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!
Thank you for sharing your experience. This is very insightful, and very timely! I completely agree with you on that learning is essential for good teaching. I also liked the quote “… A great way to learn is to teach”. Because of the extraordinary circumstances we have been facing for 6.5 months, I believe that “we are in this together” feeling is of the utmost importance in teaching. In the spring semester, I witnessed a very well managed transition of a class from in-person to online, and I saw that the students exceeded the average performance of this class. I think it happened because the professor did a lot to make sure that the students feel that togetherness. This made teachers more approachable (which is particularly important in online teaching context, as you said) and students more motivated to learn and perform well in the class. Congratulations with your great teaching experience!
Thank you so much for the kind words, Derya!
I was TAing for a large class (300+ students) last Spring. The instructorial staff did a lot of work to ensure that the course transitioned from in-person to online platform smoothly and effectively. These are hard times but they also creates opportunities for us to learn new things about teaching. We can learn so much about teaching from our students and the new situations.
Thank you again for all the encouragement.
~ Ri. 🙂
I really enjoyed reading your post! As a fellow graduate student that has to teach a course fully online, many of your concerns are challenges resonated with me. It is also encouraging to see how young instructors such as you and me take this challenge by the horns and develop courses that students enjoy and actually learn. It is refreshing to hear about teachers that actually care about students that lean to a more introvert personality. In my experience, online course modalities have actually been a perfect learning environment for those of us that are shy and less extroverted. Thanks for sharing your thoughts!
Thank you so much for kind words, @didiermenaaguilar.
I am so glad to hear that my experiences resonated with your. I believe recent situations have accelerated the development of online teaching. I whole-heartedly believe young instructors can make great differences in innovating new teaching ways. Although the online courses appear to be distant, it actually allows more interactions with students who prefer more privacy. It can certainly create a comfortable learning environment for them.
From a fellow graduate tutor, I wish you all the best in your teaching. Thank you once again.
~ Ri 🙂
I really enjoyed reading your post too and thanks for sharing your experience. Of course, universities have responded differently to this crisis situation. COVID-19 pandemic has led to closure of many universities across countries and face difficult decisions about how to continue teaching and learning while keeping faculty, staff, and students safe. So, it was be expected that instructor teach their students virtually and remotely. There are many examples of other countries responding to universities closures by implementing models such as mobile learning, radio, DVDs, blended learning, or other solutions that are contextually more feasible. Since, I’m an instructional designer I know how is difficult to design online learning and keep in mind students learn differently, some students maybe thrive with their online learning environment while others maybe struggle. I just want to mention that some researches discussed around the terminology and a specific term for the type of instruction being delivered in this pressing circumstance. It was not an online learning it should be called an emergency remote teaching, because the online learning should be resulted from careful instructional design and planning which take several months to develop. Since there are many research studies, theories, models, standards, and evaluation criteria focus on quality online learning and teaching. So, you already did a Good Job on your class even though it needs more time to design.
Thank you so much for all the good words, Rania.
I really appreciated your input on the subject matter. I was not aware of the term “emergency remote teaching”. This term certainly fits more to my experience. I also agree with the notion that different students learn differently. I noticed this during my course too. I offered both asynchronous and synchronous resources in my course. I provided resources beforehand for asynchronous learning. Then for synchronous learning, I would go through some of the important resources in the virtual class. I would also use Zoom polls to see how well the students perceived the subject matter. Finally, I would provide the recording of the class for later viewing. I found that a lot of the students preferred synchronous learning. It helped them with time-management and feeling more involved with the class. There are certainly much more to researched and studied here. Hopefully, the necessary research will be done in the future.
Thank you again for your kind words.
~ Ri. 🙂
Your journey this summer was incredible to read about, thank you for sharing. The theme of learning and reflection you have throughout, for both you and your students, seems like a great way to think about teaching, especially when faced with a new class to teach in unprecedented times. Keeping your students involved and engaged through Zoom tools and other tech not only showed students you cared and wanted to hear their thoughts, but also gave you the opportunity to change and improve constantly.
I hope that your experiences in teaching continue to be fruitful and insightful,
Thank you so much for the kind words, Jazmin!
I indeed had a great time teaching the course and learning so much from my students. I believe it is best of acknowledge the challenges we are facing recently and work with the best of all the available resources. I found it to be very fruitful to be upfront with my students about these challenges. It helped them to understand the reasons behind the changes I made to the course. I also received several fruitful suggestions from the students which I later adapted to the course. We are all learning from our experiences – both as teachers and as students. And constant improvement can only be achieved through constant learning.
Again, thank you so much for all the kind words!
~ Ri. 🙂
What a great way to teach an online course, Ri. I enjoyed learning about your perpsective on teaching and all the techniques and approaches you used to keep students enagaged in an online class. Passion for teaching and enjoying what you do take you a long way. I think this is the case with you trying to reinvent the class and finding different ways to make sure every student is learnign something no matter what thier learning style is.
Thank you so much for the kind words, Jonilda!
I whole-heartedly agree that different students have different approaches when it comes to learning. It is important to provide them with sufficient resources. On the same time, it is important to not overwhelm them with too many options. In my course, I tried to keep a balance of synchronous learning and asynchronous learning. I also made sure that they had the option to choose any one of these two approaches without any penalty. This can certainly be improved upon. For example: steps can be taken to introduce offline polls. I am hoping to see more researches conducted in the online teaching format.
Again, thank you for your comment.
~ Ri. 🙂