Today, university after university in the US announced moving to online classes. This is perhaps easier in CS than in, say, ceramics or dance, but it still presents unique challenges.

Can anyone recommend tools for hosting online class meetings with active learning?

I know I could use Zoom or google chat to simply lecture to students, but when I teach I like to get students working in groups to solve problems. Is there anything like Zoom that allows for a "talk to your neighbor" moment? Or should I just assign students a buddy and have them facetime each other during the active learning portions of class?

Another question is: what are the other needs we should be thinking about?

For instance, I just saw a new question asking about proctoring exams. I'm also thinking about online discussion forums like Piazza where students can get debugging help from each other (the sorts of easy questions they often ask me during class or office hours). But I'm sure there are many aspects of course management I'm not yet thinking about, and hoping others can chime in and suggest some (plus, ideally, software that can help). Feel free to retag. Thanks!

  • $\begingroup$ Suggest that this question (and maybe the title) be edited to specify that Zoom and Notebowl are the tools in use & supported at your institution. You might get better answers with that focus. $\endgroup$ Commented Mar 14, 2020 at 15:54

2 Answers 2


A good beginning is to see what tooling is already in place at your institution. Rare are the schools which have zero online content. If it's already in use, you have an expert base to draw on.

Not knowing how it's grown over the past decade I can only suggest investigation into Blackboard. As a student I found it easy to use and the non-tech teachers seemed comfortable with it.

Some of the features, student-facing, which I recall being used are:

  • Online testing, multiple choice through essay (grading I have no clue about)
  • Timed dissemination of resources (date-based and progress-based)
  • Seemingly full featured messaging:
    • Non real-time student-instructor message panel
    • real-time one-on-one chat for instructor-student
    • real-time group (class) chat, with instructor piority
    • student-student (controlled by enrolled class) non real-time messaging
    • gradebook with current and progressive totals, with access to the results of each assignment for review
    • instructor to class broadcast messages
  • Personal contact controls seemed to be well made, including using a system supplied email (a couple schools had student email systems) or personal 3rd party email (Gmail, etc.)
  • Ability for student to personalize their interface and link their classes together and merge course calendars into a personal calendar.

My most recent use of Blackboard was in 2011, and goes as far back as at least 2004, perhaps more. (An earlier school had something like it, but I don't recall if it was Blackboard or otherwise.)

Found their website, but haven't done any looking. They are [Blackboard.com][https://www.blackboard.com/].

  • $\begingroup$ We have notebowl and zoom. I need much more than what your answer provides. We meet tomorrow as a department and that might be the only meeting before going remote $\endgroup$ Commented Mar 10, 2020 at 23:25
  • $\begingroup$ IF there is no time, but plenty of willingness, go to the website for Blackboard and see what the prices are. Even if not ideal, it will work for the emergency. Once it's in use, your school can evaluate it's suitability and try for something better next year if needed. While not perfect, necessarily, it does have everything you need. to make 'online' work. $\endgroup$ Commented Mar 11, 2020 at 0:18
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    $\begingroup$ I'm sorry, but it would be a terrible idea to switch from notebowl (which has essentially the same functionality as blackboard and everyone here is now used to it) to blackboard (which we already had years ago and ditched). $\endgroup$ Commented Mar 11, 2020 at 1:42
  • $\begingroup$ Sounds as if you have the answer you need already. Just have to think about how to use the tools to hand and modify your style to work within the new environment. Just make sure the faculty has their own network of contact for ideas and feedback. The students aren't the only ones working within a new paradigm. $\endgroup$ Commented Mar 11, 2020 at 2:54

Here is what I do in my one-to-one sessions. It can be adapted for group sessions.

Both me and the student login (ssh) to a central server (a raspberry pi). From here we can launch Gnu screen to allow us to share a command-line session. We can also launch a VNC server, and both remote connect to it (via ssh).

We also use your mobile phones, so we can talk (for us the price is included in the monthly bill). There is also software that can do this. Keep it independent of the other tools, so that you can keep the voice channel open, while changing other things.

Both Gnu screen and VNC, allow view-only connections. This can be used when you want a not trusted buddy to collaborate, they won't be able to type though.

To allow both parties to interact, a session could be spun up in docker. It will have little overhead, however the docker image will need everything that is needed by the students. You could let them install software, but this will be forgotten, when the container is stopped.

  • 1
    $\begingroup$ Consider using tmux, it has (more or less) the same base idea as screen, but a more modern design. $\endgroup$
    – vonbrand
    Commented Apr 22, 2020 at 12:06

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