One week ago, I switched to 100% remote teaching. This includes all of my four courses, office hours, student project consulting and personal mentoring – like every other faculty member at CODE University of Applied Sciences. So far, our remote setup works pretty good and the feedback we are getting from our students is very encouraging.
What did we do?
On March 11, 2020 –right in the middle of our ongoing spring semester– CODE decided to precautionary shut down all campus activities starting from March 16, 2020 in order to #flattenthecurve. By that time and until today (March 23) there has been no confirmed Covid-19 case at CODE.
Also on March 11, various immediate measures were taken to transition our in-person and project-based learning format into a remote learning community.
To cut a long story short, this is my personal list for what I think have been the most important success factors so far:
- Very timely and clear announcements by the management. Always communicate what is going to happen, where to find the information, put everything in writing, and always explain when the next update on a topic will be available. Luckily, our entire university is on Slack, which helps a lot with direct communication.
- Collect feedback, feedback, feedback: what works for you, may not work for others.
- Have a strong mentor network already established. At CODE, every student has a personal mentor. That allows us to get feedback very fast and to reach out to every student personally.
- Audio quality matters. Get a really good microphone. This is the number one top item for remote calls and video conferences. I am currently using a "t.bone SC 420 USB", which is a large diaphragm studio microphone (the sound quality is similar to what you hear in a professionally produced podcast). The microphone has a built-in audio interface, i.e., it connects via USB plug-and-play to my laptop computer and works seamlessly with every conferencing software such as Google Meet, Zoom, Jitsi, Skype, etc.
- Learn how to properly speak into a large diaphragm microphone. They are very different from regular phone headsets. You have to make sure to talk straight into the direction of the microphone and maintain a constant close proximity (about 20cm). Also the audio settings in your computer's operating system matter a lot. For example, on my MacBook Pro, the optimal input volume setting for the t.bone SC 420 USB is at about 25%. In addition, a studio arm for your microphone helps a lot to position the microphone comfortably. I am personally very happy with the “RODE PSA1” arm.
- Get some really good headphones. This is very crucial for two reasons: 1) without headphones, i.e., when just using external speakers, your microphone will record parts of that sound and other parties will hear an echo in your voice. 2) You want to be able to wear them comfortably for a couple of hours every day. I am currently using the "AKG K240 MK II" headphones: the sound quality is superb, the headphones are very lightweight and they feel just right.
- Get a good external webcam. The built-in cameras of laptops are sometimes ok-ish, however, the low angle of the camera picture looks awkward and also the white balance is often poor. I am currently using an external "Logitec C920" webcam that has 1080p and a tripod-ready clip.
- Make sure that the sound and light conditions in your remote working environment are good. Consider additional lights on and behind your desk. If your room is noisy, consider buying an acoustic screen for your microphone to reduce the influence of the room in microphone recordings.
- Use the best online tools for the job. At CODE, we are all using Google's G Suite extensively together with Slack, Discord, Confluence, Zoom, Miro, Notion, Figma and several other great tools. For smaller classes, Google Meet is great (because it also integrates very nicely with other services such as Calendar, Classroom, or Mail). Zoom also has some really great features such as breakout sessions, extensive audio settings, a much better chat than Google Meet, and a feature to let students indicate their reactions. At CODE, we are currently heavily experimenting with almost all major products in order to find out what works best for which learning environment. For example, I already used Google Jamboard on my iPad as an interactive whiteboard in several of my classes, which turned out to be very useful.
- Learn the keyboard shortcuts for all your remote tools. How to quickly mute/unmute yourself, how to switch to the chat window, how to rearrange the window layout of your applications when you are screensharing, how to open the audio/video settings – basically you want to do all that quickly without using your trackpad/mouse.
- Testing: schedule at least one hour with a colleague and thoroughly test your entire setup. How is your audio quality? How to use your secondary display during a screen sharing session? Does the calendar invite link work for everyone? Are all your tools also available even for exotic Linux distributions?
- One of the great benefits of remote teaching: you can always see all names right next to the faces in the video conference :-) That helps a lot to get a discussion started!
- During remote teaching, make sure to focus even more on the discussion of open questions. Keep input sessions shorter than usual. Also have shared collaborative online documents or whiteboards open all the time to keep the interaction threshold as low as possible.
- Individual student consulting matters even more during remote learning. I have significantly increased my (now remote) office hours, which all students can easily book via my shared calendar.
- Open-line office hours. Several times per week, I have my personal video conferencing room open for one or two hours and students can just drop in to ask quick questions without the need to schedule an appointment beforehand.
- During online courses, plan for more breaks than you would usually do during an in-person meeting.
- Remote teaching requires even more preparation than in-person courses. For every session, all material needs to be distributed beforehand, make sure to distribute all links to the tools that are going to be used during the course ahead of time.
- Actively plan for socializing in your daily schedule. For example, at CODE the entire team can join a video call every day at 8:30 where we mostly have a coffee together and also discuss some open issues. Let others know how you are doing and listen to learn what others are struggling with at the moment.
- Regardless of the drastic effects of the current pandemic (which I absolutely do not want to downplay here!), we are also going through the biggest test for remote teaching and remote learning ever. We should embrace that opportunity and make the most out of it!
Stay healthy and keep on learning!
And to all CODE students and the entire staff and faculty: you are amazing!