Pat is a Math instructor at Camosun, teaching courses in the Technology and Engineering Bridge programs at Interurban. She said that teaching online was both familiar and new and unexpected at the same time. “I have been teaching with a tablet for maybe 10 years now, so that was not new. And while I thought that using Collaborate would be difficult, it actually went really well. Oddly, I think helped me the most was attending the e-learning workshops on D2L. I didn’t end up using much D2L, but watching people use Collaborate was really helpful – I was learning about the tools that were being used to talk about D2L instead of about D2L! In the end, Pat used a combination of Collaborate, some D2L, and also her own website which contains archival material from all the courses she’s ever taught. “Moving online pushed me into finally doing that massive amount of work getting weekly homework up online for my students.” But she also ran into those insidious online tools students can access that provide solutions to math problems, which she admits is not only a challenge for us here at Camosun, but for math departments across Canada.
One thing that surprised Pat was how much students wanted synchronous sessions. “They really wanted a feeling of interaction with me and the other students, although they didn’t typically turn on their cameras on (and I don’t require them to).” Very different from her normal face to face classes. “I usually have a pretty rowdy classroom, but here I was mostly talking to my screen with the occasional reminder that there were people listening to me, which was really isolating and kind of lonely to be honest.”
Pat says she learned a lot about her teaching over the past year. “Because I was doing a few synchronous sessions, they became the highlights reel, and I ended up tossing out a lot of material that I don’t actually really miss, which is going to change what I do when we go back in person. That laser focus of where I can put my effort has been really interesting and kind of transformative. Will my in-person lectures in the fall be the same as they were a year ago? No, they won’t. What will they look like? I don’t know yet, but I’m pretty sure they will be different.”
One challenge Pat mentioned to me was a term I hadn’t heard before, but made perfect sense to me (and I am sure to all faculty over the last year). “What was most challenging about the fall semester, at least the first month, was decision fatigue.” Decisions about online testing, like “what online tools do you allow and don’t allow? What instructions do you give students? How do you prepare them for it? How do you make sure that they understand the differences between an open book and a closed book exam? Do I just tell the students the instructions, or do I email them as well? And then beyond the testing piece: “How am I going to run my courses? Am I going to have a final exam? What do I do in my Collaborate sessions? How am I going communicate with students? What are my office hours going to look like? How do I get the wording (for everything!) just right?” And related to the decision fatigue Pat faced, fighting exhaustion so she could work with what she called vigilance tasks, those tasks where you have to be at the top of your game, where you can’t be distracted, was also a challenge. For example, “marking tests is a vigilance task. If I want to do my best job marking and be fair to students, I can’t do it when I’m distracted or overly tired because I will make mistakes and not be consistent across the entire class.”
Moving forward, Pat is considering what she will keep from everything she learned last year. Aside from continuing to work on changing the focus of her lectures, “I am considering having some Collaborate office hours at the end of the day. Email is okay if they send me a picture their work, but sometimes the math notation is so elaborate that being able to do handwritten work with them would be really helpful. “And for students who can’t make it to class, particularly in this time of COVID, having the ability to watch something later is really important. And that is why in my ideal universe, my classes would have videos of examples so that students could go and absorb some of the content in different ways. Having those multiple modes to support student learning is so important.”