Taking “integrated lecture-lab” online

Anne Egger
published Apr 21, 2020 9:19pm

In a normal year, when there is no pandemic, my structural geology class meets three days a week for two hours each session. It's an integrated lecture-lab, in which a typical class might consist of a 10-15 minute introductory activity, followed by a 10-15 minute lecture from me, followed by a longer activity that they may or may not completely finish in class, interspersed with a lot of wandering around the classroom talking to students, as individuals and as groups.

When the decision was made to go online, my first thought was not about the format. It was, "Oh, my. How am I going to get them all the stuff they need?" The handouts to draw on, the pictures, the rocks, the foam, the stuff that facilitated the learning.

That got me stuck for a while, and then I got over it-lots of great, free software can replace the hands-on materials; I can make short videos that demonstrate the concepts with foam and rocks; I can send them graph paper and maps in the mail. Problem solved.

It was only then that I started to think, "Wait. How the heck am I even going to do this?" I had already decided that I wouldn't try to have synchronous meetings, as urged by our institution and by many who are far more experienced at teaching online. Transforming what felt like a natural progression in the classroom into an orchestrated, step-by-step procedure (do this reading, answer these questions, watch this 5-minute video, answer these questions, watch this 10-minute video...) seemed... awkward. Also, I had never graded these in-class activities before, but I knew enough to know that, if there weren't points associated with them, they wouldn't get done.

So I made two decisions. First, no exams. This might seem unrelated, but I just didn't want to deal with them. I usually had a take-home midterm and an in-person final. Students who were otherwise doing well in the class often did terribly on the exams-I had been considering jettisoning them for years. Given all of the issues with... oh, everything, I axed the exams.

Second, those "in-class activities" would become more substantial, point-bearing, yet also forgiving. The points on these would be largely based on completeness, encouraging students to answer questions and submit work-in-progress without fear of loss of points for incorrectness, like a true in-class activity. (Problem sets, on the other hand, are somewhat less guided and would indeed be graded on correctness in addition to completeness.) I would try to recreate that "Here, mess around with these data, then we'll talk about it," with a set of short videos and questions to answer.

I liked those decisions and felt good about my philosophy as the quarter began.

And it was only then, when I started to put these assignments formerly known as in-class-activities together, that I had the thought, "This is an enormous amount of work." After the first week of classes and a lot of lost sleep, I thought I might have made a huge mistake, though another option that would work for my teaching style wasn't entirely clear to me, either.

Then I talked to my students. Although we aren't having synchronous class meetings, I have mandatory once-a-week check-ins. The students said they liked the bite-sized chunks of the assignments, that the videos weren't long, that they could easily listen to it again to catch what they needed, and then do a little work and then move to the next step. The quick videos that responded to the answers they had submitted helped them feel like they were really in class.

That positive affirmation was really helpful. It did not change the fact that it still takes WAY more time to "prepare for class," and the timing of when I need to do that is very different from an in-person class, but it made me feel like my efforts were not in vain. Even when I messed up in the videos and just kept going, it felt real to them-I mean, geez, that's exactly what I do in class on the whiteboard!

Lest you think that I have the logistics all figured out, let me assure you-I've used... I don't know... four? different options in our course management system (Canvas) to create these experiences. I upload my videos, and I don't know where they go-I can't find them again. I realize (too late! When a student emails me a question) that I forgot to include some detail in my short explanation that they need to know to do the assignment. But, whatever. The students are forgiving, and so am I.

Talking to the camera on the computer is not the same as talking to students, and I miss that. "Integrated lecture-lab" has a different meaning online than in-person, and I miss that, too. But I'm finding that it is not terrible, and it sparks some creativity that wouldn't have emerged otherwise.

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