Making sense of today’s online educational ecosystem.

Instructions for instructors

Take what you like, leave the rest, and remix as you'd like.

This is a semester “warm up” assignment. It is a mystery hunt where students try to track down information to answer questions about the online platform they are working with and their own institution of higher education. The assignment is designed to challenge students to think through complicated issues like digital privacy based on primary and secondary sources.

It also serves as an introduction to research methods, critical thinking, and the mechanics of writing, which are a standard part of higher education. This assignment will make more sense to instructors who privilege teaching the broader transferable skills from higher education (finding, evaluating, and synthesizing information) over imparting content. Every individual pedagogue must decide how much room there is for this in their class based on their own value systems and priorities. Typically, when I have run assignments of this ilk, students take this assignment home, and I bring my synthetic reading of their answer back to the classroom raising central issues, divergences of opinion, and emphasizing how students handled tricky questions. This can take as little as 20 minutes.

Students are to answer these questions to “the best of their ability”. This assignment isn’t built to “evaluate” student knowledge. It is designed to get them to think critically about learning while skill building in key areas of higher education. For first years it will be a crash course in university related expectations. For those further in their studies it can serve as practice.

In some cases, students and instructors may not be able to find the answer to a particular question because that information isn’t available or they have not yet acquired the research skills. In these cases, students should be instructed to take notes on where they looked for the information, which search terms they used, people they contacted, and how long they spent researching the question, etc. This will give the instructor a primer in the semester about the diverse research skills that students are familiar with. Later in the term instructors may hark back to the answers to this assignment when setting up instructions for the next regarding the validity of sources, intended audience, and the importance of clarity in writing.

NB: While this iteration of the assignment is authored around “Zoom”, it is transferable to other teaching platforms including Jitsi, GoogleMeets, MSTeams, and Skype.

Sample prompts

  1. Read the current Zoom ToS and highlight any words or phrases that you don’t understand. Look at least five of these words or phrases up and provide definitions with sources.
  2. Write a TLDR description of the ToS.
  3. True or false: The host of the meeting can tell if you are paying attention in online teaching just as well as if you were in the classroom. How might this impact you as the student?
  4. Find 1 popular article and 1 scholarly article discussing “Zoom and privacy” and compare their perspectives in a short paragraph. Provide references to the works consulted and mark which one you deem “popular” and which you deem “academic”.
  5. Is it more important to be able to access secondary-education or to keep your data private? Why?
  6. True or false: This post-secondary educational institution’s investment portfolio is public. If true, what kind of investments are being made in digital technology? If false, what kind of information about their investments would you want to know about?
  7. True or false: The person/organization hosting the Zoom session can view your private messages.
  8. Find and link your post-secondary institution’s policy on student data privacy. Copy one thing you find interesting inside the policy and make a pithy comment on its implications for your experience of online learning.
  9. If you were asked to choose which online platform we were using as a class what are the kinds of issues that you would consider?
  10. What do any of these issues have to do with the content of the class?
  11. What, if anything, are you concerned about regarding online learning?
  12. If you have experience with online teaching in the past, what has worked for you?
  13. What, if anything, excites you about online learning in this class or more generally?

If students encounter any accessibility issues while trying to answer a question, they are invited to comment on that inaccessibility.