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A young African-American male professor points to a bar graph displayed on a laptop computer while teaching an online class.

Shifting to Virtual Teaching in Higher Ed Mathematics – Part 2

April 1, 2020|By Erica Winterer

This is the second in a three-part series of blog posts discussing faculty and student experiences in making the transition to virtual teaching and learning during the COVID-19 crisis.

Part 1: "Accounting for student needs as we redesign the way we teach"
Part 3: “Recommendations for meeting student needs in virtual classes”

Student voices in the transition to virtual learning

Due to the sweeping impact of COVID-19, higher ed mathematics faculty, staff, and students are all experiencing different levels of crisis as we scramble to quickly adjust the ways that we teach and learn. We are also feeling a sense of separation and disconnect wrought by self-imposed or mandated isolation. But bridging the gaps and minimizing the disconnect that we’re all feeling will help instructors teach our students more effectively.

HAnds are seen using a laptop keyboard. Part 1 of this series explored some considerations as we think about our students’ needs. Now we delve more deeply to understand where our students are in their experience of this online transition before we can meet them there. The ways in which we can support students may be limited, but we should keep them at the front of our minds as we redesign their learning experience.

As I worked to redesign my teaching for online delivery, I reached out directly to a number of former students to find out some of the challenges and fears they face as they shift to virtual learning.

The following were some of the responses. Students described not only a number of concerns, but also a range of emotions as they confront the changes—and challenges— facing them in these uncertain times.

The COVID-19 situation feels as if it’s escalating in waves. Nothing feels certain and everything is changing at a quick pace, so adapting to it proves to be a challenge to many, including me…I feel like [my institution] should be more flexible within its academic policies as our entire academic environment is changing around us.”
I am worried about the inconsistency across my classes with the transition to online learning. Some of my professors have been a lot more proactive and communicative with us students during this process than others. I really appreciate the professors who have been actively communicating with us, relaying any new information they know, and relaying information about their course updates as they figure it out. Getting information slowly but steadily puts me at ease because it assures me that these professors are working toward the online transition and prioritizing their students."
My anxiety has been through the roof. I’ve been worrying about everything from my job to my family and even my own health as I do run a higher risk of contracting the virus since I have asthma. I have put my life on hold as I am too scared to leave my home and I feel as if I’m going to have a panic attack thinking of what would happen if I touched the wrong thing or got too close to the wrong person. I’ve had to double my anxiety medication but I can’t pick up my medicine because I’m too scared to leave my house and I can’t get them delivered because I live in a [lower-income] community and they don’t deliver over here. So soon, classes will be starting back and everything has been moved to online but I don’t know how I’m going to be able to focus on fluid mechanics when I feel as though the world is literally falling apart around me.”
At first, I was excited about having online classes, but now that I’m home and away from all of the resources I used on campus (tutoring, study groups, office hours, etc.), I think that learning is going to be really hard. I’m essentially going to have to teach myself with the help of YouTube and probably some weird office hours through Zoom and Canvas.”
Right now, instructors should be understanding. Not everyone is going home to the best living situations. A lot of the reasons we came to [this institution] was to get away from abusive households and now we are being thrown right back into it in the middle of the semester.”
I am prepared for courses online in terms of technology, but the mindset and environment will be a personal obstacle for me. I have my own room, but my house has thin walls, so it may be hard to concentrate. I also do not enjoy being home too long due to family problems that sometimes arise, and I don’t feel very comfortable in my house because of issues I have with my sibling, so I am constantly in my room. I feel like I could get anxious, depressed, or frustrated from being in my room so long. I am okay in terms of: I’ll have my parents to talk to if I feel sad/overwhelmed, [need a hug] and I thankfully have food, transportation, and internet. I feel that instructors are doing well; I believe the strongest component in this situation is…that my instructors have done a good job of [communication]. For more support, I would say more resources for support in [campus mental health services] for students who are having a hard time adjusting, need to rant, students whose homes are not as stable as they would like, etc. In terms of instructors, I believe as long as they are kind and open to work with us, that is the best that they can do.”

As we can see, students have a wide spectrum of concerns: lack of information, lack of access to campus resources, challenges in their living situations, difficulty in developing the mindsets necessary for successful learning from afar. They also experience anxiety, uncertainty, even fear.

Their insights, however, helped me identify issues that I need to consider and some potential solutions I can try out and modify over the course of the semester. By learning where some students are in their experience, I can better strategize how to support them as they shift to online learning.

Be sure to read Part 3 of this blog series (to be published tomorrow) to learn about my student-centered strategies for transitioning to virtual teaching in these challenging times.

More in the blog series “Shifting to Virtual Teaching in Higher Ed Mathematics”:

Part 1: "Accounting for student needs as we redesign the way we teach"
Part 3: “Recommendations for meeting student needs in virtual classes”

Are you a higher ed mathematics faculty member shifting to online teaching?

Be sure to join us in our free webinar series: "Transitioning Higher Education Mathematics Courses to Virtual Teaching" – weekly on Thursday afternoons April 2-April 16. Discuss your questions and share strategies for success in transitioning your teaching to the virtual environment.


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Categories: Blog, Higher Education

About the Author

Erica Winterer

I taught high school in New Orleans and learned how to survive day to day by working with diverse sets of resilient educators, administrators, and students. I learned that regardless of teaching expertise, we can always make students feel like their learning and future trajectories are a priority. As a doctoral student at The University of Texas at Austin, I’m grateful to have the opportunity to teach freshman calculus students with my advisor, Professor Uri Treisman.