Mass online learning is suddenly a necessity that nearly all teachers in Russia have to come to grips with. There is no escaping working online, so we have to act quickly, select the necessary tools, and start teaching remotely.
The sheer amount of information about digital teaching tools can be overwhelming. Still, it is necessary to choose some tools here and now. Perhaps there is only one correct and age-old answer to this—don’t panic. Let's briefly look at the main problems that, if they have not yet arisen, you might encounter at the most inopportune moment.
First of all, we have to work online and most probably we will be uploading or sending a lot of data (while streaming video, for example). This means that you need to make sure you have a fast and stable internet connection. A poor internet connection will not only hinder your and your students’ ability to stay connected, but cause frustration for all involved.
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The second important element is equipment. A webcam and speakers + microphone (headset) are a must and an online instructor’s best friends. The built-in cameras of modern laptops give very decent video quality, but microphones sometimes leave much to be desired. If you use a tablet or laptop with a touchscreen, you have more possibilities that include complete simulation of marker and interactive whiteboards—even without limiting the number of touches when working together (for example, with Microsoft Whiteboard, Ziteboard, Stormboard, Miro, and the like).
The third essential element is basic software. This is not about distance learning support tools, but about familiar things: your operating system, browser, and even office applications. It is advisable that all this be licensed and updated. Adequate software will significantly reduce the number of problems that might arise. For example, we can all work together with Microsoft Word documents online, using either Office Online or the usual desktop application, but not everyone knows about this option. Unfortunately, not all distance learning support systems are ‘aware’ that Opera, Chrome, and Edge are essentially the same thing, so, if possible, install a couple of browsers just in case.
We will deal with synchronicity and asynchronicity. Synchronicity implies simultaneous or ‘live’ work of participants, asynchronicity—distributed over time.
For example, there are synchronous and asynchronous communication channels. A meeting at work or a Meet Now meeting on Microsoft Teams is an example of synchronous communication, while an email or a forum is asynchronous.
A training video can be viewed synchronously and asynchronously, for example, live streams are often synchronous, whereas a posted video of a lecture or a podcast is asynchronous.
Distance learning favours the asynchronous option. In this case, a video can be used as educational content, that is, as a lecture or an introduction to an assignment, with a synchronous option for feedback.
The article, ‘Asynchronous Communication: The Real Reason Remote Workers Are More Productive’, at the website elaborates on ways of building synchronous and asynchronous communication.
The transition to distance learning is a good reason to use existing videos asynchronously. For example, instead of offering an online lecture, you can send a link to videos from a training channel or YouTube, followed by a questionnaire or an online discussion.
Our unique and irreplaceable lectures can also be recorded in 5-15 minute segments. A simple way is to give a presentation: in PowerPoint, in the Recording section, you can record a presented presentation even in HD format, and the notes that you put on the slides during your talk will also be saved in the video, thereby bringing your presentation to life for your students.
Quantity affects quality. It is necessary to determine the number of students whom you will interact with remotely. If we are talking about 15-30 students and several hours, then the first couple of sessions can done with everyday applications: hold a meeting on Skype and record it; provide shared access to documents on Google Drive, Microsoft OneDrive, Dropbox or other cloud platforms; and use email to distribute and collect teaching materials and assignments.
This simple option can be used to hold different types of classes but requires great care in managing all processes. A huge plus of this option is that you use familiar digital tools.
If there are more than 50 people (and sometimes the number is significantly larger—some Bachelor’s programmes or minors have enrollments of 300-400 students), special (mainly corporate) solutions will be required.
Large-scale conferences and streams. Zoom and Skype for Business (not to be confused with Skype) allow you to synchronously conduct high-quality teleconferences for a wide audience. In terms of free services, a free account on Zoom limits us to 40 minutes of communication.
Zoom allows hosts to record and save video to a local or cloud storage, including auto-recording of conferences if it is pre-configured by administrators. Skype for Business can also be used by HSE staff as part of the Microsoft Office 365 for Education platform. Now Teams meetings (up to 250 participants) and Teams live events (up to 5000 participants) are also available on this platform. All of these systems include options such as blurring the background of the speaker, automatically switching speakers, and showing a variety of materials.
There are also unexpected options. For example, the game streaming platform Twitch is quite popular among students. So if you are teaching Minecraft or Fortnite, you can broadcast directly from the game. Nothing prohibits using the platform for a ‘serious’ lecture (chat for comments is part of the platform).
Whatever you choose, study the conference management options in advance: for example, how to manage and broadcast the presentation, how to mute the participants' microphones, how to work with the chat and so on. Do a test run of the system with your colleagues and learn to take note of how you are using the system. That way, in the event of a failure, you will be able to identify what went wrong or at least describe what happened to a technical specialist.
Modern cloud platforms differ significantly from pre-cloud LMS in their approach to organizing training. Simply speaking, platforms are built around the content, not around the processes. This approach has been adopted recently by the Content Management Systems (CMS) and Learning Spaces software.
Educational platforms from giants like Google and Microsoft (G Suite for Education and Microsoft Office 365 Education) are built on the principles of flexible user management, mandatory synchronous and asynchronous communication tools, schedulers, integrated disk spaces and, most importantly, virtual collaboration spaces.
The ability to collaborate on digital objects with arbitrary user teams is a key difference between cloud platform solutions and previous generation LMS. Using the remote collaboration possibilities, you cannot do without student pair and team work. You can also add project management activities (ranging from Trello to Project).
What is the difference between G Suite for Education and Microsoft Office 365 Education? First, users on these systems are identified by their email addresses in Gmail and Outlook, respectively.
Secondly, Microsoft platform uses CMS OneNote Class Notebook in Teams Class. This is a notebook with end-to-end full-text search, on the pages of which, besides marked-up text, any other objects can be placed. For example, code snippets from the repl.it service can be launched right in the book.
OneNote pages support handwriting, and, for example, can recognize mathematical formulas, convert them to LaTeX, perform some calculations and build graphs. Rumor has it that soon enough we will see a similar CMS for G Suite. Both platforms are good, so a utilitarian engineering approach tells us to focus on the type of user accounts people have (whether students have gmail or outlook accounts).
Feedback not only allows students to learn better, but also helps teachers improve the content of the course and teaching methods. In distance learning, it acts as a link in the entire educational space.
The minimum: an asynchronous channel for non-urgent questions, for example, collecting questions for an upcoming meeting, discussing long-term tasks (forum, shared file, OneNote page, etc.) and a synchronous channel for urgent communication, for example, with a synchronous monitoring event with a limited time (a group on Telegram or WhatsApp, a special channel in Microsoft Teams, Hangout Chat in G Suite for Education, etc.).
For alerts and feedback, the ability to manage users is important. As teachers, it’s important for us to understand who we send comments to and who writes to us.
LMS with extensions. The pre-cloud LMS has long been familiar to students and teachers. Most systems allow you to add multimedia lessons to the educational content (including asynchronous video, for example, from YouTube) and have built-in video conferencing tools, such as BigBlueButton (BBB) in Moodle, for example.
The means of such teleconferences are far from ideal and we have stated the above requirements for 300-400 participants. Therefore it is more convenient to expand the capabilities of LMS with the help of programmes such as Zoom, which can be integrated into LMS Moodle or LMS eFront PRO (not to be confused with the free version of eFront).
The beauty of LMS lies in its user management capabilities. If you use the University’s LMS, then chances are, students and teachers access it with their university accounts, which allows administrators to put students in groups, assign them courses, and link teachers with courses.
Group communication of both students and teachers of the course is vital in distance learning. So, your HSE email account will become an additional asynchronous channel of communication and sending alerts.
Both traditional LMS with add-ons and various online platforms which users access with their HSE logins can reduce the number of “entry points”. For example, we can use the gamified Kahoot! by itself, but by linking it to an educational platform that allows such integration, we can better monitor student performance (and we will know for sure who got how many points) and remove the obligation to re-register in the game each time.
The cloud platform makes it easy to collect a digital footprint and organize analytics, not only in LMS, but also for all integrated tools. For example, Microsoft Teams is becoming the standard data source for interactive reporting in Power BI.
A complication with online learning is conducting tests, midterms, and exams. Almost every teacher wants their students who stay at home to diligently complete their assignments without peeping on the internet or copying from another student via VK. The Examus proctoring system is available as part of the HSE information systems. Most probably when exams get closer, HSE.Online and HSE University.Digital will offer us a strategy for using this proctoring system.
More or less diverse controls are built into LMS and cloud platforms; the latter, moreover, allow third-party controls to be integrated into classrooms.
On account of the pandemic, PeerGrade, one of the best cloud-based peer-to-peer support services, is now free of charge, and special subscriptions are available at Socrative's multidisciplinary monitoring organization, as well.
So far, to prevent cheating, we can use our ‘old friends’: interesting and creative tasks, increasing the variability of tasks, conducting assessment during online meetings, or assigning time-limited tasks (for example, 15–20 minutes with strict deadlines).
Transitioning to distance learning is a kind of a stress test. We are used to working differently—we are accustomed to being able to see our students’ faces while delivering a lecture. But sometimes life throws us a curveball. Mutual assistance and the warmth of human relations don’t not go anywhere when we are online, but this depends entirely on us. Ask for help, do not refuse support, write about your experience on social media, and life—albeit now digitalized and long-distance—will be beautiful.