Let's get digital

This post will address my thoughts about online learning, about two months in. I mainly pushed myself to write it in an attempt to calculate how much time has gone into this shift.

I got this idea from Sacha Chua who uses Emacs to track weekly time use. The idea that sharing this type of information can be helpful has motivated me to do this review, which I have been avoiding but which is critical to working smarter in the future.

Also, I was really intrigued by Alan Jacobs’ blog question about how video conference-teaching will force him to change his teaching methods. It made me want to sit down and track some of the changes in my own courses.

Promoting student self-direction
Online venue
Video lectures
Time breakdown
Final thoughts


There needs to be a preamble here because prior to moving online, I have experience in teaching networked learning classes both at the graduate and undergraduate level.

While these classes do meet in person every week or fortnight, their focus is a project conducted online in collaboration with students at overseas universities. I consider this to be “online teaching experience”.

The visionary professor who brought networked learning to our institution framed the pilot program (that I was lucky to be a part of) within a course that was independent study anyway. This was a relatively low stakes situation for all involved, and – Peter Elbow would surely nod in understanding – led to some really fruitful writing, which is coming out shortly.

While from the outset we adopted a participatory action research approach (periodical reflective dialogue on how the course was going and what could be improved, with the goal to promote meta cognition, self-direction, and self-reflexion), I think that the significance of iteration in class situations where there is less or no face-to-face interaction cannot be stressed enough. The nature of what needs to be repeated (repetita iuvant!) in order to provide course structure can vary greatly.

At some point I may update this post with articles I have written and co-authored on the experience.

Promoting student self-direction

A book that really brings this type of experience together happens to be Neil Postman’s Teaching as a subversive activity, which describes the pedagogical shift to inquisitive learning. Some of us have always taken a Socratic approach to teaching, but the book is far more radical (and actually more radical than the line I take) in that it suggests abandoning the practice of grading, for example.

Perhaps most shocking is his suggestion that the syllabus be abandoned – as the point of the educational endeavour, after all, is to cultivate in students a reflective inquisitive practice.

His approach further coheres with participatory, collaborative approaches to learning that can involve student input in determining the syllabus. I think these ideas are very interesting and engage some of them to an extent, but I am also concerned with providing scaffolding where it is needed.

For example, students express confusion if there is not continuous reiteration of what this inquisitive – and in the case of my courses, inquisitive, project-based – approach entails.

It is especially important to explain to students what they are learning through this approach when they are given more freedom to pursue research, though in my classes even this will involve some structure: e.g. glossary elements, identification of nuance, context awareness. Otherwise a) they don’t quite believe that they are learning, and in that case are indeed learning less as they are not aware of what is being practised and b) they can become overwhelmed when they do not know how to structure the activities and questioning. This approach is especially difficult in larger classes and I worry about students who are too shy to ask for help.

An especially useful resource is John Spencer’s sketch of what he describes as what students learn in collaborative projects but what could also be called, How to learn 21st century skills.

Features of the sketch, which was created after input from teachers around the world, include: time management, communication, critical thinking maker mindset, inquiry, passion for learning… empowerment. These skills align with Deweyean, Freirean pedagogy. Every time I look at the sketch I think of those descriptions Dewey writes of how the classroom is practice in citizenship.

Online venue

I created a website for my courses because I did not want to be responsible for forcing students to use darkware. It uses the free software Textpattern CMS. This very site uses its theme though there are a few additional features on the course sites to support multiple authors.

In one class, I also have a forum – inspired by Edward Gallagher’s approach to cultivating a class community, which I learned about through correspondence with Howard Rheingold.

Periodically, I put a link to a meet video conference room on the site. It is ideal because students aren’t required to download software in order to join. I would prefer to use Jami, which more closely aligns with my support of free software, but students already have to download so many different apps for different classes and I don’t want to burden them further.

Video conferences are used for question and answer sessions, not as a means by which to deliver lectures.


This is where I lose all my time. And the students are investing a lot of time, too. (Before, they could pretend to work in class.)

Assignments are all written and students post drafts to the site that I moderate for potential improvement. I was motivated to do this because, especially at the beginning of the year, dozens of students failed to read assignment instructions. I am not sure that this is the best way to continue, though. On the other hand, doing things this way means that I am entering credit for done assignments in a timely fashion (in an org-mode table).

These assignments are the replacement for what would be in-class exercises and are explained at the end of a short lecture session which has been retained due to student request – even now, which I was not expecting.

At the top of the site are different categories articles are posted to, like assaying or reflections to promote different approaches to topics. There is even a wild card for fun.

The assignments range from involving research into primary source “artefacts” used to create a work (in the sophomore course, sometimes I have them write in different genres), to setting types of questions and exploring them, to compiling their own resources. The latter of course opens up critical discussion of what constitutes a valuable resource.

Video lectures

As mentioned above, students requested the video segment. So each week, I make an org-reveal slide presentation in Emacs which I cannot recommend enough. It could not be easier to have image backdrops where wanted and to set the opacity to the desired value and enter content: a framing quotation or challenge, a few resources and key concepts, and some kind of exploration. This is because, instead of thoughts being scattered from slide to slide like they would be in Impress, all of the text appears in a single text document which is very quick to navigate. And move around!


Homework usually involves a reading assignment, but sometimes it involves research. There are always additional, optional reading materials provided.

How much time does this take?

Note: I have a lot of students.

Slide preparation About 8 hours or 4 hours if I have taught a similar unit before. I have a bad habit of making the course fresh each year, which is now becoming unsustainable. Video recording At the beginning of the semester, it took 4 hours, now about 2 hours including time to upload. It is necessary to watch the videos to learn how to improve. If I am not good at it, at least I am improving. Site content maintenance Posting sites and formatting them (students are encouraged to learn basic HTML but like all of us beginners sometimes don’t close their tags) at least 1 hour/day – no longer on weekends. Email At the beginning of the semester, it was about 3 hours per day. Now it is about 1 hour per day. Site maintenance As I made the theme, sometimes it needs fixes. In total, this has probably taken 50 hours because I still don’t know what I am doing. Also, it took weeks to make the site – but this is because I did not take a more advisable, methodical approach. It has also taken hours to share and git to github. (As I was helped by the Textpattern forum in the creation of the site, it is important to me to at least try to give back.) Assignment preparation This can take up to 4 hours because I try to make assignments interesting but also, as I said, something that will require original work for completion. I just realized as I was writing this that I should copy them all to the same place to make it possible to reconfigure some of them for new use. Misc research This includes keeping up on the content for my senior class and research into new tools (this has also been a major time ‘black hole’ though it is critical because a course involving digital literacy should involve sophisticated digital practice). An example of what I am looking into is how to add to my site a plugin that would allow students to make collaborative mind maps and sketches. These skills are not for everyone and not central to the class but I want to expand the range of tools available to students as practice in Postmanian ‘languaging’. I would also like to figure out a way to have students make video content without my having to host it and while allowing students to retain full ownership. Such researach takes at least 2 hours per day. This mostly gets multiplied by two. Approximate weekly total per course: 6 + 2+ 5 + 5 + 4 + 5 = 27, not including site maintenance. This is about right: I work 7 days a week. It is not very fun seeing this in print, but I hope it will help me iterate a better strategy.

Final thoughts

The approach outlined here is not sustainable. It is a lot of fun – and very, very rewarding to see what the students have created, but I do not have time for the other academic work I need to do.

It is really important that I am now using Emacs for slides (specifically org-reveal) because it is so quick and easy to use, and as such will promote reuse of material in the future. In the past, I had made Impress slides with key information (and always some images to keep interest), but transferring information from those slides was a pain in the neck and I usually ignored old files.

It is also possible that I will gain efficiency as I become accustomed to the new workflow. These are early days.

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Update: reflections on the course at the end of the semester.

Page generated 00X02. Last edited 02O10.

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