This past spring, as I’ve done for many years now, I taught our CS 1331 – Introduction to Object-Oriented Programming (using Java) class to 300 mostly first and second year students. We started the class on campus and in-person but like all other colleges and universities, we transitioned to an online remote format around the midway point. This essay recaps my experiences in this transition and what it was like to teach a class in the remote form.
To begin, I must qualify that I am not the biggest proponent of remote online classes. I’ve been asked multiple times to create an online version of the 1331 class as well as my graduate Information Visualization course, but I have always declined. Well, there was no choice this semester.
Our spring break this year was March 16-20. During the week before that, concerns about Covid-19 really started to get much worse. Shortly after our in-person class on Wednesday March 11th, it was announced that students should plan to leave campus and not return after that. The rest of our semester would be completed remotely. On Thursday, due to concerns about the virus in such a big classroom and since many students were needing to make imminent travel plans, I decided to make that Friday’s class be our first online offering. I knew virtually nothing about online meeting event software, so I quickly learned a little about WebEx and set up a meeting where students could join. I asked them all to mute their audio upon joining. Unfortunately, one student realized that he could join the meeting under a fake name (the meeting did not require authenticated identification to enter) and then he chose to go on a profanity-laced diatribe about the second exam in the class which occurred the week before.
At first, I wasn’t sure if only I could hear him or if all the students could. It eventually became apparent that the other students could. I was frankly flustered, and I did not handle this situation well. I decided to just push on and hope the student would stop, which he eventually did, but not before making a total mess of that class. I should’ve stopped and confronted the individual. Well, hindsight is 20-20.
I bring this incident up for a couple reasons. First, an instructor cannot assume that all students will be on good behavior in a remote environment such as this. I’ve read reports on other small classes where professors described open and engaging meetings that they held, and I just smiled. When you have 300 (mostly) first year students, the chances of getting a knucklehead go up significantly. The experience also strongly influenced me to seek out a meeting tool that would allow me to better control students’ potential interruptions during the event. As they say, you live and you learn.
Georgia Tech decided to take an extra week off after our spring break to help faculty prepare for the transition to remote classes. I then used those two weeks to do a lot of research about the different online meeting platforms and their capabilities. GT officially supports WebEx and BlueJeans, but not Zoom, so those were the two options available to me. Ultimately, I chose BlueJeans Events (BJE) for all my remaining classes.
BJE has several characteristics that worked well for my class. Up to 500 people could join an event, and the sheer size of my class dictated that need. Furthermore, I could have students join as Attendees, and in doing so, they would be in a listen-only mode, that is, not able to speak and interrupt as the one student had chosen to do so earlier. A few of my teaching assistants (TAs) also could join as Moderators. I allowed students to ask questions via an online Q&A chat capability, but their comments would not be made visible to other students by default – a TA then had to OK the comment and pass it along. Again, I was concerned about students potentially disrupting the experience.
Another appeal of BJE was its flexibility in delivering an event with multiple screens. To explain this importance, I need to backtrack and explain a little about how I normally conduct this class in person. I make a very explicit decision not to use PowerPoint slides during lectures. Instead, I draw upon my saved notes for a topic and I hand-write class lecture notes on pieces of tablet paper that are displayed to the entire class via a document projector. In addition, I hook up my laptop (the room has two large display screens) and I can show code and run live demos on it. I firmly believe that hand-writing notes forces me to be more deliberate and take my time going through material. I also feel that by hand-copying these notes, students better connect with them and they also build up a nice notebook of the course material. In this sense, my class functions much like a traditional “lecture”. However, I make sure to frequently ask questions to the class, and I work hard early in the semester to encourage students to raise their hands to ask questions when they do not understand something. This seems to work, and it is not uncommon for me to get 10-20 questions in a class, sometimes making it a challenge to get through the material planned for that day. This is really the only form of “active learning” I use, but students seem to gravitate to it and appreciate it.
As an aside, I know that the traditional lecture style of class is not in-vogue right now. With that said, I think it is important to note that students seem to appreciate learning the material this way, as evidenced by their comments, my teacher rating (e.g., https://www.ratemyprofessors.com), and the fact that my class is routinely one of the first to fill up and have a long waitlist.
My primary goal in transitioning to a remote format was to make the experience as close to the live, in-person lectures as I could. I set up my laptop with its webcam to show a video of me giving the lecture. In addition, I had an iPad that I rarely used but which came in handy at this time. I bought the GoodNotes app for taking notes on a simulated piece of notebook paper using the Apple Pencil. This allowed me to keep the live note-taking aspect of class. In addition, I was able to save the notes as a pdf afterwards and make them available to students.
I debated whether to pre-record a class’ content or deliver the lectures live. Ultimately, I decided to deliver the lecture live but use BJE capability to record the lecture for subsequent viewing. I hoped that having students connect with class at the usual time on MWF each week would help foster a sense of connection and continuity. However, my students were now scattered all over the world, so it was simply inconvenient for some to join live (2pm in Atlanta is early morning in much of Asia, for instance). Below is an image taken from a lecture. The right display shows the screen of my iPad with the handwritten notes. BJE allows students to use a slider to adjust the proportional size of the two displays, even during playback of a recording.
As mentioned above, when students had questions during a lecture, they could ask the questions via the Q&A chat. I tried to pause from time to time to see if questions had arisen, and I asked my TAs to simply interrupt me when a good, relevant question popped up. It turned out that the TAs were able to answer many of questions in the chat without asking me. Often, they waited until the end of lecture to push questions up to me. I felt that this had pluses and minuses. On the positive side, many different students could ask questions and get answers. Conversely, these questions just didn’t feel as timely as those from an in-person class, and I think those questions actually slow me down even more and provide the students beneficial pauses during a lecture. Furthermore, students only watching the lecture via a recording clearly couldn’t ask questions.
Much like in my normal class, I tried to inject a little fun and diversion into classes. Because I was using my laptop for most classes, that meant running via a wireless connection. The wireless router at my house is in the basement, so I set up class there at a table in my basement. Students got used to hearing “Coming to you live from the basement again today.” One particularly sunny and pleasant Friday I decided to start class out in my backyard, and I showed students our koi pond. That evoked some humorous comments in the chat such as “Dang, Professor Stasko’s flexing on us” and “Inspiration to be good at CS and have a backyard like that someday :’)”. Multiple students commented to me at the end of the class that they enjoyed these changes of pace.
Some diversions were unplanned, however. Our dog Buster wandered into the shot during a lecture (below) prompting one student to comment “Doggo” in the Q&A which received 75 upvotes, the most of the entire semester! Buster ended up making a couple more visits later in the term, each time stealing the show.
I was able to count roughly how many students joined live during the lectures. The most I noticed was about 220 during one of the first classes after returning from the break. By the end of the semester, when students learned that they could simply watch a lecture’s recording, it seemed to settle into about 150-160 of the nearly 300 students connecting live for a lecture. Students were connecting from about half the states in the U.S. and around the world in countries like India, UAE, Kenya, Bulgaria, St. Maarten, and Paraguay, among many others.
The recordings received a lot of traffic as well, with a few ending up with over 300 views by the end of the term. I created a page within Canvas (our online course support platform) with links to the BlueJeans Events, lecture recordings, pdf’s of notes, and other relevant materials (see below). This was popular with students who liked having a “one stop shopping destination” for the course’s remote content.
Perhaps the biggest challenge I faced moving the course to a remote format was how to administer exams that would be fair to all and not susceptible to being easily compromised. That was a huge challenge/headache, and for the sake of brevity, I’ll put that off for another column at a future date.
After students took the Final Exam for the course, I deployed an anonymous survey in Canvas to help learn their opinions of the remote class experience. I asked questions about the transition, comparing in-person to remote lectures, opinions about recitations and office hours, and simply gave students the opportunity to say anything on their minds. 73 students completed the survey.
Some initial questions focused specifically on the in-person lecture experience versus the remote analog to that. I asked about their experiences viewing the remote lectures and how they thought that the two experiences compared. See the charts below for a breakdown of their viewing habits.
In terms of a qualitative comparison, many students commented that the remote lectures felt akin to the in-class versions because of common activity of note-writing and capture. Some students felt that the notes were clearer on the iPad than on paper, while others noted that internet lags, traffic, and buffering were enough to hurt the live remote experience. When asked about the remote lectures, these student comments represented a very common view:
“They went pretty well. Very similar to our in class format.”
“The lectures were almost as good as the in person ones. It wasn’t really lacking anything.”
Multiple students noted pragmatic challenges in watching live, however. For example, one commented
“Something I noticed was that when it was live, my connection was very bad so I couldn’t watch it. It is also very hard to watch it live because my family is very distracting.”
Views on the ability to ask questions and get answers were mixed, with support for both ways. I would estimate that a small majority of students said they preferred the in-person experience for Q&A. Perceptions such as those below were common:
“I thought that bluejeans events was the best way to do lecture, however, I wasn’t a fan of the fact that Professor Stasko had to be interrupted by TAs to get questions answered.”
“They were fine, but I feel like the Q&A part was a lot less effective online. I usually enjoy hearing student questions during class because I find them interesting and helpful.”
“There was much less interaction between professor and students and students with other students after going online.”
Contrasting views were common as well though:
“I really appreciated the recordings and thought the TA’s handled questions well during live lectures. Online made it a more comfortable place to ask questions.”
One advantage of the remote set-up was very clear – students appreciated the ability to re-watch and review lectures later. This was the strongest, most consistent opinion when comparing the in-person experience to the remote one. Relevant student comments included:
“I actually liked it. since i live in a different timezone, i watched recordings for all my classes and this class had the best quality of videos and it was better than the actual lectures since i could pause and take time to take notes. i really liked how we could change the portion of the notes in the video.”
“I actually liked how I was able to rewatch lectures after class as sometimes during class, the concept didn’t click yet or my wifi buffered and I missed a part of lecture, so it was really nice to be able to go back and rewatch/relearn at my own pace.”
“I liked the live lectures and recordings because I could see Dr. Stasko’s notes clearly and I could go back in the recordings later if I missed something.”
Ultimately, I sought to learn about a holistic comparison of the two delivery modes, when everything is considered. I asked the students to compare overall the in-person experience in the first half of the semester to the remote experience in the second half. With the strong views about the value of the lecture recordings and being able to re-watch them, I was prepared to see a preference emerge for the remote experience. However, that guess would be wrong. Here are the student views when directly asked about their preference:
The students clearly spoke. Nearly 70% preferred the in-person experience. I was really struck by this result. In a follow-up question on the survey, I asked the students to explain why they chose their answer on the previous question. No one clear reason as to why students preferring the in-person experience did so, but many answers seemed to speak to the actual experience of meeting face-to-face, the level of engagement and of the event being a happening, a true experience. Here are some example responses:
“In person was slightly better just for all the interactions between professor, TAs, and students. It’s just unfortunate that a remote setting cannot replicate that.”
“I found it much harder to get engaged in the online lectures, but that’s not Professor Stasko’s fault (distance learning is distant, and coming off an extended spring break into online classes didn’t help at all). The one benefit of these online lectures though, was that I could pause and resume as I wished and re-watch the lectures for review. In terms of effectiveness, I think remote lectures were just as good, but in terms of being as enjoyable, they weren’t.”
“Personally, I prefer the interactive nature of in-person classes. I also missed the professor’s humor. I felt that remote classes felt more like lectures than in-person ones. Perhaps due in part to sitting in the front of the classroom, I felt that in-person classes had more of a small classroom, personal, engaging feel to them. However, online classes definitely felt more like I was a student sitting in a class with information thrown at me. I would like to point out that this is not the professor’s fault, but a fault in the nature of remote classes.”
“Learning is better for me when I have peers around me I can quickly turn to and ask a question if needed. It also feels so much better since I had friends in the class, and the environment was just really positive for focusing and learning.”
Another common comment from students is that viewing lectures remotely at home on their computer is simply prone to distractions. Students stated:
“I found it much easier to pay attention to in-person lecture, rather than having the distractions of my laptop in remote learning. However, I found the quality of the lecture itself to be the same.”
“I just loved the environment with everyone listening to the professor. You also concentrate a lot more because you are in the classroom. At home it is very hard to concentrate because family is very distracting and loud.”
“Nothing to do with the course itself, it’s personally just a lot harder to keep myself focused and stay on task at home.”
Sometimes other factors led students to prefer an in-person experience. One student commented:
“While most of the class experience was able to be mirrored in an online setting, one glaring flaw was the inability to do in-person group work. As a student with ADHD, it was significantly harder to actually understand and retain new CS topics without communication with others in person. I understand that this is a tough thing to accommodate, but I feel it is important to mention because it made learning and performing as well as I did almost impossible. I am hoping that I never have to take another online CS class again, but that is out of most people’s control, unfortunately. Thank you for the concessions you made to make this transition more tolerable.”
When I process all of the feedback from the students, ultimately it feels like the vast majority preferred and missed the in-classroom experience. Despite the remote lectures being similar to the in-person ones in terms of content, and the added capability of subsequent viewings of lecture recordings, the students prefer coming together as a group and meeting face-to-face.
I think that some of this comes from a self-realization in the students that they just learn better this way. The online environment is loaded with distractions (email, Instagram, video games, etc., etc.) and in many cases, the home environment is too. Students seemed to appreciate the shared routine of coming together as a group at a time and a place. Mark Guzdial wrote about this same phenomenon recently in one of his blog columns.
My own personal feelings about the spring semester mirror those of the students. Part of me enjoyed the online experience as something new, a change of pace. I was able to learn some new tools and technologies, and try out this remote teaching activity that I had explicitly avoided until now. But I also had a little bit of a hollow feeling after each lecture that was a stark contrast from the energy and motivation that I typically feel after an in-person class. Ultimately, it is a shared experience between the students and me. We come together three times a week and interact with each other. They sit with their friends and talk about what has been going on in their lives. I enjoy seeing their faces, learning what might be on their minds at that time, and maybe think about where I can inject a joke or two.
It’s not just information conveyance, transferring knowledge of Java and object-oriented programming to the students. It’s a performance, an engagement. I worry that some of the advocates of online education miss this point. College is much more than learning a bunch of facts and becoming proficient in some field or fields. Students aren’t just gaining a certification. They are interacting with other people, learning to take care of themselves beyond what good old mom and dad have been doing, and figuring out what they want to do with the rest of their lives.
I ended up the spring term realizing just how much I missed the classroom and interacting face-to-face with students. Delivering lectures remotely was different and interesting in some ways, but … you can have it. For me, I’ll continue to enjoy seeing my students in the classroom. Of course, outside factors have changed the world this spring and we do not know what the situation will be like in the fall. We must make sure that we do as much as possible to keep everyone (even 58-year old professors) safe and healthy. I firmly believe that we need to follow the guidance of our health professionals and proceed cautiously as we return to campus. I just look forward to the time when I can get back to the classroom to see my students’ faces, whenever that is.