Covid-19 Semester Takeaways
As I gear up towards a new semester, I wanted to take stock of last semester and the host of nonsense it brought, what went okay, and what ought to be better. Overall, I’m kind of impressed with how well everyone involved handled going online and the amount of self awareness the students showed. It certainly went better than I expected (which might say something about my expectations, I don’t know). The student survey came back mostly positive,
"The quality of instruction was good. I learned a great deal about calculus during my time in this course."
In spite of the class being online, I seem to have managed to convince the students that I am not the enemy
"Ahmad did a great job at being available for questions from his students. He really seemed to care that I learned and succeeded in this class."
"Great teacher! Very effective and efficient without making it feel like he wasn't on our team."
But whether or not I like it, not everything was perfect, and I wanted to log what I thought I can improve on this time around.
That must be the toughest bit: speaking to a void filled only with black rectangles and names. No voices, no eye contact, and no feedback about any of it. Some of the students that could did well, but I can totally understand the temptation to attend class in bed as a passive listener (I'm probably guilty of this in a few seminars). I tried to repeatedly encourage students to engage with me and one another, and heavily emphasized having microphones/cameras on when doing group work. One reviewer pointed out that they felt pressured to do so when they could not. In this specific instance, the student claimed not to have an appropriate environment, but not having the correct equipment is a very real concern as well.
What to do: I think some of the issues I can tackle are inform students of the resources available to the. To address the environment issue, I probably need to emphasize the resources students have on-campus (certain spaces allow students to be there if they make an appointment), and explore options if they are off-campus. If the issue is just that their closet is in the background, probably just remind the students that they can usually use virtual backgrounds. On the equipment side, I should remind students that the university can also loan out writing tablets and webcams, and that a smart phone is a fairly good writing apparatus (to use on a Google Jamboard, say) with some practice. Unfortunately, I think I have to accepts that some of the students will have problems I don't have the bandwidth to help much more than that (e.g. environments they cannot control, bad Wi-Fi, etc. ).
Lecturing vs. Team Work
What to do: Increasing the complexity of the proctoring system isn't something I'm considering for next semester (or probably ever). One thing my course coordinator for this semester will be adding in this direction is an interview component. Students will schedule a time to talk with two examiners (instructors teaching different sections) about a problem they had previously solved on an exam/homework/quiz. Not reproduce the solution, but just talk about it (do they know definitions of the objects they manipulate, are the manipulations reasonably motivated, etc.). I like the idea, and think it can be an opportunity for the students to learn something interesting, or at least practice speaking about technical matters (think of a technical job interview). Students can also redo interviews, and will sometimes be asked to if the examiners think it necessary. I have to say, I'm a little excited to see how this will work out.
So yea, ultimately, I don't think the semester was a disaster, but there's quite a bit of fine-tuning to do. I'm foolishly hopeful that this semester will be good.