Progress reports go out to students today at my little school, so I thought it would be a good time to provide an update of my own now that we’re nearly a month into the school year. I posted about teaching in The Age of The Virus after the first day and the first week, and now I have a much better perspective on how the year is unfolding.
As a refresher, my school is doing mostly face-to-face instruction, but with some students doing distance learning. Students have the option to go to distance learning pretty much at will (for example, I had one student who stayed home today with a cold, but who tuned into my music appreciation course), and can return to school at any time. Students engaged in distance learning are required to attend during the scheduled class period.
The caveat to that general rule pertains to international students. We have a number of students overseas who, because of new restrictions due to The Virus, are stuck in their home countries. Many of those students’ classes are late at night, or even in the very early morning, after accounting for the time difference. It’s a long way from South Carolina to Vietnam.
What that means is that we have to teach our regular classes; livestream them; and record those livestreams, making the recordings available after the class. It sounds easy enough—so long as everything works perfectly.
That’s turning out to be the fly in the pancake batter. As one of our dedicated science teachers said—the lady who troubleshoots our woeful technological glitches—“I can livestream, or I can record. The trouble is trying to do both.” Amen to that.
We’re using Google Classroom coupled with Google Meet for the livestreaming portion. It’s fairly intuitive, and we’ve been using Google Classroom to make announcements and assign work to students for years. The problem is that Google Meet has eliminated its “record” function from the iPad app version (we mostly use iPads to livestream), and is removing the function from the PC version on 1 October 2020, unless schools pay a hefty subscription fee (anecdotally, I heard it would cost our school $5000 just for the record function; I don’t know if that’s universal, or based on the size of the school).
Therefore, in order to record, we use another app called Loom. Loom basically records your screen, so we open up our livestream in Google Meet, awkwardly mount our iPads to their stands, then switch to Loom. In Loom, we begin recording our screens, then go back to Meet.
It’s very simple—but there are some critical failures. If the Internet connection goes out at any point during class, or while a Loom video is uploading, the entire video is lost. Even if you lose connection in the last five minutes of class, the preceding fifty minutes are lost in uploading limbo. So far, the only solution we’ve found is simply to uninstall and reinstall Loom, or to seek out another screen recording app. I’ve probably reinstalled Loom at least eight times already, and maybe more; sometimes, I’ve had to do it twice in a day.
Also, my Loom app has ceased recording audio on longer videos. I messed around with it some this morning after reinstalling it and made sure all the settings were correct. I recorded a five-second video and it recorded my voice. Thinking the problem was resolved, I streamed and recorded a fifty-minute American history class with a test review, only to find the recording without audio. Fortunately, I used a free recording app on my phone to take an audio recording, so I had something to share with my international students.
These are all fairly minor issues with sensible workarounds, and one solution may be simply to abandon Loom and adopt another screen recording program, at least until Loom’s developers solve these major bugs. The problem is time. I sometimes eat up five or ten minutes of class time just preparing the technology to work correctly.
And what a load of technology! I carry three devices to some classes: my old iPad for history slides; my new iPad to broadcast and record; and a Lenovo ThinkPad laptop to have e-mail and our attendance and grading software readily available. We have to e-mail attendance (primarily absences) to the office every period now (even though they should be able to see that information in RenWeb, our attendance and grading software), which also eats up time. I had to uninstall the Gmail app from my new iPad because Google Classroom was launching my Meet sessions in Gmail for some unknown reason, and those Gmail-cum-Meet sessions took the screen I’m supposed to be recording and put it into a tiny thumbnail window.
So now that expensive piece of equipment is a glorified camcorder.
Again, these are all mild inconveniences and adjustments, and I’m fortunate to be a bit of a techno-wizard (I certainly feel like a technomancer, walking around festooned in devices). The real hassle is the added time everything takes.
Consider: when writing tests or quizzes, we now have to have two versions of the same material—one for online, one for in-class. We mostly use Google Forms to write our online quizzes. It’s fairly intuitive and user-friendly, but it can be particular about how it wants things formatted. There’s also no easy way (at least, none known to me) to import questions from tests easily. I write my assessments in good ol’ Microsoft Word, so there’s a great deal of copy-pasting that goes on when porting that to Forms.
Given that the vast majority of our students are on-campus, that means we’re recreating the same quiz for a small minority of students. I’m giving a quiz today in a Music Appreciation class, and I have one student who—for this week only—is doing distance learning. That means—again, for one student who is only out for this week—I had to write a complete quiz (and while it’s easy enough to port a history quiz, a music quiz, with staffs, notes, etc., is much more time-consuming). I spent a solid hour—a complete planning period—today just assembling his quiz.
I’ve spoken with colleagues (in the scant moments of quiet time we can snatch here and there throughout the day) and they’re experiencing the same frustrations. All these additional little tasks—uploading videos, writing extra quizzes, preparing additional resources for online learning, etc.—are adding up quickly. Taken individually, they’re not that substantial; taken collectively, they’re adding hours of preparation and facilitation time to our workloads.
Again, I want to stress that, overall, the school year is going well. We have—somewhat miraculously—avoided any outbreaks of The Virus among students and faculty. Students are good about wearing their masks, but are crammed on top of each other every chance they get, which is natural. My administration has apparently thrown the “we’re-capping-classes-to-fifteen-students” rule out the window, as I have around seventeen or eighteen in both sections of my Honors US History class, which meets in a seminar room at one long table. In other words, social distancing is a mythical concept.
But the strain is already starting to show, and I think administrators would be wise to ease the burden in whatever ways possible for teachers. A modest, across-the-board salary increase for all full-time teachers, for example, would be a concrete way to compensate teachers for the additional workload (even something like 5-10%, which would account for extra responsibilities and workload). It would also be a strong acknowledgement of the duties teachers have taken on in The Age of The Virus. Our enrollment has exploded, too, in defiance of the lockdown economy, so the cash is flowing in.
That’s a self-serving argument, to be sure, but I hope this post has detailed some of the extra work we’re putting in this year relative to other years. I’m not going to engage in any histrionics and claim we’re “risking our lives” teaching—that’s foolishness. But we’re really working hard to teach across multiple platforms and to make sure every student receives quality instruction.
In The Age of The Virus, that’s harder than ever.
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