Teaching round-up, part two

In the first post reflecting on this wild semester, I discussed a class that went from face-to-face meetings to Zoom meetings. I turned my other class upside down completely.

Understanding Science, as it happens, is the only thing I’d ever taught on-line before. When I designed the course for Summer 2015, I faced up to some basic realities of the medium: Asynchronous interactions are best.

For a course that starts out on-line, students taking it have a reasonable expectation that the schedule will be flexible.1 This semester was a bit different, because it changed over midway. I knew that students wouldn’t have another class scheduled at exactly the time as mine, because we’d been meeting at that time for the first half of the semester. But I couldn’t presume that the time fit with their work and family responsibilities during the ongoing crisis. It might not even be a sensible time of day, because they were back in their home time zone rather than here in Albany.

So I basically blew up the course structure and adapted asynchronous modules from the on-line Summer class. The face-to-face class started with active class discussions about articles, culminating in in-class tests. Now students would read an article, take an open-book multiple-choice quiz on it, make a post in answer to a discussion prompt, and then comment on other students’ posts. That was the flow of things for each topic.

I decided to make it one topic per week.2 I found that some students weren’t keeping up with the work, though, so I extended the deadlines. They ultimately had two weeks to complete each topic, but they still started a new topic each week. So at any given time they’d have the old topic from previous week which they needed to finish up and the new topic from this week that they needed to start.

I gave them lots of chances at extra credit. There was one module that didn’t fit in the new schedule, so I let them read the article and take the quiz on it for extra quiz points. I gave them points for answering a survey at the end of the course on how it went. And so on.

In the survey, I asked about internet access: A little over half of the students reported having stable, reliable internet. Among those who said that they didn’t, most reported that connectivity issues weren’t so bad as to interfere with their course work.3

I also asked, as I usually would on the last day of class, what topics they thought I should definitely keep in the course and which I should abandon. Respondents were generally upbeat about everything. The topic with the fewest votes in favour had 12, and only two had more than 4 votes against.4

  • The first polarizing topic was the demarcation problem, with 19 votes for and 10 votes against. I’m not sure how much of that was the topic and how much was the reading. I used Laudan’s “The Demise of the Demarcation Problem”— my first time using it, but I think it went better than when I’ve had them read Popper.
  • The other polarizing topic was solar neutrinos and the externality of observation, with 12 for and 14 against! It was the last topic we got through in face-to-face class meetings and the first that they took an on-line quiz about. There were some students who said that they felt it was the most important thing in the course. I wouldn’t go that far, but it is important.
  • Although the vote was 18 for and only 4 against, a number of students commented that they had a hard time reading the chapter from Mill’s On Liberty and that they weren’t sure what it was doing in the course.5

The unstructured comments were satisfying, because many students enjoyed the course and found it rewarding. One even thanked me “for being such a chill, honest and friendly professor!”

  1. If they wanted to sit down for the class at specified times, they’d just have taken an in-person class.
  2. The Summer course had been just 4 weeks, so the timeline was different.
  3. Take this with a grain of salt. About a quarter of the students didn’t take the extra credit survey— and surely some of those didn’t respond in part because of access problems.
  4. You can compare the course post mortem from 2015.
  5. It’s a holdover from the earliest versions of the course. In 2003, I built the course around Kitcher’s Science, Truth, and Democracy. Kitcher has a chapter in which he engages with Mill’s defense of free enquiry, so at some point I started having students read Mill. I now only use one chapter from Kitcher— and not even the one where he discussed Mill— but there’s enough discussion of values and enquiry that it makes sense, at that point in the course, to ask whether enquiry is always justified.

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