planning an a/synchronous class for the fall

At Buffalo we received some guidance yesterday on our campus plan for the fall. It is similar to those proposed elsewhere.

  • There is a commitment to being “place-based.” Courses that really require in-person activities in order to work, graduate courses that “support UB’s research mission,” and courses that support undergraduate recruitment and retention (e.g., first-year seminars, smaller discussion classes, etc.) are prioritized, roughly in that order it seems.
  • We’ll be social distancing and wearing masks, so that means 25% of typical classroom occupancy.
  • We’ll all be online after Thanksgiving.

I’m scheduled to teach a course on social media and networks that has 24 students enrolled. So if we were all going to meet, we’d need to be in a room designed for 100. The images below aren’t the actual rooms but to give you an idea. Instead of room like this, which claims to have room for 24 students,

A typical classroom for 24 students.

I’d need a room like this, which seats 99.

A classroom for 100 students.

We’d be spread out in this room, wearing masks and trying to talk to each other. Of course, that’s not realistic as there are not nearly enough rooms this size on campus. So what we’re probably talking about is a hybrid/hy-flex model. In this model, I might, for example be back in my room for 24 students meeting with a 1/4 of them or maybe there’s a room for 50 where I can meet with half of them.

Each faculty member has been asked for their preference, and the basic message has been “don’t expect to be able to teach in-person as space is limited.” I’m wondering how many of my colleagues would state a preference for in-person teaching. Personally I don’t think it is worth it. Even setting aside any personal risks with in-person teaching, I don’t think the pedagogical effectiveness of socially-distanced and masked class discussion with 1/4 or 1/2 the students at a time is better than teaching online. And while students desire the social experience of college, of which classes is a (very) small part, the fall won’t (hopefully) be like March or April. Students will get social experiences without needing to come to class for them.

So here’s my basic a/synchronous adaption of the write-pair-share class discussion model I usually employ with in-person classes. Typically, I’d say my class meetings are 25% me lecturing/presenting, 15% informal writing, 20% small group work, and 40% class wide discussion. So my class is 4 credits and scheduled to meet 1:00-2:50 Tuesdays and Thursdays or 220 minutes per week. That means, roughly:

  • 1 hour of presenting
  • 30 minutes of informal writing
  • 40 minutes of small group work
  • 90 minutes of class discussion

In addition every class has asynchronous work (i.e., homework). Typically in my classes this means reading assignments, online reading responses/discussions, and projects (research, digital composing, presentations, etc.). In a conventional asynchronous online course obviously all the synchronous work of in-person classes is replaced with asynch work.

In the design I am planning to pursue, about half of the synchronous work becomes asynchronous. I.e., 90% of the lecturing/presenting, all of the informal writing, and about half of the small group work becomes asynchronous.

  • Students can watch short videos I make or read posts in place of my presenting synchronously.
  • The in-class informal writing now just becomes part of the already existing online class discussion.
  • Some of the small group work is accomplished by students working together asynchronously.

Now instead of two, nearly two-hour Zoom meetings each week, we are meeting for 45-50 minutes twice a week. I do a brief intro, put students into groups for 10-15 minutes, and then we come back for 20-30 minutes. That’s the basic idea.

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