As an in-person Winter semester looks bleaker and bleaker, we must come to terms with our online present and future. However, while all our courses this semester have to contend with the same online nature of delivery, I’m sure that you would agree that some are running better than others. This article is my own reflection of what works best and doesn’t, along with what I’ve heard from friends, so this description might not be the end-all-be-all for everyone. I hope that this will make both students and professors reflect upon how their courses are running, and provide feedback to improve any future online courses to come.
Firstly, let’s address the elephant in the room regarding the different types of online courses: synchronous courses, where the professor would livestream a lecture through services like BlackBoard Collaborate and Zoom, with opportunities for like questions and comments; vs asynchronous courses, where the professors post videos for you to watch on your own time, and answer any questions separately. To be honest, I don’t think one approach is superior overall over the other, both can be run well or poorly. However, one thing that I can say is that I feel like I am more comfortable and it is much easier to ask questions about content in a synchronous setting. I find myself skipping Q&As/Office Hours because I don’t have any glaring questions to dedicate scheduling myself to go to them regularly, and oftentimes Piazza responses can come too late. The human interaction between my classmates and I also helps with the loneliness of everything being online. On the other hand, being able to watch asynchronous videos whenever I want does have its benefits as well. It feels satisfying to binge through all the weeks lectures of a single course in the span of a few hours, watching them on weekends when I am usually more free is nice, and that 1.5x video speed helps grind through them faster than watching live in real-time.
What makes this question more interesting is that when Winter 2020 first shifted online all of a sudden, most of my professors that semester opted to lecture synchronously, however in the Fall 2020 semester when professors had more time to plan out their courses, the vast majority chose an asynchronous approach. With only one of my courses in both semesters opting for the opposite approach, I found myself disliking that style of delivery more in that particular semester. When the majority of my courses were synchronous, my day was generally very structured, however, it felt difficult for me to find time to force myself to watch the asynchronous videos. When the majority were asynchronous, it felt annoying to have to constantly attend that one course three times a week when I could be working on more pressing tasks at that time. Indeed, I found myself skipping those lectures more than usual, but, thankfully they were recorded so I could revisit them later.
This comes to my first general recommendation, which is that all course material should be recorded for any future watching. Many students are in time zones that are suboptimal to be attending some of their lectures and tutorials live, and even for those that don’t, sometimes I’m too nervous panicking about that midterm in an hour to be paying full attention in a lecture. And even when we do pay attention to most of the lectures, watching them at home like many of us do can sometimes be extremely distracting, and we might lose focus for the five minutes where the professor introduces an extremely important topic in the course. The same can be said for tutorials, which, while it is preferable to attend live to ask any questions, sometimes I feel like I just understand everything the TA is doing and would feel comfortable to watch later without any questions should I miss one.
One aspect of both often overlooked is the professor’s setup itself, although it is arguably more important in synchronous lectures. I’ve had lectures in which the prof’s microphone quality was so bad that I could often not even understand what they were saying, ruining the entire experience for me. In synchronous sessions, I’ve had profs with terrible Wi-Fi connections that would often freeze up the livestream and straight-up crash the prof out of his own lecture on occasion. I’ve also had live lectures where the prof’s neighbours are doing construction, which is very audible on the livestream (side note but I had to deal with that myself over the summer, I feel your pain). For this, I would again recommend using RTX Voice to block out background noises on the prof’s end.
Two more small things that go a long way are providing lecture slides and annotating them. When we are provided with slides, it is so much easier and less time consuming to take notes, and we can jot down extra information that is not necessarily on the slides themselves, versus struggling to note down everything that is already written up somewhere and is probably only the basics of what we need to fully grasp the concepts. Annotation is equally important for this very reason; in some courses where profs don’t annotate they often say things verbally which are not written anywhere in the slides, or concepts that can be hard to describe without drawing them out, and it can be frustrating to have to pause the videos to get down every little detail that’s not provided to us. Annotations done by professors, while not perfect all the time, to help emphasize what we should be focusing on and prioritizing when it comes to certain concepts.
Next for asynchronous lectures specifically, timing is everything. I’ve noticed that courses in which the videos have all been recorded over the summer tend to have videos of poorer quality, as the students cannot provide feedback on what they want to see from the videos for following lectures, unlike those courses in which videos are recorded and uploaded weekly. I also find myself falling behind more in those courses because there isn’t a sense of wanting to catch up as soon as new videos are uploaded. On the other hand, one caveat of having lectures recorded weekly is that the upload schedules can depend on the professor’s own free time, and often I have gotten frustrated when lecture videos that are expected to be watched by Wednesday afternoon are only uploaded on Sunday or even Monday, when I am more busy with other course material, versus the Saturday when I was free but the weekly videos weren’t up yet. What is the point of having asynchronous videos to watch anytime in the week when we are expected to watch them in just a few days to be up to date with any synchronous course content?
Another preference with regards to timing is the length of the videos themselves, as in one of my courses with 50-minute lectures that might as well have been synchronous are much more difficult to schedule the time and energy to watch when compared with more 20-minute lectures covering the same amount of content. However, on the flip side, one of my courses has around 10, 5-15-minute lectures to watch a week, and that feels overwhelming when I see the number of lectures I have to get through. I’ve also experienced professors using asynchronous content as an excuse to stuff more lecture time in the courses, with the time for weekly videos adding up to well over the three hours that they were allotted to in the timetable, or have three hours of async content combined with synchronous lectures that eat up even more time. These videos should add up to less than the full three hours because any time for questions has been taken away and allotted to separate Q&A sessions!
Speaking of those Q&A sessions, as I have stated earlier, I am not the biggest fan, as questions are often spontaneous and can be Googled when in an online setting. One way to address questions that I am a big fan of, however, is through the use of Piazza. Piazza can help get our questions answered significantly faster than having to wait a week for Q&A sessions, and it is especially useful for lab-based courses where many students often run into similar issues when completing the labs. I’ve also found that courses with Piazza are overall run much better because there is a lot of opportunity for student feedback directly to the profs, with other students also commenting on the suggestions, all while being anonymous to avoid feeling fear of any backlash. One platform that many courses do use but I strongly discourage using in favour of Piazza are the Quercus Discussion tabs. They are not anonymous, which introduce that anxiety of repercussion back for giving feedback, formatted poorly so it is hard to keep track of comment chains, and, worst of all, students cannot create their own posts and must adhere to the select few that the professor has chosen for them, making them suboptimal for asking questions on particular topics. It is no wonder that these are seldom used by students, so I strongly urge professors using these to switch to Piazza.
Tutorials, I actually find to be much better run online. Somehow not having to go out of my way to sit in a physical classroom with the TA makes them much more attractive for myself to attend. The tutorials in which we go over a given week’s problem set are actually invaluable in this semester where I feel professors don’t go over examples that much in their lectures. However, one nitpick that I’ve noticed in multiple courses is that for questions coming straight out of the textbook, profs often don’t include the questions themselves on the pdfs which makes it harder for us to follow, and leaves us scrambling to try to jot them down when the TAs get to them.
That’s in contrast with many labs and group assignments, which I find to be made more difficult without in-person interaction. Not being able to sit in a lab room with friends to help read over code for bugs or explain confusing concepts is unfortunate and makes them all the more difficult to get done on your own. It also feels like TAs have less time to look over your issues and answer your specific questions during any sessions that may occur, all of which add up to labs taking up much more of my time than had I done the exact same ones in-person. Additionally, communication in group assignments can be a pain when someone doesn’t use the messaging platform of your choice, and working with friends ends up with much more procrastination than being in-person and forcing each other to stay focused. Thus, for most of my group assignments this semester I have tried to work with people I live near and can (safely) meet up with to work in-person, but that is impossible for many students. Perhaps allocating some class time and extra BB Collaborate rooms open anytime in courses, or going out of the way to match students in similar time zones would help.
Let me end off with a few unrelated recommendations that I could not fit elsewhere. Please make assignments due at 11:59PM instead of random times during the day; this leads to much nicer sleep schedules for those of us who tend to procrastinate. Next, having webcams on during lectures really helps humanize professors, and helps create a more personal relationship with them rather than just listening to a voice on a screen. If a course tends to have many quizzes over the semester, please consider counting only several of the students’ best ones instead of all of them; I and others view these “quizzes” we take as just more midterms when considering how much each is worth. Being able to get away with having a bad day during one or two really helps alleviate stress. And remember, all of these recommendations are from my opinion and may not reflect the opinions of students in your particular courses; and by saying that how to run midterms and exams is a whole different can of worms that I do not wish to tackle here. We are, however, all in this together, so let’s make the most of the resources we have this year! This year is the first year we get a Fall Study Break, or as everyone still calls, “Fall Reading Week,” so at the very least we have that going for us! Good luck with classes everyone!