The Science Circle sponsored a colloquium on online education, Experiences of Teaching Online from Different Perspectives, on January 8, 2021. With the mass exodus of students from the physical classroom due to the world-wide COVID-19 pandemic, learning online has become the new norm. Teachers have literally been caught up in a revolution. While online activities and computer-based learning has grown over the past two decades, no one was prepared to go to 100% online teaching and learning. The colloquium sought to explore the effects this unprecedented and rapid change has caused.

The participants were: Dr. Phil Youngblood (Vic Michalak in SL), Dr. Maria Droujkova (Mariad Hax in SL), Dr. Cynthia Calongne ( Lyr Lobo in SL), and Wade Roach, who is an American High School science and engineering teacher in Anchorage, Alaska. Also, we have some observations by a student, Karthik Prathaban (Jude in SL), that are included in the Comments below.

A caveat: Video conferencing software has recently matured to the point where it has become the essential primary tool for online classes. There are many products that are used for this but the Zoom application has become the Kleenex of video conferencing tools and I will use Zoom as the default.

Dr. Youngblood teaches at the college level and he has gathered some observations contrasting classroom with online learning.

Face-to-Face Settings. Positive – Natural communication environment, full range of communication options. Negative – Must travel to collocate, vehicle costs (gas, parking), away from home or work, same place, same time (a luxury).

Remote (including Online) Settings. Positive – Locate where you want or need to be, less need to dress up, chat while others are talking. Negative – Network connection, bandwidth, hardware, software, tech expertise, background interference, distraction, noise. He also shared some student comments concerning remote learning. Positive – “interactive, close to f2f”, “made sure we understood”, easier to focus and ask questions, “did not require face cam/mic”, “needed to be home for family.” Negative – “hard to pay attention,” distractions at home, not as much interaction with other students.

There are unique advantages to online activities, especially if using a virtual world. Dr. Youngblood said, “We have witnessed during presentations, field trips, and visiting exhibits together that interacting in virtual worlds breaks down physical distances and social barriers, enables participants to represent themselves in a wider range of ways, to interact in chat without disrupting a speaker, and to create persistent imaginative visuals to support and reinforce education.”

He made a significant observation about the human aspect of any teaching setting, “How the class is taught may not always matter, but how the teacher presents it and interacts is always important.”

Dr. Droujkova focuses on teaching mathematics and identified two areas that required attention when switching to online learning. “Fatigue – I need to make sure people don’t get exhausted mentally, physically, and emotionally. That takes a whole big checklist in task design! Technology – It’s entirely unpredictable. For example, I am on Google Fiber (very fast), and I couldn’t see half the slides at the event due to lag.”

Overall, she said, “We can build better stories and better futures. The future is a pattern that emerges from our current choices. For my part, I am working on making advanced mathematics accessible to everyone in kind ways. Day to day, that means supporting informal learning communities run by and for parents, teachers, and students. From where I stand, the future looks like a bunch of friendly math circles and their alliances.” For example, please visit: https://mathcommunities.org or https://aimathcircles.org.

Dr. Calongne talked about the need to provide support for students who “tested positive for Covid-19 or who had family who died from Covid-19 and other medical conditions. I adopted flexible policies to accommodate the needs of students and their families. This had an impact for online discussion in smaller classes.”

“In my virtual world class, taught for a university in OpenSimulator on the Lobo grid, I participated in class activities using a cognitive apprenticeship model to strengthen their learning experience. The challenges were to provide support and engagement synchronously for 13 students from both undergraduate and graduate programs and from any discipline.”

In summary, Dr. Calongne said, It is important to recognize the need for “face-to-face and emotional connections in the classroom, so if health issues prevent campus classes, we recommend better tools for simulating classroom experiences and bridging with field trips and opportunities that are not possible in a physical campus.” This echoes Dr. Youngblood’s comments where he mentions the ability of online activities to go places the real classroom cannot.

Mr. Roach teaches in a high school environment and describes how his world changed. “My district took a normal 6 period class day over an 18 week semester and turned it into 2 quarters of 3 classes. Each class is a 90 minute Zoom meeting four times a week with Wednesday being an asynchronous day where teachers are in staff meetings, professional development, and designing and implementing curriculum.” That is three 90 minute Zoom classes each day with a day for preparation each week. Beyond using Zoom as his main tool, he uses a long list of other applications to present content and create collaborative and interactive assignments.

He identified several issues that are probably more common when teaching at the primary and secondary levels than at the college level. The software students use must be approved by the school district. This limits the teachers options. Also, virtual world software may be difficult to have approved due to technical requirements and fairly steep learning curve.

One aspect of Zoom, that everyone has video, has evolved over time. “In the beginning… students would have videos on but very quickly it reduced down to just a few students showing their videos. Sometimes this is a legitimate bandwidth saving option but moreover it has become a social norm to not show video. This is where I think the avatar that we have in virtual worlds would improve the interactions.”

“As a teacher it is very difficult to see if a blank screen with a name on it is actually doing work. The other big problem is cheating. Students can google many of the traditional things we used to test so I work on more metacognitive problems (how do they know that that is a correct way to solve a problem).”

In summary, Mr. Roach said, “Overall, I think that we managed the online education well and it does feel like if we wanted to make some progressive changes to the way we educate our children this would be a good time to try to implement them.”

A digression: When I began teaching a graduate online course in 2000, two-way, video conferencing was not a practical option for students scattered across the state. The course my colleague and I taught was hosted by a course management system and we held a weekly Q & A session via one-way streaming video and text chat. We had a set that made us look like late night TV show hosts. Students would ask questions via text chat and we would  answer them via the live stream. This format was great fun and the students liked it.

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About Author

Deepy (Deepthinker Oh) is an educational psychologist with a long standing love of journalism and previous experience as the editor of MANIERA magazine. Deepthinker Oh's use of the SLBN logo does not constitute approval by or a representation or endorsement from Linden Lab.

3 comments on “Online Teaching

  • Deepy says:

    I received a comment from Dr. S. George Djorgovski (Curious George in SL) in Second Life and I’ve posted it below. Thank you George.

    My thoughts are mainly about the university level education, although some of it applies to the pre-college level as well.

    I’ve been pushing for an online education for many years now, and taught 3 different MOOCs on Coursera (and one of them on edX as well). Not only is it more efficient, more convenient, and more affordable, but it can be easily personalized to a given student’s interests and needs. Also, I think that with the rapid changes brought by the technology that evolves at a Moore’s law pace, it will be necessary that we shift to a continuous, lifetime education, and that can only be done through the online media. The traditional classroom, one-size-fits-all model is both obsolete and inadequate.

    The pandemic has simply accelerated that transition. There will probably be a mix of the traditional, in-person model, especially for the brand-name boutique universities such as Harvard, Stanford, Caltech, etc., and the online components even for them. But a mass retail learning as delivered by the state and city college type institutions will likely shift to a large degree to the online mechanisms, because it is good enough, cheaper, and more convenient. The students have now discovered that they can get a world-class education online for free, so why would they spend obscene amounts of money and get into a lifetime of student debt (at least in the US)?

    It is the social component of education, both between the students, and between the students and instructors, that has been missing from the online mechanisms. We have now learned that this is really, really important, both for the educational reasons, and for the psychological well being and the social needs of the students. This is why I am back in SL, because I think that VWs offer the best online platform for this purpose at this time.

    Reply
  • Romero de la Luna says:

    Hi Deepy,

    I saw your post on Strawberry Linden’s Second Life Community page. I’ve been in SL since 2008 and am also an American high school English teacher. Thank you for your thoughtful words, as well as the insights from the teachers and professors. I’ve been deeply interested in trying to provide more engagement for my students; emotional, intellectual, and creative engagement with our material, especially during these times of Covid 19 and the rapidly evolving importance of online education. For a while now I’ve dreamed of incorporating the virtual world experience for my students but only in a way that highlights the greatest assets of virtual worlds, which in my opinion are the creative play and cognitive interactivity as well as the proximity and emotional/intellectual connection and sense of community that can result from it. I’ve read a bit on the subject and I confess I’m still a bit lost in the woods. I am grateful for the insights offered here. Do you know of any other places/models that are exploring Creative Writing and or Literature in SL in an academic way? I would love to find more resources.

    From a dreamer’s standpoint, I would love to be able to engage my students, with interactive hybrid stories that are articulated through mixed mediums. Bryn Oh is by far my great love/hero in establishing this on their sims. Time and time again, I place my hand over my mouth in wonder with what they create. I would love to figure out a way for students to create their own versions of their work on a smaller scale, but I recognize the steep and possibly demoralizing learning curve. I have also thought about (wishing actually, as I have insufficient $L and a district that is highly skeptical of the benefits of SL) establishing a cutting edge, visually beautiful sim that is like an interactive literary journal. I did something a little bit like that in 2009; a barely known/visited experiment called The Beautiful Creatures. I loved working on that, but it was ultimately far less than what I had originally set out to do.

    I’m writing all of this to ask, if in your past/present and future travels in SL witnessing innovative education… if you find folks that may be my ‘kindred spirits’ in some way, I would be so grateful if you either forwarded my name to them or recommended them to me. Also I would crave any ideas you have for me on the subject. Thank you for this article and also for your generous time reading this comment.

    Warm Regards,

    Mr. CD, Teacher

    Romero de la Luna (SL)

    Reply
  • Deepy says:

    Home-Based Learning – A student’s perspective

    by Karthik Prathaban (Jude in SL)

    Being from Singapore I have had one of the best experiences with home based learning that you could have asked for, during the COVID crisis. Utilizing systems like the university’s education portal or Zoom that are extremely internet dependent, I am really grateful for the fact that I have reliable Internet access.

    COVID emerged in the midst of my final year of undergraduate studies in mechanical engineering. I’m now doing my Master of Engineering in biomedical engineering. I took two graduate modules taught online last year and am also doing a graduate module in my second semester of graduate studies this year (My course is research based).

    My modules were taught mainly through the Zoom platform. The lecturer would share PowerPoint slides, make annotations where necessary, show us videos if they needed to, etc… It wasn’t a huge challenge adapting to the technology. Comprehensive instructions on using Zoom were provided by the university and updates were communicated rapidly. There were some hiccups by way of occasional disconnections or issues with videos (like audio not coming through), but as far as our lectures were concerned, online lessons were actually very much welcome. We didn’t need to travel for starters (It takes an hour at least for me to go to campus).

    What was more interesting though, were assessments. Quizzes were the easiest, we’d take them through the university’s education portal. You couldn’t possibly have a closed book quiz in such a situation. Quizzes in part became a treasure hunt for material in the notes or on the net. Whilst the ability to be resourceful, to look for the right material (whether it’s through Google searches or the effective employment of the “ctrl+f” function in a document) is useful, over emphasis on its use reduces the necessity of memory or understanding. I do admit my laziness – my liking for questions that can be answered with a simple document or internet search, but I also admit that questions that require formulated answers and thorough thought processes are extremely important for a student’s development. Without a proper exam or test environment and with access to the Internet readily available, ensuring this I think is a challenge for educators teaching in the online learning environment.

    Group projects also introduced some interesting challenges. One of my graduate modules was heavily assignment based. We needed to form groups ourselves, but this would of course be difficult being unable to meet face to face. This being a foundational graduate biomedical engineering module, with graduate students taking their courses part time or working in different labs, students in the class didn’t really know each other. In our first lecture therefore, we were asked to give 10 minute introductions each, about our research interests, our ideas for research topics for the assignment, our skill-sets and so on. We’d then email students with common interests or skills/research interests that we believed could supplement our own and form groups. This “forced” us to sell ourselves, to take the initiative to communicate, skills that I’d initially imagined wouldn’t be as relevant or utilized in a home-based learning context. Projects also gave us opportunities to interact with team members through regular Zoom meetings or text messaging. I felt this helped alleviate feelings of isolation, which may have been especially prominent for our international students without family here.

    The graduate module I mention above involved the development of a robotic system. Some proof of concepts, for robotic actuators or AI image classifiers for example had to be demonstrated. Access to the lab was limited and thereby so was our access to resources like electronics or actuating components. This encouraged some creativity. I used what was available at home. I folded some paper to make an origami inspired structure, enclosed it in some clingfilm, used my household vacuum cleaner and simulated a pneumatically powered origami inspired folding robotic arm. I may be exaggerating here, as the adversities introduced in this project were somewhat minute, but I think bits of inconveniences like this in my case encourage some degree of creativity, perhaps another benefit of the shift to home based learning.

    Reply

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