Wednesday, December 16, 2020

#TryHard Virtual Teaching. 1 - Promotion

I have decided to release my online lectures from this fall as a "short" course on youtube HERE. This series of blog posts outlines how the lectures were developed.

#TryHard Virtual Teaching. 1 - Promotion

Like all Profs, it became apparent to me very early in the summer that all of my teaching would be online in the fall. I was teaching several courses but the most challenging was going to be Organismal Biology (Intro Biology), which has lectures and labs for 600 first-year students. This blog post is the first of a series about how we converted all labs and lectures to new content specifically for online virtual synchronous and non-synchronous teaching for - yes - 600 students. 

Some things worked and some things didn't, and we learned a lot. Although much has been written by many profs on the transition to virtual teaching, these posts might have some useful new information as we went "all in" #tryhard with our efforts. So - if you really want to go crazy - you can find some useful stuff here. 

1. Promotional videos

Early in the summer, the university administration was panicking for fear that students would - en masse - fail to "show up" as a result of perceptions that the learning experience wouldn't amount to much more than watching last year's lecture recordings. The result of dropping enrollment could be a massive budget deficit owing to lost tuition - especially from international students. So we were strongly encouraged to develop promotional videos to show prospective students that we were serious about developing new tailored-for-them online content that was exciting and engaging. I am really into making videos generally, and I teach about biology, so I figured I should "go out in nature" and record some promotional stuff to get them excited. So I produced four very short promotional videos in hopes of attracting, encouraging, and reassuring potential students that we were "on it" with respect to their education. Each video introduced some new approaches we would take - and here I will outline the basic idea for each.

1. A START. The first video was intended simply to reassure students that they would be getting exciting new content tailored for the virtual environment. So I grabbed a GoPro, hopped in my kayak, and brought the enthusiasm. I interspersed myself talking from the kayak with earlier videos/pictures of (a) me doing the "Drunkard's Walk" in a previous year's class (for an Evolution lecture), (b) my wife's ball python breeding room (from a Reptile lecture), (c) camera trap footage from my cabin (for lectures on Ecology and also on Mammals), and (d) iNaturalist (for brand-new virtual labs). The hope was to quickly (this was May 27, 2020) reassure students registering for the fall that we were going all out for them. Although I can't be sure how influential the video was in reassuring and recruiting students, it was certainly viewed a lot.

2. INATURALIST: In the second promotional video (June 4, 2020), I expanded the idea of using iNaturalist for the labs. The idea (which came from my PhD student Lotte Jensen Skovmand) was to develop labs in which the students would out into their local environments (since they wouldn't be coming to McGill and were all over the world) to make observations and share them in "projects" on this virtual free online environment. In making video, I developed some new techniques I would apply later, such as lecturing from "out there" (in this case from my dock), the use of multiple cameras recording simultaneously, screen recording on my phone and computer, editing and assembly strategies (I use Adobe Premiere Pro), doing live on-the-fly recordings, and including some "bloopers" for fun.

3. GREEN SCREEN. In the third video (June 26), I did a test-drive of green screen approaches, which ultimately proved to be exceptionally useful. The green screen set-up that I got was only about $200 CAD and it was AMAZING. The best value purchase I made for this year's effort. This test recording has a number of flaws that I gradually figured out and fixed in subsequently lectures - as I will later describe in another post.

4. PLACE-BASED TEACHING. The fourth promotional video (Aug. 19) was, I think, the most important for the teaching plan I had envisioned. My main approach to teaching when in person focuses on trying to convey enthusiasm and inspiration to the students. This approach is easy in person but very hard when remote over zoom. So I had cast about for how I might bring a personalized connection to the lectures. I decided to develop what I ended up calling "place-based teaching". The idea was to connect all of the lectures to physical places from which I could record new content directly related to the lectures I would develop later. The core focus of this place-based approach would be my cabin in northern BC. So this promotional video was of me talking to students from my cabin (where I was much of the summer) and telling them how I would use place-based teaching in my lectures.

Well, that's all for the promotional videos I recorded. In the posts that follow, I will explain how we developed this concept further, collaborated with students, refined my technological approaches, and the various mistakes and problems we encountered - and tried to overcome.


Here is the developing series of #TryHard Virtual Teaching

1. Promotion

2. Place-based teaching

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