My Online Learning Experience

June 28, 2020

I just completed what was supposed to be a week long face-to-face professional development course on using Unity in the classroom.  It obviously got moved to an online course and lucky for me the instructor (Hunter Lloyd from Montana State University) started the course about six weeks ago.  Why lucky for me you may ask?  Because I am terrible at sitting down and grinding through online tutorials.  My eyes lose focus, my brain loses focus, and I start to reconsider my life choices.  I took the PD in order to see how someone else teaches Unity.  No revelation, he uses the tutorials on the Unity website with some videos that he makes to help with the Unity videos.  (To tell the truth he is a terrible video maker.  I learned a lot on how to not make tutorials from watching Hunter’s videos.)  The course was very worthwhile but not for the Unity content.  I have been teaching Unity for three or four years and am familiar with the Unity material that is available.  What made it worthwhile was being on the learning end of an online course.  

As a teacher during the school shut down I would throw material out there on Google Classroom with certain expectations.  After this PD I really need to look closely at those expectations.  Learning online is a large paradigm shift that just does not happen naturally.  Expecting learners to switch seamlessly from face-to-face to online is too much to expect.  I really did not see this until I did this online Unity course.  When I am in the classroom as a student I know what I am supposed to be focusing on (even though my mind may wander at times) and I can usually stay on task for extended periods of time if the material is interesting.  Unity is fun to play with and I can tinker with it for hours without issues.  When working on the online tutorials I just did not have it.  I wandered.  Watching a tutorial and following the directions just did not make it.  I watch Unity tutorials all the time.  That is how I learned Unity and how I expand my knowledge of Unity.  But these are tutorials I want to watch, not tutorials I am required to watch.  The difference seems small, I thought the difference would be small, it is not.  It is huge in keeping on task and focused.  

Seeing this from the student side is making me realize how this is for my students.  I had trouble with learning online with something I am interested in.  The students are typically not so crazy about what the online material they are required to study is covering.  High school students typically do not have the self discipline to do things they do not want to do.  I had several students this spring that simply refused to do any online work when I know that if they were in a face-to-face classroom it would have been a totally different result.

Now the question is how do we get kids to do online work that is not trivially simple?  Is there a physiological thing we as teachers need to address?  Is it the quality of the video tutorials?  The approach to the material that needs to be covered to make the course worthwhile?  I have seen statistics that the completion rate for MOOCs is terrible.  Single digit terrible.  Is this an indicator of how poor online is or is at an indicator of how students learn?  Can those two even be separated?  

Covid has pushed online teaching farther than I think universities wanted but they were already involved.  High schools were unexpectedly thrown to the online need.  My shutdown experience tells me online does not work satisfactorily.  After this PD experience I understand this better than I did.  Online is here to stay.  I have to look at methods to make it at least survivable for students in case I have to go back to online in the fall.

Building Game Computers

June 24, 2020

I requested $6000 to build six gaming computers to use to teach Unity and Unreal Engine using the Oculus.  Wonder of wonders the school put it in the budget.  If I were to buy a gaming computer pre-build with the specs I want I am looking at $1300+ per computer so I am building from scratch.  Newegg, Amazon and wherever.  I have three of my computer geeks helping me with the build.  We used a site called pcpartpicker.com and the Newegg builder app to build a computer in the $800 range that will do the trick.  Neither app takes into account availability.  Eek.  Parts are scarce.  I had planned to buy the parts for one computer in early July for testing purposes.  I think I am going to have to wait for August and hope the parts pipeline fills up again.  Motherboards in the $80 price range are the big issue.  I wanted to go with MSI but they just not there.  CPUs are out there but only particular ones.  AMD Ryzen 3600Xs are gone.  The task has become much more complicated.  I now have to look all over for vendors other than Amazon and Newegg.

I also have money to buy 2 Oculus Rift S goggles.  All gone.  I have not found any available as of yesterday.  I may have to call around to see if any are on store shelves.  I do not need them until school starts so the pipeline may fill up by then.  If not I will have to punt.

Driving And Thinking. Danger, Will Robinson!

June 1, 2020

So I am driving home after grocery shopping at Costco.  Traffic is smooth so I can think of something other than traffic so I start trying to figure out how to get my Stats and Math 2 Honors class assets; tests, quizzes, etc, to the new math teacher.  (OK, so that is a weird topic to be thinking of while driving home from Costco but whatever.)  All my stuff is on Google Drive but most of it is still in Word.  Google Docs does not have the math symbols easily accessible so Word it is.  I should be able to share my Stats and Math 2 H folders in Google Drive with her and then she can pluck what she wants out of there.  I can also throw everything on an external drive.  Whatever works.  

Google has made collaboration easy.  And one of the latest themes in education is using collaboration with students.  Teaching them how to use the tools and the strategy for working in teams.  Nuts, we have just shot down the ability to give online tests and individual work in a remote environment.  (Traffic is light and it is a straight shot down the road for a while so I can think on this.)  At the moment one of our primary evaluation tools in math classes is the individual test.  One kid taking a test to determine their retention on the previous material.  No team, no collaboration, no internet and no modern teaching theme.  Still old school; a brain, a pencil and a calculator (if they have not lost it already).  Something is wrong here.  (Stop light and tighter traffic.  Back to concentrating on driving.)

Now that I am home I can scratch my head in deep thought.  Over a beer.  OK, maybe not as deep as it could be if a beer is involved.  (Deemed Essential NE IPA from Great Burn Brewing.)  Where does the individual test fit in this new world of easy online collaboration, remote teaching and what students need to fit into the modern work environment?  Beats me, this is a 6.7 ABV beer and I just finished it.

Planning for Next Year Already

May 18, 2020

My principal says I am not teaching math next fall.  This year I was a full time teacher and a full time IT, techie, teacher trainer and guy who knew the most about where all the breakers in the building were located.  It did not work out well.  The IT suffered and it killed my prep time for teaching.  So next year I am losing my two math courses (three sections) so I can focus on IT stuff and also build the CS curriculum back up.  

I am really going to miss the math.  I have been teaching the Stats course too long and was starting to get bored with the material so this is probably a good thing.  The Math 2 Honors on the other hand was a kick.  We sit in a circle and BS about math stuff then go explore something.  Only 7 students so this worked out well.  Five out of the seven kids were into it and the other two were willing to go along for the ride.

We hired a new business teacher but he has no programming experience.  (Montana has a bit of a CS certification issue.  If you have a Business degree you are certified to teach CS/programming, even if you have never had a CS/programming course.  The other way to get certified is to get a CS degree and then get a separate teaching degree.  As can be expected not a lot of kids jump on that wagon.)  We need him to teach a basic programming intro course (Scratch, Small Basic).  I will need time to help him get up to speed.  He is young, he can figure it out but it is kind of nice to have help when starting out at a new school and a new field to learn.  

I have some kids coming into my Python class that are extremely sharp.  I will need to brush up on my Python skills if I am going to survive.  A couple of them are going to run me over anyway but I want to at least look knowledgeable for the first couple of weeks.  Then I just point and get out of the way.

I offered a few of my Unity Game kids a second semester in Game.  I want to do some VR with the Oculus Rift.  I had planned to do some VR with some kids taking a second semester of Game this Spring but the shutdown killed that.  I also want to tinker with apps like Displayland (https://get.display.land/). I have some halfway good Unity VR material but Unity did a VR update so I need to run through the material again to see if the changes made the material obsolete.  Unity and VR can be a challenge but many VR games are written in Unity so it is doable.  Unreal Engine 4 is much more VR friendly but there is an extreme shortage of intro level VR tutorials and material for UE4.  Again I want to look good for a couple of weeks before the kids trample me into the ground.

One of the bad things (and good things) about teaching software like Unity and UE4 is the speed at which it changes.  I just learned about Displayland today on YouTube (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mZcLKcyHWDs).  It looks like it may make a big difference in what the average user can do.  Scan a 3D image with your phone and then import it as an object in your own Unity project.  For free.  Cool.  Time to tinker.  (I just tinkered.  This is incredible.  More tinkering required.)  The fast evolution of this type of software requires me to troubleshoot the YouTube videos I use to teach Unity.  Sometimes they work and sometimes they do not.  I use a lot of YouTube for the Unity course for several reasons.  The biggest is I can reverse the teaching style.  Watch at home, build in class.  If the kids build in class I can help troubleshoot the inevitable weird things that happen.  One of the issues with not having a computer lab.  BYOD is the only way to go but it does cause some compatibility issues.  Too bad I cannot require every kid have a 17” Win 10 laptop with 16 gigs of RAM and a decent video card.

Now I am just hoping we actually have school next year where I can work with kids live.  The remote thing is just not my cup of tea.

Seniors are Done

May 18, 2020

Friday was the official end for the seniors.  This was their regular graduation date.  No fancy walk across the stage of course.  Today we had a drive-by.  We put paint marks 12 feet apart around the football field.  The seniors put on their graduation hats and robes and sat or stood on an “X”.  The cars drove around the track.  Forty-eight graduates, must have been 200 cars.  I was there for an hour and a half.  Cars just kept coming.  No gaps.  Impressive.  

The event sort of made something clear to me.  I do not want to be a remote teacher.  I like the kids, even the ones that are a pain in the ass.  Seeing them really brought it to me.  To me these are not cattle going through a chute called high school.  Some of the kids may think that but the teachers sure don’t.  I know public school teachers that survive the school year for the summer off.  They count the days to retirement.  I will admit if I was in public schools I might feel the same way.  In a normal year I regret summer break and I look forward to Mondays.  I cannot imagine retiring.  I plan to be found dead in my office thirty years from now.  Man, this job is fun! And I get paid to do it!

I sure hope next year is normal.

School Is Winding Down

May 3, 2020

Seniors are done on the 15th of May.  The rest will be done on the 22nd.  For the seniors this is their regular graduation date.  For the rest it is two week early.  Some of the high school teachers are disappointed with the early out.  They have not talked to the elementary teachers.  Our elementary staff members are toast.   I look at what happened to my work load in the remote teaching environment.  Initially it was a mess.  Detailed long lesson plans that would normally be lectures and small group work.  I can now generate these lesson plans in a lot less time.  I am in a groove and can do the job.  Our elementary teachers are still on overload.  Apparently there have been a couple of major meltdowns.  The elementary teachers are ready to be done.  I am just hoping we have not burned them up.

There have been some major disappointments.  The biggest being on the student end.  Students that simply checked out at the start of the school closure.  I have several students that would have gotten solid Bs that are now in the solid F category.  Without the regimentation of daily school they were lost.  School forced them to get out of bed, forced them to listen in classes and forced them to think of academics.  Without this forced guide and without parents willing to force them into some form of regimentation the students fell off the earth.  That second semester senior transcript is going to be bad.  It takes a strong character to handle a major sudden change like this.  I was amazed by some who were not up to the task.  The number of parents that are totally ambivalent and not up to the task is also amazing.  We are a private school so parents are paying about $10,000 a year for this education.  Their student has just tossed $5000 on the window.  Most of the seniors that have checked out were not college bound so there were not scholarships to lose or a GPA to maintain but it does indicate a lack of independent work ethic.  

I have not quite come to terms with finals.  Right now I am just thinking of another homework (duh) assignment that will be a review of what I consider the important concepts of the last chapter.  The possibilities of an unapproved collaboration is high but I just do not see a way of preventing it.  I cannot give a test with a limited time window because I have a couple of students with limited internet.  One lives across Lolo Pass on the edge of the Bitterroot Wilderness.  She has internet through a satellite but it has limited bandwidth and is shared by a number of families.  A couple others are on old DSL lines and the US Postal Service is almost faster.  So I am going to throw something out and hope for the best.

There is one huge problem with school winding down, that means it has to wind up next year.  I think that is a greater challenge than many teachers and administrators think it is going to be.  The status quo is over.  “Normal” is over and is not recoverable.  The new normal is yet to be determined.  Next year will not be boring.

Remote Teaching: Did We Forget the Students?

April 22, 2020

Since this whole remote teaching thing started I have been running in front of a tidal wave.  I have not really had time to consider anything but my own teaching issues.  Today I read an email about one of our student’s that is having some major problems with remote learning.  She cannot adjust.  Along with this I was looking through my grade book.  From the looks of the grades I have a pretty high percentage of students that cannot adjust to this either.  I have lost a sophomore girl from my Honors Math 2.  No response to my email and one of her friends in the same class implied she has no inclination to do anything.  This is typically a smart middle “A” student that presently is failing.  The difference between daily motivation from a teacher and being on her own.  A significant percentage of my seniors have bailed.  Of my thirty-three Stats students I have four Fs.  I have given a Stats F every few years but never four in one year.  Admittedly one of these four was an F before the virus but the other three definitely were not.  One would have been a B/C, the other two solid Bs.  These students do not seem to be able to adjust.

My Game Programming with Unity is even worse.  Twenty-two students, six Fs.  To fail Game you have to do absolutely nothing.  The class is YouTube based and I give weekly progress grades.  The required progress is pretty minimal since the remote fired off.  The course is also sort of fun, like playing with Legos.  

I know all these students have email because at one time or another I have had contact with all of them.  I have tried to contact them about their lack of progress (Are you alive?) but no luck.  I am not quite sure what these kids are thinking.  Some are pretty smart so I have to put it down to lack of desire to make any adjustment.

This remote teaching has been hard on teachers.  I am getting the feeling this is no easier on the kids.  Maybe even worse.  Some teachers have adapted well and are getting teaching done.  Some students have adapted and are getting learning done.  I know some of both that have not done well.

At what point are the students responsible for themselves in all this?  I am a bit harsh with seniors.  I feel they are at an age where self-responsibility is something they have to understand.  It is time to give them a chance to sink or swim on their own.  They know what needs to be done. If they do not want to do it I give some prompting by trying to contact them by email and have their classmates contact them.  If they do not respond I let them sink.  If they want help I give them everything I can in the way of help.  Those that make the slightest effort get everything I have to offer.  Those that insist on doing nothing after I have attempted to get them going are on their own.  It is time to own up to their own decisions.

Doing school by remote is difficult for both teachers and students.  It requires a desire to do it.  My school’s staff is very professional and they have stepped up to the change.  Most of our students have stepped up to the change and are surviving.  Those students that do not step up simply do not get a lower grade, they fail.  The consequences of mediocrity have changed from a C to an F.

Remote Teaching: Lessons Learned and More to Learn

April 10, 2020

Four and a half weeks of remote teaching.  I have it down to an art (NOT!). But I have started to get comfortable with the method.  I have some tools that work for me. With these tools I am getting some teaching out there but I am not comfortable that the same level of learning is taking place as in the traditional brick-and-mortar method but learning is happening.  For me it feels like there is less comprehension, details are missing and it is much slower.  

Here is a list of my tools.

Google Classroom.  This is the center of everything for me.  I handout and receive homework, distribute videos and text-chat with students through this tool.  If Google Classroom was not there life would be much more complicated.

Zoom.  There has been a bit of controversy over Zoom, bombing, security, data gathering possibilities and so on.  Any tool is subject to improper use but used properly I think Zoom is the best tool for the purpose. Zoom’s major competitor, Google Meet, is just not up to the level of Zoom for features.  I looked at Microsoft Teams and Zoom is just simpler to use.

Screencastify.  For recording lectures this software is the bomb.  A simple no-brainer, exactly what good software should be.  It combines your camera, microphone and screen capture all in one.  Combine this with some kind of digital whiteboard and you almost have a classroom.  It saves the videos directly to Google Drive and will put them in Google Classroom for you.  Screencastify is giving the pro version for free. Just enter the code CAST_COVID and you have the unlimited version.

Microsoft Word.  I use Word for the Inking feature.  There is no way of freehand writing or doing math with a stylus on a Google Doc (my usual document writing tool) so I have gone back to Word. Using Inking I can free write on a document, do math and whatever I would normally do on a whiteboard.  It has a minor glitch in that I cannot figure out how to get typing below any inking I do but at the moment it is what I have. It is an easy whiteboard to use. I hope to find something better as soon as I get time to look. Time, I am a bit short of that at the moment.

XP-PEN graphics tablet.  I bought this the first week of remote teaching.  This is just a stylus and a board that allows me to pretend I have a whiteboard to work on.  I do not need to chase down special characters to type for a document to do math, I just write on the board.  Combined with Word it works pretty good.  It does take getting used to.  Looking at the monitor while writing on the tablet takes coordination.

I am still working on the Word/XP-Pen  solution. I have found a review of a number of digital whiteboards (https://zapier.com/blog/best-online-whiteboard/) so I need to tinker a bit.

“Classroom” setup.  I have a table in my living room with a comfortable office chair with a sheep skin on it.  I can sit comfortably for hours. I do have to compete with the cats for the chair, they love napping on the sheep skin.  I have two monitors connected to a tower and a laptop, giving me three screens. Since I have three monitors in my school office I am most comfortable with the three monitor setup.  I cannot imagine doing the remote thing with a single monitor. The computer I am using is a 7-10 year old i5. It is struggling but it was ready at the beginning so it is the one I went with.  It has 16 gig of RAM but I think the processor is being pushed to the limits if I am running Unity with much else. About once a day I have to restart the poor thing to get it unfrozen. I have a 5 year old i7 sitting here unused but the i5 has all my software on it.  It would be a pain to switch over. Being setup in the living room is not a real good idea. Too many distractions (TV, couch, windows to the outside, wife reading in chair, cat wanting in my lap) but it is the only space available without some major furniture moving. Besides, I like TV, couch, looking outside, wife and cat.

All in all I would say things are working as good as can be expected.  The kids that are interested in their education are doing fine. The kids that do not care and I would have to stay on top of in the regular classroom are not making it. I would say 5 – 10% of my seniors are just considering the year is over. Their second semester grade is not going to make them happy.  They can see their grade in Powerschool but for some odd reason they think the world has stopped until this situation is over. Their education has shifted from being my responsibility to motivate and keeping them on task to being all on them.  Some are not up to the task.

I really do not like teaching this way.  I taught for 10 years at the university and hated it.  No real interaction with the students other than class work.  Teaching high school is so different. I like walking the halls and chatting with the kids about life.  There is a possibility of actually helping a kid in their life. This remote teaching just is not an even passible substitute for that.

Fun with remote teaching

April 4, 2020

With all this time at home you would think it is the perfect time to be blogging.  My screen time has increased so much that anything that increases that time is not high on my list.  

This remote teaching has been a major education.  How quickly can we get something up and running that actually accomplishes the teaching task?  If some software was not already in place we would be doomed. Google Classroom is probably the biggest aid.  Without Classroom I think we would have been in deep dodo. I am not even sure there is an alternative. I think I could have used just email but it would have been much more difficult.  Classroom keeps things organized. Next is Zoom. There are several alternatives to Zoom but Zoom is easy and was there. I tried Google Meet but it lacked many features. The Zoom whiteboard in conjunction with my XP-PEN graphics tablet gives me a board to do math on.  Zoom has a remote control feature that allows me to control a student computer. I have not tried Microsoft Teams but Zoom is working so well I am not in a rush. I really need to give it a try but the idea of having to build something new is just not interesting to me at the moment.

There is talk in the blogosphere about how many of us are trying to fit traditional brick-and-mortar teaching to an on-line environment and this is limiting us.  No argument. But most of us had a week, maybe days to get something up and running. I myself am in full duct-tape mode. Now that I have something in place, no matter how imperfect, I do not have time to really refine it.  I am just trying to stay up with what I have and do minor improvements like getting the XP-PEN graphics tablet.

One of the biggest issues I have is textbooks.  I found a Pre-calc text for my Math 2 Honors class.  I think it is even legal for me to use. The Stats class is another story.  I found a newer edition of the textbook I use in class but the legality of its use is very much lacking.  Not much of a choice. To find a legal textbook in that short a time with a $0 budget was not to be done. Using a book I am somewhat familiar with is a major plus.  Of course I do not have a teacher edition with answers for either text. This is a bigger issue than I originally thought. I can do all the problems but it just takes time.  

I am not videoing any lectures at the moment.  I am writing them up and posting them. I may have to try the video lecture.  Writing up lectures takes a lot of time and since the kids cannot ask questions on the fly as in a live classroom the write-ups can get a bit long in order to cover any possible questions.  

Testing is a bit of an issue I am ignoring at the moment.  I just do not see it happening. There is no way to prevent cheating other than personal morals.

When this all started the kids were of course glad to be out of school.  Now they want back. They say they miss everyone. Of course there are a few that are in heaven but as bad as this may sound they were all low achievers.  

Overall I am surviving.  My work time has greatly increased.  Writing lectures, doing IT work remotely, helping teachers with tech issues, the usual distractions of working in my living room “office”, helping kids over Zoom and so on that we are all dealing with just adds on to the work time.  Grading homework is very time consuming. The kids send me screenshots or pictures of the homework. Normally the kids do most of their homework in class so I can see what they are doing and help them as they do it. Now I try to read photographs of bad handwriting.  Takes time. Writing up all the problems and posting them would probably take more time. Many of the kids would also have no way of writing on their screens anyway.  

I am really wondering if we are going to get back to school this year.  We have been told we are out until May 4 which would give us a month back in the building.  I hope it happens just so the kids can have a little normalcy before the end of the school year.  There is always hope.

Let the Remote Adventure Begin!

March 25, 2020

Class Zoom meeting number 1.  This is our first day of remote teaching.  We are going to abbreviated class periods, we are normally A/B days with 90 minute periods.  We are staying with A/B but dropping to 50 minute periods. And the day is from 9:00 to 1:00.  The kids all showed up which is a big plus. Many were linked in from bed. 9:00 is early for a teenager.  This was my senior Stats class so they can figure things out pretty easily. After this I will not be Zooming much.  Some of the kids have terrible internet. Some can only connect with their phone. Remote teaching is better than nothing but not by much.  Long term we might get this to work halfway decent. The Bishop (we are a Catholic school) has said we are shut down until May 4th. The public schools are going to try to fire up April 10th.  We will see on both dates. I have a feeling the Bishop may change his mind if the public schools seem to be OK.

We are using Google Classroom.  Thank you Google. I am getting the bugs shaken out of using Classroom.  I had not used it much before. This is the first time with quizzes and assignments.  Being the IT guy means I have to figure it out in a hurry and be able to show teachers how to use it.  Luckily most of the staff is willing to learn it on their own. It is great to work with professionals.

I can see right now it is going to be impossible to convince the kids to pretend they are in school from 9 to 11.  One of the kids linked in from a town 45 miles away where he was on the job with his dad, a plumber. Most of the others are going to sleep until noon.  We will do what we can do.

Textbooks for my math classes are going to be a bit iffy.  I found a free Precalc book for my Math 2 Honors that will work.  The trouble with that is I was not using a textbook. We were doing a free flowing math course,  see something interesting and then do it. It was a conversational class, not a textbook class. I had a broad group of topics I wanted to cover, I would find some material on it and away we would go.  The Stats class was very textbook based. I found a newer edition of the present textbook on-line but I am not sure it is a legal version. Eek. I have no choice. I do not have enough textbooks to send home.  The kids shared. If the book police have time to chase me down, so be it. I probably should find a good free legal textbook but I really do not have the time to redo my material and learn a new textbook. Stats is a class I teach because no one else wants to teach it.  I am not a big fan of stats. Watching paint dry, grass grow, doing stats. I like algebras and geometries. Now that is fun stuff. (GEEK!)

The computer classes will be easy.  I have only the Game Programming in Unity class this semester and that is all YouTube driven.  I have figured out how to remote into a student computer through Zoom so I can help with problems.  Student procrastination will be the big issue but that will be on the student. I will do weekly progress checks and an occasional Zoom just to see faces but all should be OK.  (Famous last words.) There is also the problem of good laptops but I think after today everyone will have a decent machine.

I think the biggest thing with all this is this may be just the first time this happens.  The possibilities of what could happen scare the ever loving bejeezus out of me.  

Good luck everyone.