Caltech: Adam Blank Meets Students Where They Are To Connect Across the Digital Divide

Long before the COVID-19 pandemic forced Caltech to shift to a model of remote learning, Adam Blank, teaching assistant professor of computing and mathematical sciences, focused their research on new technologies and techniques with the potential to improve student comprehension and the quality of education. Nevertheless, even Blank was not fully prepared for the whirlwind experience of moving their courses entirely online last March.

“In the spring, I was just trying to survive,” they said. “I didn’t put much thought into how to do a great job. It was more like ‘I need to get through this,’ because at that time, of course, we didn’t realize it was going to be this long.”

When fall term arrived, Blank concentrated on making classes work remotely and helping students overcome the issues inherent in being away from campus. “They are doing a fantastic job connecting and supporting students through their online courses,” says Cassandra Horii, director of the Caltech Center for Teaching, Learning & Outreach (CTLO). The secret of Blank’s success, Horii says, starts with meeting students where they are and not being afraid to fail. Said one of Blank’s students last fall: “This class lives up to its reputation in terms of difficulty, but Adam is hands down the best instructor I’ve had at Caltech. They put in a monstrous amount of time to make sure students in this course were well supported (not the least of which was offering a ton of personal meeting times throughout the week), and their concern about students’ success was clearly demonstrated in the way they ran this course.”

For winter term 2021, Blank is teaching CS 2, Introduction to Programming Methods, a popular course for majors and non-majors. “It’s less about learning to program in a particular language and more about learning how to think as a computer scientist might think,” they said. Blank gives each CS 2 lecture over Zoom twice, once in the morning and once in the afternoon (Pacific time), to accommodate students who are dispersed across time zones. Blank records only one of the two, having found that not recording a session makes it feel more informal and encourages more students to speak up and interact.

Blank’s next challenge was to find ways to recreate the informal parts of teaching, such as small-group conversations and office-hours consultations. Blank tried to use the work collaboration platform Slack in the fall but found much greater success when they incorporated Discord, the communication platform the students already used and loved.

Screenshot of the Discord welcome page for CS 2
The Discord welcome page for CS 2
Credit: Adam Blank
In true computer scientist fashion, they realized they could quickly code a software bot to take advantage of Discord’s features, such as the ability to create rooms with many different levels of access privileges. For example, the bot automatically creates rooms only TAs can see and some that only students can see. At the start of the term, students break themselves into small working groups and Blank’s bot creates Discord breakout rooms for those groups. “Students can screen-share, they can voice chat, and they also have a text channel,” Blank said. “And then they can tell the TAs and me if they have a question by typing a particular command into Discord.”

Blank used the same approach to solve the problem of workable online office hours. The bot creates a queue of the students or groups of students with a question and automatically creates a Discord channel just for that group of people. The queue also asks students whether they prefer to interact via text or video chat, which not only eases the awkwardness of remote interactions but also saves everyone’s time, allowing Blank or the TAs to talk with all the text-based students at once.

“On a whim, I tried it, and I realized this could be something really big,” they said. “And then we kept on developing the system through CS 24 in the fall term and CS 2. Now it’s at a point where CS 1 used it last term and two other CS courses are also using it this term in addition to mine, and it’s working.”

Despite these successes, Blank says remote instruction can’t replicate every part of the campus experience. That is why they set up a virtual ask-me-anything session for students to get to know them personally, hoping to create something that could take the place of students randomly stopping by their office. Nonetheless, Blank says it was only “mildly successful.” Still, they relish the challenge of solving these remote teaching problems and plan to eventually incorporate these newfound digital techniques into their in-person instruction.

“The biggest thing is that I am unafraid to use a new tool, see it fail, and switch to another new tool,” Blank says. “I adapted quickly—I think it’s the way that I would put it—because I am used to trying new technologies all over the place and seeing what works and what doesn’t.”

This is part of a continuing series about innovative ways the Caltech community has approached remote teaching and learning during the COVID-19 pandemic, aided by the Center for Teaching, Learning, and Outreach (CTLO) and Academic Media Technologies.

“Caltech faculty, instructors, TAs, and students have shown tremendous flexibility as they adapted our unique educational experiences to online formats,” says CTLO director Cassandra Horii. “The transition to remote teaching and learning has taught us a lot about overcoming the challenges involved, from using the technology, to creating meaningful interaction and collaboration, to aligning schedules across time zones. Caltech is building a repertoire of effective approaches, which can only enhance our flexibility.” Caltech offered nearly 400 courses online during the spring 2020 term, bringing together approximately 250 instructors, 340 TAs, and more than 1,400 students online, with similar numbers during the fall 2020 term.

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