Reflection on my 2020 fall course design

Reading Week is finally here. I can take a deep breath and slow down a bit.

I’d like to take this opportunity to reflect on and share what works from my 2020 fall semester teaching, and what improvements are needed. My focus has shifted to building a learning community since the pandemic started in 2020 March. I believe being able to connect with students and offering them the space and opportunity to work with each other is more important than content covered for a course. At this point I think almost all of us have realized it’s not realistic to cover as much as what we used to do. The challenges that come with online teaching are not trivial to overcome, and I’d like to invite everyone to ponder on the question of what matters the most to you when it comes to student’s learning experience. For me it’s community: an inclusive community where I can reach everyone and offer multiple ways for students to engage with each other and with the course content.

About a week before 2020 fall semester started, I posted a welcome message to my class and shared the course syllabus, textbook information and how to join the online discussion forum and the social annotation tool hypothes.is. The message included a short survey form which helps me understand my students’ learning needs. Granted it’s a lot of information for students to take on. To make it more inclusive, I also made an interactive H5P presentation.

This presentation covers all the information in the course syllabus, with a few short built-in videos: my self-introduction, video of how to annotate on the open textbook we use, and an overview of Piazza, the discussion forum that we will be using. Hyperlinks in this presentation will lead them to the sign-up pages so once they go over all the slides, they are ready to start the semester. I also posted a thread of “introducing yourself” on Piazza. I started the thread by introducing myself, and ended my post by asking a question so the next person who responds will start by answering that question. Everyone follows this format and within a few days, a majority of the class have introduced themselves. It is the very first post students post which gives them the opportunity to get used to posting, and to get to know each other.

Once semester started, students slowly took control of the discussion forum and hypothes.is: they are answering each other’s questions in a timely manner so all I need to do is to clarify some common misunderstandings. Part of my course assessment structure is called “community building action (CBA)”: whenever students contribute to the community’s learning, they earn a CBA point. The contribution mostly comes in the form of posts, questions and answers on the discussion forum and Hypothes.is. They earn CBA points while helping each other learn. By the end of the semester, all 120 students enrolled in Piazza and there are 827 total posts, 3482 total contributions, 229 instructor’s responses, 724 students’ responses and response time is 11 min in average. There are also many fantastic discussions happening on Hypothes.is. Making these platforms available for students not only help them learn, it also helps them gain a sense of belonging. Students can post anonymously so they don’ t need to feel embarrassed if they are asking a trivial question. The number of emails I received from this course is minimal thanks to the discussion forum which is a happy side-effect that I’m keen to keep.

Another element I introduced to my course is oral exam. We have 3 scheduled term tests, and if a student is not feeling well on the test day, or missed a test due to any personal reasons which they do not need to disclose to me, they can opt for an oral test instead. This option is also offered to those who took the test but felt they did not do as well as they expected. In total I ran 35 oral tests, for a class of 120 students. Having this option in place reduced students’ anxiety of test taking and makes the course more inclusive.

The last piece I want to mention is offering a variety of assessments in the course. For multivariable calculus, we have CBA, weekly check point (a set of MCQ/TF questions that students complete before each week’s synchronous lessons), assignments and tests. In the end-of-semester survey I conducted, students expressed the gratitude of having a variety of assessments in this course. In my other course, MATH 2030 Combinatorics, we have weekly quizzes and presentation. A student could make a short video of any topic that was covered in our course and post it on the discussion forum to earn some bonus points. 20 out of 46 students submitted videos and the whole class benefited from watching and learning from them.  

 To summarize, in order to build an inclusive learning community, start early to reach out to students, and be present, both during and after synchronous sessions, listen to students and offer multiple ways for them to demonstrate their learning.

OERs and the Vision of Mathematics Education in the Open, presentation at OCMA Virtual Symposium 2020

I recently gave a talk at OCMA Virtual Symposium 2020 titled “OERs and the Vision of Mathematics Education in the Open“, during which I shared my experience with open education resources and open textbooks in my teaching. Since we shifted to emergency online teaching this March, it has been challenging for everyone: students, faculty and staff. We are living in a time during which we experience the loss of family and friends without much emotional support, overworking is the new norm and the future is uncertain.

How are our students doing? Many of them are not sure whether they can continue their education now that they lost their part-time job without enough income to cover school and textbooks; they are not sure whether they can keep their scholarship because they may not be able to keep their perfect GPAs; they are not sure what is the best way to study now that courses are all online with minimal or even no connections with their peers and instructors; their course load is getting too much: all of a sudden every course they take has weekly check-ins and quizzes; they may not even have stable wi-fi because they are financially disadvantaged and/or live in a war zone; they fell terrified when they are watched by proctoring softwares because even the blink of an eye could signal they’re cheating. This list could go on, and this is the situation our students are in.

Is there anything we could do as instructors to help our students on their learning journey? I believe OERs are part of the solution. As Sean Fitzpatrick pointed out on Twitter, we should use OER because they are just as good, sometimes better than commercial textbooks, and our students can use them any time, any where; we instructors can connect with a passionate community of educators which is exactly what I experienced this semester. We are using Active Calculus for MATH2720 Multivariable Calculus at University of Manitoba in fall semester, and I got to connect with the author of the book: Steve Schlicker who are so supportive and shared a ton of resources with me when he learned that I’m teaching using this book. I also connected with Feryal Alayont from the Department of Mathematics at Grand Valley State University because we both teaching the same course using this book. It’s wonderful to connect with and learn from them. And none of this would be possible without this wonderfully written open textbook. My class and I also use Hypothes.is for social annotation and the discussions students have are another proof that using an open textbook is the right choice.

As I said during my presentation, when teachers work together, students win! Let’s try to build a supportive community for each other so everyone’s life is a bit better, easier and brighter. If you are interested in learning about my experience with OERs, feel free to reach out to me via email xinli.wang@umanitoba.ca and on Twitter: xinli_w. I always love a good chat. Take care for now.

How’s 2020Fall semester going?

It’s been a hectic start to 2020 Fall. We moved to Winnipeg MB from Mississauga ON in Aug and did self-isolation for two weeks due to COVID-19. Shortly after that I got my teaching assignments for Fall semester: MATH1510 Calculus I, MATH2720 Multivariable Calculus, and MATH2030 Combinatorics. I will coteach MATH1510 with another experienced instructor who has been teaching this course for many years and he took on the coordinator role. I’m on my own for the other two courses, which also means I have more liberty as to how to run the courses. For MATH2720, I decide we are going to make the best use of existing OERs for this course, and the textbook I chose is Active Calculus written by Steven Schlicker. This turns out to be a great choice as students love the interactive visualizations and practice exercises in the end of each section. We also use Hypothes.is for social annotation and Piazza for discussions. To see the details of how this course is structured, you can find my course syllabus here. For the weekly videos, I used Zoom’s recording function, and recorded myself working through examples on OneNote, then added interactive questions in all of them using H5P. A complete list of these interactive videos are available: you’re welcome to reuse them as they are all under CC license. For the other course, the instructor who taught it last semester was very kind and shared all his materials with me so I kept the course structure more or less the same except the assessments. A copy of the syllabus can be found here.

This is our 4th week into the semester, and I did a short survey during the synchronous sessions for all the classes to see whether students are happy with their online experience so far. You can see the responses in the pictures below.

MATH1510 class response to the question: How do you find the weekly video lectures for this course so far?
MATH2720 class response to the question: How do you find the live sessions so far?

Here are a few things that work well so far:

  1. Using Excel to track student’s questions: for every class that I teach, I created an Excel document from day 1. Each worksheet corresponds to one lecture, and there are two columns: Questions, and Comments. Students are encouraged to put their questions in the document, and I will address them during live sessions. This turns out to be working really well. I know it’s hard to track what they asked in Zoom chat window because a) I can’t monitor chats all the time while I’m teaching; b) when there are too many questions, older ones get buried pretty fast. Using Excel would solve both issues; and since it’s a collaborative document, it’s nice to see them typing in real time, which tells me they are present. At the end of each worksheet, the link to the recorded Zoom sessions and my lecture notes are posted so they can always go back to a certain lecture and quickly find what they are looking for.
  2. Using Piazza discussion forum: this is a game changer in terms of me communicating with students. I no longer need to reply to the same question multiple times. In the first two week, I had to “force” students asking questions there even if they first sent me emails; I would say “can you please post this question on Piazza and I will respond there”. They get used to posting on Piazza pretty fast. For my courses that adopted Piazza, I almost never get emails: I visit the discussion forum regularly and if students haven’t already answered each other’s questions, I would chime in and clarify doubts. It’s also very easy to create quick polling questions. My first two weeks’ Student Hour has been really quiet so I created a poll on Piazza and pushed it to students’ reading list to determine an alternative timing that works for them. They responded pretty fast.
  3. Using Zoom sessions as Q&A: whenever we meet online synchronously, I use the time to answer students’ questions. I don’t do formal lecturing at all. This has been working well based on their feedback.
  4. Using Hypothes.is for social annotation: since we are using an open textbook that’s online, it makes sense to offer students the opportunity to annotate online. I can take a glance at their annotations and have a pretty good idea of how much they understand the materials and what I should talk about when we are all online.

One thing that didn’t work well and I’d like to know how to fix it is using Break-out Rooms: I tried to send students to break-out rooms for discussions, but it didn’t work. Some didn’t join, some didn’t participate even when they are in a break-out room. My guess is more structures are needed, and some form of collaborative space should be open to them so they can record their progress (google doc? google slides?). If you have good ideas about how to use Break-out rooms, please do share.

Today is mid-autumn day for Chinese in China and overseas. It’s a time of family reunion. I wish my mum is still around. Even though I don’t usually get to spend holidays with them back in China, it still feels like home when she’s around.

Getting ready for Fall

We recently relocated to Winnipeg so I can start my new teaching job at University of Manitoba. In the past few months I have attended numerous webinars about the best practices to teach online, design assessments, engage students, and build communities. While waiting for my teaching assignments, I’ve thought a lot about how to design fall courses and I’m using this space to record my thoughts and put down some ideas for future reference.

  1. LMS: I’m not sure what LMS system is being used for UofM, but do realize the choice of LMS affects course design to certain extent. I plan to continue using the ideas of having a clean layout on the homepage, with icons and texts to guide students where they should go base on what information they are looking for, and on top of the homepage the two most recent announcements populate automatically. I’m debating whether I should include a calendar at the bottom of the page as well.
  2. Weekly structure: I plan to run my courses mostly asynchronously. Every week students will access reading materials and pre-recorded videos, followed by an online quiz before they join me for a synchronous session which serves as Q&A. Discussion forums will be available for them from the start of the course and they will learn how to build a community via posting on discussion forums, and annotating the lecture notes online. I plan to give certain weightage for their community building effort with the following question “Does what I do benefit the community knowledge building?” If the answer is Yes, then students will receive a point. These points can be accumulated and will translate to final grade. As to how they can earn these points, the choices are plenty: they can answer their peers’ questions on discussion forum, share resources that help with understanding a certain topic, share learning strategies, develop review questions and solutions for the cohort, answer questions that are posted on Hypothes.is which is the social annotation tool I plan to use, organize synchronous review sessions etc. Hopefully community building will become a part of the course by the end of the semester. By the end of each week, there will be a set of quiz questions so students know whether they get the main ideas or not. There will be regular written homework assignments which require students to think deeper and write down their ideas in a clear manner.
  3. For student engagement piece, it should be a continuous effort: I will start the semester with a letter to all students to introduce myself and my teaching philosophy, and a general survey about what situation people are in and whether they have what’s necessary to complete an online course. Then they will practice using Hypothis.is by annotating on the course syllabus. They will work together to build a community conduct codes and share their thoughts with me about the syllabus. If most people have strong opinions about certain things there, I’m open to suggestions and happy to make changes.
  4. There will be interactive questions embedded in the pre-recorded videos using H5P to engage students and these questions will help them perform better when they work on pre-lecture quizzes.
  5. As to formative assessments, I’m not sure what’s the common practice in the department. If timed tests/exams are the norm, then we can certainly do that. I won’t rule out oral exams, especially if someone missed a scheduled test due to personal reasons, the make-up test will most likely be an oral exam.