No plan survives contact with the enemy (or students)

When I first heard that we were going to switch to online classes, my first thought was that this will be a lot of work, but it’ll be easy, mindless work: I’ll just lift everything I do in class and plop it down on the intertubes, and I’ll send stuff home with the students so they can do their lab work there. Straightforward. A nuisance, but no, I don’t need to change my approach at all.

That lasted about 24 hours, and then I took the radical step of talking to my students. First casualty: nope, no way am I going to raise flies in my house.

Then I learned that some of my students get online routinely…but through their phone or campus computer labs. I’m sitting here in my home office with two big monitors and a fast internet connection, they might be only getting online intermittently and peering at it through a tiny screen. Whoops, no big productions of my hour-long lectures. No required online sessions.

So, today, I rethink and refocus. I’m going back to the syllabus and figuring out exactly what concepts I have to get across to the students to prepare them for the next course in the curriculum (for introductory biology) or grad school/professional life/existence as an informed citizen (for genetics). I have to deliver those concepts to the student who has minimal internet access.

That means — oh no — I have to rely much, much more on the textbook. I have to be the guide, rather than the source, of the information. I can’t expect the students to absorb knowledge on a schedule, but instead, have to point them to information and tell them what my expectations are, and give them the freedom to meet them on a flexible schedule.

It’s a lot of compromises and not entirely satisfactory, and I look forward to someday returning to the normal world where students and I actually see and interact with each other in person. Until then, though, I have to make sure the goals of my courses are reached, somehow.


  1. hemidactylus says

    My impression is online classes are more the norm now than when I attended the bricks and mortar U as the good lord intended. I never took an online course. I’m an old fuddy duddy but face-to-face interaction was my preference, until now. So-called iGen has a knack for this web-mediated interaction (he types ironically into a box on his phone). When reading Haidt and Lukianoff’s Coddling I took note of Twenge’s generational pigeonholing and some sharp criticism of her views on “the kids these days.” Even still this online connectivity norm-shifting was a Gouldian exaption for a crisis we now face. Being a GenX codger I feel left behind in my rocking chair as much as generation gaps are palpable or perceived. And I wonder if some students are left behind still in what used to be called a digital divide.

    Still the challenge is adapting to this climate. There should be similar online content out there developed by professors who have no bricks and mortar presence.

  2. komarov says

    First casualty: nope, no way am I going to raise flies in my house.

    But it’s so easy: A while ago some fruitflies or similar took a liking to my potted plants and decided to stick around there. No matter how would fall victim to my improvised traps, they hung on for quite a bit – the only ill effect being the occasional fly drawn to my computer screen in the dark. So breeding these critters should require very little effort. I just don’t see th prob…


    Regarding lectures, online lectures are a thing and not that uncommon, plus you do have your youtube experience to fall back on. Surely there’s something to be done with that? It is tricky though, I’ll admit. The main reason for going to university is the practical stuff and the lectures. (Granted, the official piece of paper at the end is also a chief attraction) The textbooks I could read anywhere. I’ll be curious to see what you come up with.

  3. lurking squid says

    Many people are in this situation. My university is continually updating this website: See Strategies for some ideas. Ideas for labs will be coming online soon.
    You don’t have to write everything yourself. Maybe check out HHMI’s Biointeractive ( for great online materials for teaching biology.
    And, hopefully, this will all be an amazing story to tell in a few months.

  4. jrkrideau says

    @ 1 hemidactylus
    bricks ?
    You had bricks? Wow!

    some of my students get online routinely…but through their phone or campus computer labs.

    I do not know about UMM but a lot of US schools seem to be shutting down and turfing students out of residence.

    What happens to the student who needs to move home to Texas or Hawaii or Italy or Beijing all of a sudden? It could be hard to study or work on a lab report while squatting in an airport.

    In any case, PZ you can only do what you can do. At least you do have experience putting stuff on the air which gives some advantage.

    From a couple of things I have seen and a bit of trying some on-line language learning, I’d suggest keeping videos short, perhaps 10 minutes at a time if feasible. That way you are capitalizing on one advantage of the medium; letting the student set their own pace since you do not have to worry about scheduling.

  5. whheydt says

    For students who need a bigger screen… I would suggest that a Raspberry Pi 4 Model B, 2GB ($35), RPF PSU ($8), RPF microHDMI to HMDI cable ($5), 16GB microSD card ($5-8), USB keyboard ($0-15), USB mouse ($0-5), and a secondhand monitor (anywhere from free to $25) would do the trick without spending large amounts of money.

  6. hemidactylus says

    If the problem is bandwidth instead of access (yes/no) and the common denominator is screen size constrained to a phone you might consider converting class materials to epub. I do it in Pages on my iPhone sometimes for my own idiosyncratic reasons. Calibre might be an option. The rendering on a phone size screen is better than a Word or PDF document. Do ADA compliant font. I don’t know how file sizes compare between file types. In Pages I set headings beforehand to get a proper table of contents. Not sure how distribution would work. The students would need an epub friendly reader app. No fancy stuff. Maybe images and graphs, but you gotta consider file size and bandwidth limitations especially if students have a flaky relationship with the nearest cell tower. Either that or a flock of trained messaging pigeons carrying disinfected USBs back and forth. If your university would subsidize it USB distribution via mail carrier back and forth might work if logistically feasible timewise, but I’d disinfect the heck out of those things.

    You could lecture in audio converted to a more universal format (MP3), but audio files are much bulkier than text of course. Imagine video is out.

  7. says

    Well, we’re supposed to prepare material for our pupils and post it online. This would have been significantly easier if the idiots called government had told us on Monday to prepare for closing down, but no, last night they kept telling people that schools would stay open. This morning when I drove to work (7 am) the news was that schools will be closed from Monday on, but it took more than three hours until the schools got any confirmation. 40-50% of our students were already missing and we had to prepare everything in a hurry.
    Yes, I’m quite annoyed.
    I’m also worried about the kids. Not just that some of them will miss out on learning, but because some of them live in really desolate conditions. I worry about them being cared for, getting a warm meal, having a place to be and not being abused.

  8. square101 says

    I don’t know how you do you lectures, but you could always upload just the audio as a file to listen to and then put the power point slides or pictures of whatever visuals you need separately. I know it may not work for everyone, but its easier to use a phone to listen to audio and your students could download the pictures on their phones and then transfer them to a computer not connected to the internet. If they have 0 access to a computer this would not work as well but if they are static images it is easier to view them on a phone than video because you an zoom in on them. Its not perfect of course but it could be a way to disseminate lectures a bit more phone compatibly.

  9. nomdeplume says

    Um, hate to break it to you young man, but back in the Dark Ages of university life, say, oh, I don’t know, the early 60s, we did all our learning from textbooks. Lectures really were matters of perhaps expanding on points or adding some more recent findings. And, you know, we survived to have long careers in science.

  10. jrkrideau says

    As an aside, the University of Western Ontario is cancelling classes from today til 18 march so they can go to on-line classes.

    Duh, official end of classes is 3 April.

    I hope they are just going to make sure that profs & students can communicate. Trying to set up some kind of teach about 2 weeks looks like a total waste of time.
    I bet Exam period is likely to be a gong show.
    Residences are staying open, at last report.

  11. methuseus says

    It’s easier for them to stay engaged with shorter videos, but I can practically guarantee that they have watched movies more than an hour long on their phones.

  12. kaleberg says

    What is textbook access like? I know they cost the earth nowadays, but I assume most students wangle copies. Can you leverage them with guided reading and commentary in text or pod cast form? (I’d go for text. It’s the most efficient way data wise, and there are good user interfaces on everything from a basic Android phone on up.) It’s back to basics. College lectures started with a lecturer standing at a lectern reading the textbook aloud and injecting commentary. Textbooks cost several earth’s back then. You would also jack up the odds that they’ll read the stuff most relevant to the syllabus and possibly even understand some of it. I’m not putting down students here. I’m just noting that it’s hard enough to teach live when one can pick up “I’m lost” feedback from the room.

  13. says

    Is there any standard courseware for online live lectures yet? Last time I was involved in any attempts to do online courses, which was around the turn of the century, the software was terrible — one would hope, at least, that the situation would have improved by now, but my Really Fast Trawl Through Relevant Sections of Wikipedia suggests that it has not.