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  • Writer's pictureAndrew Robinson

What I Learned From Online Pandemic Teaching

I wrote a short entry on the Carleton University Reddit page, and also on Twitter. Here's a slightly longer version.

From my experience teaching Physics 1003, Physics 1004 and Physics 1007 (three times). These courses are introductory physics at various levels. They are large classes, often with several hundred students in them. They all have laboratory components, and that had to be converted to online teaching too, using simulations. I did the teaching component, corresponding to twenty-four lectures of seventy-five minutes each.

Asynchronous teaching with short synchronous "office hours" was the only sustainable method for me.

I had a disabled family member to look after, without the usual support from his school, and various therapists. This was not only extremely time consuming and emotionally demanding, but also made scheduling regular teaching very difficult. It was much easier to pre-record lecture material, and then have relatively short video "office hours" to discuss things with students. This had to replace both normal meetings in my office and informal discussions before and after class.

Zoom/Big Blue Button sessions are very tiring.

Holding video discussions was more mentally taxing than any face to face sessions. I found an hour was optimum.

Answering student email quickly was utterly necessary. I tried to have two "sessions" per day.

This was the topic which got the Carleton students most animated. Clearly some instructors did not do this.

Having flexible deadlines was important. No questions asked about the reasons, although students often volunteered the information.

I kept a list of deadlines, because many students like having a structure to their workload. It helps with planning and time management. I was acutely aware that I didn't know what other circumstances the student had, both from other university studies, and outside factors. I had to allow for students to either get sick, or have to care for others. So I was upfront with a standing offer of flexibility. No judgement, just practical steps to help them.

No proctoring software. Ever. Assignments and exam formats were modified instead.

These courses require grades and student assessment (there's a whole other discussion about that). So, some form of testing was required. I was profoundly uncomfortable with the intrusive proctoring methods being suggested and used. It seemed to me to be a wholly unethical invasion of privacy. I settled on using a large test-bank of questions, with random selection for each student. For questions involving calculations, the variables could also be randomized. Each student was then presented with a unique assignment or exam. We were also able to ask students to upload solutions, so that we could assess written work. Assessing written work online is vastly more time-consuming than grading an exam on paper, so this had to be done sparingly.

I've also moved to having exams which can be taken at some time in a twenty-four hour period, because we had so many students in very different time-zones.

I really miss the spontaneity of in person classes, with student questions.

I have a fairly flamboyant and demonstrative lecture style. I like to improvise, I like to move around whilst talking and demonstrating physical principles. I like student participation and questions. I use a classroom response system to gauge student understanding. That's difficult to replicate online.

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