has dramatically changed university teaching, and not in the Spy’s humble opinion, for the better. Oh, yes, students can still take university courses when, but for a few requiring personal skills performance, they are entirely online. But the Spy has four major concerns:
1. the lack of face-to-face interaction. Not only does the professor not have access to body language, many students keep their cameras off throughout the class time or merely display an avatar, leaving one to wonder if they turned on the Zoom session only to fall asleep, read a novel, or wander off to feed the cat rather than activate their brains to the subject at hand. OK, they receive an automatic participation mark for attendance, but when they do and say nothing for an hour, are they really there? Moreover, even those who are present are less likely to ask questions or point out mistreaks (typographical errors?) that the professor makes.
2. The professor must do 6-10 times as much work to mount a course in this manner, (wiping out necessary research time) while being acutely conscious of delivering a product of considerably lower quality than possible in a classroom. For both his current courses, the Spy prerecords the meat of the lecture material and expects advance viewing aided either by slides or a supplied script of the lecture (copy of his notes, which must be much neater than the usual scribble he employs in person). For the first year discrete mathematics course, class time consists of working together through a set of questions based on the lecture material in order to reinforce the concepts. That must be posted a few days ahead, then the results of the class work scanned and posted, plus the class recording itself posted so asynchronous class members can view it (ofttimes 8-12 times zones away). Attendance is less than expected even so, and no amount of encouraging participation with marks seems capable of provoking non-attendees to post questions in the class forum, contact the professor, or attend office hours.
For his upper level course treating ethical and social issues in technology adoption, asynchronous “participants” record and send in their presentations for playing in class time, but there is no reasonable opportunity for Q&A, and some “attendees” park on permanent mute. Moreover, formal debates (the Spy’s favourite and most effective participation tool in this course) are rendered impossible. “Try somethings else” was the helpful comment back from “experts” (who, by the time they are a year removed from active teaching, no longer understand classroom dynamics).
Sorry, but no matter how much work goes into preparing and delivering a course in this manner, there is no replacement for face-to-face dynamics. The product may be useful, even acceptable, but it can never be great.
3. Assessing learning remotely becomes superficial and error prone. It is superficial because tests are essentially open book, so may only evaluate look-up skills. Also it encourages multiple choice questions, which the Spy abandoned as pedagogically unsound nearly four decades ago. He had become sufficiently adept at generating enticing wrong answers that much time was wasted afterwards with students arguing that the wrong answers were indeed correct. Moreover, a clever person can game multiple choice questions and sometimes achieve 70%+ even without knowing what the questions are about. He has also discovered that he is less than adept at generating right answers for automatic marking of short-answer questions. Something that is obviously correct, perhaps imaginatively so, when hand marking, is of course not marked correct via the limited and artificial unintelligence of machine marking–and this creates much more work after the exam even than did arguing over wrong answers.
4. Despite heroic measures (randomizing questions and multiple choice (wash my mouth out with soap) responses, cheating cannot be prevented. One must rely more heavily on students’ honour. So far, in his own classes, there have been no obvious and extensive violations (just a couple of suspiciously similar answers), but major problems in other professors’ courses have indeed surfaced, and cheating is anecdotally endemic at many other institutions. Thus the performance results cannot, in the end be considered accurate. There are too many ways to game the system.
Oh, yes, a screen can be locked against other sites and applications, but who has access to only one device, or cannot call up a friend taking the course? And, when there are disingenuously titled “homework” sites out there willing to post an exam and guarantee answers within a half hour, you know the desire for higher-than-justified marks is going to outweigh integrity for many people. ‘Course, we subscribe to the cheat sites ourselves and use Turn-It-In for papers, and so catch the less able cheats who do the obvious, but anyone who claims that any such process is foolproof has sadly underestimated the ingenuity and resourcefulness of fools. Why, the better paper-writer-for-hire folk who hang around shopping malls trolling for marks (sic) will even take samples of a student’s writing and whip up a paper that is both in their own stye and not too unremarkable a leap higher than their usual grade.
Sigh. And this is the wave of the future? Not in the Spy’s own Alternate History SF, where classes are always conducted synchronously, but with participants sitting around a circle with them and the teacher(s) projected holographically into vacant chairs in each others’ viewing space. Avatars are permitted where participants deem identification to be problematic, but body language is preserved. It works on alternate Earth Hibernia, though only the better schools can afford the expense for the equipment, and many students attend their virtual classes using projectors mounted in the local library.
And what of his own home setup?
As previously noted here, a better camera than provided on most laptops is needed for recording lessons. The spy opted for a Logitech BRIO 4K Pro Webcam (purchased from CDW Canada) and mounted it on an AceTaken gooseneck ring light and camera stand obtained from Amazon that he clipped to one of his monitors. Amazon provides good software for setting the camera’s parameters, and everything functions as it should–a classy outfit. BTW, their wireless Mac keyboard is great too.
For sound he went with a Blue Yeti mounted on a Blue Compass Premium articulated tube-style boom arm and using a shock mount sold at Amazon by HeartOrigin Direct and a Neewer Professional Microphone Pop filter also sold there by iphotoxx. He does his recordings on Zoom using a dedicated recording room whose number he keeps to himself, teaches and records the in-person portion classes in separate rooms, and has others for meetings and office hours. All recordings are uploaded to Microsoft Stream, then linked to the class in Moodle, where students have weekly dropboxes for assignments and the TA obtains the answer key from a file not visible to students until a week later.
He discovered early on that lighting is a problem, especially for a document projector. Best solution so far: drop the blinds and turn off the overhead tube lighting to reduce glare, then illuminate with a Bosch LED lantern behind his chair. His document projector is an Elmo Visual Presenter MX-P2, but rather than sharing that camera he has found that firing up the (buggy, non-intuitive, always crashes on exit) ELMO Interactive toolbox software, setting the camera parameters there and sharing a portion of that screen provides a much better image of a document below the camera. The MX-2’s own controls are also non-intuitive, and the auxiliary light has to be left off as it tends to add glare while not usefully illuminating the stage beneath.
The quality of this makeshift studio varies from Excellent for the camera and microphone to unsatisfactory for the document projector (inconsistent controls, poor software). Well, it all works, though the educational product of this patched-up tangle is doubtful. If we ever get free of COVID (at least many months yet) he will welcome a return to the classroom and an end to second-rate teaching methods.
The latest word on the cancer saga
is somewhat more encouraging. Joyce’s CA-125 marker is down by more that 1400 points from the first reading, and the chemo is being tolerated reasonably well, though the side-effects are still severe even after treatment three. Surgery may be option, though the surgical consult was not encouraging. But we are not in the doctors’ hands alone, and our encouragement comes from the many who have shared meals, visits, and prayer, and from our assurance that God is in control of life and death.
See your all again next month, DV.
–The Northern Spy
Opinions expressed here are entirely the author’s own, and no endorsement is implied by any community or organization to which he may be attached. Rick Sutcliffe, (a.k.a. The Northern Spy) is professor of Computing Science and Mathematics and Assistant Dean of Science at Canada’s Trinity Western University. He completed his fiftieth year as a high school and university teacher in 2020. He has been involved as a member of or consultant with the boards of several organizations, and participated in developing industry standards at the national and international level. He is a co-author of the Modula-2 programming language R10 dialect. He is a long time technology author and has written two textbooks and ten alternate history SF novels, one named best ePublished SF novel for 2003. His various columns have appeared in numerous magazines and newspapers (paper and online), since the early 1980s, and he’s a regular speaker at churches, schools, academic meetings, and conferences. He and his wife Joyce celebrated their fiftieth anniversary in 2019 and have lived in the Aldergrove/Bradner area of B.C. since 1972.
URLs for Rick Sutcliffe’s Arjay Enterprises:
The Northern Spy Home Page: http://www.TheNorthernSpy.com
opundo : http://opundo.com
Sheaves Christian Resources : http://sheaves.org
WebNameHost : http://www.WebNameHost.net
WebNameSource : http://www.WebNameSource.net
nameman : http://nameman.net
General URLs for Rick Sutcliffe’s Books:
Author Site: http://www.arjay.ca
Publisher’s Site: http://www.writers-exchange.com/Richard-Sutcliffe.html
The Fourth Civilization–Ethics, Society, and Technology (4th 2003 ed. ): http://www.arjay.bc.ca/EthTech/Text/index.html
Other URLs of relevant interest:
BC Government COVID site: http://www.bccdc.ca/health-info/diseases-conditions/covid-19
TWU COVID Info: https://www.twu.ca/covid-19-information
Aberdeen Baptist lessons and Sermons: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UC4DbcQZJphc1oH7icCUBTJg
URLs for products mentioned:
Logitech BRIO: https://www.logitech.com/en-ca/product/brio