The year 2020 has been rather interesting in the grand scheme of education. With a global pandemic on the rise, instructors all around the world are still adapting new ways to keep the education cycle running. In such a situation, I found myself getting the opportunity of being a graduate instructor for the summer semester. This was my first time teaching this course – Advanced Data Structures and Algorithms. This is considered to be a very important course in the Computer Science department. On top of it, I was teaching a combined version of the course – where CS majors and minors from both the undergraduate level and graduate level were enrolled. Maybe for the first time in the history of my university. Yeah, speaking of taking the challenge, am I right? However, this was not the most challenging part of the course. The most challenging part of the course was that it was offered fully online via Zoom. Now that means significant changes were required to make the course online-friendly. Today I reflect on several things that I learned while taking the challenge of offering this course.
Teaching over Zoom: Personally, I love teaching. As the late great theoretical physicist and a fascinating teacher of his generation, Richard Feynman once said:
If you want to master something, teach it. A great way to learn is to teach.
The more I teach the more I find this to be true. While preparing for my course I had to spend so much time studying, understanding, coming up with use cases, and making lectures. All of this keeping in mind that I will be teaching virtually over Zoom. I found that virtual teaching had lots of perks to offer. Such as I could give the lectures in the comfort of my own bedroom. I did not have to worry about how I appeared in front of the students because I could always catch a glance of myself through my webcam. I could use all tools directly without worrying that will work on the device in the classroom. Also, I could record my lectures and provide them to the students for later viewing. I would often view my own lectures afterward just to see how it appeared to the students. I could find myself adapting the things that worked well and trying to improve on other things. In a nutshell, I was getting constant feedback on how to improve my “teaching”. I was “learning to teach” and it was so enjoyable. This was probably the most I enjoyed teaching so far. Something that started as a challenge ended up being one of my best memories. 😁
Interacting with students online: One of the most important parts of teaching is to connect to the audience.
Online teaching creates another layer of the challenge since the instructor is literally in a different place than his/her students.
That’s why I spent a good amount of my time trying to connect to my students. I offered office hours where students virtually meet me.
I used online platforms, such as Piazza, where students could interact with me and their fellow peers by asking and answering questions. But what about the students who too felt shy to reach out? I noticed that a good amount of shy students
will participate if there is privacy. Voila! I started using polls in my lectures. A lot of students will participate in the polls who would otherwise not voice their opinion. This also allowed me to consistently notice where my students stood in terms of understanding the topic. It reformed the way I was teaching my class to my students. It also allowed me to virtually meet students who were going through some tough times during the pandemic. I reached out to students who had some misfortunes. Similarly, I found several students reaching out to me to support during my tough time. At the end of the day, I found myself part of a loving and caring community. 😇
Learning from the students: Looking back I find myself fascinated by how much I learned from my students. I allowed my students to explore different approaches to solving a problem. Some of the solutions were so amazing that I ended up sharing them with the whole class. This again shows how there is no one way of doing things. On a different note, I assigned my students to write weekly reflection journals. This was my way of peeking into their fascinating minds. I would always encourage my students to share their ideas with me and the class. One of my students would finish the programming projects early-on and share several tips and hints which I would share with the whole class. I encouraged the students to face the project together, discuss different approaches, and then implement the solution on their own. As I would often say in my class “We are in this together”. This helped my students stay connected in a time of social distancing. I would also encourage my students to share interesting resources with the class. I found so many of these resources to be super helpful and added them to my lecture. Because learning is a two-way activity. I started my course with the goal of improving our collective knowledge and I am proud to say that by the end of the course we all – my students and I both – have grown significantly. 😃
Gratification and takeaways: The gratification of teaching itself is a great reward to me. I was so proud when 68% of my students achieved grade A. This is rather unusual giving the difficulty of the subject matter. As one of the students wrote to me:
I just wanted to send an email with a thank you for your effort and great teaching style in the CS 3114 class. As a student who is doing a CS minor, my previous computer science classes were a little outside my comfort zone. However, with your positive attitude during the daily discussions and quick responses on piazza, I thoroughly enjoyed this class. The virtual environment was initially hard to adapt to but the way you organized discussion and links to helpful material made it a lot simpler and less difficult. I genuinely feel that I have learned a lot from this course, so thank you!
I received several emails thanking me. I was not prepared for this. I cannot express how much I enjoyed our journey of completing a CS course which is otherwise known for its difficulty. Students’ love and respect were like the cherry on top. By the end of the course, I wish I had done somethings differently. But it is okay. Because teaching is a lifelong learning experience. And I am only getting started! 🙂
Thank you and have a wonderful day!