How I Work: Distance Learning Edition

Due to COVID-19, City Tech (and all of CUNY) shifted its in-person classes to online, distance learning instruction. In this post, I reflect on my current class’s transition to distance learning, show how I have configured my office and computer for screencasting and video conferencing, describe some software and services that support distance learning, and give instructions for uploading a video to YouTube.

My Transition to Distance Learning

For my current Science Fiction (ENG2420) class, this was not too much of a disruption, because I was already leveraging online technologies to support student learning and course material accessibility. I designed the course as a zero textbook cost class, meaning I find resources that I can make available to students via PDFs and handouts, and choose readings that are available freely online, such as the unparalleled Archive.org.

Also, I redesigned some of the course assignments to emphasize the importance of note taking by teaching good note taking practices and evaluating students on the quality of their notes. To support this, I recorded each lecture during our earlier in-person classes and posted them on YouTube after class ended, so that students could use the videos to fill in gaps in their notes and allow those students who missed a class to make their own notes based on the video lectures.

I collect student work via email and on OpenLab, “an open-source, digital platform designed to support teaching and learning at City Tech (New York City College of Technology), and to promote student and faculty engagement in the intellectual and social life of the college community.” I joined the OpenLab team as a co-director of the project this year, but I have been using OpenLab in all of my classes since joining City Tech in 2014.

Now with classes meeting asynchronously online, I have tweaked assignments and the schedule to accommodate students accessing materials and completing their assignments. I hold office hours once a week at a regularly scheduled time via Google Hangouts, and I can hold private office hours by appointment with students. I use email to respond to questions and concerns on a daily basis.

Now that I have reconfigured a space in my apartment to support my class and the many other online meeting responsibilities that I have with OpenLab and other projects, I wanted to share some tips and ideas to help others transitioning to facilitating their classes with distance learning.

Office Configuration

I know how easily distracted I am by busy backgrounds, I wanted to provide as neutral a space for my lectures and online meetings. To this end, I appropriated my apartment’s closet as a distance learning and video conferencing studio.

I positioned the Logitech C615 webcam so that I am centered in the frame when video conferencing or recording myself lecture. Above the camera, I positioned a white light to illuminate my face.

I arranged the desk so that my back would be against a solid white wall as pictured above looking from behind my monitor towards where I would be sitting facing the monitor and webcam.

Notice that I taped a small piece of cardboard above the webcam. This blocks glare on the camera lens from the light above that illuminates my face. I was careful to cut and position it so that it is out of frame of the camera lens. Depending on your webcam, be careful not to cover the microphone if you build a similar lens shade.

To the side of my desk, I have a larger lamp that points against the wall and behind me. This reduces my shadow from the desk lamp in front of me.

The end result looks like this:

Software and Online Services for Distance Learning

As mentioned above, I use email and the OpenLab for interacting with students, disseminating materials, and collecting student work. And, I am using Google Hangouts for regular office hours since it is a far easier lift for students than official CUNY supported video platforms like Skype and WebEx.

To create my class lectures, I do the following things.

First, I create a presentation slide deck using Slides in Google Docs.

While presenting my slides in full screen mode, I use OBS Studio, a “free and open source software for video recording and live streaming” that supports Windows, Mac, and Linux, to record a video of my desktop (the Slides presentation) and my webcam video and audio in a smaller picture-in-picture that positioned in the lower right corner of the screen, which produces a video like my recent lecture embedded below.

Before I can post the video to YouTube, I like to edit it (though, editing isn’t absolutely necessary). I like to use Shotcut, a “a free, open source, cross-platform video editor.” After trimming the video, I then upload it to YouTube, get the video’s sharable link, and embed the video with the link in my class’ OpenLab site.

OBS Studio and Shotcut have steep learning curves, but each have extensive online documentation and there are communities of users online who share tips and advice about how to setup and use these powerful tools.

There are many other options for working with video. On Mac OS X, one can use Quicktime Player to record a screencast or iMovie to create something more advanced. On Windows 10, the built-in Xbox Game Bar can be used for creating a screencast movie. Also, there are commercial solutions, such as Screencast-o-Matic.

In some cases, you might not even need a computer. iPhones with iOS and Android phones can use video recording software that’s built-in or with an app to record and edit video, and there’s a YouTube app for both platforms that you can use for uploading the resulting video.

In the next section, I will show you step-by-step instructions for uploading a video made on a computer to YouTube.

Uploading a Video to YouTube

Once you have a video ready to share with students, the following step-by-step guide for uploading your video to YouTube shows you how to upload and share a link to your video.

First, navigate to YouTube.com and login to your account. Then, click on the camera icon in the upper right corner and then click “Upload Video.”

Second, drag-and-drop your video from your computer into the center of the window that opens, or click on “Select File” to navigate to and select your video file on your computer.

Third, while your video is uploading and processing (updates are shown along the bottom edge of this window shown above), fill out the Title and Description boxes and choose a thumbnail for how the video will initially display before the play button is pressed. Then, scroll down the window.

To comply with the COPPA law, select if your video is for kids or not. Then, click Next in the lower right hand corner.

Fourth, you can skip the options on the Video Elements screen and click Next in the lower right corner.

Fifth, select the Visibility option for your video. The most versatile choices are Public (this is what I choose) and Unlisted. In these cases, you will have a sharable video link that you can send via email or easily embed in a webpage. Private is also an option, but you have to choose who is permitted to see the video, which requires students having a Google account and you knowing those accounts to grant permission to each one. After making your selection, click Publish in the lower right corner.

Finally, highlight and copy the video link on the resulting screen, or click on the copy icon on the right to automatically copy the video link to the Clipboard. Click “Close” on the lower right to return to your list of videos on YouTube. With the link on your Clipboard, you can go to email, OpenLab, or another platform to paste and share the video link with your students.

On OpenLab and WordPress-based sites, pasting the link into a post or page will automatically embed the video so that students can simply navigate to your class site and watch the video on the class site instead of going over to YouTube as an additional step.

If you’re working on transitioning your classes to distance learning, it’s okay to feel overwhelmed and frustrated like Miao Miao below. Just don’t give up. We’re doing good work for our students, and it takes time to think through and implement distance learning. Also, it’s okay to let your students know that this is a work-in-progress and things might change based on what works and what doesn’t.

I republished this post on Open Pedagogy on the OpenLab here.

My “Writing the Brain” Twitter Assignment Appears in Twenty Writing Assignments in Context, Ed. by Melissa Bender and Karma Waltonen

978-1-4766-6509-2My “Writing the Brain” assignment, which helps students understand how different media (Twitter, photography, posters, and essays) shape and change their messages, appears in Melissa Bender and Karma Waltonen’s edited collection, Twenty Writing Assignments in Context: An Instructor’s Resource for the Composition Classroom. Melissa and Karma put a lot of good work into curating this guide of innovative assignments. Each chapter includes an assignment, its rationalization, and examples of student work. I’m proud to have my assignment included with the engaging pedagogical work of its other contributors!

Twenty Writing Assignments in Context can be purchased from McFarland & CoAmazon (Kindle version available, too), or Barnes and Noble. More information about the book is included below.

Twenty Writing Assignments in Context
An Instructor’s Resource for the Composition Classroom

Edited by Melissa Bender and Karma Waltonen

Print ISBN: 978-1-4766-6509-2
Ebook ISBN: 978-1-4766-2729-8
21 photos, notes, bibliographies, index
288pp. softcover (6 x 9) 2017

$35.00

About the Book
Twenty original, classroom-tested assignments: This innovative collection of college writing assignments explores the practical applications of each lesson. Drawing upon current best practices, each chapter includes a discussion of the rationale behind the assignment, along with supplemental elements such as guidelines for evaluation, prewriting exercises and tips for avoiding common pitfalls. The assignments are designed for a range of courses, from first-year composition to upper-division writing in various disciplines.

Table of Contents
Introduction
The Rhetoric of Everyday Objects: An Assignment Sequence, Melissa Bender
Writing and Designing Informational Booklets for International Exchange Students, M. Ann BradyFraming the Personal Narrative: Composition and Documentary Film, Jodie Childers
Blogging Advanced Composition, Elisa Cogbill-Seiders, Ed Nagelhout, and Denise Tillery
Proposal Writing in Technical Communications, Barbara J. D’Angelo
Past Meets Present: Exploring the University Archives to Compose and Connect, Christine Denecker
Writing the Brain: A Multimodal Assignment Sequence, Jason W. Ellis
Making Financial Contracts User-Friendly: Conducting Research, Redesigning Documents and Proposing Changes in the Workplace, Sara K. Gunning
Geobiographies: A Place-Based Assignment Sequence, Jim Henry
The Discipline Resource Guide Website, Dalyn Luedtke
Global Urban Centers: A Rhetorical Analysis of Street Art, Gerald Maki
The Academic Discourse Project, Gracemarie MiKe
Political Cartoons and Multimodal Composition: The Visual Argument Assignment, Erin Dee Moore
Researching and Writing a History of Composition-Rhetoric, Lori Ostergaard
Critical Analysis of a Wikipedia Entry, Gwendolynne Reid
“In the Year”: Using Website Design for ePortfolios, Katherine Robbins
Workplace Document Analysis and Evaluation, Melissa Vosen Callens
The Partner Project: Advanced Argument, Karma Waltonen
Captain Discourse and Other Heroes:  Learning about Writing Research through Comic Books, Courtney L. Werner and Nicole I. Caswell
Critical Analysis of Student Ethnography, Abby Wilkerson

About the Authors
Melissa Bender is a lecturer in the University Writing Program and the assistant director of the Writing Across the Curriculum Program at the University of California, Davis. Her interests include professional writing, visual rhetoric, composition and international education. A former president of the Margaret Atwood Society, Karma Waltonen is a senior lecturer in the University Writing Program at the University of California, Davis, where she won the Academic Federation Excellence in Teaching Award in 2015.

Site Update: Course Syllabi and Assignments Added Under Teaching Section

Over the weekend, I added new pages under the Teaching menu option for the courses that I have taught, am teaching, and will teach. Each course page includes descriptions, syllabi, and assignments arranged chronologically by school:

If any of these materials might be useful to your course and assignment design, please feel free to adopt or modify as needed.

While assembling these pages, I discovered that some assignments and supporting materials were missing. Of course, it is best pedagogical practice to reflect and archive these kinds of materials for reference, improvement, and growth.

Teaching at City Tech, Fall 2014, Syllabi for ENG 1101 and ENG 3771

For my first teaching assignments at City Tech, I received two sections of ENG 1101 English Composition I and one section of ENG 3771 Advanced Career Writing (a professional and technical communication course for students in these majors: Legal Assistant Studies, Communication Design, Electrical Technology, and Telecommunications Engineering Technology). I created syllabi that meet and exceed the outcomes defined for these courses while carefully considering the material conditions of my students in and out of the classroom. You can find copies of my Fall 2014 syllabi here: ellis-jason-eng1101-syllabus and ellis-jason-eng3771-syllabus.

We are entering the fourth week today, so we are picking up momentum and getting good work done. Students in ENG 1101 are working on a brand new take on my “Writing the Brain” assignment, and the students in ENG 3771 are building job application portfolios while getting plenty of time to interact with one another and cooperate on the revision process. With a strong start, engaged students, and stimulating projects, I’m looking forward to what I believe will be a great first semester at City Tech.

Atlanta Science Fiction Society Talk on Teaching SF at Georgia Tech, Tomorrow

Atlanta Science Fiction Society logo.
Atlanta Science Fiction Society logo.

If you’re in the area tomorrow, you can catch my talk on teaching science fiction at Georgia Tech at the Atlanta Science Fiction Society meeting at the Sandy Springs Fulton County Library (395 Mount Vernon Hwy NE, Sandy Springs, GA). The meeting begins at 2:30PM, and my talk should begin around 3:30PM. I will bring copies of this handout to the meeting. My talk with focus on the history of teaching SF at Tech, my historical approach to teaching SF, and my emphasis on using SF as a way to develop student literacies in writing, new media, and haptics.

Recovered Writing, PhD in English, Teaching College Writing, Quiz, What do people do when they write? June 16, 2008

This is the fifty-fourth post in a series that I call, “Recovered Writing.” I am going through my personal archive of undergraduate and graduate school writing, recovering those essays I consider interesting but that I am unlikely to revise for traditional publication, and posting those essays as-is on my blog in the hope of engaging others with these ideas that played a formative role in my development as a scholar and teacher. Because this and the other essays in the Recovered Writing series are posted as-is and edited only for web-readability, I hope that readers will accept them for what they are–undergraduate and graduate school essays conveying varying degrees of argumentation, rigor, idea development, and research. Furthermore, I dislike the idea of these essays languishing in a digital tomb, so I offer them here to excite your curiosity and encourage your conversation.

Before I could accept my teaching fellowship at Kent State University, I needed to take the graduate seminar, “Teaching College English.” I was fortunate to have the opportunity to take this class from Professor Brian Huot. At the time, I thought my primary concern was putting together my first syllabus, but through the seminar, I learned the importance of meeting student needs, considering outcomes, meeting students on the page, helping students improve their command of rhetoric and multimodality with a portfolio, and considering student work holistically (something that I continue to do with the Georgia Tech WCP’s WOVEN modalities and programmatic rubric).

This third of four Recovered Writing posts from Teaching College Writing is my response to a quiz on an assigned reading on “What do people do when they write?” I can’t find the essay/handout that we were responding to, but I think that some of the thoughts that I put down regarding mechanics/surface vs. content/depth are interesting.

Jason W. Ellis

Professor Brian Huot

Teaching College Writing

16 June 2008

“What do people do when they write?” Quiz

1)  What can you say about the kinds of responses from students in the two groups?  Are the first group of responses for each grade level different than the second group–what are the differences or similarities for each group in each grade level?

The responses from students in the first group of each grade level are typically about thought, expression, and explanation, and the second group responses of each grade level are about practices and methodology.  Linking these responses back to the class, the first groups are aligned with function, and the second groups are aligned with form.

In the third-, fourth-, and fifth-grade responses, the first group overwhelming uses the following key words and phrases:  think, open their minds, and share…thoughts.  Also, they write for a purpose such as to relax, avoid boredom, or to communicate with friends and relatives.  The second group’s responses focus on practical matters and the mechanics of writing.  For example, these students talk about holding the pencil, sitting down to write, making letters, moving the hand and pencil, and wasting ink and pencil lead.

Again, the responses of the first group of ninth graders are generally about expression.  They “tell about things,” “get stuff across,” and “express their thoughts.”  The responses from the second group are, like the second group of third to fifth graders, about the physicality of writing.  For example, they “just write stuff down,” “hold a pencil and move their hands,” and “put the point of the pencil to the paper and start making words and letters.”  There are exceptions in both groups that could be interpreted as belonging to the other group if the groups are divided based on function and form.

The college freshmen groups are also split along lines of function and form.  The first group is largely about conveying, explaining, translating thoughts into words, and revealing thoughts, ideas, and emotions.  The second group of college freshmen is more closely aligned to the first than the other two grade levels, because there are some responses about expression and communication.  However, the majority of the responses concern mechanics (e.g., “usage and grammar”) and writing methods (e.g., “First you pick your topic, then you make sure you have enough information.  Then you rewrite and check the spelling and copy it down” and “They express their overall views on a given topic and later draw conclusions in a patterned coherent fashion”).  Also, there’s a response that describes the act of writing.

 

2)  Do you see any similarities across grade levels for each of the groups?  Are there certain characteristics for either group one or two responses?  What are those characteristics?

In general, the responses of the first group of each grade level are about the function of writing–i.e., communication and the expression of ideas, and those of the second group of each grade level are about the form of writing–i.e., the act of writing and methods of writing.

 

3)  Considering your answers to the first two questions, what variable (consideration, category, quality) did the researchers use to separate the different groups of responses within each grade level?

Considering our readings of the past week, and the writing concept that “form follows function,” it seems that the responses are grouped based on writing ability.  The first group in each grade level has stronger writers, and the second group respondents are weaker writers.  The stronger writers understand the function of writing, because they’ve internalized that through their acquisition of writing.  The weaker writers respond by describing the literal action of writing or process of using the plug-and-chug method of writing an essay in high school.  They are thinking about the surface level of writing rather than what lies underneath as did the first group respondents.

Recovered Writing, PhD in English, Teaching College Writing, Annotated Bibliography of Teaching SF Resources, June 29, 2008

This is the fifty-third post in a series that I call, “Recovered Writing.” I am going through my personal archive of undergraduate and graduate school writing, recovering those essays I consider interesting but that I am unlikely to revise for traditional publication, and posting those essays as-is on my blog in the hope of engaging others with these ideas that played a formative role in my development as a scholar and teacher. Because this and the other essays in the Recovered Writing series are posted as-is and edited only for web-readability, I hope that readers will accept them for what they are–undergraduate and graduate school essays conveying varying degrees of argumentation, rigor, idea development, and research. Furthermore, I dislike the idea of these essays languishing in a digital tomb, so I offer them here to excite your curiosity and encourage your conversation.

Before I could accept my teaching fellowship at Kent State University, I needed to take the graduate seminar, “Teaching College English.” I was fortunate to have the opportunity to take this class from Professor Brian Huot. At the time, I thought my primary concern was putting together my first syllabus, but through the seminar, I learned the importance of meeting student needs, considering outcomes, meeting students on the page, helping students improve their command of rhetoric and multimodality with a portfolio, and considering student work holistically (something that I continue to do with the Georgia Tech WCP’s WOVEN modalities and programmatic rubric).

This second of four Recovered Writing posts from Teaching College Writing is a brief annotated bibliography of teaching science fiction resources. Professor Huot asked us to do research in our specific discipline and report back what we found. This kind of work has become an integral part of my professionalization as an educator (research+pedagogy) and reflective practitioner (how did this other person do that–how can I incorporate/modify/adapt their approach into mine–what worked/didn’t work and how can I make it better?).

Jason W. Ellis

Professor Brian Huot

Teaching College Writing

29 June 2008

Teaching Science Fiction Annotated Bibliography

Attebery, Brian. “Teaching Fantastic Literature.” Science-Fiction Studies 23:3 (Nov. 1996): 406-410.

Instead of focusing his course on Science Fiction, Attebery combines fantasy and SF into one course under the umbrella of the fantastic. Again, this is a literature, and not a composition course, but the important lesson to take away from his essay is that students with fantasy/SF backgrounds, which are not necessarily the same thing, as well as students without an inkling of experience with the fantastic all have something to bring to class discussion. Also, some fantastic literature carries more cultural or historic baggage than students may already be acquainted with, which may break down discussion, or require more lecturing or assigned reading in order to prepare students for engaging a particular text.

 

Bengels, Barbara. “The Pleasures and Perils of Teaching Science Fiction on the College Level.” Science-Fiction Studies 23:3 (Nov. 1996): 428-431.

Bengels builds on examples from Science Fiction and criticism, both on teaching SF, “to address the inherent and unique difficulties of teaching a body of literature that is changing even as we attempt to examine it…to convey the excitement and sense of wonder that continues to set science fiction apart from any other form of literature” (428). Most importantly, she suggests that, “There’s a special sense of community in the sf world that finds its way right into the classroom; new ideas must be bounced off one another, making for very exciting classroom discussions: new words, new worlds, new concepts all to be explored together” (430).

 

Csicsery-Ronay, Jr., Istvan. “The Seven Beauties of Science Fiction.” Science-Fiction Studies 23:3 (Nov. 1996): 385-388.

Csicsery-Ronay begins his essay with this striking line: “Like being hanged, teaching introductory sf courses to undergraduates focuses the mind wonderfully” (385). He is addressing the teaching of Gunn’s SF genre course, but he provides a great framework for introducing students to SF through a handout titled, “WHAT MAKES SCIENCE FICTION SCIENCE FICTION?” (386). This handout, perhaps given after having students read an emblematic SF short story, would be a powerful tool for opening discussion about what constitutes SF and what our students think SF is. Furthermore, he responds to what is implicitly said in Bengels, Gunn, and others when he writes, “My sf texts must also introduce students to important philosophical, social, and literary ideas that they might not encounter anywhere else, given the state of contemporary higher education” (386). This significant accusation reflects the potential of SF to engage students in ideas and critical thought that they would not otherwise encounter.

 

Elkins, Charles and Darko Suvin. “Preliminary Reflections on Teaching Science Fiction Critically.” Science-Fiction Studies 6 (1979): 263-270.

There are some very practical and insightful contributions by Elkins and Suvin in this Marxist essay regarding the teaching of SF.          The authors propose that, “The main and the highest goal of SF teaching–as of all teaching–ought, in our opinion, to be a specific form of civic education” (267). SF is great for inculcating critical thinking, because SF often turns accepted systems upside-down. Introducing students to this and discussing what’s in the text and what the text leaves out should raise their ability to see beneath the surface of the text. Elkins and Suvin go on to suggest that, “Teaching SF…involves description and assessment, interpretation and evaluation; teaching SF is an act of literary criticism fused with the communication of that criticism” (268). In this passage, the authors are not literary saying that SF is literary criticism in the academic sense of an analysis of Shakespeare, but rather, SF is a critical literature that engages social issues. This is the power of SF that is useful for generating discussion in the introductory college writing classroom.

 

Evans, Arthur B. and R.D. Mullen. “North American College Courses in Science Fiction, Utopian Literature, and Fantasy.” Science-Fiction Studies 23:3 (Nov. 1996): 437-528.

Evans and Mullen compiled this list of SF, utopian, and fantasy courses complete with descriptions and book lists from colleges and universities all over the world. It also includes lists of works, authors, and films most often assigned.

 

Finch, Sheila. “Dispatches from the Trenches: Science Fiction in the Classroom.” Extrapolation 41:1 (Spring 2000): 28-35.

Finch writes that SF is a uniquely appropriate genre for stimulating student involvement and discussion, because it serves all the functions of other literature with, “the added distinction of being…a literature of ideas to think about in a peculiarly new way, what Albert Einstein called Gedankenexperimenten” (29). The thought experiment aspect of SF is indeed powerful for generating discussion, because it presents a new view to a (perhaps) mundane subject, and it begs the reader to critically evaluate the thought experiment on the surface narrative as well as what lies beneath. Like Bengels, Finch declares, “SF is a literature of ideas,” which can be employed as a useful tool in developing writing students skills at responding to things that they might not have considered before (31).

 

Gunn, James. “Teaching Science Fiction.” Science-Fiction Studies 23:3 (Nov. 1996): 377-384.

Gunn’s essay primarily concerns his own approaches to teaching SF as a genre course, and he makes the claim that of all of the SF courses available at various schools, “They seem to be as varied as the colleges and universities at which they are taught, and a number seem to address the question of what science fiction is and how to read it, that is, they are genre courses. But I would argue that there should be more” (377). In regard to his own various approaches to teaching SF, he identifies three course themes: 1) “the great books,” 2) “the ideas in science fiction,” and 3) “the historical approach.” He doesn’t address SF in the introductory writing classroom, but I believe his “ideas” theme is appropriate for generating discussion and leading into student essay topics without the course taking on a literature-laden mood.

 

Mullen, R.D. “Science Fiction in Academe.” Science-Fiction Studies 23:3 (Nov. 1996): 371-374.

This is a short history of the introduction of SF into the American college classroom. It includes early course descriptions and book lists.

 

Ontell, Val. “Imagine That! Science Fiction as a Learning Motivation.” Community & Junior College Libraries 12:1 (2003): 57-70.

This essay overflows with numerous examples of SF and fantasy stories, TV shows, and films, and how they may be used to engage our students’ attention and imagination. In addition to all of Ontell’s fabulous lists and contextualizations, she points out how the fantastic is an important learning tool: “Whether the students are in the elementary grades, middle school, high school, or higher, it is the function of teachers and librarians to provide the tools that enable them to question intelligently. Science Fiction provides many vehicles for inculcating those tools in a variety of subjects by stimulating the imagination and thus motivating students to learn” (57). In the writing classroom, building our students’ ability to “question intelligently” is essential to their success as readers and stronger writers.

 

Samuelson, David N. “Adventures in Paraliterature.” Science-Fiction Studies 23:3 (Nov. 1996): 389-392.

Samuelson provides a plethora of author and work successes in his classes. Also, he notes the usefulness of group presentations on particular works or authors to share with the class, and he lauds the use of a “cumulative journal” or portfolio in the classroom.