Once more into the distance

My distance learning modules are about to start. Modules – two of them this year – delivered via computer means fair and foul to an institution in China. Last year I delivered our sustainable chemistry module, this year I’m adding half a module on inorganic chemistry to the mix. Last year the module was delivered through a mixture of lecture recordings, directed reading and lecture notes, forums and Turnitin – all done through BlackBoard. This year the courses have been parcelled up onto memory keys and shipped. The lecture recordings run into difficulties with the bandwidth on some internet connections, forums are stilted when access to the websites is variable. It’s an old tech approach in some ways (memory keys as shovel-ware) but there are a few things that work to make it more interactive.

Without good interaction, these distance learning modules are the equivalent of sending textbooks and expecting them to be learned without any support.

So what do we have? Well firstly, supplying lecture recordings is better than just textbook sections. The ability to see problems worked through in ‘real-time’ (using a tablet PC to make annotations during recording) is probably useful. Then there is email, and I regularly invite my students for in person modules to email with questions (and photos of work). WeChat is a good bit of social networking software that is popular amongst our Chinese students, not all, but a lot of them and that can facilitate more rapid informal queries. The one I’ve been playing with (but not entirely loving) is Socrative for online quizzes, another impossibility to deploy if there is intermittent access to the website.

I hoped to use Socrative a lot more this academic year but stuff got in the way. I tested it in one lecture with my 3rd years and didn’t feel it was a brilliant substitute for TurningPoint and Clickers. Yes, I didn’t need to cart all the clickers to the session, but the students all had to bring a device. I also missed (or perhaps I didn’t find) the ability to display results on the screen, the bar graphs of TurningPoint. For Peer Instruction, this is fairly important. I’ve since found PINGO (https://pingo.upb.de/) which looks hopeful in this regard. Socrative is, however, more useful for this distance learning application. I’ve paid for the pro-account so have a room per module and student paced quizzes in each room. My disappointment is that I can only deploy one quiz per room at a time. For the 3rd year course I was doing here, I would have liked to make all the quizzes available at once so the students could select which they wanted to work on. Now I’m having to convert things from Socrative to KLE format which is frustrating given the prevalence of super- and sub-scripts (why isn’t there a shift button equivalent, a single button, for these scripts? One tap and hold while you type the desired super or subscript, not the clunky select then hit three keys nonsense. Don’t people devise computers with chemists in mind?). I’m optimistic that Socrative may work but am only using it for formative assessments, there can be sufficient frustration in summative work in distance learning modules if the tech isn’t working.

So we’ll see how it goes, and collect some evaluation data. I’m apprehensive about the inorganic module more than the sustainable chemistry module but that’s probably just first time of running angst.

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