My journey to remote learning


The last project in my SPU masters degree in Digital Education Leadership (DEL) program is to apply the lessons I have learned to my classroom.  I am working on this practicum at the same time that the world is experiencing the Coronavirus pandemic in early 2020.  As a result of the pandemic, all the instructors in my computer science department are required to give a remote learning version of their spring courses, as students are no longer allowed on campus.  This post describes how I applied the lessons I learned from the DEL program to convert my courses to a remote learning version.


My institution uses the term ‘blended’ to refer to courses that still require students to be present in a physical classroom, but have most of the course material available in electronic form on the school’s learning management system.  The term ‘online’ refers to courses that require no face-to-face meetings and can be taken by students asynchronously but must be completed by a fixed due date.  The term ‘remote learning’ refers to courses that do not require a physical classroom but still require students to virtually attend an online meeting at a fixed day and time.

I am more fortunate than some of my peer faculty in that I started the migration of my courses to a blended format in previous quarters.  As a result, all of my course material, due dates, and lesson plans are available on the school’s learning management system.  In addition, I have recordings of lectures from previous quarters that I give students to watch on their own time.  The recordings are useful even in the blended classroom, as it gives me more time to spend on class exercises while allowing students to decide how best to chop up a lengthy lecture (Haber, 2020). 

In order to move my blended classroom to a remote learning classroom, I had to eliminate the need for a meeting in a campus classroom.  This meant finding a remote way to replace lab time and class exercises as well as replace in class quizzes and exams.  Before diving into making changes to my lesson plans, I wanted to explore best practices and research resources used for remote learning.

One of the first resources provided by the DEL program is a book by Liz Kolb titled ‘Learning first, technology second’.  The book describes the Tripe E Framework that instructors can use to evaluate how technology can be integrated into the classroom to enhance and extend lesson plans while engaging students.

Liz Kolb's Triple E Framework
Triple E Framework by is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.

The Kolb book came up when discussing best practices for remote learning with my colleagues during our Faculty Learning Community (FLC) meeting.  My fellow faculty were particularly interested in how best to use technology to enhance and extend their existing lesson plans.  A FLC member mentioned a series of upcoming professional development courses given by school administration on key technologies like Zoom for education and Canvas quizzes to help in the transition to remote learning.  I attended both professional development courses and came away with valuable tools for moving my courses to remote learning.


My first task in the move to remote learning requires replacing the class exercises and class lab time I use in the classroom.  An FLC member mentioned several online textbooks for different computer science class topics.  I had experience with the SoloLearn online textbook which I document in my global collaborative project.  The online exercises in the SoloLearn tool are a more enhanced versions of the exercises I used in class because of the ability to provide individual instruction at the student’s pace.  The SoloLearn exercises allow me to cover more topics than I can cover with in class exercises.  Also, students earn certificates of learning upon completing the SoloLearn exercises that stay with students even after completing the course.

My next task is replacing the class lab time.  This task turned out to take the most work and require several different tools, particularly if I wanted to enhance my student’s learning experience compared to what I did in a traditional classroom setting.  Students appreciate the class lab time because of the open format  and the ability to ask question about any topic – e.g., an assignment, a programming language feature, an upcoming quiz/exam, or the group project.  I decided to use the Zoom tool for this task.  Specifically, I set up a weekly Zoom session at our class time and gave all the students a link to join.  I had no set agenda for these Zoom sessions.  I answer student’s questions that are relevant to other students in the main Zoom session.  I use a Zoom room to answer questions that are specific to one student – such as debugging a student’s solution to an assignment exercise.  I  use Zoom’s screen share feature extensively for both types of sessions, allowing a student to ask a question about a past quiz or show me a problem they are experiencing in solving a particular assignment exercise.

While Zoom is useful for providing a remote learning tool for class lab time, it does satisfy all of the student needs for lab time.  Specifically, having only a fixed time for lab time did not always fit a student’s schedule.  Students want the ability to get quick answers to simple questions about assignments without the need to set up a Zoom session or wait for a fixed day/time to ask questions.  I decided to use the online discussion tool Piazza to satisfy this aspect of lab time.  I describe the use of the Piazza tool in my post on facilitating achievement and digital citizenship with computer science students.  The Piazza tool allows me to provide quick answers to student questions, along with code snippets, in a timely fashion.  Originally, I was nervous about my ability to answer questions fast enough to satisfy my students.  However, Piazza allows other students to step in and provided answers to questions from fellow students.  Students can post anonymously and privately in Piazza.  As an added bonus, the Piazza private post feature provides a remote learning replacement for my office hours that is a much more convenient solution for my students than having to meet in a room on campus.

My final task is to find a remote learning replacement for weekly quizzes and mid-term/final exams.  One of my professional development courses proved to be particularly helpful on this task.  In my blended courses, I proctor both the weekly quizzes as well as the mid-term and final exams.  Students take a quiz or exam on a classroom computer and I use the Vision Pro software on my podium computer to monitor students, as I describe in my post about tools used in a flipped classroom.

I use a weekly Canvas quiz to assess student understanding of course topics.  I particularly like the ability for Canvas to automatically assess student performance on these weekly quizzes.  The instructor in my professional development course suggested keeping the Canvas quizzes, but making each quiz short (5-10 of true/false, multiple choice type questions ) and for a fixed duration (20-30 minutes) at a fixed time.  The idea is that the quiz covers an amount of material that cannot be learned in such a short amount of time.  Obviously, the quiz cannot have essay type questions or any question that takes more than a minute or two to answer if the student has a good grasp of the material.  I followed this advice, shortening my quizzes and moving any lengthy questions to be covered in other course material.

The same instructor gave me very different advice for mid-term and final exams.  Specifically, the instructor recommended moving to an open book, open notes format.  The idea is that these type of exams need to push the student’s to solve a unique problem using the skills they have developed during the course.  This requires coming up with unique problems that the student has not seen in the textbook or other resources.  But, this is a similar format used for the programming assignments.  Indeed, I had several ‘extra’ assignments that did not fit into my course due to lack of time that I could extend to cover more course material than is possible in a Canvas quiz.  The solutions for both weekly quizzes and exams still depend on the students academic integrity.  But, this is already true for homework and group assignments.


With the changes described above, I have met the goals described in Kolb’s Triple E framework.  That is, I have extended and enhanced the remote learning versions of my course while also providing a more engaging learning experience for my students.  My department has already decided to use the remote learning format for the coming fall quarter.

On reflection, there are some things that I would like to improve for the fall quarter.  Specifically, I have noticed that students often do not start work on their weekly assignment until hours before the due date.  I can easily measure this by the number of questions I get about an assignment hours before the deadline.  This often leads to students submitting assignments late or not at all.  One way to help with this problem is to have students post a checkpoint result at the half way point that allows me to see if each student is making progress on the assignment.  If I observe no progress, I can reach out to the student to answer any questions or help solve any issues with an assignment.

I have also noticed that a small set of students do not reach out for help via Zoom, Piazza or any other method when faced with a challenging assignment.  I would often see student assignment submissions that fail to build/compile as well as consistent, low scores on assignments.  One way to help solve this is to require an individual Zoom session and a private Piazza discussion with every student early in the course.  This allows me to introduce myself and get the student comfortable with asking questions.

Finally, I would like to improve my student’s experiences with quizzes and exams.  It turns out that requiring students to take a quiz or exam at a fixed time does not always work with a student’s busy schedule.  The challenge for me is to make sure that students that take a quiz or exam early do not post solutions for other students that have not yet taken the quiz or exam.  A possible solution to this is to use a Canvas quiz feature that the instructor in my professional development course mentioned to individualize quizzes.  The approach requires the instructor to build a bank of questions for a quiz in which the number of questions is larger than the number of students in the course.  I can then instruct Canvas to pick a fixed number of random questions from this bank of questions for each student.  I could do something similar on exams by having different versions of questions for each student.  This solution does require significant preparation work for the instructor in building a large bank of questions, but does allow for providing a larger time range for completing a quiz or exam.  By experimenting and iterating on these changes in my teaching method, I hope to provide continuous improvement to my student’s remote learning experience.


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