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.

2nd Annual City Tech Science Fiction Symposium Was a Great Success

With nearly 100 registered attendees and more unregistered, the 2nd Annual City Tech Science Fiction Symposium on Extrapolation, Interdisciplinarity, and Learning on Wednesday, December 6, 2017 was a great success! We were honored to have Samuel R. Delany give the event’s keynote address, and we had excellent presentations and panel discussions from scholars, graduate students, and undergraduates! Below, I’m embedding video of all of the presentations from the symposium. Visit this site for a copy of the program.

Lego Building Experiments with Google Glass, Thoughts on Its Potential for Interdisciplinary Humanities Research

Since I received my Google Glass last week, I have been learning how to wear and use it. Ultimately, I want to incorporate Glass into my Retrocomputing Lab research workflow. I am interested in the experience of using computer hardware and software (something that I have been interested in for a long time and wrote about as an undergraduate), so Glass will provide a way of capturing some of my phenomenal experience–perspective, vision, and sound. I can provide oral commentary of my haptic and olfactic experiences (yes, computers have unique smells–something that helps store/recall memories and emotions) while also recording thoughts, memories, and asides that enrich my shared video experience. As one component of the digital humanities, I want to create an archive of my raw research of working with computers and their software that others can use, draw inspiration from, or comment on through their own research, writing, and teaching.

For the work that I do in my personal Retrocomputing Lab, I will use Glass as one more tool among a variety of other technologies that enable my research. Glass will add another data layer–itself richly textured and layered with audio/video/Internet/software capabilities–to the research that I do. Due to the ease of sharing images and video in real time, I can immediately make my in-process research available on YouTube, Twitter, and here on dynamicsubspace.net. Furthermore, my research will be useable by others–hobbyists, students, and other researchers in many interdisciplinary fields. Glass will join my non-real time distribution of data on paper, computer written notes (though, I could make these freely viewable in realtime on say, Google Drive), and published research.

Finally, I am interested in the mixing of old and new technologies. Glass meets its ancestors in the IBM PC and Macintosh. Glassware meets DOS, Windows 3.1, and System 7. I want to explore how the intermingling of these technologies leads to new insights, connections, and elaborations. While I am only speculating, I strongly believe that Glass and similar wearable computing technologies will elevate the outcomes and knowledge produced in humanities research–conceptualized as interdisciplinary like mine or not.

The videos included in this post were tests of the manually extended video recording feature. They don’t involve the Retrocomputing Lab, because how I want to use Glass to record my work will involve more and different kinds of planning. I used what I had at hand to test out Glass’ video capabilities included below.

Glass Video from Apr 22, 2014, Lego Build of The Batman Tumbler 30300 Polybag

Glass Video from Apr 24, 2014, Target Exclusive Lego 30215 Legolas Greenleaf Polybag

ENGL1101 Sections G3 and L, Fall 2013, Project 2 Narrative Videos Based on John Medina’s Brain Rules

I revised my “Maximizing the Brain” Project 2 Assignment for my current ENGL1101 students at Georgia Tech. It is currently in its third iteration, and I have ideas for its fourth iteration with more radical changes.

In the meantime, my current students have delivered their unique takes on their chosen chapters from John Medina’s Brain Rules. I have included their YouTube-based videos below.

For each project, a team of 4-5 students collaboratively wrote an outline, a script, a revised script (after receiving feedback from another team whose members collaboratively wrote their suggestions/questions). Then, they all contributed to drawing a storyboard for shooting and editing the video, which was also revised with feedback from another team. Finally, they shot and edited their video using equipment from the Georgia Tech Library’s Gadgets Desk (run by Justin Ellis) and software on their computers or in the Library’s Multimedia Studio. Individually, each student completes the project by writing a reflection essay explaining the rhetorical decisions made during each phase of the project.

These are my students’ videos that teach us how to maximize our brain’s potential through lessons learned in Medina’s Brain Rules.

Section G3

Team 1: Survival

Team 2: Sleep

Team 3: Exercise

Team 4: Gender

Team 5: Sensory Integration

Section L

Team 1: Sleep

Team 2: Exploration

Team 3: Attention

Team 4: Gender

Team 5: Exercise

Spring 2013 ENGL1101 Project 2, “Maximizing the Brain’s Potential,” Final Videos

For the second major project in my ENGL1101 class at Georgia Tech titled, “Maximizing the Brain’s Potential,” students work in teams of several students each to produce collaboratively an entertaining and educational video based on a single chapter from John Medina’s Brain Rules.

Building on the success of my students’ work on this assignment in Fall 2013, I revised the assignment to make it more streamlined and process-driven by building a weekly, recursive structure into the peer review schedule.

During the first half of the semester, my students had already read Brain Rules and individual students had presented on the readings during class. The remainder of the class had also written Tweets (outside of class) and short summaries of these chapters (during class).

With this project, the students demonstrate their understanding of the material by transforming their chapter’s content into a video of their own creation. They went through the steps of creating an outline, script, and storyboards before filming and editing the video. The outline, script, and storyboards are peer reviewed on a team-to-team basis at the beginning of each week of this project’s duration.

Today, we will conclude the project by showing the videos in class and having each student write a review of the video (what works, what doesn’t work, suggestions for improvement, etc.). Each student also wrote and submitted a three page analysis of their use of WOVEN (written, oral, visual, electronic, and nonverbal) modalities used in each deliverable of the composition process.

Section G1

Team 1

Team 2

Team 3

Team 4

Section P

Team 1

Team 2

Team 3

Team 4

Section E

Team 1

Team 2

Team 3

Team 4

Best Source of American Space Missions: NASA Human Space Flight Gallery

If you want the best seat in the house for NASA missions, you should visit the NASA Human Space Flight Gallery. When I’m not reading about the brain and science fiction, I like to fall back on my interest in space exploration, and the Human Space Flight Gallery is always at the top of my list. Find images, audio, and video of past and present missions such as STS-133 Discovery (pre-launch above).

Brian Dunning’s Here Be Dragons: An Introduction to Critical Thinking

A post on Kristin Sanford’s excellent science blog, The Bird’s Brain, directed me to a terrific 40 minute video by Brian Dunning on critical thinking.  Available here, Dunning describes all the basics for critically engaging, evaluating, and questioning the world around us–particularly focusing on pseudo-science and unsubstantiated pharmacological claims.  He presents a well-thoughtout and expertly assembled video.  I recommend it, and I might use it in my college writing class in the Fall.  Also, check out Dunning’s website and podcast here.