faculty features

Jonathan Jedwab: What I'm learning about remote teaching

March 08, 2021
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In this series we share the reflections of faculty members who are discovering new teaching insights from and about remote teaching. Here’s what Jonathan Jedwab, a professor in the Department of Mathematics in the Faculty of Science, had to say.

What he’s learning about remote teaching

It’s far from the disaster I anticipated. In fact, to my great surprise, there are several benefits.

  • For me: No time lost in commuting; I can prepare an entire week’s video lectures at a single sitting.
  • For students: They can pause the video to ponder a point; re-watch as many times as they wish to form a deep understanding; watch a series of lectures according to their own schedule. And also, students often complain about my messy handwriting but on a tablet (iPad) it comes out quite neatly!
  • For all of us: I don’t have to waste a single moment asking the noisy students at the back to stop talking!

On the other hand

At the same time, there are considerable costs incurred by the lack of interaction between the students, and between them and me.

What influenced his remote teaching style

I observed what worked well and what didn’t with online research seminars over the summer, and attempted to conduct research with various people over Zoom. The most effective collaboration was with a former Master’s student now located in Europe, who used a tablet to write out everything we were discussing and shared the screen with me as we were talking. The act of her writing paced the information flow perfectly, and at the end it was a simple matter to tidy up the notes to produce a good written record. That’s exactly the method I adopted for teaching my class. I can’t resist a shameless plug for the GoodNotes software, which I find terrific (and very reasonably priced).

What students taught him about remote learning and its challenges

They highly value the ability to replay the videos—one student called it a “game-changer”. Also, there is a lot of anxiety associated with the loss of the usual social interaction.

What he’ll keep doing after the pandemic is over

I am reassessing my previous policy not to post my notes online. I’ve long believed there is considerable value to students having notes in their own handwriting. Also, I find that if students don’t write much in class then a significant proportion ends up distracting their neighbours by messing around with their phones. But the benefits to the less frivolous students in being able to listen rather than write seems enormous. And I should write on a tablet rather than using a document camera. Erasing, using colours, and moving information around are all simple and effective with suitable software.

What he’s learned from others

I was lucky to have been on sabbatical during the spring and summer (2020) terms, so I was able to benefit from what my colleagues learned. The most important piece of advice I received was not to try to edit a video because it can chew up so much time. I was advised over and over again, “Just don’t do it! You’ve been lecturing with minor hiccups until now, you don’t need to aim for perfection”. I get everything clear in my mind and then just press record. I only stop and re-record if something goes drastically wrong. That avoids what seems to have been the biggest pitfall during the “pivot” to online teaching. Another valuable piece of advice was to record in chunks of around 20-25 minutes each. I get to collect my thoughts after each chunk, and students get a natural break when they are learning.

The lesson that took him the longest to learn

I don’t have to time each class to fit into exactly 50 minutes. It’s OK to be a few minutes over on some classes and a few minutes under on others. In fact I suspect now that most students don’t even keep track of this.

What his students are learning about remote learning

I have realized how critical interpersonal interactions are in my learning process, many of which are taken for granted until they are unavailable. Learning is a far richer process than attending lectures and taking good notes. The casual exchanges that enrich learning, between students or between students and their professor, simply aren’t possible in the same way when learning online. Conversations with professors take place via email or on a discussion board, often spanning hours if not days or weeks. Getting together with classmates requires first building relationships with people one has never met, and then developing online platforms on which to interact, or formally scheduling and arranging video meetings. Overcoming these challenges requires greater commitment and courage than in-person. In order to succeed in an online learning environment, cooperation between students and professors to develop creative ways to connect is critical.

Kailyn Pritchard
Mathematics student