A Reflection on COVID19 Adjustments to Calculus Teaching

I am a faculty at Drake University and I am passionate about teaching mathematics at the college level. During March 2020, I had to switch my calculus courses to teach remotely due to the global pandemic as many of my colleagues also did. We are all aware that COVID19 has brought lots of anxiety and uncertainty to students as well as to faculty all around the world. This situation aroused long before my institution made the decision to go fully remote instruction. At first it was announced that we would teach remotely for only two weeks but I knew this virus would not just go away. I remember during my last face-to-face class, one of my students saying “I cannot even learn calculus here [in class], how am I supposed to do it by myself at home?” This comment struck me and made me think: how am I going to continue to provide the same active learning environment? How am I going to make this experience not isolating for my students especially since calculus is a challenging subject for many? 

I took this picture at the beginning of Spring 2020 semester when I got assigned to teach at this awesome classroom at Drake’s campus

I hope to reflect on my personal experiences during the era of the coronavirus and share some of my adjustments with those who are interested in teaching and learning. For me as a mathematics faculty, the main challenge was to be able to flip my courses to adjust to teaching remotely fast and effectively and finding the best pedagogies/practices and available/accessible technology to continue to support my students’ mathematical learning. The first thing I needed to figure out was determining the instruction style to adjust this change. After doing brief research and having discussions with some colleagues at my institution, I realized that the following were the main ideas for designing online (or remote) instruction – full synchronous, asynchronous, and somewhat hybrid (or some call blended in some situations). In that design process (before the spring break started), what I did was that I prepared an online survey (on Google Forms) and sent it to my students to ask their opinion on these different types of instruction as well as their preferences on class activity types, communication means, etc. I also asked them about their access and availability to the internet, tech devices, printers, nearby libraries, to have insights into what resources were available for them.

This survey served me well on two things: 1) getting critical and timely input from the students during the instructional design process, and 2) knowing what is available/accessible at home for my students. I believe that learning should take place in an environment where there is a mutual agreement on how this environment should look like and learners should have power in some ways during decision making (from both students and professors perspectives). For instance, I was quick enough to realize that some of my students didn’t have the access to personal laptops or printers at home so I had to consider that. After this process, using the survey data, then, I ended up flipping my calculus section into a more like a hybrid class where students would have the opportunity to learn during their desired times, at their pace, as well as to be able to attend live class sessions during the regular class times that we had before the school closure.

The next challenge was determining what video-conferring tool to use. Most of my students indicated that they were not familiar with popular video-conferencing tools (other than Skype) so that brought another complication. I decided to go with BlackBoards’s Collaborate tool to facilitate live sessions as all students have access to BlackBoard through my institution and so they didn’t need to create accounts or anything. I also asked students to tell me how they would want to interact with another. They mostly wanted to have online forum discussions on BB rather than emails, instant messaging, etc.

After making sure of the mode of the instruction, communication means, and technological tools, I needed to figure out a way to imagine how the learning would take place. I, then, decided to record lecture videos, and prepare online class handouts before each live session. My daily live classes looked like the following and I would post this agenda every day on white board before live sessions start.

  • Check-in (5-10 mins)
    • I would ask my students about their lives, feelings, anything they wanted to share.
  • Students watch the lecture videos individually (20-30 mins)
    • Students ask questions or concerns during this time as I’m online and present in the session. They would either speak up or just message on BB Collaborate instantly.
  • Class reconvenes to ask questions about that day’s video for clarification (5 mins)
  • Breakout session (20-30 mins)
    • Using BB Collaborate’s breakout session tool, I would break the session into groups of 3-4 students so that they would work on a handout that I provide them. I would generally put students in groups such that they feel comfortable to talk with one another and collaborate on daily tasks. As a facilitator of this session, the Breakout Session tool also allowed me to jump in between groups to keep track of what students were working on and provide more customized support.

I was a bit nervous about this plan at first but my students reacted and adapted to the plan very well. I have received lots of positive and constructive feedback during and after teaching this way and most students appreciated my hybrid design. Some students indicated that their only live class was this calculus course and that it was almost their only human interaction during that time. I even had students who would join these live sessions while they are at work. One particular student, who is a healthcare worker, made me happy one day where she was on her lunch break during her work and she got connected to the breakout session while she was getting her lunch at a drive-thru. I obviously knew she wasn’t working on the handout at that moment but I just thought it was amazing that she still wanted to be part of the group and probably listened to the mathematical (or not) conversations! As a teacher, I really appreciated that.

One other thing I started doing is that I sometimes asked students to show the class their pets or share funny internet memes about calculus. I just thought this was a good catch and ice breaker at the beginning of my live class sessions. Someone asked me to do a virtual tour of my apartment and of course I was expecting to get that question so I was brave enough to do it during one of the first sessions! I was also curious about their preconceptions of the living environment of a math professor and it turns out I’m not different from other people!

However, during this process, what was disappointing to me is that students didn’t end up communicating with each other much outside the live classes. They never posted anything on forum discussion pages I created on BlackBoard! I was hoping that they would exchange ideas and support each other through that, but that never really happened. I’m attributing that to having a good class environment or maybe them having more personal connections with each other (maybe texting, snap chatting, etc.)

Generally speaking, during the age of the coronavirus, I started appreciating a lot of things in life. I now appreciate other people and being in the same space with them – for instance, I appreciate being able to be with my students in the same classroom. I started appreciating going out and realized how much of a big role social life plays in our lives.

I think that this experience has been very interesting and unusual. I’m pretty sure most of my colleagues in academia and in other fields are feeling the same. One the one hand, I’m very excited that I’m learning so much about online teaching and available tech tools for teaching purposes. On the other hand, there are still lots of questions about student learning and the effectiveness of remote content delivery. There are so many things we don’t know how students could learn mathematics at home!

It is uncertain what the future brings to higher education but one thing that is certain – we can adapt to change.

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