Education

Quick & dirty online teaching:
a list of tools

Ana Maria Barral
April 04, 2020

Over the past few days, after a large number of colleges and universities moved their courses online, the avalanche of information has been overwhelming. Organizations, professional societies and different groups have started sharing documents or published lists of resources related to online teaching. Moreover, many providers of online resources (publishers, companies making lab simulations, etc.) are offering their resources for free. So right now it seems like we are facing this tantalizingly rich buffet of options. Personally, I tend to freeze in the face of too many options, and I suspect that many instructors new to online teaching may feel the same. This blog post is to offer a list of tools/resources I have personally used in the past that worked for me.

Disclaimer: My online experience is predominantly Blackboard and previously eCollege. I have dabbled a bit in Moodle, but not with Canvas (which is very widespread these days) or Desire2Learn.

General online teaching resources

  • I got my online teaching chops through the @One Online Network of Educators, a California organization providing online training (and more) to community college educators. If you are a CC faculty in California, this is an amazing resource.
  • If you follow me on Twitter you may have noticed me often retweeting Michelle Pacansky-Brock, who was one of my instructors at @One. She is an amazing person and an expert in how to build community online and broadly how to humanize online learning.
  • For science education, the CIRTL Network is a great resource. It is associated to specific institutions but they have a broad online training scope, from basic evidence-based science teaching to online teaching. They do webinars and courses. The system I currently use to record my lectures was adopted from one of their trainings.
  • In my previous post I recommended taking an online course to experience it from the receiving end. There are plenty of online courses through Coursera and EdX and others, but they are MOOCs, so there is no direct interaction with instructors. Examples of online courses (both taken and taught, apologies for the shameless promotion here) are Open Networked Learning and ASBMB’s Art of Science Communication course.

Lecture recording

This is, for me, one of the most technically demanding parts of online teaching. Basic guidelines include short length (less than 15 minutes, ideally) and captions or transcripts (ADA compliance). Also, decent video and audio quality.

  • My to-go system to record lectures is this:
    • Prepare PowerPoints for a topic (max 20 slides)
    • Prepare the transcript for the PowerPoint. Note: there are ways to get automatic captions (YouTube will do that); however, that has not worked for me as (1) science words are often misunderstood and (2) I have an accent. Also, in the beginning I would talk about my slides spontaneously, resulting in lots of ummm and hmmm. When on the receiving end, that is quite annoying.
    • Years ago I got hooked on Camtasia video-editing software. It costs money, but I really like it, and I am used to it. So I record my screen and do the voiceover there.
    • In Camtasia, then I add titles, callouts, and even pictures on top of the slides.
    • Export as mp4, and upload to a shareable place.
  • Your institution may have embedded recording options available. We have a connection with Kaltura, which allows direct recording and uploading, with options to edit.
  • YouTube has lots of good options also.
  • There are a number of free screencasting programs/applications. My major beef with those is that free applies only to short videos/limited space.

Live interactions

There are a number of video conferencing tools available. Seems like a lot of people are using Zoom. Learning management systems (LMS) often have such a tool embedded, for example Blackboard has Bb Collaborate. Other options are good old Skype, or Google Hangouts (or whatever it is called these days). Whatever system you use, it is important to check available time (free versions of Zoom, for example, may be limited in time) and number of users allowed.

Some tips & tricks

  • Setting: Good lighting, no distractions in the background or foreground (messy room behind, closet door left open, wine glass on the desk — yes, seen that too!). Seems like a lot of people are using virtual backgrounds (that is cool, but be sure that your real background is not too messy in case it does not work). I have a folding screen room divider placed behind me when doing official business.
  • Internet: When doing video conferencing, it is really critical to have good internet. I recommend to check the wifi speed ahead of time when doing video conferencing. If it gets slow, turn off the webcam (have a nice profile pic saved).
  • Practice screen sharing and use of whiteboard.
  • Online meetings require a bit more planning then onsite, especially with students. To get them involved, one can use anonymous means such as polling or use of whiteboard for them to type answers, or divide them in breakout rooms and then ask for the group to report back.
  • Record the session so students who couldn’t attend can still benefit from it.

Asynchronous interactions

Not all students can be present in synchronous sessions, but there are other ways to have them involved.

  • Discussion boards are useful. I try to post questions that are open-ended and result in diverse perspectives. If students need to work on a specific research topic they will post about it and explain why are they interested in it. Sometimes to gather different opinions about the same issue, it may be useful to hide others’ postings before the student post their own. For DBs to be fair, word limits and content requirements are necessary.
  • There are many other tools to get diverse opinions asynchronously, in different formats. Some that I have tried and liked are: VoicethreadPadlet, and Flipgrid. In this page, to the right, there is a list of collaborative tools.

Assignments

  • One of the basic tenets of scientific teaching is to combine low and high stakes assignments, as well as formative and summative assessments. These categories tend to overlap- a homework graded for completion and/or of low value versus a high value exam. In COVID-19 times, considering the massive disruptions in everybody’s lives, it may be kind to offer more low stakes assessments, relax the deadlines, and offer more than one take at online exams. If students are new to the online environment, it is a good idea to offer practice assessments.
  • How to makes exams and quizzes online is a posting by itself, but basically it can be made from scratch or imported/reused.
  • Written assignments can be usually graded within the LMS environment or downloaded, reviewed, and uploaded back when grading.

Well this is all for today. Our university decided to go fully online couple of days ago. The courses I am responsible for have plenty of online material, but it is still a bit stressful for faculty and students alike. Stay safe and healthy!

This article is reprinted from Ana Maria Barral's blog, barralopolis.  Read another online teaching column by Barral here.
Ana Maria Barral

Ana Maria Barral is an assistant professor at National University’s Costa Mesa, California, campus. Follow her on Twitter.

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