Tentative thoughts on how I’m going to teach the rest of my large intro biostats course online (UPDATED)

UPDATE: here’s the tl;dr:


Last Friday afternoon, my university (University of Calgary, a big public research university) announced that classes will no longer meet on campus for the rest of the semester. Courses are to be delivered online instead.

Obviously the cancellation of on-campus classes doesn’t come as a shock. A few days before the cancellation, faculty were asked to start preparing for this possibility. And I haven’t been living in a cave, so I’m well aware of all the other colleges and universities that have been cancelling on-campus classes. But still, I’m in the same boat as I’m sure many of you are–having to completely revamp how I will teach several weeks worth of a class, on fairly short notice. Here are my initial tentative thoughts on how I’ll do it. I have no idea if they’ll be useful to anyone else, but that’s for y’all to decide. And if you have any feedback or relevant experiences you want to share, that’s what the comments section is there for, I’m all ears!

  • Background: this semester I’m teaching a large(ish) intro biostats course–128 students. It ordinarily has 3, 50-min. lectures/week, plus a weekly 3 hour computer lab led by a grad student TA (6 lab sections; 3 TAs). We have 4+ weeks left in our semester, so ~1/3 of the semester. We have a textbook from which we assign readings.
  • I am not trying to make lemonade out of lemons here. I am not looking to use these next four weeks to try out any new pedagogical techniques that I hope to reuse in future. If that’s what you’re doing, good for you (seriously), but it’s not me. If I end up doing new prep that I can reuse in future, or discover that I love making videos about ANOVA, or whatever, great. But that will be a happy accident. My job is to help my students master the remaining course material as best I (and they) can in very difficult circumstances. Without either under- or overrating the importance of that task in the grand scheme of things.
  • I am polling students this weekend as to what their biggest concerns are about the course moving online, and to ask them for their suggestions as to how to run the rest of the course.
  • One of my biggest worries is making sure students keep up with the material and practice it. My current course has incentives for students to attend lectures and labs, and to pay attention and engage when they’re there (e.g., clicker questions during lectures, which they have to answer 75% of to get a participation mark worth 5% of their final grade). Now there are no more in-person lectures they’re more or less obliged to attend. So one idea is to put a lot of practice problems online, and oblige students to do them by giving marks for problem completion. (and maybe also some bonus marks for getting problems right?)
  • Planning to put my lecture slides online (which will make many students happy; I don’t let students have my slides when I’m teaching in-person classes because I think students learn better when they take their own notes). Debating whether to record myself talking about them in PowerPoint or Zoom. Will take into account student opinions on this.
  • Am considering going through YouTube and identifying good videos covering the concepts and techniques I want to cover, so that I can point the students to them. Am dreading doing this because there are a lot of bad intro stats videos on YouTube.
  • Labs can still continue more or less as usual, I think. They’re computer-based labs using R. The vast majority of students already use R on their own computers rather than using the computers in our computer lab. The lab manual and prelab slides are already online, and students who have to miss a lab due to illness already just work through the lab manual and practice exercises on their own time to stay caught up. And they already mostly do the lab assignments on their own time and submit them online, so that can continue as usual. Some lab work is group work, though, which might be more challenging for the students to complete if they have to coordinate their own group meetings online. And they won’t have a time when they’re all in the same room as the TA to ask the TA questions. So maybe set up some kind of online chat room where students can ask questions about the course material? Maybe even schedule weekly chats with the TAs during the timeslots in which the labs were previously scheduled? Pretty sure our course management software (D2L) has a feature for group chats.
  • The course was supposed to have a 2-hour final exam worth 30% of the course mark. Not sure what to do about that. This is a question on which I’d really welcome input, because I’m torn. Here are all the options, as I see them. Note that I think some of these options are bad, but I’m trying to cast a wide net here. Options include (1) cancel the final exam; base the mark in the course on the midterm + the lab assignments. (2) distribute an open note final exam online (due, say, 24 h later), ask questions that demand reasonably lengthy written answers, so that students can’t plagiarize one another without being detected. It would be a lot of work to write and mark such an exam, but it could be done. (3) Distribute my usual sort of final exam online. Tell the students they’re on their honor not to plagiarize their answers. Don’t worry about the fact that some of them might plagiarize anyway. I only have so much time and mental energy to deal with all the fallout from COVID-19, so maybe I shouldn’t spend too much of it writing and marking a whole new final exam just to make sure a few students don’t plagiarize. (4) Figure out if our course management software (D2L) has the capabilities to give a decent final exam. I’ve never used D2L to give quizzes, much less a final exam. (5) Come up with some sort of replacement assignment for the final exam. Maybe have every student do some little independent project about some application of statistics in everyday life. Or maybe have them all write reports about the COVID-19 data! 🙂 😦

11 thoughts on “Tentative thoughts on how I’m going to teach the rest of my large intro biostats course online (UPDATED)

  1. We’re headed down the same path here at UNL, with the addition of a 1 week cancellation of class prior to spring break to give faculty time to convert. I think the most important bit of advice I’ve seen is to keep your expectations for yourself and the students low! Good online teaching takes a lot of effort, and none of these students signed up for online instruction so might not have the tech or inclination to participate. So wrt to final, option 3, for sure.
    I really like the idea of polling the students, I’m going to pass that on to my colleagues here. I more-or-less did that last week in person, as I decided to not wait for UNL and go to online teaching early.
    If you have access to zoom or something like it, then I would arrange times for students to get online and have synchronous help for lecture problems and lab assignments. I do this for my online graduate class, and it is invaluable to be able to see a student’s screen with error messages! I record the sessions and post them, students do watch them and use them to figure out their own issues after the fact.
    Last thought — projects using COVID-19 data — good luck finding the data! I made some predictions yesterday (https://drewtyre.rbind.io/post/covid-19_and_r/), and then today I’m trying to find numbers to test my predictions. I’ve found 4 (four!) different numbers for cumulative cases in the USA, including 2 different “official” websites. The best guess is “a lot”.
    Good luck, and remind everyone to wash their hands!

  2. Jeremy: option 3 or the COVID one. You nailed it by noting you only have so much mental energy. Don’t go for perfect; go for ‘good enough’

    (Steve Murphy, U of Waterloo)

  3. You have likely already seen the article about doing a bad job of putting your regular course online, but in case not: https://twitter.com/MHarrisPerry/status/1238292622663397377. Important advice in there about having reasonable expectations for instructors and students, many of whom (both instructors and students) may be facing housing, food, or other financial insecurity as a results of campus shutdowns and other COVID-19 issues. One of the most eye-opening points for me was to avoid synchronous anything. Details in the article explain why asynchronous is critical for students who didn’t plan to be enrolled in an online course.

    • No, I hadn’t seen that. Have to say, with that clickbaity headline I would never in a million years have looked at it if all I had to go on was the headline! But I will have a look, because from your recommendation it sounds like it’s much more sensible than the headline makes it sound.

      Re: asynchronous vs. synchronous, it’s been interesting to see mixed views in the poll of my students. Some of them want synchronous, some don’t. Now, it’s of course possible that some students want synchronous for reasons that can actually be handled asynchronously. It’s possible some students are actually mistaken about what would work best for them. Students can’t always accurately self-diagnose what pedagogical approaches would best help them master the material. And of course, there’s no pleasing everyone with *any* course design. Anyway, I’m likely to go entirely or mostly asynchronous. But I’m not sure the issue is *totally* clear-cut.

    • Ok, had a look. Some good points there, though I think some of them are too strongly stated. Or maybe it’s just the tone that I find a bit off-putting in a few places. For instance, the notion that you are wrong to want a sense of “normalcy” for yourself and your students, and should instead deliberately minimize the amount of time you spend on teaching so you can throw your energy into political protests instead.

      Re: the suggestion not to record lectures (maybe unless you “have” to), FWIW, *lots* of my students said they want recorded lectures when I polled them.

      • Yes, I agree. I wouldn’t adopt it wholesale. Thought provoking, though, and I did glean some useful things. For example, my course this semester is a writing course based on weekly submissions from 2 students and the next week a full discussion of the students’ writing, along with exercises I facilitate. I had initially assumed we could simply shift to Zoom and keep rolling. After reading that article, I wonder if I should shift to a discussion thread format, via our course website. Perhaps that could be coupled with a flip grid assignment, so folks are still able to hear each other and see each other, to maintain the communal aspect of the course.

  4. Good idea from a colleague: make the final exam optional. Any student who wants their final grade to be based solely on the other course components, can have that. Any student who wants a final chance to improve their mark can take the final exam (but if you decide to take it, it counts towards your mark in the course even if it ends up lowering your mark in the course).

    I wouldn’t ordinarily use this system (though I’m sure some other profs do), but in the circumstances, it seems like a good idea to me.

  5. Here’s a good source of video lectures for anyone who teaches intro biostats from Whitlock & Schluter (as I do) and doesn’t want to reinvent the wheel. I watched the first 25 min. of the ANOVA one, it teaches the topic exactly as I do, so it’s a perfect fit for me. So I’m guesses the others will be useful to me as well, but I haven’t watched them yet.

    (ht my awesome colleague Kyla Flanagan for this find).

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