/ REMOTE, TEACHING

On teaching remotely

I started teaching in higher education organizations when I was still a student. That was more than 20 years ago. I’ve never stopped since then. I’ve taught in different kind of organizations (i.e. engineering schools, universities, and applied science schools) and two different countries, France and Switzerland.

A common trait among all those jobs was the requirement to teach on-site. In fact, my current employer goes to the point of specifying it explicitly in its regulations. Or to be completely accurate, while you are actually allowed to teach remotely, only on-site hours are paid. Because I travel quite frequently, this is a big issue for me. The CoVid-19 pandemics, and the associated mandatory quarantine, changed this policy overnight. Now, all courses must happen online to prevent the spread of the virus.

I don’t know how long this will last. Nevertheless, we should make the best out of the current situation. This is an opportunity to reflect upon teaching in general, and teaching remotely in particular. This blog post reviews two main items on this subject: the course materials and the act of teaching itself.

On course materials

I’m a firm believer in letting students practice, even since the start. Hence, I not only write courses, but I also design the associated workshops. A workshop is like taking the student by the hand, and lead him/her where use the concepts I highlighted in the course. For me, the time when students apply the taught principles are at least as important, if not more, than the principles themselves. This is related to memory: it lets those "sink in" in the student’s memories. The tools to deliver both course and workshop materials have evolved with time and technology.

At the beginning, as a developer working for an established company, I used the tools that were available: that meant the Microsoft Suite, Power Point for the courses and Word for the workshops. Even at that time, all classrooms were equipped with video projectors, so I could project the slides. For the workshops, I passed the Word document around on a USB key - and the Power Point slides as well. This method had two huge disadvantages:

  1. The main one was obviously related to security. Sharing a USB key on different computers is a huge security risk, even with an anti-virus.
  2. The second one is the lack of updates regarding the material. Any update on my own copy had to be again distributed to the students.

A couple of years later came solutions such as Dropbox, and then Google Drive. The specific technology is not that important. The point is that any of them allowed me to solve both problems in one go: I could just share the link, and keep the underlying documents up-to-date. Even better, there are a couple of additional benefits:

  • This kind of software provides reliability - in the form of online backups. This relieves a lot of concerns regarding how and how frequently standard backups should be executed.
  • Synchronization across different devices is provided as well. When one has multiple computers i.e. one company laptop and one desktop at home, it’s quite useful.
  • Finally, the document can be shared not only to a handful of specific people but to the public at large.

Still, even that approach was not entirely satisfactory. I’m deeply convinced that knowledge should be free for everybody. Also, in my opinion, the role of the teacher has evolved a lot with time. Nowadays, this translates into helping the student along the teaching path - more later. Given that, the online storage option has one big drawback: it’s not possible to easily advertise the courses. It’s accessible, it can even be crawled by Google Bot, but that ends here.

My latest approach to that issue is entirely different. It’s heavily inspired by the stack I use for this blog. Here’s a quick summary:

  • Both courses and workshops are written in Asciidoctor format
  • Courses and workshops are stored in two different folders
  • A Travis job takes care of generating the HTML from the Asciidoctor sources. It also publishes the generated HTML on GitHub Pages for public access.
    • The workshop document is directly generated
    • The course document is generated through the Asciidoctor revealjs converter. reveal.js is a JavaScript framework that allows to display content via a slideshow.
  • Each course has a README.adoc file at the root, which gets processed into an index.html through the same job
  • Each course is stored in its own dedicated GitHub repository
  • Because I’ve a couple of courses, I’ve also refactored some common files into a specific repo. These include the stylesheet, as well as the license text fragment and the associated image. The job copies it before the processing starts.
  • Every push triggers the Travis job, which generates the HTML and publishes it. Hence, as soon as a change is pushed, the site is refreshed after a slight delay.
Sample course

In case you’re interested, here’s a sample Java EE course (in French):

  1. Repository
  2. Travis job
  3. GitHub Pages

With that, the content is not only accessible publicly, but easily. However, after some steps back, I realized the main benefit lies elsewhere: the student can actually collaborate to the course’s material. Everybody can make pull requests. This is great to improve students' engagement. That brings me to the second point.

On the role of the teacher

Historically, the teacher has been the sole holder of the knowledge. The only way for students to skip the teacher-gate was to go to the university’s library. For younger readers, you might understand that wasn’t that easy without Google.

I happened to find myself in that situation: to find my away, I had to learn how books were stored. For the record, at that time, it was the Dewey Decimal Classification. Later on, I was fortunate because we finally had access to a software system for searching. It was unbelievable: one could actually query using…​ keywords. That sounds crude - and it was - but that was an awesome improvement compared to the DDC.

As student of an academic institution, I saw the beginning of the World Wide Web. I started learning HTML by myself, when only a few sites being available. To find such site, I didn’t use a search engine, a directory (Yahoo! Directory to be precise). Yes, amazingly enough, in the not-so-good old time, one had to actually browse a thematic tree to find content. This had several drawbacks:

  • How to register them? This became harder and harder as the number of sites grew.
  • How to come up with the correct tree?
  • Where to store cross-themes sites?
  • etc.

Google Search solved all those problems. Just type the right words and content is right at your fingertips.

As I mentioned, even in those earlier years, some sites provided knowledge, such as how to create a HTML website. That trend grew and grew. Recent years also saw the rise of websites dedicated to e-learning. This came first from brand-new organizations, the most famous being Coursera. But it was soon followed by more traditional academic institutions that didn’t want to lose the educational race. Now, picture this: one has now access to a huge body of knowledge to learn from, on a lot of different subjects, and is able to find it from the comfort of one’s home. Compared to the countless students who had to painfully search physical libraries, this is a huge improvement.

Because of that, the role of the teacher as "the sole holder of knowledge" needs to be questioned. But if he’s no the entry-point to knowledge anymore, what then? Self-study requires a lot of discipline and dedication. My personal belief, based on my experience, is that the teacher should simply be a guide to the students along the learning path. Of course, in some contexts, e.g. in academia, there will be more constraints to implement than in other contexts. Nonetheless, guiding should be the teacher’s role.

The good thing is that on-site guiding and remote guiding are quite similar. Sure, in one case, it’s easier to sit down side-by-side to discuss with the student. However, it’s true for every human activity. The current situation proves it’s possible. Nothing prevents teaching remotely: listen to the questions, guide the other to find the solutions by himself, point toward relevant references, etc. While I admit I’ve only experience with software-related teaching, I see no reasons this cannot be applied to other domains.

Conclusion

Teaching is based on two foundations: the materials, and the relationship between a teacher and a student. With the current technology, it’s easy to make materials public. For a long time, the relationship has been in one direction only, from the teacher to the student. It’s time for it to become more interactive. The student should be an actor in the learning, with the teaching should be a guide. Everything is ready: the current situation is a unique occasion to trigger this change…​ and perhaps never go back?

Nicolas Fränkel

Nicolas Fränkel

Nicolas Fränkel is a Developer Advocate with 15+ years experience consulting for many different customers, in a wide range of contexts (such as telecoms, banking, insurances, large retail and public sector). Usually working on Java/Java EE and Spring technologies, but with focused interests like Rich Internet Applications, Testing, CI/CD and DevOps. Currently working for Hazelcast. Also double as a teacher in universities and higher education schools, a trainer and triples as a book author.

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