Digital Learning


Thanks for calling on me to provide a few suggestions about how I approach digital learning, blended learning, online learning, distance learning, etc. Yes, lots of terms over the years, so forgive me for jesting, but overall I break down the approaches into two groups (synchronous/asynchronous) and I have a few primary collaborative add-ons that I use for each. (Of course, the context for this, for anyone besides my friend who reads this, is that I teach mathematics and some computer courses at the local community college.) So, I will start with synchronous online courses, and share my fall-back format:

1) Connection (10min.) – Let people connect, have a small problem and instructions (like a Do Now) for students to work on (share that part of your screen) while students connect over the next 10 minutes.  Keep conversation light and direct incoming students to the problem. Make a light start a deliberate construct for mitigation against “tech issues,” late students, and any tension that could arise from that. Again, redirect incoming students calmly (broken record w/ gentle voice) to the warm-up/do now/critical scenario/story prob etc., and let everyone settle in.

2) Launch (15-30min.) – I find it hard to avoid direct instruction at the college level (or any level), so I usually do this next if the day’s lesson requires it.  This is also a good time for attendance (and for exceptions/adjustments due to COVID-19).  For me, I use a webcam that shows me writing math on pencil/paper and/or Excel with screen sharing and/or LaTeX/Equation editor, Desmos for whatever the case may be.  Regardless of what tool I use during this time, this is explicit instruction and/or an explicitly guided student activity time (either direct instruction or possibly, at times, guided practice – this module does not work with independent practice at the outset).

3) Practice (30min.) – Divide students into individual rooms and have them work on small story problems or projects that pertain to the unit and aforementioned lecture, a jiggsaw practice approach as it were.  Visit each room and “listen in” for 3-5 minutes and give a Wow/Wonder to each and answer “1” question. Remind students that they will need to present, or “report out,” to the whole group before you depart the room.

4) Whole Group (30min.) – Give each group’s presenter the option of sharing their screen (there is usually a geek who can make a PP or has a webcam or something) so that they can share their “report out” on what they did – perhaps they take a picture of their math written on paper, email themselves with their phone, and then you give them screen control to share their steps with the whole class.  There are tons of ways to do this … on their end, leave it up to them and prime them to find a tech-saavy group leader who can or knows a way to share content back after working in groups.

5) Closing & Meeting Time (30min.) – Close the class, confirm homework, next meeting, etc., etc. as the case may be.  “Dismiss” synchronous class as it were.  Optionally, there can be a small challenge/tease problem that foreshadows the next lesson, but after closing, open the “room” up to anyone who has individual questions and/or leverage this time (like I am) for discussions about final statistics projects and final projects for software and hardware.  These projects are lengthy and involved and this time assuages the students.

6) Post Class (1-2 hours) – These sessions are recorded (locally) using GNOME Screen Recorder, then I compress the video using Handbrake, and after that I post to Canvas, my home server for backup, and to YouTube for speed and convenience (for the students, they complain about Canvas). 

Add-on Option 1 – Leverage forum/discussion posts in between this session and the next that lead into the next sessions. I find student posts to be very trivial and mostly compulsory despite years of tweaking prompts. This can be done, but in light of this, I usually find that narrowing the posting window, structuring requirements (1 post, 2 responses), and heavy immediate feedback from the instructor are the only ways to make this effective.

Add-on Option 2 – I use the “peer review” feature in Canvas LMS where groups can be random or assigned.  Assign specific homework that requires “peer review” in Canvas and use this prior to the next learning session to pre-build groups and/or prime the learning. I use this much more to facilitate collaboration than the first add-on option. I find that when students are discussing their assignment – instead of an assignment about discussing something like above – that they stop complying with post requirements, and give good feedback to one another and learn from the examples they see. I advise students to be respectful, and I recommend each student do a Wow/Wonder in the feedback they leave for the other students. This is an especially important tool for final projects and provides good initial work for later discussions about the project during synchronous sessions – it is multi-directional; as well, student-student, teacher-student, student-teacher.

As for asynchronous sessions ….

1) Content Delivery: My primary approach to asynchronous, which I do for in-personal classes as well as an augment to instruction, is to screen record me using my webcam to do handwritten math and/or recording me using Desmos, Excel, LaTeX, etc. in order to do something that is made easier and/or requires technology (transcendental integrals, etc.).  At any rate, I do and record and then post.  I use the same tech as above (GNU/Linux screen recorder, Handbrake, home Debian server, and then Canvas/YouTube for ease).

The same Add-on Options 1 and 2 above now become required components for the asynchronous class, in my opinion. This is because, since this class is not synchronous, the so-called Add-on Options from above, are now the very entity that builds learning culture within the online environment. The forums/discussions, and the peer review cycles, provide rich ways to bring students together digitally. This is not enough, however, and in addition to adding these elements as mandatory parts of my approach, I also find the following structure is also essential:

  • Students must be provided tutorials on how to submit homework/work on the LMS (Canvas, etc.). If you do not submit this, students will post assignments in non-standard formats, some of which can even mess up and break the LMS (Canvas). Yes, once a student posted .html within Canvas and it would crash every time I go to her submission.
  • Students must receive descriptive feedback on each submission in the Comments section for submissions. This is the proxy for what would, in normal class instruction, be formative feedback from the instructor. I make my comments and feedback tied to criteria they can follow to improve the score. This starts a cycle of feedback that lasts all semester.
  • Math assignments should involve critical thinking, demonstration, and sharing, and avoid overuse of multiple choice. This limits gaming of the system, improves validity, and is also a better pedagogical approach since you get more granularity from such assignments about the nature of each student’s learning process. I give exams during windows, but for projects/story problems, I might encourage collaboration and give a 2-3 window.
  • SFCC Exams – I teach at SFCC, and I follow whatever summative exams and guidelines they have. Both/and is my approach – summative and statically scored exams, benchmarks or snapshots as it were of a student’s learning, are also very valuable tools in assessing learning. This specific semester, my friend, I will adapt the SFCC tests and change/tweak problems, etc., and then expand them into story/project problems (stats class) for students to complete over a few days.  In short, a final project / slew of rich problems, etc.  This is, of course, unless further guidance or directives are provided.

I think that is all … there is a lot more … but that is mostly it.  I use Jitsi for connecting, but I also keep a “backup” zoom room open no matter what to switch to (and vice/versa) if one or the other platforms fails at the outset or goes down that day. I use Handbrake to compress, run Debian Buster, use Jitsi and/or Zoom, and all Free Software tools. I do post these sessions to my home web server, Canvas, and/or YouTube. This is also, of course, the tip of the iceberg, and there are many other approaches to both and these are just my fallback approaches to synchronous and asynchronous learning after years of experience.

I should note also, that the majority of experience on what makes a successful synchronous session are drawn from my experiences as a student – not as an instructor. Synchronous learning was en vogue when I was becoming a teacher and still when I first entered grad school. Seeing those epic fails helped me a lot … and the awesome classes that surpassed or were just as good as the in-person classes were (Jim Burns, Robert Karaba, NMHU). I have had the good fortune of testing these approaches a great deal of times with dedicated students in online classes at SFCC. I typically refer to these sessions as “optional tutoring” sessions, however, the teaching/nursing cohorts have such dedicated students that – when they all attend every session by choice – you have no other choice to implement the fall back plan, as I have done and will continue to do. Now, during the COVID-19 epoch, I will similarly leverage many of these approaches and strategies.

Well, friend, do we need to discuss rubrics and how to grade student work next? Also … I would like to use channel-based services with my classes, but we lack approval at this time. Of course, I am speaking of Nextcloud Talk (or Slack, etc.), so that students can get quick – transactional – feedback about protocol, deadlines, tech issues etc.


Jonathan Haack
Director, Haack’s Networking
Adjunct Faculty, SFCC (this post not affiliated)

3 thoughts on “Digital Learning

  1. I will note, of course, that a great deal of this discussion assumes compulsory compliance with one’s school-approved CMS!

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