My name is Linda. I write a bi-weekly newsletter about computer science, childhood and culture - and there are 9553 of you listening. If you enjoy this issue, please share it with anyone you think may find it useful.
One of the best things to happen to me last year was the serendipitous return to teaching, all of it online. My eight week undergrad class for students training to become teachers at Helsinki University allowed me to experiment and try out ideas around online learning.
One of the new professions that will emerge out of the pandemic teaching is definitely a producer for online learning.
Every industry has its own tools and practices and it will be fascinating to see how these develop.
Storyboards and scripts get turned into call sheets and movies.
User stories and mockups into digital products.
For teaching, the starting point is the syllabus - which I’ve grown to love as a planning tool on the content, but which gives very little direction on the pacing, rhythm and activities of the actual online teaching.
Much of what follows is a reflection not on the what of teaching, but the how. I realise there are masters degrees worth of practice on how to teach, and I’m a complete beginner in all of this. But if there are others, who have overnight become online educators, keep reading.
The course was called Playful Computer Science and it was intended for students practicing to become primary school teachers and to give them an overview of the field of computer science. I wanted the students to actively make things, to build artefacts of their learning. This being the pandemic fall, Zoom-fatigue was real and my wish for the course was to be something energising, fun and worth looking forward.
Structure: mix of synchronous and asynchronous learning
For each class, I utilised pre-recorded content. Students were required to watch the ten minute videos in advance and we spent the first fifteen minutes of class discussing the videos in breakout groups, followed by a lecture and activities. This allowed us to go through some of the same material as the recorded part, but add depth, add interaction and add new activities. It also allowed time for those more meandering questions and discussions.
I was lucky to have the Love Letters series ready to go - with better production values than your average talking to a camera setup I think it helped spark enthusiasm and interest in the sometimes difficult concepts of computer science. If I was in charge of a university degree, I would definitely invest in this.
The last 15-30 minutes of class time was spent as quiet work time. I think working in the presence of others is something many of us miss and I wanted to offer that time when a student can after class come talk to the instructor. Out of a class of 25, there were usually 4-5 who hung out afterwards.
The small cohort size (roughly 25 students a class) was also something I enjoyed.
In addition to the weekly class, I would add a session to go through the homework tasks, maybe handled by a teaching assistant. Now the only way to share was with the full class - I would like to offer more nuance, maybe 1:1 talks, small groups and intimacy to discuss and reflect. I have no idea what this would be called. Labs? Grouptime?
In an ideal world the teachers would actually use the materials immediately in a classroom/after school setup and document on their journal based on those experiences - I noticed many of my older students doing the activities with their children and loved that.
Content and design: Learning as construction
Early on I knew I wanted to make a course-kit to send students in advance. My whole teaching thesis is about how learning happens at your fingertips, so I wanted to spend time actually making those memories, offering materials that have secrets. Great learning for me, is more about experience and process than information.
Each student received an envelope with the student passport (the class homework), teacher reflection journal (for weekly reflection/assessment) and a few surprises, like a picture of a child we used in debugging, a bag of tea, some crafting materials we would use during the course etc. I believe it helped to see the full workload of the course in advance, hold it in your hands.
The 30 or so tasks were assigned on a weekly basis, but we also spent classroom time crafting together (like the time we made paper computers or created masks out of each other’s behavioural data). I also designed some activities that required students to collect items from their home (like the time we practiced sorting algorithms with different sized objects) or take walks in their neighbourhood.
In addition to the smaller projects, we read together Seymour Papert’s Mindstorms and all students did a final project on a lesson plan. I was looking for a mix of smaller and bigger projects, deep reading and discussion time.
More creative learning experiences. I want to make a class with audio only. Something inspired by Twitch. A reading session with candle light.
Participation. In January I took part in Learning to Teach Creative Technologies Remotely, which was a treasure trove for ideas on how to enhance participation: Google Docs led critiques, tape mask on video, Long Now debate format, diagramming activities, show & tell, quick quizzing questions on the chat, ice breakers and tools for checking-in.. I wish there was a card deck of pedagogical patterns one could shuffle through!
Setting up class culture. Being new to this kind of teaching I was nervous and didn’t understand how much time should be spent setting the class culture. In next iterations this will be a much bigger part of my work.
Tech: No single stack solution
Whenever we talk about education and technology, we inevitably start to talk about the, well, technology. There is this wonderful blog called Uses This and I’ll just go with their template:
What hardware do you use? I use a 13’’ 2018 MBP with so many additional items, it’s a little bit ridiculous. I have a Logitech Brio 4K webcam, a Kodak Ring Light 10’’ and an IPOVO 4k documentary camera. In addition I use an iPad and pencil to draw.
And what software? I use Zoom for lectures, mostly because it’s reliable and handles the recording of lectures well. I prepare my lectures in keynote and show them as PDFs. I do a lot of drawing on iPad and have found the quickest and most reliable way to switch screens is to use Quicktime (!) . The documentary camera I use for show & tell, sharing pictures from books and all kinds of other things.
I used a Google Doc for communicating the syllabus, adding links, recordings and such. I also threw together a janky spreadsheet system for returning the weekly tasks.
What would be your dream setup?
There was no common place for students to hang out, so I set up a Facebook group, but I think next time I would try out Discord. Alan Zucconi had some tech ideas I want to try out. I want to be a bit more ambitious with the online environments I use, now I kept the class mostly within Zoom, but I would like to make field-trips to spreadsheets, Figma, Repl.it and other Internet neighbourhoods. I want to get better with e-mail and using it as a low-fi tool for a course meta-narrative (I’ve been playing this Kickstarter project called A Field Guide to Memory, which has inspired me tremendously. Daily, game like e-mails seem like a lovely way to learn.). And of course I want to code an application where the class materials, experiments and community lives, but, hopefully will find another solution :)
Tools for planning online teaching?
I’ve been following different forms of online learning for well over a decade and I still feel like we lack vocabulary and tools to describe these different experiences. There is a wide landscape of learning out there. What are the scene, character and plot of online teaching?
Right now I’m thinking mostly of professional development and teacher training in terms of existing educational structures (like the university), but so much interesting work is being done in places like Hyperlink, Tiago Forte & co and older ones like Reggio Emilia, Summerhill & Black Mountain College. I don’t think there will be a single format that will win - education is so many things for so many people - but many systems that allow people to create all kinds of learning structures within them. Meanwhile, paper, pen and inspiration from others will have to do.
In computer science, a linked list is a linear collection of data elements whose order is not given by their physical placement in memory. But here it is a selection of things I’ve been reading lately.
The Halt and Catch Fire Syllabus is so amazing and an example of syllabus as a thinking tool. I love the little koans, use of emulators, discussion points - well, everything.
Teaching into the Void is all of us. I especially love the line: Move over Bill Gates, the essential office products are now brought to you by James Charles and Charli D’Amelio.
Much has been written about the online platforms disrupting education, but I think the shortage of teachers is something we should paying attention to equally. And the opposite: the rise of great educators. Taking CS classes from David Malan, following yoga classes from New York and having Reggio Emilia atelierista lead me through a workshop are experiences I wouldn’t have been able to do before. When is there an exodus of great teachers leaving schools to start their own practice like journalist are now leaving newspapers to start newsletters?
Explorabl.es. Oldie, but goodie by Nicky Case. Video is so pervasive in education it really makes me hope there was room for truly interactive learning. My promise for 2021 is to make an explorable of my own.
I’m hoping to surface and share stories from all of you and I’d love to see your creations! Here are a few teachers using Ruby in creative, fun and inspiring ways:
Or hit reply and answer me:
What is the best online learning experience you’ve had?
How do you engage students in lectures?
How can we design learning experiences that encourage play? What kind of tools, checklists or maps might we need?