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C'est la Z

Preparing CS Teachers - tools for remote instruction

Our summer intensive was supposed to be in person but COVID-19 changed that in a hurry. We had to scramble to redesign and figure out how we were going to run things.

We decided to go with the following:

  • Zoom for live meetings

  • Slack for chat

  • Git and GitHub

    • GitHub classroom for assignments

    • GitHub repos for code distribution, class website and resource sharing.

    • GitHub discussions for off hour and long form discussion

While Zoom is a great platform it was lacking in a few areas so we also ended up using:

  • Padlet as a collaborative writing space for groups

  • Assorted whiteboarding tools.

Here's the breakdown.

We used Zoom as you might imagine - big zoom for direct instruction and whole class work and lots of breakout rooms. Screen sharing worked great but the whiteboarding was less than ideal so we turned to screen sharing with other tools. The big things missing from Zoom were a collaborative writing/drawing space and flexibility for breakout rooms. I would have loved to be able to spy on a breakout room or have more fluidity between them but it still did a pretty good job considering Zoom wasn't designed for education.

Big Blue Button is an open source alternative to Zoom. It's design for teaching so it has some of the features that Zoom lacks but it's not quite there yet in terms of quality and reliability.

Instead of the Zoom chat, we decided to use Slack. Zoom's chat only works while Zoom is up and there were times when the cohort was working "offline." Also, slack gave us both threads and different channels as well as arbitrary private chats.

In addition to the general class chat we had channels like #git-fu, #java-fu, #fall-is-coming to discuss COVID-19 and the public schools,

Funny thing - this was the first time any of us had strong Slack adoption. We've tried it before but never got buy in. This time we did. Maybe because we were together morning through afternoon and when we broke we were still in the same physical location with out computers nearby. In any event, Slack was used for both in class and out of class communication and is still being used now albeit at a lower volume.

Slack also gave us a place, besides the zoom to build community. Having some fun channels like #duckygram and #cs-educationy-goodness set a light tone. Every day, Alex would wait until right before our start to put a gif in the #attendance channel each day outdoing the ridiculousness of the rest of the class. It was the cohort that made the community but Slack as a platform helped.

I'm wondering if a I'll get better buy in with my undergrads in a few weeks as we're starting the semester online but at least for this cohort, it worked.

My only problem with Slack is the price. I have zero budget which leaves us with the free tier. That means limited integrations and limited history. I might check out some self-hosted options like Zulip and Rocketchat to see if they're viable alternatives.

We originally planned to use GitHub discussions for longer form communication. It hit most of the buttons for me – threaded discussion, reply via email, customizable alerts. All good. It's lacking tags and search but it looked like it could be a viable long form discussion platform. We kicked off with it but the class voted with their feet. They kept going back to Slack so while GitHub was our main platform for code, GitHub discussions fell by the wayside as Slack won the day.

Along the way we learned some tricks. Even though Topher was paid for teaching two courses, JonAlf two, and I was just officially supervising and coordinating, all three of us were pretty much on all the time. Ones strategy that developed was having one of us man Slack while another ran the Zoom. I might be running a Zoom based activity while Topher or JonAlf would answer questions or highlight and emphasize key points on Slack. I don't know yet if it helped the class educationally or was a distraction but we all liked the flow. Something to look at further.

We also had to figure out how not to double or triple respond to questions. We each adopted an emoji and when a question was asked, whoever got there first would mark the thread with that emoji letting the others know we had it covered.

Another skill we mastered was the "slack-moji" poll - pre-staging Slack polls and content to cut and paste over. Actually, there's a cool remote class tool, Primsia (formerly babylon.hosue) which is much better at that than Slack but it isn't up 24x7 and is more set up for a teacher actively managing class discussion rather than a free form chat.

I'd love to see Big Blue Button grow to be a suitable Zoom replacement as it's better suited for education and I'm hoping that Zulip proves to be a good free alternative to Slack but regardless of specific tool, the combination of video conferencing, chat, long form message, and whiteboarding make up a pretty good remote classroom. It would be nice if collaborative coding was easier but there aren't that many options there. Repl.it is awesome but we decided to have them develop on their local machines and adding a tool like Floobits would have been too much to ask for most of the cohort.

We think it all went pretty well. If given the option next summer, I'm leaning towards a hybrid program as even without COVID-19, remote is easier for many teachers for geographic and school scheduling reasons. I figure open in person and maybe do one day or a couple of half days a week on site and the rest remote. I think we'll talk about it as a cohort once the Fall begins and can start thinking about cohort 2.

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