. Finally, a schedule will ensure you get enough sleep—which he notes is critical to mood, ability to think critically, and relationships.

Schedules do not have to be as strict as the one that Mr. Kelly describes following on the space station. It can be as simple as:

  • 8am wake up
  • Get dressed, eat breakfast
  • Work on coursework for 2-3 hours
  • Lunch
  • Finish any coursework with a deadline of tomorrow
  • Go for a walk outside/work out
  • Chill until dinner
  • Dinner
  • Hang out with friends/family
  • Bedtime at 11pm.

There’s no times listed, just a suggestion of what to do during certain times of the day, which you can adjust to your preferences: if you prefer to work out in the morning, work out in the morning! If you do your best studying at night, work on coursework before you go to bed! The key to to try and be consistent with how you’re working and relaxing, and making sure you get adequate amounts of sleep (i.e. not too little OR too much).

Link to The NY Times article by Scott Kelly:

Adventures in Online Learning: Communicating with your Professors

When you are taking a class online or in any way remotely, figuring out a good and consistent communication method is key. As a professor, I’ve often found that students will often ask me questions before, during, or after class. They do this more often than they email me and far more often than they visit my office hours. Taking a class online does not always allow this same kind of regular access. In short, you will need to figure out the best way to contact your professors in order to get a timely response.

The best way to contact your professors is to figure out what their preference is. Common examples of contact include (but are not limited to):

  • Email
  • Online learning platform (Blackboard, Canvas, etc.) internal email
  • Online learning platform discussion board
  • Phone

You want to figure out which of these methods the professor prefers to interact with students in order to know which platform they are consistently checking. If, for example, you are asking important questions on a discussion board thread, and your professor is only paying close attention to email, your question will likely go unanswered.

An important note in this regard: if a professor prefers that you phone them, you need to actually do this. As a millenial myself, I am sympathetic to the aversion to actually speaking with others on the phone. I would 100% rather send an email than make a phone call. However, professors from other, older generations may prefer this form of communication, and like it or not, you need to respect that or risk not getting the important clarifications that you need.

The best way to determine how a professor wants to be contacted is to check out the syllabus or course information page on the online learning platform. Most good professors will tell you right on that page what format they want you to use when contacting them. If, for whatever reason, they have not indicated their preferred contact preference, a short email to their university email address inquiring is perfectly appropriate.

Why you should ask: Professors are often assigned many students in a given semester. When I was teaching at a small liberal arts college, I routinely had 120+ students that I was overseeing across my classes each semester. At larger universities with large lecture courses, this number may be significantly higher. Fielding a large number of student concerns means that inevitably there will be a very large volume of communication that a professor is expected to keep pace with, presenting communication fatigue. There were days when I would literally do nothing but answer emails with student questions for an entire afternoon (particularly when an assignment was coming due) and I taught all in person classes! For professors who have not had much experience teaching online in the past, managing this level of communication is going to be difficult. Funneling your questions through to the preferred communication stream will be critical in ensuring that your communication is seen and answered.

Adventures in Online Learning: Finding a room with a door

If you find yourself working from home, finding a space that will actually allow you to focus on your work without interruption can be challenging: maybe you have a roommate, maybe your space is full of people who do not also have work/school demands on their time. Such situations can lead to loud, distracting environments that do not lend themselves well to the focused work (reading, writing, listening to lectures) that school requires. If you are constantly interrupted or distracted, it can be difficult to actually get done what you need to get done–period, let alone get tasks done on time or done well.

The easiest solution? Find a room with a door where you can close yourself in for a period of time.

This room does not have to be a bedroom, although for many students it likely will be. It may be a formal living room, a basement room, or even a car parked in your driveway or garage.* The only requirements are that you have enough space to set up your computer or book, and that it is an enclosed space in which to work. (Ideally, you may also want to have internet access).

The purpose of finding a space with a door is that it gives a visual signal to the distracting elements (be they people, pets, or even just noises made by others in your home) that this is time you need to focus and not be disturbed. To further this signal, you might consider letting others in your home know why you need the space and for approximately how long. A verbal reminder will cut down on the chances that someone will come looking for you while you are trying to focus.

If a verbal reminder and the closed door doesn’t do the trick, and you find people consistently walking into your space, consider hanging a little sign on the door as a reminder. Especially if your working in that location is out of the norm, others may forget that you are using the room for this purpose and walk in despite the closed door. A sign–a post it note will probably do the trick–will act as a secondary reminder that you are asking to please not be disturbed while you try to get your work done.

Finally, if all else fails, find a way to lock yourself in the room. A locked door is a surefire way to at least keep people out–I can’t promise it’ll prevent them banging on the door.

If you have other tips about keeping your focused space sacred, please share them in the comments below. Study Hard and Good Luck!

*Disclaimer: You should never sit in a vehicle that is on inside of your closed garage.

Adventures in Online Learning: Introduction

As the novel Coronavirus or COVID-19 has many universities (including my own) switching to a remote/online learning model for the time being, I thought it would be helpful to put together a series of quick posts that cover common tips and tricks to navigate this challenge. So, for the next few weeks, I’ll be sending out short blurbs a few times a week on navigating your way through learning online.

Don’t forget to sign up if you want these delivered straight to your email address! In the meantime, stay inside and stay healthy!