Tips for online learning from a South African mathematics-for-engineering lecturer

Very relevant and practical hands-on article!

Wiida Fourie-Basson

Illustration by Nino Mekanarishvili

In this article Anita Campbell, Academic Development Lecturer of Mathematics at UCT, gives helpful tips to help lecturers having to venture into the world of online teaching. She addresses personal and academic needs that might arise from these new platforms that are being used.

When South Africa’s lockdown was announced on 23 March 2020, I confess I was quite excited. I was halfway through an eight-week Online Facilitation course (https://emergeafrica.net/facilitating-online-2020/) which helped me experience online learning as a student – what good timing! Furthermore, most of the first- and second-year engineering students I teach do not function optimally at our early (08:00) daily mathematics lectures. While I’d prefer some face-to-face contact with my students, the flexibility of an online learning space did appeal to me.    

Here are ideas from my rapid move to online teaching:

Starting

  • Invest in extra hours online in the first week doing no-new-content activities to help students feel connected to each other and to you. My university had an excellent centralized orientation to online learning. Sorting out connectivity issues is essential. Communicate on platforms other than email, preferably data-free options like your course Learning Management System (LMS e.g. Blackboard, Moodle).
  • First week ice-breaker discussion ideas:
    • Suggestions for guest speakers and questions to ask them – these could include past students, celebrities, maybe even fictitious or historic characters.
    • Debate why we should or should not study topic x.
    • Describe your ideal day on campus.
    • Encourage daily/weekly posts to a gratitude space.
  • Be human. Share your vulnerability, say this is a new experience and flexibility and kind feedback would be welcome and appreciated. Create a mood of “We’re learning together.”
  • Make a code of conduct for all communications. In an anonymous survey, students can suggest:
    • Language that would offend them;
    • House rules, for example, if there should be space on the course site for posting or chatting about non-course content.
  • Be very clear on the minimum requirements to earn a pass.
  • If you are flexible, jointly decide the best hours for consultations with you or tutors.

Engaging with content

  • If watching videos will be a problem for any of your students due to data or device restrictions:
    • Provide equivalent transcripts and notes;
    • If access to your LMS is free, make and upload short (2-5 minute) videos. I use PowerPoint (Insert / Media / Screen recording), then right click the video and Save media as …
    • If you have permission or own the copyright, YouTube videos can be downloaded at https://www.savethevideo.com/;
    • Consider sending a flash drive with videos for all student courses.
  • Online homework platforms, such as WebAssign and WileyPLUS are data intense and probably not free to access, even if linked to the online learning system that is free to access. If you have homework on such a platform:
    • Print to PDF copies of questions;
    • If you have randomized numbers, before closing the assignment, print to PDF the answers matching the questions;
    • If you want the assignments to be graded, set up a ‘test’ on your LMS with the PDF of questions as the test information, and just space for answers in the test questions.
Illustration by Liani Malherbe

Assessment

  • Give a practice test before the first official test to reduce anxiety and sort out unforeseen issues. (Some of my students could not view a diagram.)
  • Allow students to start an assessment at a time of their choice within a long window (e.g. 10 hours). Some will be sharing devices with others in their home and may not be able to take a test in work hours. Others, such as those in Zimbabwe, may have limited hours with power supply.
  • If giving a time limit for an assessment, add extra time (50% or more) for potential connectivity issues, such as slow network speeds.
  • At the start of an assessment, require students to agree to uphold the code of ethics they agreed to when joining the university and remind that there are consequences for cheating.
  • Help to reduce the panic that can lead to cheating by:
    • Giving clear, advanced notice on what the assessment will require of them;
    • If possible, building in a make-up opportunity, such as a resubmission, or makeup assignment in the final week.
  • Consider if collaboration should be taboo or if it will result in more of the intended learning.
  • Ask more questions that test understanding (e.g. “When trying to determine whether a triangle with points A (a1, a2, a3), B (b1, b2, b3) and C (c1, c2, c3) has a right angle, why is it wrong to calculate the cross product A x C? How can you use vectors to determine if triangle ABC is a right-angled triangle?”) instead of calculation questions that can be done by an online calculator (e.g. “Find the cross product of (2,3,1) and (5,4,-1).”)
  • If your course is a pre-requisite for another course, repeatedly refer to that course to motivate students to honestly develop themselves. You could also help to set a pre-test for the next course and warn students that a low pre-test score will lead to additional assignments in the next course.
  • If your course is an exit-level course, ask students to submit short voice or video recordings in which they explain selected questions. If your LMS is a free-data site, students can upload without incurring costs. An alternative may be for students to send Voicenotes to you on WhatsApp. Use WhatsApp Web on a computer to manage the files if, like me, your phone has limited space.
  • Use Test Wrappers – reflection quizzes – as course requirements and as an opportunity to improve test marks. Questions could include
    • “Attached is an example of an incorrect answer to this question. In which line is the first mistake? Submit a correction.”
    • “Why do you think you didn’t get this question correct?” (Choose from, “I didn’t complete all tutorial questions for this section; I didn’t spend enough time studying; I couldn’t access additional resources such as videos, textbooks, tutors when studying; I misunderstood the question; I ran out of time.”)
    • “How do you plan to support your wellbeing in the next week?” (Choose from “Daily exercise; regular sleep of 7+ hours; spend time positively communicate with friends/family; daily think of what I am grateful for; be mindful for a few minutes a day; make my bed each day; plan goals; use my character strengths in new ways”)
  • Have frequent assessment, preferably weekly, to help students keep working consistently.
  • Expect that not all students will be able to stick with the original schedule and plan to use the last week or two as catch-up or reassessment time.

Enduring

You and your students may face personal challenges during your online course. Share a list of support services with students. Create a list of professionals, colleagues, friends and family members you can use to help you should you need different kinds of help. Planning how you might deal with worrying circumstances can be calming. Most of all, recognise that it’s okay not to be okay all the time. Aspire to treat yourself and others with kindness.

Anita Campbell

Academic Development Lecturer,
Academic Support Programme for Engineering in Cape Town (ASPECT),
UNIVERSITY CAPE TOWN

by Laylaa Motola
Meme by Laylaa Motola

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