2020 proved to be a challenging year for educators, to say the least. Many instructors, however, rose to the challenge by bringing creative and collaborative teaching ideas into their online classrooms.
To celebrate all the good things that happened in a tough year, we asked instructors to share their successes from the fall 2020 semester.
Here are 4 trends describing what worked well for instructors:
1. Keeping it short
For a generation of students growing up on social media, instructors found that bite-sized activities kept them most engaged and attentive.
New year, new beginnings. Learning to be an online student was a challenge for many of you last semester. Mistakes were made and lessons were learned. With the winter semester just over the horizon, this is your chance for a fresh start by learning from the past.
Alexandra Clare, CEO & Co-Founder, Re:Coded | December 1, 2020 in Professional
Unreasonable FUTURE is a unique multi-year initiative bringing together disruptive entrepreneurs to create a more sustainable and equitable future for all. Its founding sponsors are Pearson, Fossil Foundation and Accenture. This Q&A series spotlights a few of the ventures in the program to provide a glimpse into the innovative work that is being nurtured.
Training youth in conflicted affected areas to join the digital economy
How would you describe your business to your grandmother?
Our goal at Re:Coded Labs is to democratize access to quality learning and ensure that youth from underserved communities are prepared for the rapidly changing workforce of today and tomorrow. We do this by offering transformative learning experiences to talented youth and educators, in a range of technical and non-technical skills, with the goal of facilitating high value employment in the digital economy.
We offer three core products / services under one umbrella:
Immersive Career Driven Learning Programs
Each of our immersive programs has one goal: to help launch a new tech career for talented youth being left at the margins of the global digital economy. Throughout the programs, students apply theory to real-world problems, learn software development or design skills, and receive instruction and support from industry leaders while maximizing their personal growth. Our students then receive dedicated career support to help them land their first job in the tech sector.
Educator Innovation Programs
Our intent with these programs is to achieve systemic change in outdated learning models and education systems. We do this by empowering educators to reimagine learning for the future of work using our own pedagogical and metacognition framework.
We develop a range of educational products that enable learners to learn faster and more effectively.
What problem does your business solve for society?
We’re in the midst of a digital revolution and traditional education systems and outdated learning models are failing to prepare youth for the future of work. Nowhere is this more evident than in countries that are already affected by conflict, violence, poverty and disaster.
Meanwhile, COVID-19 has caused massive economic disruption, exacerbating the effects of this technical transformation. While the net impact of this pandemic is uncertain, youth who were already at the margins of the global digital economy risk being further left behind and entering a dangerous cyclical relationship between economic disenfranchisement and instability, unless we ensure they have the skills, resources and networks to thrive. We exist to reconcile this global digital inequality divide by providing youth with in-demand skills and networks in order to create opportunity and good jobs for entire communities.
Where did you source inspiration?
The inspiration behind what we do comes from witnessing the problem firsthand. In June 2014, I first traveled to Iraq to implement a peace-building initiative for Syrian refugees who had been displaced by the civil war. Upon seeing the lack of access to meaningful education & employment opportunities for youth, I set about researching initiatives that could bridge the education and employment divide in the wake of conflict.
Two years later after securing seed funding, I teamed up with my co-founder Marcello to create an organization with a startup mindset and a mission to empower youth by teaching high-end technical skills for the digital economy. My background is in human rights law whilst Marcello’s is education in emergencies.
What’s something you know now that you wish you knew when you started your business?
Everything and yet nothing! Starting and growing this organization has been one of the steepest learning curves of my life. I came from a legal background without an MBA or any experience running a business. Yet, every failure has been an opportunity to learn and grow. From designing our first programs to managing complex operations in conflict zones to hiring — it’s been a fun challenge. I’m not sure any business book or course can prepare you for what is to come on the journey of social entrepreneurship.
What’s the best place for people to learn more about your company’s work or to follow your progress?
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While many educators use MyLab, Mastering, and Revel to assign homework and assessment, these platforms host a wealth of other engaging activities students can use to improve their understanding of class concepts.
Many students find physics really difficult. Even students with great math skills struggle with the abstract concepts and theory application. To help them visualize concepts better, you can use PhET simulations in Mastering Physics.
These interactive simulations gives students a way to apply what they’ve learned to a real-life scenario by making decisions or changing variables. This low-stakes environment encourages experimentation where students can learn from their mistakes. Not only will students be able to see concepts and theories in action, but also see how physics is used in the real-world.
Technology has impacted almost every aspect of our lives, and education is no exception. With the rise of educational technologies, educators have been exploring new ways to leverage these tools to create more engaging, personalized, and active learning experiences. One of the most effective tools is simulations, a form of experiential learning where students are placed into a real-life scenario to make decisions, take action, and respond in real-time using concepts they’ve learned in class.
We have been creating simulations to supplement our textbooks in collaboration with our authors, one of whom is Dr. Niall Fraser. We spoke with him to hear about his experience in creating simulations for his engineering textbook, Engineering Economics, and his thoughts on how emerging technologies will impact learning.
Tell us a little bit about your experience creating simulations.
I was approached to develop some simulations to supplement my textbook ‘Engineering Economics: Financial Decision Making for Engineers’. In the end we developed four simulations through Ametros, nominally designed to each cover a quarter of the text. I had not done this before, so the first one was very much a learning experience for me. As I grew accustomed to creating them, I found it easy to create compelling and useful simulations that exploited the features of the platform.
What were some key components you had to keep in mind as you developed the simulations?
The course I was designing around has a mathematical basis, and I felt that the chapter material and end-of-chapter study exercises would be sufficient to fully develop the student’s analytic skills. But the course is also very practical. Engineers will use what they have learned frequently in both their professional and personal lives. My goal in the simulations was to create realistic situations where the student had to develop a deeper understanding of the course material in order to apply it to realistic practical issues. Consequently, the calculations in the simulation were very straightforward; the focus was on knowing what calculations to make.
“My goal in the simulations was to create realistic situations where the student had to develop a deeper understanding of the course material in order to apply it to realistic practical issues.”
Over the last 20 or 30 years, there has been a strong shift in engineering education to broaden the awareness of engineers’ social and moral responsibilities. Each one of my simulations involved some element of integrating the student’s calculations and decisions within a social/moral/political context.
What value do simulations bring to students?
All students are busy and distracted and sometimes even uncommitted. Many students will learn the course material and study enough to pass the test, and then move on to the next course. Some material will be retained, but often when it is need later in life—either in another school course or in their employment—they have to resort to reviewing their old textbooks and relearning the material. I think simulations, when properly done, can break that cycle.
A good simulation will engage the student. It won’t be just another exercise to complete and forget, but rather a compelling view of a future where the student can use the course content to exert power in the world. It can give them a clear vision of their potential professional life, motivating the very studies they are undertaking. They can more deeply understand the course material, so that the exercises and tests they take are easier because they are not just regurgitating what they have memorized. I think simulations are incredibly valuable and wish they existed when I was a student.
“[Simulations] won’t be just another exercise [students] complete and forget, but rather a compelling view of a future where the student can use the course content to exert power in the world.
How is AI shaping the future of learning?
I think AI is the future of learning. It is the natural extension of the textbook. Imagine a textbook that interacted with the reader like a skilled one-on-one teacher, attuned to the student’s pace of learning. That teacher can extend beyond the text material to guide the student in how to apply the course material in their future job or broadly in society. That teacher is also completely up to date with current events and the latest contributions to the student’s discipline and course subject. I believe this is the future of AI and the future of learning, and this is all being accelerated by COVID-19.
Given the rise of new technologies, where do you see the future of experiential learning heading?
Experiential learning, in my view, is just a steppingstone in a shift from a classroom-based model to an AI-driven model. Instead of lecturing, the role of the instructor will be to increasingly guide students to the right AI-based support tool. Eventually the instructor will be an administrator and/or last-resort tutor, and most teaching will be AI based.
Clearly this has enormous implications for the current education system. Universities will physically shrink, and lectures may disappear altogether. On the other hand, I think learning will be far more efficient and students will be far better prepared for their careers.
“I think learning will be far more efficient and students will be far better prepared for their careers [with AI-based learning].”
What tips do you have for educators who are wanting to teach with simulations?
Jump into it. This is the future, and it is good. There will likely be glitches at the beginning, but I think you will see the value very quickly.
Also, if given the opportunity, invest the effort to make some simulations of your own. I found it relatively easy and certainly lots of fun to create compelling simulations that I know will be very valuable to the instructors and students who use them.
Using technology in the classroom can increase student engagement, encourage collaboration, and drive personalized learning experiences. Many of you may already be using MyLab, Mastering, or Revel in your courses for homework, assessment, and to give students tutorial resources and personalized feedback.
However, you may not have had the time to explore all the student activities you can assign for active learning and fully integrate the tools in your course. Whether you’ve been using these platforms for a long time or a recent adopter, here’s a quick look at 7 lesser-known features in these platforms:
For some instructors, teaching online is an intimidating, foreign idea. But for award-winning professor Avi Cohen, it is a familiar skill he has crafted over the years.
With an eCampus Ontario grant, in 2016 he created an online version of his introductory economics course for 300 students at the University of Toronto. This Fall, with Professor Gordana Colby, they moved online a massive York University introductory economics course, with almost 3000 students. The radically transformed online course has increased student engagement, student participation, and instructor involvement.
With his extensive online teaching experience, including using student surveys to modify courses, Avi Cohen shares his experience for teaching online and creating an effective online course.
(These responses have been edited for brevity and clarity.)
Tell us a little bit about your experience with moving your 500-person introductory economics course online.
At York University, before we moved online, our economics introductory course had 8 sections, each with 400-500 students. The 8 section instructors would each repeat essentially the same information in lecture halls where maybe 150-200 students would show up.
In the restructured online course, there are asynchronous recorded online lectures, which are very sophisticated (small chunked videos, high production values, embedded knowledge check questions, targeted visual and auditory feedback) and delivered by an award-winning teacher. Although Professor Colby and I both have had online training and experience, restructuring the course still took 6 months of collaboration, time, and planning, involving 8 instructors. In our case, the student experience online has been far superior than a face-to-face experience sitting anxiously and feeling alone in a 500-person lecture hall.
How do you drive participation, student engagement, and bridge the screen gap?
The knowledge check questions that intersperse the asynchronous videos promote active recall, which is what all the current cognitive psychologists say is the best for learning. Another advantage is that instructors no longer have to deliver the same material over and over again. Now, instructors divide their section into 3 smaller seminars, and the professors engage in smaller group teaching, all devoted to Socratic-style active learning.
Previously, our discussion boards were staffed by TA’s, many of whom are international students whose first language is not English. There were also limited TA hours due to budgetary constraints. Now, the professors themselves are actually the ones responding to discussion questions and comments. This is a level of interaction that did not exist before in the traditional face-to-face model.
There has been a lot of criticism with the student experience with online learning. What are your thoughts on them?
When universities went online in March , there was a lot of criticism around the student experience. There was an editorial in a national newspaper which said that online learning is a pale reflection of the real thing. When COVID struck, most instructors didn’t have training in online learning. I would call what happened then emergency remote teaching: when people take what they do in a classroom and just try to push it online. Instead of standing in front of a lecture hall, instructors stood (or sat) in front of a Zoom camera. There was no fundamental restructuring of the course to take advantage of the real opportunities online learning presents.
I disagree with the generalization that online learning is worse than face-to-face. It might be true for smaller seminars, but it’s not necessarily true for large classes. Large lecture halls—no matter how good the professor is—can be very alienating for students. They’re afraid to ask questions. There’s very little interaction. And that’s the core of their weekly experience. In an online course that’s been properly developed, you can have much more involvement, much more learner-centered activities than you can in a traditional lecture hall.
What does building a good online course require?
A good online course can take up to 6-12 months to create. You have to first decide on your course learning objectives. Then, using the backward design process go back and ask:
What are the activities that will help students accomplish those objectives?
As a Canadian professor and sociologist, Bruce Ravelli has devoted much of his career to thinking about the student learning experience and how social events influence people. When COVID-19 disrupted higher education halfway into the spring 2020 semester, educators and students scrambled to adjust to a new online learning reality.
Professor Ravelli sat down to reflect on what he’s learned through this experience, the true value of higher education, and important things to consider when moving online.
(These responses have been edited for brevity and clarity.)
What’s been most surprising about moving your class online?
When the university shut down in March, I remember feeling surprised at how quickly the discussion evolved to thinking about university only as a place where a bunch of information is conveyed from instructors to students. I think we missed that real opportunity to educate the public and our colleagues about what really happens at a university.
A lot of learning certainly occurs in classrooms, but it also occurs over a coffee or a chat in between classes. As teachers, our gift is to introduce concepts, ideas, and theories that students have never heard before. Often, those teachings inform the discussions students have at coffee shops, at bars, and with friends.
So, what surprised me was how many assumed that what we do can be simply packaged and distributed electronically when the pandemic first hit. I think the best thing we do as educators is have our students think about the world in a different way. I certainly don’t want to miss this opportunity to celebrate the very best things we do as teachers, and not lose sight of that in a post-COVID world.
“I think the best thing we do as educators is have our students think about the world in a different way. I certainly don’t want to lose sight of that in a post-COVID world.”
What advice would you give to others in your position?
I would ask you to consider two things:
1. Think about what you do well and what you might need help with. If you're a good lecturer, in the online world, maybe it’s best for you to record a video and present it. Maybe its a series of blog posts where you discuss different issues in the media, society, or theory to let students see the world as you see it.So, I would caution you to think critically on what technology you're going to use and why. You should only use technology that will make your teaching more effective and to compensate on areas you need support.
2. What do you want your students to achieve in your courses?
Think about what students’ lives must be like in this post-COVID world. They're probably taking 3-4 different courses online with 4-5 different instructors each having different sets of expectations. So, I'd ask you to be very reasonable in your expectations of students.
If you want them to learn a lot of concepts and theories, there are many supplementary materials provided for textbooks these days. They have online testing strategies to help you assess your students. They can provide links to YouTube videos, and more.
I would just caution any new person moving online to not rush into 50 different techniques and technologies, but really think about what you are good at, what you need some help with, and what you want your students to achieve. Be thoughtful, practical, methodical. And certainly have some compassion for all the students facing so many different demands in this post-COVID world.
“Be thoughtful, practical, methodical. And certainly have some compassion for all the students facing so many different demands in this post-COVID world.
What have you learned during this time?
What I learned came as a bit of a surprise. I always knew I liked teaching, but I was surprised by how much I missed the classroom.
I miss that feeling when you’re giving a great lecture—when the students are indicating that they’re learning something they’ve never thought about before. When you can make them laugh, when you can make them have that deep thoughtful moment. I miss students diligently working, diligently asking questions, meeting their friends in class. I miss all of those moments.
“I always knew I liked teaching, but I was surprised by how much I missed the classroom.”
Through a lot of social media conversations, I also learned how students want to learn from somebody they can trust, talking about things the person is an expert in. So, I cherish those moments thinking about teaching again. I am really gratified to know the important role that many of us play in our students lives when we get to show them things for the first time. So, it's not so much what I've learned about myself over the last six months, but how I've relearned being invigorated by my discipline, by the joy I have in teaching and meeting students.
“I am really gratified to know the important role that many of us play in our students. I've relearned being invigorated by my discipline, by the joy I have in teaching and meeting students.”
We’re almost a month into online learning, and exam season is creeping up at a rapid pace. There’s a science to successful learning – you have to change your thinking to turn regular study habits into lifelong learning. I’m going to share some of my favourite strategies for studying, so you can get through this semester, carry it into the next and learn a little deeper!