Teaching technical skills online

Here I am, still blogging like some kind of caveman. I guess I should be using Substack or Medium or something, but maybe blogs will come back in style, like other artifacts of the ’00s.

Anyway, in the past, when people asked me whether I could teach my digital humanities classes online, I hemmed and hawed. Tools like web-based visualization software have made it easier to share work across platforms, and heaven knows there are plenty of cloud-based collaboration tools out there.

The thing that worried me was teaching new tech skills, which is a big part of my classes, and particularly my Intro to DH classes. I am super, super picky about how to do this, as I’ve mentioned before. My feeling is, I get one shot to teach the students this new skill, and if something goes badly wrong, I’ve not only missed my shot, but I may inadvertently lead someone to believe they’re not capable of learning the skill. It’s why I teach every single skill myself, rather than invite people to give workshops; I just know exactly how I want it done.

screenshot of teacher dashboard from Pear Deck. The main view shows one slide with instructions on it, while a sidebar shows other slides in the deck. small blue boxes with numbers on them show how many students are on each slide.
While my students work through a tutorial, this is my view from the “teacher dashboard.” Notice the blue boxes with numbers in them at the lower left-hand portion of the slides. They tell me how many students are working on that step. I can tell, for example, that at least some students were able to get past the downloading-software step, which is a relief.

Thus, when my students work through tutorials together, my habit has been to wander somewhat unnervingly around the room, peeking over people’s shoulders and checking to see whether someone had a question that they’re not quite willing to raise a hand to ask. It’s important to me that they be able to tell from my affect and expression that their questions are not stupid, and I worried about the way that distance would limit my ability to connect with them.

But necessity is the mother of invention, and this quarter, like most faculty, I am teaching entirely online, including my Intro to Digital Humanities class for grad students. It is not at all unusual for my students to tell me at the outset of class that they consider themselves bad with technology, and so it’s particularly important to me that they don’t leave the class with this impression.

So I had to figure out how to:

  • keep an eye on people’s progress without pestering them
  • figure out if the tutorial is taking too long, or if people are getting through it way faster than I expected
  • give people ways to ask questions that do not involve drawing the entire room’s attention to their problem
  • troubleshoot people’s problems effectively
  • allow people of differing skill levels to move at their own pace

I’m not all the way there yet, but I wanted to share some tricks that have helped me get closer to my pedagogical goals. [1]Let me preface this by saying that I’ve taught these types of classes for a long time, and so I have a lot of curricular materials. If I hadn’t been doing this for so long, I think … Continue reading

Just as before, I’ve been putting students into small groups — in this case, groups of 3 or 4, each in a Zoom breakout room. [2]I’ve been considering proximity-based group meeting rooms, like wonder.me, but I worry slightly that the new room won’t work as intended and we’ll all be at sea. My reasoning is that this way they can chat and ask each other for help without me looming over them. I stay in the main room, and students can pop in whenever they want a hand. They can also use Zoom’s “ask for help” function to ask me to join them in the breakout room. (And they do!)

As before, they work through detailed tutorials to learn a tool or skill. The difference, though, is that I’ve converted the blog post-style tutorials to Pear Deck slides. [3]I’ve found Pear Deck to be fine, if somewhat clunky. There are other interactive presentation tools, most notably Nearpod, which I actually prefer to use for interactive presentations. But Pear … Continue reading Pear Deck is an interactive presentation tool designed for K-12, with a lot of interactive features that aren’t really relevant here. What is relevant is that I can turn the presentation to “student-paced mode,” and the students click through at their own pace, one slide per step.

You can see what the slides look like from the students’ perspectives by clicking through below. (Incidentally, I don’t love the “How are you feeling today?” thing, which is stuck in there by default. Like, if a student is having feelings, it’s not really my business, unless they want to tell me. Anyway.)

Meanwhile, from the “teacher dashboard” I can see how many students are on each slide in the tutorial. I keep it anonymous — it’s really not my business if a student doesn’t choose to do the tutorial or wants to be really slow — but I can see, for example, if a bunch of students are getting stuck on the step where they’re supposed to download the software. I can also see if they’re zooming through the tutorial at breakneck speed, or if it’s going to take longer than I thought.

This has made an enormous difference, at least for my own peace of mind. I tried having them complete a tutorial without first converting it to Pear Deck slides, and I felt completely lost. I had no information about whether they were able to get through, whether they had questions but weren’t willing to ask, whether they’d stopped trying completely.

So how am I turning tutorials into slides? Undoubtedly in the stupidest possible way. Pear Deck works as an add-on to Google Slides, so you can prepare a slide deck in the usual way, then add interactive elements and launch it via Pear Deck. I suspect that there is a way, perhaps using Pandoc, to convert documents from Markdown or HTML into slides (or at least PDFs). Instead, I have been painstakingly cutting, pasting, and formatting each step on Google Slides. I don’t know how to explain this; I just do really inefficient things sometimes.

Perhaps I’m being a stick-in-the-mud about insisting on using class time for tutorials. It’s something I’m thinking about. I’ve actually just sent my students a mid-quarter poll to see what they think. But for the time being, I really like knowing that my students can find me just one room away if they get stuck.

How are you teaching skills in your distance learning classroom? I’m sure there are a lot of ingenious ideas out there.

Footnotes

1 Let me preface this by saying that I’ve taught these types of classes for a long time, and so I have a lot of curricular materials. If I hadn’t been doing this for so long, I think I’d probably use existing videos or tutorials, given how chaotic everything is right now. But I do have the materials more or less ready to go, so it’s not as time-consuming for me as it might be for someone newer to teaching these classes.
2 I’ve been considering proximity-based group meeting rooms, like wonder.me, but I worry slightly that the new room won’t work as intended and we’ll all be at sea.
3 I’ve found Pear Deck to be fine, if somewhat clunky. There are other interactive presentation tools, most notably Nearpod, which I actually prefer to use for interactive presentations. But Pear Deck, unlike Nearpod, allows me to monitor student progress from a dashboard and allows students to click links directly from slides. So Pear Deck it is.

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