Thursday, May 28, 2020

When the coronavirus pandemic necessitated the closure of university campuses across Canada, the Department of Chemical Engineering quickly transitioned the last few weeks of classes online so students could finish their term from the safety of home. At the same time, our spring term instructors began adapting their lectures, which would begin in just a few short weeks, for online delivery. Now, with these experiences as a foundation, we are building upon our successes and incorporating the best aspects of remote teaching into our plans for future terms. 

The department is committed to providing flexible, high quality virtual learning experiences, which include effective lectures and opportunities for direct interactions among instructors, teaching assistants and students. As the pandemic continues and we prepare to deliver all undergraduate and graduate courses online in the fall 2020 term, let’s revisit how this evolution began.

Survey of students

Our transition to emergency remote teaching was informed by a department-specific survey of all on-campus cohorts of Chemical Engineering and Nanotechnology Engineering students that we had conducted in March, in anticipation of the Waterloo campus being shut down to mitigate the spread of coronavirus.

The survey collected information about students’ access to technology, time zones and work environments once they relocated. It also gave them an opportunity to comment on and express concerns about the potential changes.

Students’ survey responses and support from the University’s Centre for Teaching Excellence guided the methods we used to teach the final weeks of the winter term.

Adaptation

Mid-March 2020 was a time of creativity, adaption and learning. With only one week to prepare class material, faculty members had to move quickly, and many factors required consideration.

Most students had gone home to be with their families – some across town, some across the globe. With classmates spread across time zones, classes could not be taught to everyone at the same time.

Instructors also recognized the many other unique challenges that students now faced. Our survey indicated that connection to the internet was excellent for some, spotty at best for others. Some students faced challenges accessing necessary technology. Others expressed concern that taking on extra responsibilities at home, like shopping for groceries and caring for children and vulnerable family members, may limit the attention they could give to course work.

The potential for problems was significant, and faculty aimed to make the transition as simple, flexible and stress-free as possible for students, while dealing with their own work-from-home challenges.

Remote learning

While instructors needed to find new ways to deliver winter term course material, students faced challenges associated with continuing their studies despite technological challenges, altered schedules and much change.  

Meagan Yerxa, the class representative for the 3B class, had been taking five courses and a lab. “Each of my professors handled the last weeks of the term a little differently,” she explains. For example, some had covered the essential lectures in class before the shutdown and then posted notes and practice problems online to help students prepare for the final exam. Others presented live lectures online and posted recordings for future reference.  

Quick transition, flexible format

Professors Jeff Gostick and Eric Croiset were quick to transition their classroom lectures online, aiming to maintain the weekly class routine as much as possible, albeit in a more flexible format.

Professor Gostick pre-recorded his lectures, which included PowerPoint slides on which he made notes using a tablet and stylus. “The incredible advances in touch-screen technology in past few years have been absolutely essential in this transition,” he notes.

He released his lectures to the class each week via a link from his course’s LEARN account. Students could watch them whenever it suited their schedule and as often as necessary.

Professor Gostick used class times, when everyone had been expected to sit together in a classroom, to host virtual office hours. Using easy-to-use software with audio and video options, he and students could carry on ‘in person’ conversations remotely.

Professor Croiset took a similar approach, recording his lectures over a PowerPoint screen, with the goal of imitating the classroom experience and leaving scheduled class time available for virtual office hours with his students.

“It may not have been the best,” he admits, but with one week to prepare online material for two courses, it was a big task. “Like so many instructors, I learned a lot of things really fast. Now that we are more skilled with the technology, have identified ways to facilitate the online learning process and have more time to prepare our lectures, future online teaching will be much better,” he says.

Silver linings

While Meagan found some emergency remote teaching strategies more effective than others, she notes that all of her instructors made themselves available to work through problems.

“If something they tried didn’t work well, we would say so and explain why: they would try to make it better,” she explains. Through virtual office hours and quick responses to students’ emails, instructors gave prompt feedback, fast answers and extra attention when it was required.

Graduate student Alex Vasile, who was finishing the last course requirement of his master’s degree when the campus was shut down, had a similar experience. “Other than not being in class, the transition was not a big change for me. The online instruction followed closely to the method my instructor used in class. And I really benefitted from having his lectures posted online,” he says.

“The pace of the class was the same as it had been in person, but having the videos made learning a lot more flexible,” says Alex. “If I missed something, I could simply rewind and listen to it again. In the classroom, I would have had to ask him to repeat it and, potentially, slow down the class. Also, if the instructor needed a little extra time to explain a concept, he took it, whereas in class he might need to rush a bit to finish before the next class began.”

Meagan is on a co-op term this spring, working in Ottawa, but she is optimistic for those who will be attending classes in the spring and fall terms: “Based on my experience, students will have good experiences with online teaching. The keys are staying in touch with your classmates and instructor and working together. Even from a distance, you can still stay in contact and help each other learn. Don’t be afraid to ask questions. Everyone will benefit.”

Building upon experience

While the pandemic and the many changes it has forced upon us have brought some challenges, the department is facing them proactively, with optimism, dedication to our students and the collective desire to enhance the overall quality of our instruction methods. We anticipate many more positive learning opportunities ahead, and we look forward to integrating the best parts of remote teaching into our traditional teaching approach once we can reassemble on campus.

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