A Year’s Worth Online Learning

As I am writing this, I’m already starting to prepare for Spring teaching. Normally it’s a straightforward proposition, even a bit mundane sometimes: teaching the same class with the same curriculum semester by semester, changes mostly come in a glacial pace. An extra assignment here, different homework problems there, the var.iation between semesters tend to be small. Part of the reason is inertia, but also because of consistency: how can others accept the class’ credit if the content keeps changing?

As schools closed with little prospect of opening up soon (a fight that seems hopeless at this point and might soon be moot), teachers must do a wholesale rethink of their teaching method. And yes, this includes the famously unyielding college classes. Despite of years of supposedly dreaded student reviews, students today have more or less the same class experience as students from the last decade. The changes tend to be in terms of lowering difficulty, not delivery method. Professors and TAs have been encouraged to incorporate technology in the classroom, but apart from basic use of LMS platform such as Canvas or Blackboard, there is little trace of the 21st century in the classroom. This is particularly true in famously obstinate field of math, where a pristine blackboard is revered and a good chalk can become a collector’s item (seriously!). Indeed, the ideal classroom situtation looks no different than what you can find in Good Will Hunting: lectures and discussions, where all the arguments are written neatly on a (chalk)board.

Obviously the old ways becomes quickly untenable in the year(s) of Zoom. As much as I like having dust marks all over my clothes, I don’t (and honestly, won’t) put a chalkboard in my house so I can lecture with my low-quality camera. To their credit, as soon as we moved online my department quickly sends out a couple of helpful suggestions (and a bit of start-up money). Ideally, one should use an iPad with a proper Apple pen. Barring that, illustrator’s tablet is a cheaper alternative. For those on an even tighter budget, one can either write on paper, recorded on webcam, or even pre-write their lectures and just awkwardly point out the relevant bits as they deliver their lecture, probably frustrated with the lack of interactivity.

An improved board, if that’s even possible

First time I taught online was in a summer course 3 years ago. Zoom was new and we had no real idea how a lecture without a board should look like. Indeed, when I look at it now, we had practically nothing except for some barely legible equations written with a mouse. Well, it’s nothing like that now. Take the all-important-but-often-overlooked-because-it’s-hard-to-teach topic of graphing. It basically is a live drawing lesson, not a presentation of pre-made figures as it sometimes devolves to be. However a proper lesson usually takes a lot of precious class time and the result is often sub-par, as one has to handle tight spaces and colour chalks. Digital pen, however, solves practically all of these problems. The lines are clear, erasing leaves no smudges, and we can easily play with colours. In fact I’ll give that the writings can be better than the board. More legible, colours, and, most importantly, quick copy-pasting. Some times I wonder why haven’t I done this sooner?

That’s all nice, but as much as I like hearing my own voice, a course should involve more than just me blabbering for 50 minutes. We’ll have to think about exams, quizzes, and homeworks. Here, the online side is clearly not winning. The basic question is this: how can you ensure integrity in evaluations if we cannot be sure if the students are not getting undue help?

Do I still have to proctor exams?

Some people genuinely find the lack of enforcement to be liberating. If the instructor cannot make the assignments un-Google-able, the argument goes, then either the instructor is lazy or it should not be a college class. To this unbelievably naive argument I’ll say three things. First, there’s only so much argument you can squeeze out of basic algebra. Either you know \((x+1)^2 = x^2 +2x + 1\) or you don’t. When the point is the answer itself (even among math teachers you’ll find a multitude of ways of understanding the above) there’s not much use of arguing about the intermediate computation step just because that’s the textbook’s endoresed method. Second, even when pros ‘can always look it up when they need it’ (and yes I do, daily), they know what’s the ‘it’ and where to find it, because they have some idea how the solution should be. Those who make this point usually find themselves in trouble later on, because they have to look up every other thing of what should’ve been long committed to memory. Third, getting online ‘help’ has become so popular, even the New York Times wrote about it. In fact, the ease of looking up the answer (Wolfram Alpha included) is exactly the problem we’re facing in homeworks that we’ve more or less given up on enforcing honesty on them. If we give up on the exam, then we might as well give up on evaluation altogether.

Once we accept the need for some sort of check, then it remains to look for options. This is where it begins to get a bit murky. There are various companies that offer proctoring services. ProctorU, for example, offers live proctoring by a real person. Others, such as Proctorio, utilizes AI to flag suspicious behaviour they see as the students are recorded working. If you think these services means we’ll get rid of in-person testing, think again.

For one, they cost money. ProctorU charges a fee for every exam. As I tend to do 4 exams during the semester, the cost does add up. For others, privacy is a concern. Proctorio has been involved in several disputes last summer over what its critics claim to be a gross invasion of privacy and students dignity. Others know these issues better than me and I recommend watching this video (to be fair, the authors are trying to sell some sort of pre-made lesson plans, but I think they make some good points).

My time with Proctorio

Academic debates aside, I can tell you my experience with one of the proctoring software. I have used Proctorio in my class last fall. Personally, I like that I can, if I want to, check that there’s no gross violation on my tests. It is indeed true that humans abide to the rules when they know they’re being watched. On the other hand, I find the algorithm to be bordering on paranoid. I can understand why, but if there are so many flags (with the non-specific incidents recorded on mediocre laptop webcams), it’s hard to make real allegations except for the worst infractions. Even when, after grading a student’s work, I find a ground for suspicion, the recording was not always helpful. There’s often too much noise to be sure (and you’d really want to be sure). On the balance, I find the software to be more useful as a deterrent rather than actual enforcement tool.

The software itself has its downsides. For one, I try to respect my students’ privacy and I realize sometimes they have to work in an intimate space. I might not actually see it (I only check some videos), but the process of recording itself can feel intrusive. However I don’t necessarily buy some of the detractors’ argument. Such recognition software can identify the difference, for example, between races, but to my knowledge it is yet to be shown that the difference creates tangible difference in outcome (e.g. chance to be flagged). The question of ‘dignity’ and privacy can also be emotional but a bit thin in specifics. To be honest, it’s a bit weird to take argument of privacy while knowing that the college-age student who are active on TikTok or any other social media are likely to bare all of their lives to both strangers and tech giants, often without them knowing about it.

In all, I decide not to use Proctorio in the spring, unless I find the cheating to be intolerable. Yes, I don’t want to see my students’ bedrooms, but above all, I don’t want to be on tech support duty every time there’s an exam. When the software works, we’re all happy. When it doesn’t however, I’ll have to be on guard for emails asking for help. For a class of 160, I can spend half a day troubleshooting the issue with students’ computers when I have no better idea than to just what I found on Google (and it’s not much). On the other side, the hiccup probably disrupts the student’s workflow and adds undue stress on the exams. Proctoring is important, but the headache is not worth it.

If we won’t be watching, what should we then do?

This question is a bit hard, especially because I already made a point to the contary above. To be honest I’m not quite sure, but I think a rethink in exam structure is needed. Less short answers and more elaboration. Also probably more questions overall, so no one has enough time to leaf through their notes looking for similar problems which solution they vaguely remember. Definitely more time will be spent on grading (as if the 4 days now is not enough!), so maybe tweaking some answers so they can be evaluated by computers. I try to design the computer-/human-graded problem split to be 60/40, but maybe it should go up to 50/50 (again, more time grading). These are just some ideas and I’m not sure what’s exactly effective.

So to conclude….

I find teaching in 2020 to be unlike of anything I’ve done before, both in terms of methods and expecatations. I’m definitely happy to try new gadgets, especially if the output is beautiful like my colourful notes now. However, as we’re learning there’s a limit to online interaction, I also learn that even the best of online learning is still just a ‘cheap’ imitation of the classroom environment. In short, online classroom sucks. If you won’t take my words for it, then listen to the Colorado Teacher of the Year. Or, you know, just see the dark screen you see while you’re lecturing, thinking whether there’s any real human behind those (turned-off) camera. If going online. with its great promise of flexibility, is so great, shouldn’t we all be witnessing a flourishing of learning, unburdened by antiquated requirement to present? Instead, we are faced with failing grades and decrease of academic achievement all accross the board.

So yes, I’d love nothing more than to go back to the classroom. Like the title says, it has been a year’s worth of learning (to teach) online for me. Some of the lessons are definitely useful (the notes!) and some makes me feel a bit more secure about the future of higher education (online class sucks!). But until we (and here it really is the big We) come back to our senses, I’ll click on Zoom five times a week and do my lessons. Wish me luck.

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