Virtual Classroom Toolbox

This is written in the mid-march of 2020 when the Novel coronavirus (COVID19) started to spread across the United States. Many universities decided to move their in-person classes to online fashion in very short notice. This is written as a tip for the instructors who need the right solutions for their online classes.

I introduce 8 useful tools that can make your virtual presence much more powerful!

Zoom (Online Conferencing)

Zoom is a very powerful online conferencing solution. To many friends of mine, Zoom is their first choice for the online conferencing tool, not Skype.

Some of the very useful options including (even with the free tier):

  • The participants can join via a link or meeting ID,
  • The host can mute/unmute the participants,
  • Multi-directional screen sharing (both the host and the participants can share their screen),
  • Participants can raise their virtual “hands” in order to start a discussion.

While there is no time restriction for one to one meetings, there are 45 minutes restriction for group conferences. For the tiers and the pricings, please see the chart below.

It is more seamless than Skype. Skype consumes incredibly large amount of system resources to run, and the interface is very confusing.

Notion.so (Online Database and More)

It is hard to describe what notion.so is in one sentence because it is very powerful and versatile. So, it could be considered as an online content creation/sharing tool. I have never seen something of this sort.

When used properly, it is quite indispensable. Currently, it is my

  • Web clip archive,
  • To-do list,
  • Markdown (and Latex Code) supported writer,
  • Kanban for collaborative projects,
  • Online database

It is free up to 1000 blocks but charges $5 for personal users. It offers a free upgrade to the Personal tier for students and educators. Here is their statement:

Do you offer student discounts? Notion Personal plans are free for students and educators! Simply sign up with your school email address and you’ll immediately gain access to those features.If you’re already on a personal plan, change the email associated with your account to your school email address to get it for free.

Slack

Slack is a widely used online collaborative workspace. You can open up public/private communication channels for your work team. It also supports free Slack video conferencing for a 1-to-1 meeting.

Think of this as Facebook for your work project. People share/interact within the Slack environment, therefore, it helps people sending less email. It highlights and “pins” key contents/documents to the chatting windows so team members won’t get lost.

I set up my entire class as a team and invite students to join the Slack. Then, I establish separate communication channels for upcoming major assignments so students can discuss/comment to exchange their opinions.

One downside of the Slack is that the users need to overcome a little bit of the learning curve. It assumes that you have enough patience to go through all the progress update/messages being exchanged within the environment.

It is free to a certain extent. You can use the majority of what it offers for free. It does not inject/embed/promote advertisements. So that is very good.

Microsoft Teams is a competing product. However, our university restricts usage so that not all people can create their own team. So to me, it is useless. If your work organization does not have the restriction, you can try that first. At least, the learning curve will be less steep for Microsoft Teams.

(Update: I was informed that now we are allowed to use the Teams, the condition is that the central IT needs to create a team for you. If your university allows the Teams, considering the learning curves students have to overcome, you should go with the Teams, not Slack.)

Calendly (Booking Your Virtual Office Hour)

Students often need to make an appointment with an instructor. It could be a matter of two or three sentences in face-to-face communication. It is easiest when two parties (students and instructors) lay down their schedule and find a common working time. Imagine if you have to do this over emails. It could be ended up as a dead loop that frustrates both parties.

Calendly can solve the problem by synchronizing your calendar schedule to the Calendly, then letting students choose a time from your free time (or designated time). When you add a schedule to your calendar, it automatically updates the Calendly side so students know the time is not available for them to book.

For example, students can try to book one (or multiple) 30 minutes session with me. (You can have more event types in paid plans).

Calendly shows all my available time (excluding those occupied time on my calendar). Students can book based on those times. When confirmed, I receive an email from Calendly regarding the upcoming appointment.

Again, here is the pricing information.

Screencast-o-Matic (Screen Recording)

There are numerous options in the market for screen recording. The most powerful one I have used is Camtasia Studio. However, its three digits price tag scares me.

Screencast-o-Matic allows up to 15 minutes of free recording. It’s paid plan is also very reasonable at $1.65 per month. (But it is billed annually.) The free version leaves a not-so-ugly watermark on the recordings.

The tool basically captures everything happens on your desktop screen. My school provides echo360. But is not very convenient and the recording is also low in the resolution. I prefer to record a better quality video using my own tools such as this one.

Microsoft Whiteboard (Online Collaborative Whiteboard)

This is a cross-platform collaborative whiteboard. Yes, you heard me, a whiteboard. This can be downloaded free from Windows 10 AppStore and other places where you get apps for your (iOS, Android) device.

The idea of the Whiteboard is that, as you draft something in your own Whiteboard app, other people, whom you gave permission to, can see the draft in their respective devices simultaneously.

Microsoft has been diligently updating/upgrading the app over the years. I first discovered the app perhaps a couple of years ago, but back then, there was a huge time lag between drawing from my end to updating to students’ end, which made it almost impossible to use.

Because the time lag is so small, I found another way to take advantage of the Microsoft Whiteboard.

  • I open up a Microsoft Whiteboard app on my computer screen for demonstration purpose,
  • Instead of drawing on my computer screen to mess up with all other applications, I use my iPad and Apple Pencil as the actual drawing tools.

Although I like my Surface Pro laptop a lot, letting it handle all the tasks (drawing, video playing, Excel, PowerPoint, screen recording, etc.) can be computationally challenging. You will also have to manage the cognitive complexity of switching between apps. Separating the memory-intensive tasks such as on-screen drawing can reduce both computational challenges on the computer and the cognitive challenge on you, at the same time.

Blackboard Collaborate Ultra (Online Conferencing)

If your school is using Blackboard as the Learning Management System, there is a good chance that they have this under subscription. It is a comprehensive online classroom environment.

It offers

  • Video conferencing
  • Screen sharing (entire screen or specific application screen)
  • Whiteboard
  • Session recording
  • Participants hands-up to ask question
  • In-class quiz

This is the only product I have not been used for my class. But given the Blackboard style (boring and sophisticated, but stable and useful), this should serve as a pretty stable solution for most people for the virtual classrooms.

Since I plan to use both pre-recorded lectures and online conferencing, I still need other tools/solutions.

Carnac (Displaying Keystrokes on Screen)

One question I often receive while demonstrating the Excel work in class is “What did you type?”

In an online teaching environment, students will have the same question. But they cannot ask you immediately. Would it not be nice if the screen constant displays all your keystrokes? Carnac does that.

It is a free tool. Can be downloaded from http://code52.org/carnac/

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