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.

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?

Inclusive Teaching: Supporting All Students in the College Classroom

I’m taking Inclusive Teaching: Supporting All Students in the College Classroom offered by Columbia University on edX. I would like to record my learning journey here to share with the community. This course discusses the following five principles of inclusive teaching:

  1. Establishing and supporting an inclusive course climate
  2. Setting explicit expectations
  3. Promoting diversity and inclusion through course content
  4. Designing all course elements for accessibility
  5. Cultivating critical self-reflection

I’m using this opportunity to reflect my own teaching practices and learn about techniques and skills of conducting inclusive teaching for my future courses.

You can view my learning journey here; here’s the google doc link you can click: https://docs.google.com/document/d/1N9d8lCSVd4dx_gLu2xxV-Ntl99XAHFg-456-9vITJvk/edit?usp=sharing

Edit: After almost a month, I finally completed this course. You can see my certificate here:

https://courses.edx.org/certificates/6e696d9cacfc4fd6877f4ad17a552ee2

I really enjoyed taking this course: it not only taught me basic knowledge and best practices about inclusive teaching, it also allows us to hear from different people who are experts in this area and learn about their personal stories of how to promote inclusive teaching. I’ve never been doing so much self-reflection till this course. It’s something I should do more regularly.