With in person classes canceled, universities, schools, faculty and instructors everywhere are rallying to provide quality educational experiences online and some amazing resources are emerging for virtual teaching. This online flip is particularly challenging for classes and workshops that feature interactive, hands-on experiential education.

In Part 1 of this 2-part blog series we focus on tips that we’ve found helpful for delivering virtual workshops on computational skills. In Part 2 we discuss ways to retool a field or laboratory course by harnessing data to meet learner objectives. We hope you find these tips helpful, and that they spill over into other domains and teaching modalities too. Did we miss something? Got a suggestion? Email datalab@ucdavis.edu.

Part 1: Tips for Distance Learning Workshops on Computational Skills (and beyond)

Short-format instruction such as workshops, bootcamps and demos pose challenges outside of the traditional quarter or semester long course model. Instructors often have limited time with their learners in these short-teaching formats and have few (if any) opportunities to pivot instructional strategies to better align their delivery mid-instruction. Workshops focusing on or featuring computational skills are now compounded 3 things: the computational skills, the videoconferencing technology, and the overarching domain application. Here are some tips to leverage the technology and flip the workshop structure design engaging and impactful hands-on workshops online.

Get help. 

  • Recruit guest teaching assistants (TAs), community helpers, and advanced students who are proficient in the material (or can be brought up to speed quickly) to be on call to help answer questions during the workshop. Helpers can answer questions in the chat window (see below for more about chat), and if you designate them as a co-host in videoconferencing software like Zoom they’ll be able to hop into a breakout room with specific learners who need more help to talk through a technical challenge before they can rejoin the class.
  • Designate someone other than the instructor to be the workshop monitor. They can mind the chat window and answer straightforward questions (like getting latecomers up to speed with any necessary shared links or instructions), and interrupt the instructor when necessary to address learner questions.
  • Use an extra screen. As an instructor, you’ll have a lot to look at – the videoconferencing software (and chat window), the program you’re teaching, and your instruction notes at a minimum. If you have a second monitor, designate one with the camera for the videoconferencing software and the program you’re teaching, and put your notes and any resources on the second monitor (or a tablet if you don’t have another monitor). Play around with this arrangement, practice, and see what works best for you.
  • Give yourself a hand by chunking up the material into smaller, action-focused steps. You can demo a chunk and then ask the learners to repeat what you did and execute the commands on their own machine. This can slow the pace but gives the instructor concentrated time for addressing questions and checking on learner comprehension. Taking this one step further, consider recording these instructional pieces ahead of time. Then, during the workshop you can “play” the recording while simultaneously answering learner questions. (Congrats, you’ve found a way to clone yourself! But, now you have to listen to your own voice, which many of us don’t relish doing.) You can take this one step further and flip the entire workshop – have learners review pre-recorded demos before the workshop and focus the “in person time” on answering questions, troubleshooting, working through challenge problems, and helping learners engage more deeply with the material. You can avoid the large class altogether and break the learners into smaller groups and meet with them for more individualized engagement. This can also allow more asynchronous learning, which may better accommodate learners spread across different time zones, juggling other commitments like elder and childcare, etc. All of these strategies can be particularly effective if you have a large class and few (if any) helpers, but it’s important to remember that not all learners will like all styles, so be prepared to receive and implement feedback if you need to pivot.

Post materials online in advance. 

  • Write up your code, examples, etc. into an online tutorial, workshop website, repository and/or interactive notebook. Give learners access to this ahead of time and during the workshop so they have an immediate place to turn if they get lost.
  • Try to be consistent and follow your materials, particularly if you are live coding.  (E.g., use consistent naming schemes for variables, sample dummy datasets, etc. )
  • Maintain, improve and share these resources with your teaching community!

Leverage the tools and interface of your videoconferencing software.

  • Designate a purpose for the chat. When and how should learners leverage the chat window to communicate with the instructor? With each other? With a helper? When will the instructor check the chat for questions? Sending private messages to the helper(s) can be a good way to get and give 1:1 support, but don’t forget to ask the helpers to post solutions back into the main chat window in case others have similar questions. And instructors, remember to not only check the chat window periodically for questions but also to read out loud the question before you start answering it. Lean on virtual workspaces, like Canvas, Etherpad or Slack, for students to connect with each other and more deeply with the materials before, during and after the workshop. Don’t rely on the ephemeral videoconferencing chat windows to serve too many purposes.
  • Nonverbal cues for formative assessment. In our in person workshops we use sticky notes and put them up like flags on our computer to give the instructor and helpers feedback. In that case, a green note means “I’m all caught up and ready for more!” whereas an orange note indicates “hold on, I need help.” These notes let the instructor know when to speed up or slow down the pace, and identifies who needs a helper to overcome an immediate obstacle. Videoconferencing software like Zoom has a nonverbal cues feature, which can be leveraged similarly. Ask your learners to use the green “yes” when they’re ready to proceed, and the red “no” when they are stuck and need help. Ask them to “raise hand” when they have a question they want to interrupt the class to ask, and to use the thumbs up/down in response to a specific instructor question (e.g., “thumbs up if you were able to download and read in the dataset”). 
  • Polling, “rate the session” and other feedback tools can enhance your ability to adapt your teaching in real time and across multiple sessions. Many of these features are included in videoconferencing software, although they often need to be setup in advance. 

Think accessibility AND safety

  • Similarly to an in person workshop, when screencasting check is the front big enough, your cursor icon big enough, the contrast high enough? Are you using colorblind friendly colors? Is there a way you can turn on closed captioning (particularly for recorded demos)? When you perform an action (particularly when live coding), be sure to narrate what you are doing. And, when you make a mistake, describe what happened and how you fixed it.
  • If you’ve configured the workspace that you’re screencasting so that it’s different from the default setting, be prepared to walk your learners through how they can make their workspace mirror your setup, including split screens or arranging multiple windows (videoconferencing, code, Etherpad, etc.) to display appropriately. 
  • Clear the clutter. Before screencasting, close any unnecessary windows. It will help both the instructor and learners stay focused, and reduces the likelihood that you’ll share the wrong screen.
  • Get to know your videoconferencing platform and activate any settings to make your virtual workshops more secure. Think about: using a password for your session, authenticating learners, using a waiting room, automatically muting learners upon joining the call, and only allowing screensharing and annotation by the meeting host and cohost. The more secure your session is, the less likelihood it will be disrupted by nefarious activities and the more your learners can focus on learning.

Find ways to get active and engage “face to face”

  • To improve signal, particularly for learners with lower broadband, you’ll likely want your learners to turn their video off. It’s hard to teach to a screen of faces, but even harder to teach to a screen full of black boxes with just names. Encourage your learners to upload a photo of themselves to their profile in the videoconferencing system. 
  • Consider adding challenge questions and using a breakout room feature to automatically assign learners to a small group setting where they can talk to one another and work through a problem. The instructor can hop through rooms and listen in, clarify any confusion, and then regroup everyone back to the main room and address the challenges and solutions. Designate a helper as a co-host and they can also hop through rooms, increasing the amount of more individualized engagement the learners receive.
  • Use the formative assessments mentioned in the nonverbal features above to help “work the room.”  It may feel cheesy to ask people to give you a thumbs up, but get in the habit of asking them to do something active to help them – and you -stay engaged.
  • At the end of the workshop, or during a stretch break, ask everyone to turn on their video and unmute them for a few minutes. It will be a bit of chaos, but it can be refreshing for the learners – and instructors – to all get a chance to see and hear one another, and can help connect an lift everyone’s isolated spirits.

Practice

  • It goes without saying, practice makes perfect. As an instructor, consider teaching a 5-10 minute segment to your helpers or another instructor. Ask them to play the role of learner and follow along and as a question given the instructions for how you want learners to engage during the workshop. Afterwards, break it down – what worked and what didn’t? As the instructor, did you have your workspace arranged so you could see the chat window? Did you have to scroll through the attendees to see the nonverbal cues? Is there a more efficient way to switch between screens while screencasting? 
  • Learners need practice too. At the beginning of the workshop, after you finish introductions do a warmup exercise and have everyone practice using chat, nonverbal cues, etc. Don’t trust that if you tell them they’ll instinctively know how to leverage these features, or that if they’ve taken an online class or workshop before that they’ll know how to best engage with your workshop!

Be gentle and reflect

  • This may be your first time teaching online, and it may be some of your students’ first virtual learning experience. Be gentle on them, and yourself. Give all of you some grace to figure out the technology, new learning environment, structure and pacing of the workshop. Use positive affirmations and let the learners know how hard you’re working and want to provide them with quality instruction.
  • Encourage opportunities to reflect. Formative assessments, like the nonverbal cues and polls mentioned above are a good start. Include summative assessments too. A simple one we like is: “what did you learn today? What did you like that we should keep? What should we cut or change?” Yes you’ll need to go through and actually read the feedback, but these quick prompts can can give you clear insights compared to the often biased likert scale rankings of how well learners liked a given workshop. If you’re able to, follow up with learners a week, a month or whatever interval makes sense to you after the workshop. What skills or concepts from the workshop are they using? Which ones have they already forgotten?
  • Take in all the feedback and refine and iterate the workshop lesson plan – just like you would after any other hands-on training activity. And, don’t forget, share.

This post was written by Pamela Reynolds, DataLab Associate Director and Academic Coordinator on March 22, 2020.

Stay tuned for Part 2: Embracing the power of data for lab and field classes