September 16, 2020

Sarah Johnson: “The biggest change I made was to switch to asynchronous delivery”

Sarah Johnson found that staying engaged is more difficult in a remote setting.

On March 16, 2020, less than four weeks before the end of the Spring semester, SFU made the decision to suspend face-to-face instruction in response to the spread of COVID-19. Overnight, instructors were required to move their courses and final exams online. Their efforts to maintain effective learning experiences for their students were, and continue to be, heroic. During the summer, we asked six of them how they were doing. Here is what they told us.

University lecturer Sarah Johnson (Physics) taught two first-year physics courses in Spring 2020: PHYS 102, a lecture course with 187 students, and PHYS 132, a lab course in which students worked on experiments in groups of three. When the university moved to remote instruction, she had to make substantial changes to both.

Asynchronous delivery

“The biggest change I made was to switch to asynchronous delivery of the course lectures in PHYS 102. I knew that some of my students had to relocate to different time zones and some of them were suddenly required to work full-time in an essential service, so I wanted to make my lectures as accessible as possible. This also involved breaking my lectures up into 10-to-15-minute chunks and posting them on YouTube, which provides closed captioning.

“I created Canvas pages for all of the remaining course topics. Each page included short video lectures, images, computer simulations, short Canvas quizzes and links to online resources.

“PHYS 132 also transitioned to asynchronous delivery where, instead of two four-hour lab sessions, students were given experimental data to analyze, rather than collecting the data themselves.”

Community support

In making the transition, Johnson drew on the support of her teaching colleagues and the wider teaching community.

“The most helpful resource overall was the many discussions I had with fellow faculty who were in the same boat of having to suddenly transition to remote teaching. This included interactions on Twitter, within the Physics department, and at Teaching Matters seminars. The American Association of Physics Teachers (AAPT) sent out many useful physics-specific resources, and I also found the training session on using Blackboard Collaborate that instructional support technician Christina Drabik [from the Centre for Educational Excellence] presented to the Physics department to be very valuable.”

What students liked

When the Spring semester ended, Johnson asked her PHYS 102 students to fill out a short survey to help her understand how they had experienced the transition to remote instruction.

“In a question about synchronous versus asynchronous course delivery, approximately one-third said that they preferred synchronous, whereas two-thirds indicated a preference for asynchronous. My students especially liked that they could watch the short lecture videos at any time and that they could stop and rewind them if they did not understand something.

“They also liked that the course maintained roughly the same schedule as before with lectures being posted on Monday-Wednesday-Friday and homework and tutorial exercises due weekly. I continued my regular office-hour schedule of four hours per week in Blackboard Collaborate, though the attendance was lower than my in-person office hours.

“The students who preferred synchronous said that they had trouble staying motivated and missed not being able to ask questions during lecture. They also missed the lecture demonstrations. I also asked my PHYS 102 students whether they had been able to work together with their classmates after the transition to online learning. Unfortunately, almost half of them said they had not been able to.”

Managing, but missing the chance to connect

Overall, Johnson was satisfied with the way her students coped.

“The vast majority of my PHYS 102 students were able to keep up with the weekly assignments, and some students who had never before attended office hours asked questions during the weekly Blackboard Collaborate sessions.”

Still, there are elements of in-person instruction that she and her students both missed.

“The biggest lesson I have learned is that it is a lot more difficult for both the instructor and the students to stay engaged in a remote learning setting. I greatly missed the feedback I normally get when I lecture in person in front of a class. The students didn't like not being able to ask questions while the lecture is going on, and they missed working with their classmates on the weekly tutorial exercises.”


Teaching Practice, Course and Curriculum Planning, Technology and Media, Remote Instruction