Inter-campus learning and teaching

What works in remote learning and what doesn't?

January 27, 2016 - 6 minute read -
blog academic

My decision to join the new campus of Cornell Tech has been tremendously rewarding. That said, being part of something brand new is also full of challenges. The most common one that I observed is the communication between two campuses, both formal (teaching/taking classes, seminars) and informal (e.g. keeping in touch with peers).

So far I have taken part in five remote classes, four out of which are quite successful and one did not quite work out. The form of participation varied a lot, from telepresence robot Beam, Cisco video conferencing, Google hangout with an external conference microphone, Kubi, Facetime, Skype, Facebook Messenger, phone call, texting… You name it. I have almost exhausted every possible means of Computer-Mediated-Communication (CMC). Some forms work better than others. Sometimes I felt sci-fi like high, and other times deeply lonely and frustrated.

I had long considered writing down my experiences on remote participation and inter-campus learning but had been procrastinating. Prompted by an email from Lillian Lee as the “successful experiment” in Natural Language Processing and Social Interaction last semester to offer some ideas on some faculty members working on inter-campus classes, I finally have the motivation to put these thoughts down in words.

Clearing a few things up upfront

  • Lower your expectations.

    Remote participation requires higher cognitive effort. It’s just the nature and limitation of CMC. There are tons of research on this. As students sometimes we drift off, sometimes we are tired. Just don’t expect that we pay attention 100% all the time and it is okay. As long as we follow along and have more or less a clear idea of what’s happening and can follow along, it’s already great. Don’t get frustrated or be too demanding (both as instructors and students).

  • Pay attention to peer interactions as well.

    Remote participation is not just about communication between the remote student and instructor. Interaction with peers is equally important. When it comes to remote teaching, most instructors do a great job at making sure the remote student can hear instructor well. Less emphasized is paid to whether it is easy to interact with other students. But a class is not only a client-server model (each student receiving information solely from the instructor) anymore. Peer-to-peer learning is crucial, especially in graduate school seminar settings where peers can benefit significantly from talking and collaborating with each other.

  • Gold standard: different from MOOC

    MOOC has a lot of great features to learn from in terms of designing great remote learning experience, such as having clear structures and syllabus, materials available online, and a strong peer interaction platform, etc. But I think the bar for inter-campus teaching should be higher than that. There is more we can achieve with the synchronization and as a community. Imagine as a student, given the opportunity, will the student choose your class, or a well designed online MOOC? What does the student gain from real-time participation and as part of the Cornell cohort? Or what does the student gain from interacting directly and in real-time with the instructor? E.g.: potential to join dissertation committees or collaborate on projects.

Comparing forms of participation:

Depending on the classroom setting and options, there are different forms of participation.

  • Telepresence robot Beam

    Best for single remote student; Beam has great audio and video, and ability to move around and share screen. Somehow it feels more personal (has more presence and personality) than any other means of remote participation. You can even invent your own Beam dance to signal an intent of asking questions or interrupting. Not suitable for more than one remote student. On Ithaca side, only available at Gates Hall. Someone needs to escort Beam to go into elevator.

  • Cisco video conferencing

    Several rooms in Gates Hall and at Cornell Tech has this setup. Direct dial. Ideal for small group remote participation. Okay for single remote student. Feels very business like, rather formal. (Don’t know if there is an impact on intimidating participation.)

  • Google hangout

    Great for rooms without video conferencing system single lecturer. Audio quality is pretty good if the speaker is close to computer and doesn’t move much. If it’s a discussion around the room, be sure to get an external conference quality microphone. Otherwise it’s impossible to hear people speak. This is better than Skype because if the call drops for some reason (e.g. network unstable) the student can just re-join the hangout without waiting the other party to accept the call again.

    Google hangout’s audio sometimes doesn’t work on Mac. Solution here (sudo killall coreaudiod).

  • Kubi

    More portable than Beam (iPad with a shelf that can spin around). Audio is not great. BE SURE TO RECHARGE… the system is not quite stable yet. And the swirling motion may be a bit weird…

  • Facetime/Skype/Facebook Messenger

    Is good to combine with Kubi or Google hangout to get a second set of eyes (sometimes one channel for screen/slide sharing, and another channel for viewing the classroom). You’d be surprised that you cannot join two Google hangouts at the same time.

  • Phone call/text

    You must be so desperate.

What is good:

  • Be clear, and be clear online: have clear structures of lectures; clear syllabus; clear course website where all the references are uploaded before the class; clear deadlines of homework/assignment; clear goals of learning, all ONLINE, accessible.

  • Setup an online platform such as Canvas, Piazza, Google groups, Facebook messenger groups for the entire class to stay on the same page.

  • For the student (remote) to commute to another campus at least once in the beginning of the course to get to know people in class in person, and familiarize with the classroom setting. Trust me, this helps the most significantly in the remote student feeling connected to the rest of the class.

  • It is good for instructors to commute at least once to the other location the class is being taught. Serge Belongie commuted a lot between two campuses, to a point of I can’t predict whether Serge will be in person or on a big screen. That is truly inter-campus teaching, rather than badly designed MOOC.

  • Even in class, the ability to text back and forth between students, especially those who are on site and remote, is very beneficial. We are not kindergarten kids anymore, as instructors you probably should have some faith in your students that they can make their own judgment of whether it’s appropriate to text in class.

What is not ideal:

  • Materials not accessible online before and during class.

  • Significant amount of handwriting on board that are not accessible digitally before, during, or after class.

  • Talking too fast / unclearly.

  • Having multiple deadlines and mini tasks that are difficult to keep track of.

Where does emotional stress come from? (as remote student)

  • Being forgotten.

  • Have an interesting point to make but then by the time I can interrupt, people have already moved on to talk about something else and it will look stupid to make my point by then – hence the decrease in participation.

  • Feeling like a complete waste of time.

Most of these are based on personal experiences and may not be entirely accurate or the most optimal. That’s why I hope you leave comments on ideas and suggestions of whether this is helpful and how to improve. As the number of people involved in inter-campus classes is only to increase, let’s crowdsource ideas to make the remote experience smoother both for instructors and students in the future.