ACERT hub for distance learning resources

I hope everyone is hanging in there. It’s been a minute.

I wanted to share with you a wonderful resource created by newly minted ACERT director Julie Van Peteghem (Romance Languages):


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It’s a grab-bag of links, videos, surveys, and tutorials related to distance learning. It’s nicely laid out and gives an efficient walk-through so instructors can hone in on tools/techniques that seem relevant and skip the rest.

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social annotation with students using

At today’s department meeting, Donna Paparella and I talked about, an online tool for annotating texts of all kinds (Word docs, .pdfs, web pages, etc.). I’ll keep things short here but wanted to share a few things for folks who want to experiment.

First my slides: the last one contains links to a tutorial for getting started with on Blackboard, which is where most people will start: intro ACERT 10/2020

Social Annotation in the classroom In a way I have nothing to say. But I have a great deal to add. –Gore Vidal

Here are some tutorials from itself on how to get up and going with Bb. Thanks to Donna Paparella for providing them:

  • How to set up Hypothesis readings in BB [n.b.: these instructions are being revised (at some point) with Donna’s two suggestions: 1) Bypass “Attach file” when you create the item. 2) You can use the “Upload” option in Google Drive to choose a local file.]

I also wanted to share a couple of my uses of the platform:

  • a plain-vanilla use: students in my DH course at the GC reading Roland Barthes together
  • a “seeded” text: teaching students to read the litcrit genre for 252 with guiding questions/comments from me
  • an exam: my midterm for the same course consists of questions students have to answer on an article they’re reading “cold.”
  • a more outré use: the tool lends itself to creative uses, since it’s simple and has an open architecture. So you can easily sort annotations, create “feeds” of particular kinds of annotations, count the number of words by a particular user on a particular topic, and so on. Here, if you scroll down, you can see where I’ve inserted a “widget” on my site with a feed of all the annotations students have created using a course “tag”: it’s easier to do than it may sound, and it gives a nice sense, in real time, of the “hive mind” at work.

I’m sure others have worthy uses: we saw Donna’s work today, and I co-presented with our departmental colleague Renee Schaller yesterday, who has a fabulous assignment for 120. If you’ve got something to share, put a link in the comments!

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to synch or not to synch?

After polling my students at the quarter-term point, more or less, I decided to modulate my ENGL 252, so to speak, shifting from all synchronous meetings to a split schedule, with synchronous Mondays and asynchronous Thursdays. The first asynchronous session was last Thursday, and I’ve just finished evaluating the work that came out of it.

To make a long story short, I wrote and recorded a brief (25 minutes) lecture on the reading–a few chapters of Ellison’s Invisible Man–and built a writing prompt out of the lecture. Based on the students’ work, it seems to have gone pretty well: the experience of moving directly from the lecture to the prompt seems to have encouraged students to connect the conclusion of the lecture–Ellison’s critique of historiography and desire to bring marginalized peoples and events back into the “groove of history–to more far-flung moments in the text.

But there were problems, too, from my perspective. First is workload. Like many of us, I’ve never lectured regularly. Like many of us, I’ve never recorded lectures, much less done the kinds of post-production splicing in of images, diagrams, whiteboard scrawling, etc. that makes for a good online lecture. Like all of us (please lordy geezus) I hope to return to face-to-face teaching that puts students’ spontaneous talk at the center of the classroom. So this is an awful lot of work for what one hopes will be a one-off, even if it does kinda sorta work.

Second is more technical: I don’t really know how to record myself. I know there are apps like Screencast-0-Matic and VoiceThread that are optimized for talking over slide decks. And you can just have an empty Zoom and record that to the cloud. I opted for an even more minimalist approach, using Apple’s native QuickTime and just talking at it from my script. Not exactly must-watch TV, but it worked.

I did try to use Apple’s native iMovie to splice in a couple of images, Ken Burns style. But it was too frustrating, and I gave up after 20 minutes. Like anything, a bit of Googling and YouTubing would have gotten me there (I mean, if I can YouTube my way into replacing a toilet flapper, I can figure out how to edit a video), but how much time do any of us have for this?! And I’ll be curious to see whether students faced issues with bandwidth/file size, file format, etc.

Finally, I wasn’t sure how to deliver the goods. I’m using the Academic Commons to host my course site, and there’s a 500MB limit for media. So I uploaded my video to Vimeo and dropped a copy in Dropbox as well: the former is free but has monthly limits on how much you post; the latter is a CUNY wide resource that gives faculty something vast, like 2 TB. I think I’ll just use Dropbox going forward, since it seems to allow users to play the Apple .mov format with no problems, and it’s easy to share the content with students privately.

Those are my quick thoughts. You can see the assignment/lecture here if you’re interested: I’d love to hear from anyone who has any wisdom on this topic in the comments, since the next Thursday is rolling up fast!

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DPLA and teaching literary/historical research

The Digital Public Library of America (DPLA) “amplifies the value of libraries and cultural organizations as Americans’ most trusted sources of shared knowledge.” In practice this means it’s a hub linking many disparate sources of online documents and multimedia objects. I knew this but had kind of forgotten about it until I came across its little trove of resources on Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, which I’m teaching this week in ENGL 252.

A few clicks later, I discovered its collection of “primary source sets” for something like a hundred different topics on literature and cultural history from old-school classics like Twain and Melville to new-school classics like Morrison and Kate Chopin to historical topics like Stonewall and Black Minstrelsy. The resources are clearly aimed at novices, so will be more useful for smaller projects, but they would really lend themselves to helping students get their feet wet in linking primary texts to social and cultural historical contexts.

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engaging students semi-synchronously: the “puzzle” approach

After listening to Donna Masini and others in our faculty meeting this week, I’ve been thinking about how to hang onto the dynamism of synchronous discussion while getting away from my droning at everyone or even being the emcee at every moment. Donna described a discussion model in which each student passes the ball, in effect, to a peer rather than having discussion ping-pong back and forth with the instructor (mixed sports metaphor: alas). I’ve seen that work great in face-to-face and will try it in Zoom this week.

But I wanted to suggest another approach: what’s sometimes called the “puzzle,” when a single topic is broken into numerous pieces, each of which is addressed by a small group. Then the “puzzle” is assembled in the big group, with each small group presenting its piece. I do this (like many of us, I’m sure) in breakout rooms, and I find that it allows the small-group interaction while guaranteeing that the class as a whole covers the entire reading load, at least superficially.

My new wrinkle is to use collaborative writing to make the breakout room discussions more focused and to give me something to do while they work. I would recommend Dropbox Paper (which I use because CUNY faculty and students have free, secure accounts) or Google Docs: both offer link sharing and real-time simultaneous authoring. So all you do is share a link (here’s a template in Dropbox format) in the Zoom chat, make sure each breakout room knows which number question to respond to, and Bob’s your uncle. As you can see on my template, I give them clear guidelines regarding time budgets and what they’re supposed to achieve in the timeframe. While they’re writing, I get on the document as well and make marginal comments (using the helpful “comment” function): to me, this is a less intrusive way to dip into groups’ activities: actually joining the groups is a conversation killer, I find!

Added bonus: any students who can’t participate synchronously can “comment” just like I did, adding detail to the group’s responses and “participating” ex post facto.

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survey results are in…

I’ve doubled down this term on something I’ve done sporadically in my face to face teaching: surveying students online. It’s a good idea for lots of things: figuring out what they know, taking the temperature on work load, etc. I’m teaching a course on Faulkner this term, so it seemed useful to find out what students have read. Fascinating: fully 2/3 of the 22 students have not read a word of Faulkner’s work:

In the Age of Covid, I included a question about how students are coping with distance learning and life. The results are illuminating if sobering: bandwidth issues, insufficient access to quiet time and space, unemployment, mental health issues, and child care issues have all come up. And that’s just with my first section. I’ve put each of these comments into my roster/gradebook so I can track back and remind myself who has asked for extra regard or TLC from the get-go.

Here’s the template, if anyone wants to try it. Just pour a stiff drink before reading results.

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Tips for Students: Distance Learning in the time of COVID-19

Just a quick share of a splendid collection of tips and resources for students amid the Covid pandemic. It provides constructive ideas for everything from individual self-care to study skills for courses to links to CUNY- and city-wide resources for those with difficulty getting internet access or even food and shelter.

The creators are CUNY faculty and staff who have a wealth of experience in these areas. Thanks to:

Lisa A. Brundage, Macaulay Honors College at CUNY

Lisa Marie Rhody, Graduate Center, CUNY

Katina Rogers, Graduate Center, CUNY



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first day gambit

I’m sure we all have a portfolio of first-day shtick to ease the transition for students and help us learn names. But this is tougher in a virtual environment. Standing on the shoulders of i fabbri migliori like our own Paul McPherron and Julie Van Peteghem from Romance Languages, I’m using the free Padlet to invite students to tell a bit about themselves.

Here’s an example: I want to know students’ preferred pronouns, of course, but this prompt will get them to add some more about themselves, I hope, and in a very Englishy way.

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Zoom guidelines for students

Real quick-like, I wanted to share a one-pager I created for my students on how to Zoom effectively. Here goes, and here’s a link to the document: feel free to steal or adapt.


Zoom Discussion Guidelines

We will do a lot of our collective thinking and skill-building this term via Zoom, the online video conferencing platform. In order for this to function smoothly as a space for intellectual exchange and growth, we need to follow some basic rules of the road and thus create a safe and dynamic space for ourselves and each other. Here are some guidelines:

how to connect:

For class discussions, we will use the same link  every time: it’s on the syllabus  in our private Dropbox folder and in Bb. It’s not on the open blog for security reasons. There is a different link for office hours, which is also in those places. Click to connect, and remember to enable video and audio, unless you’ve got some personal reason not to.

how to use:

Remember to enable video and audio: you will be “muted” by default, so to make a comment, you’ll have to unmute to speak up.
Some other ways to participate:
  • raise hand: if you want to speak, use the “raise hand” icon (click on the icon labeled “Participants” at the bottom center of your PC or Mac screen and click “raise hand”). You can also use the “reactions” button to give me or a peer feedback (claps, happy face, etc.)
  • comment via chat: 
    • you can ask questions or add to the discussion in writing via the “chat” function as well. Be careful to address general comments to “everybody” and personal comments to me or to the person you want to address. 
      • I’ll designate a peer to be the “voice of the chat” for each session so I won’t miss important questions or problems as I’m trying to focus on the day’s topic.
    • I will save the ‘everyone” transcript each time, so I’ll have a chance to review unanswered questions or issues after class.

other issues:

Feel free to customize Zoom for self-expression, including:
  • using a virtual background (especially if you have family members or roommates in the environment that might be distracting) 
  • creating an avatar (could be a selfie, could be something else that expresses you); 
  • changing the “name” field to whatever you want to be called (please include a preferred pronoun if you like)

dos and don’ts:

  • respect one another: we all want to learn, and we all have valuable comments and perspectives to share. 
  • speak up: I recognize that this is a difficult time, but I want you to be active participants in your education at all times
  • ask questions: use the “chat” function when possible to avoid breaking up the flow of discussion and I’ll do my best to make sure things run smoothly
  • reach out to me via email  or office hours or the chat function if you’re having problems or issues, technical, intellectual, or otherwise
  • use unprofessional language, engage in personal attacks, or distract others
  • use the chat function (either privately or to everyone) in ways that distract from the topic
  • sit there like a bump on a log: real learning is active learning, when you’re producing rather than just consuming facts and interpretation
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Need an onramp? The GC has an onramp…

Many of us are scrambling to figure out the fully online mode of teaching now. Whatever we might have done in March (and I was away, myself), it wasn’t likely to represent our most, ahhh, composed and planful pedagogy.

There are lots of local resources to help in this planning, from ACERTs site and workshops to ICITs lists of tools and practices. I’ve recently discovered the GCs site on online teaching, which is splendid and one of the best overviews of the topic I’ve seen anywhere.

It’s particularly strong on guiding our practice with Zoom, which is where the rubber meets the road for most of us trying to capture the spark of live discussion in face-to-face instruction. The documentation goes beyond the basics of configuring and using the service, thinking about how best to foster engagement in this strange, often alienating space.

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