It’s hard to believe we are in the 5th semester since the pandemic started in 2020 March. I’m still teaching online for this fall semester, and I’d like to take a few minutes to reflect on my course design choices this fall, and share with you what worked, and what didn’t so far.
My focus is still building a learning community that connects students with each other and with me. In the summer I experimented with Microsoft Teams platform and found it worked well so I decided to continue using it as the main channel for communication. This fall I’m more intentional when using Teams and am able to explore more functions that Teams offer. Class Notebook was made available a week before the semester started, together with the course syllabus. Students received the link to join Teams and once they are in, they will see 10 Channels listed in the course: General, Culture Box, Introduce Yourself, Math-Memes, Pre-lecture video Related Qs, PrepGuide Related Qs, StudyTips, and Test Related Qs, Textbook Related Qs and Tutorial Related Qs. I posted the first message in the channel “Introduce Yourself” and ended my self-introduction with a question. Whoever posted after me will answer my question first before introducing themselves, and they will end their post with another question. This channel became the first contact point where students get to know each other. If you want to do something similar, bear in mind that not all students are comfortable sharing information about themselves in a public space so make sure you give your students the choice of participating or not. Since we have regular weekly discussion activity planned, after the first week, 16 private channels were set to accommodate the discussion groups. When students were first sent to Zoom break-out rooms, they did an ice-breaker activity with their TA. We borrowed a lot of ideas from Equity Unbound: https://onehe.org/equity-unbound/ and there is deliberate effort for ongoing engagement on a weekly basis whenever students work in their group. Groups were finalized by week 3 and once the bound between group members has formed, they tend to work together not only during scheduled activity, but also after class. I changed the tutorial structure of this course accordingly. Every Friday there is one 50-minute lab session and one TA who facilitates it. Instead of asking the TA to run a synchronous session with all students, I asked each group to set up their own Zoom meeting and posted the links in a shared Excel file hosted on Teams. Then whenever a group needs help, they can message the TA and the TA will join them. This has been working well: students still have the sense of working in a small group setting and the TA gets to work closely with them. We are able to address common misunderstandings by posting a message to the whole class, and the TA is open to making short video clips to clarify common mistake he saw.
Even though we are only less than a month into the semester, I can tell the class has bounded well and the attendance has been very high. I usually have 90+ students attending synchronous sessions with me on Wed and Friday on Zoom, which has never happened in the past few semesters. Usually if I get half of the class, that’s considered well-attended. I hope we can continue this trend.
The only concern I have is I don’t know what exactly happens when students work in their groups. I won’t be able to monitor all 16 groups at the same time, though they do submit individual work after each group discussion and I can at least see whether authentic learning happened by looking at the work, and reading through their self-reflections. I made sure each submission has a self-reflection question at the end, and I have received a few messages from students about how much they appreciate it. It’s important to give students the space to pause and think about how they are learning and doing math, and I plan to keep the practice going forward.
We are finally leaving 2020 behind and moving forward to a brand new year. I took a much needed walk this morning, admiring the winter land, listening to Teaching in Higher Ed podcast and making plans for the spring semester. What do I want to focus on?
First of all, community building: I believe building a learning community in and outside classrooms is crucial for students to enjoy their learning experience, and it’s up to us to design a learning environment that supports community building. In 2019 Fall semester we had a very successful experience in my MATH2720 course: we relied on a discussion forum for students to connect with and support each other and here’s some data that comes from it:
132 enrolled out of 120 students;
827 total posts
3482 total contributions
229 instructor’s responses
724 students’ responses
11 min average response time
Students expressed how much they appreciate of having this platform to quickly receive feedback from their peers and me, and meanwhile the number of emails I received from this course is so much lower in general because almost every question they have is being answered or addressed in the forum already. I will definitely continue using a discussion forum in my future teaching.
Secondly, accepting and owning my mistakes: it’s usually hard for us to accept that we make mistakes, let alone owning them. I’m going to work on this aspect in the new year. I often tell my students that it’s only through mistakes that we will learn new things and master new skills and it’s time for me to practice what I preach. I do not wish to not make mistakes in the future, but will try my best to discover them as early as possible, and rectify them as soon as possible. If you are part of my PLN, working with me as a colleague or a student, I welcome you to point out my mistakes when you spot any. I’d be eternally grateful.
Lastly, being kind to myself and others: we are our worst enemies at times and I’ll learn how to support myself better while supporting others. A few of my favorite activities are: eating healthy food, walking my favorite trails, painting, listening to podcasts, connecting with people that I admire, taking naps and sometimes doing nothing. If I feel exhausted, I will allow myself to pause and recharge.
What will you focus on?
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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
We are in the second day of IBL virtual workshop with The Academy of Inquiry Based Learning, and we started off building a list of community norm elements. This is a great idea that I will definitely borrow for my future classes. As workshop participant, I feel my opinions are valued and am more willing to conform to the final rulebook. There was some discussions about whether people should keep their video on during the talks; even though majority believe the answer is yes, we settled on “having video on if possible; turn it off when needed” because people may need to have privacy due to various reasons or maybe someone has bad internet connection (talking about myself here).
During the small group meeting, Kyle shared with us his experience with IBL when he started. We don’t have to revamp the whole course at one go. We can start with a few short activities every week, and continue lecturing the rest of the lecture time. Just like any new teaching skills/techniques we want to include in our practice, incremental change is usually how we approach them. Try a bit, see how it goes, reflect, revise then start another round.
What should we instructors do when students make mistakes while presenting? In general we have three choices:
- in the moment: take immediate action at that moment when it happens
- forward thinking: take actions in the future lesson to remediate
- preventative: how the mistake could have been avoided
There isn’t a rule book we can refer to; we can’t really categorize these mistakes either. There might be multiple ways to address one mistake; there usually isn’t one best way to address it either. It comes down to our student body, to the community we built together with all of them, and our own teaching styles.
Plus we had Happy Hour via Spatial.chat and I have to admit it’s quite fun. Never though online happy hours could work.