Biology Professor Josh Neufeld goes above and beyond for his students. His use of clickers, twitter, and art are pioneering. His Halloween costumes are legendary. It was no surprise, when the Centre for Extended Learning announced Josh Neufeld won the 2021 Award for Excellence in Online Teaching.
The Award for Excellence in Online Teaching recognizes course instructors who exemplify a high standard of teaching in one or more of Waterloo's fully-online undergraduate- or graduate-level course(s).
When teaching online, Neufeld believes an alternative mechanisms for student engagement is necessary for establishing trust and fostering interactions. As a result, he makes every effort to share his passion for microbiology and demonstrate that he cares about individual students and their success.
Neufeld regularly teaches to 800 and 900 students in the in-person version of Biology 240 (Fundamentals of Microbiology). When he updated the online version of BIOL 240 a few years ago, he realised the classic approach of turning in a bunch of lectures wouldn’t be enough.
Much like a DJ manipulating a dance floor, professors work very hard to read a room in every lecture to gauge student comprehension, mindset and engagement. A traditional classroom experience is reactive and dynamic. This is hard to replicate in an online setting.
To address this challenge, he abandoned video lecture recordings and worked with CEL staff members Micheline Lang, Nicholas Szyngiel, and Stephanie Boragina to reimagine the design of the BIOL 240 course to look and feel like a "Harry Potter newspaper", with a complimentary blend of text, videos and quiz questions.
He quickly realized that some elements that worked better in an online classroom, like short videos, and also found new ways to connect with students and infuse his passion for microbiology.
“I can bring online students into the field or the lab anytime," says Neufeld. "They’re always right with me."
He filmed the videos in his office, lab, backyard or forest, offering students an up-close interpretation and demonstration of course material ("bringing microbiology to life"), and generating a virtual in-class experience that in some ways exceeded what was even possible in a traditional classroom.
"Professor Neufeld truly deserves this award for his excellent formatting of the online course and his outstanding enthusiasm and passion for microbiology that makes his course greatly enjoyed,” says a BIOL 240 student. "He truly cares and has compassion for his students."
Neufeld regularly responds to emails and discussion forum posts within the hour, even in a course with more than 800 students, reinforcing that students are his top priority during the term. In addition, many of his responses are audio recordings, which is an unexpected yet welcome way to personalize student-prof interactions in an online course.
"He also has a Twitter account specific to the course for student interactions, including direct messaging to communicate with individual students," said a student. "It allows students to remain engaged with him and course material long after the course has ended; he still occasionally shares content for courses he taught as far back as 2012."
As a dedicated teacher and an active researcher, Neufeld believes in the power of demonstrations, examples in the news, and discussions to illustrate his point. And he’s also not afraid to introduce undergraduates to the latest research discoveries.
"Josh continues to invest impressive time and energy into every course that he teaches," says Kirsten Müller, Biology Chair. "He is consistently among the top when evaluated by undergraduate students that he teaches and is known to be an engaging and thoughtful instructor."
Neufeld has won numerous teaching awards including the: Excellence in Science Teaching Award (ESTA), Waterloo Undergraduate Student Association (WUSA) Excellence in Undergraduate Teaching Award, Ontario Undergraduate Student Alliance Teaching Award, and the Jack Carlson Teaching Excellence Award.
He is the first Faculty of Science recipient to win an Online Teaching Award.
Neufeld is also an active researcher and holds a University Research Chair.
The University of Waterloo’s Online Teaching Awards recognize teaching and course design excellence in fully online undergraduate- or graduate-level courses and programs. Each recipient will receive a Certificate of Recognition and a prize of $1,000, which is sponsored by the Office of the Associate Vice-President, Academic.