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.

Rethink of assessment in a pandemic

The whole teaching and learning community has been talking about assessments among other things: should quizzes/tests/final exams still exist? What about third-party proctoring services? Personally I do not think using proctoring service and watching students via a camera is the solution. It comes with very high cost, and there are serious ethical issues that come with this practice. Can we redesign course assessments so that we can give the trust back to students?

I believe the answer is yes, and a few simple things instructors can do is to first take a close look at your syllabus and ask yourself why the assessments are there at the first place. Most of the time the goal is to actually help students consolidate what they have learned, and a by-product is a number, i.e. grade. If that’s the case, shifting to summative assessments is one way to help with the current situation. We can also provide assessments more frequently so students can receive more timely feedback.

I’ve been experimenting with H5P since last year when I started working on the open textbook. These are excellent tools that instructors can leverage on to engage students and monitor their progress in a nonstressful manner.

You can find many well-designed examples on H5P.org https://h5p.org/ and eCampusOntario H5P studio: https://h5pstudio.ecampusontario.ca/.

Below is a recent example I made using course presentation format. These interactive presentation slides allow instructors to incorporate course content, assessment, and students reflection all at one place.

A summer that will never be forgotten

As we are three months into self-isolation and social distancing, I feel it’s time for me to write something to remind the future me what this time period is like, and for anyone who’s in the similar situation with me, this is for you as well.

First of all, it is not easy. I’m having a difficult time due to many reasons: I lost a close family member in May, and we are still mourning. The grief will never truly go away. It’s more like tidal waves and I’m learning to live with it after losing my mum last year. It dawns on me that adult life is not getting easier, quite the opposite to what I believed growing up. Then it’s my job situation: it’s uncertain to me whether I will have my current teaching job when September starts so I have been applying for teaching jobs, as well as education developing jobs, and some other seemingly interesting admin jobs. As anyone who’s experienced job hunting, it can be soul-crushing: I usually spend hours on one job application, and sometimes I don’t even get a rejection email. I learned recently that 75% of resumes never landed in a real person’s hands thanks to AI so I’m learning how to beat the machine and trying to match the key words in job descriptions. But I more or less accept that the whole job hunting is more about luck: knowing the right person, applying for a job at the right timing is more important than what I’m actually capable of doing. That somehow helps me cope with the frustration and move forward. Then it’s home-schooling my little one. She just turned six a few days ago and it’s getting almost impossible to get my work done and keep her entertained/cared for on a daily basis. We have agreed on a daily routine which helps to certain extent: every morning she reads 3 books on Tumblebooks: https://www.tumblebooklibrary.com/TumbleSearch.aspx followed by piano practice. Then she listens to audio books on Audible stories: https://stories.audible.com/discovery?ref=adbl_ent_anon_ds_ds_vn We usually go for walks in the afternoon, either in the neighborhood or drive to Oakville/Halton conservation parks. Then more stories for her before bed time. I also need to cook, clean, do laundry in the middle of all these. The arrangement is not the best if I want to get more work/reading/meetings done. She pops up more often in my Zoom meetings and please do not be surprised if she becomes a regular soon.

So any good news? What am I doing these days? Well I still manage to get a few things done. We(Ann, TJ and I) are writing a paper for OTESSA 2020 conference now that our presentation won’t happen due to COVID-19 and it feels good to put our ideas down in written form. I’m taking an online course now: Inclusive Teaching: Supporting All Students in the College Classroom on edX from Columbia Univerity and thoroughly enjoy the course. I’m at the last module and you can see my notes and reflections on this google doc: https://docs.google.com/document/d/1N9d8lCSVd4dx_gLu2xxV-Ntl99XAHFg-456-9vITJvk/edit?usp=sharing I appreciate the opportunity to reflect on my own teaching practices and plan for future. If you teach in higher education and are new to the idea of UDL, inclusive teaching, equity and accessibility, this course is for you. You won’t regret the time spent. I’m also organizing a reading club MEdJoC with Sarah Mayes Tang from UofT: we want to read education research papers and learn how to do proper ER in mathematics. So far we’ve met twice and had great discussions. If you are interested, you can find more information in this google doc: https://docs.google.com/document/d/1wd3p_YLECruhAd3WRTNpsytdL2CjPw_qOYlSwRyMmRk/edit?usp=sharing I’m constantly attending Zoom webinars to learn about teaching online, how to engage students, how to design assessments, and best practices shared by colleagues from other institutions. Learning new things is always exciting to me, and this is one of the best part of my job besides having wonderful students to teach. I’ve been brushing up on my H5P skills. You can find a lot of wonderful examples at eCampusOntario’s own H5P studio: https://h5pstudio.ecampusontario.ca/ I also put together a list of OER for online teaching purpose: https://docs.google.com/document/d/1JEzG-iQo0M6rda1uirTXGAlY-3DWCZtgEzk-Fz051sU/copy I’m about to start another reading group with colleagues from UTM and we will be talking about Small Teaching Online. I’ve always enjoyed these reading clubs and I’m sure this one will be just as good.

Do you see a silver lining in your life during this challenging time?

my OER journey

Hello everyone! This is Xinli saying hi to you by Lake Ontario, one of my favorite spots since we moved to Canada three years ago. Thanks for giving me the opportunity to share a small part of my life and my journey with open education resources with you all. I look forward to connecting with many of you and continuing my OER journey along with all the wonderful people in this lovely community.

I was born in a small village in the northern part of China; I’m a proud first-generation university graduate and ph.d. I’m very fortunate that I graduated debt-free thanks to the low cost of public universities in China and generous scholarship in Singapore. My first encounter with OER happened in 2009 when I was preparing to become a doctoral candidate in mathematics. We were asked to pass an oral exam consisting of three courses in mathematics. One of the courses I chose was Fourier Transform because it’s closely related to my Ph.D research topic but the course was not offered by the university so I had to study on my own. I found Stanford University Professor Brad Osgood’s course on YouTube: The Fourier Transform and its applications and got myself ready for the exam, and subsequently for my future research thanks to his generosity in sharing his lecture notes, teaching and wisdom. It’s only years later that I realized I benefited from open education resources. I took Jenni Heyman’s Making Sense of Open Education in 2018 which is the starting point for me to become a member of the family of OER advocates. Our students today face many challenges while completing their post-secondary education: the financial burden is a reality for many of them. Can we do something to help them? Open Education Textbooks and Resources might be the answer many people are looking for.

I became an OE Fellow with eCampusOntario in 2019 and have been working on adopting OERs in my daily teaching practice: I introduced GeoGebra, an open math visualization tool to my linear algebra class in order to help students understand math concepts better, and adapted an open linear algebra textbook with built-in H5P elements. These interactive problems can help anyone who’s reading the book self-assess whether they have understood the topics in the book.

You can find it here: https://ecampusontario.pressbooks.pub/linearalgebrautm/

I’m grateful that I had the opportunity of working on this project, with the wonderful team from Pressbooks and look forward to more collaborations in the future.