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Remote delivery experiences and advice: Lessons learned from Winter 2020

On May 25, 2020, Teaching and Learning Services (TLS) and the Office of Science Education (OSE) at McGill University held a panel discussion on remote teaching for instructors in the Faculty of Science.

The COVID-19 pandemic forced instructors, teaching assistants, and students to quickly adapt to the remote delivery of courses in the Winter 2020 semester. While the transition was an abrupt and challenging task, the ongoing pandemic has provided instructors with an opportunity to reflect on their teaching practices and try new strategies through an online format.

During a recent panel discussion, speakers from the Faculty of Science shared their experiences with remote delivery in the Winter 2020 semester, highlighting unexpected benefits, preferred online tools, and offering their recommendations for instructors planning for the upcoming fall semester.

Capitalizing on online tools to promote active learning and participation

Samuel Richer, a recently graduated undergraduate student from the Department of Physiology, provided insight on the student perspective, or as he described, “how it feels to be on the other side of the classroom during a remote teaching experience.”

Providing an example from his EXMD class, Samuel outlined how his instructors transitioned from a traditional lecture-based model to a more interactive approach, where students were able to work together in breakout rooms on Zoom to discuss problems and search for answers in the literature. Samuel found that the active learning environment better prepared him for his final exam, as he was able to further engage with the material rather than just memorize it.

Using the online format to increase accessibility for student questions

Nik Provatas, an instructor within the Department of Physics, further discussed how breakout rooms on Zoom could be used to improve engagement, with examples from his course PHYS 102: Introductory Electromagnetism.

Using the breakout room feature, he was able to divide his large class of 580-650 students into smaller groups, where they could work on solutions and direct any questions to assigned mentors or himself. He described how students asked far more questions online than during in-person classes or tutorials, possibly attributing the increase to online anonymity, as opposed to the crowded auditorium in the Leacock building. Describing it as “a welcome novelty of going online,” Nik appreciated that the platform allowed students to comfortably ask questions to deepen their understanding.

Providing clear instructions and virtual demonstrations to manage lab components

Elizabeth Siciliani, an MSc candidate in the Faculty of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences and a TA for the course BTEC 619: Biotechnology Lab 2, acknowledged the challenge of adapting courses with laboratory components.

Emphasizing the importance of clear instructions in remote delivery, Elizabeth recommended using myCourses to organize course materials rather than sending instructions in emails, which could be accidentally deleted or lost.

Elizabeth also described a potential role for TAs in performing virtual demonstrations of selected experiments, allowing more time throughout the semester for students to complete the remaining experiments following social distancing guidelines. She explained how this would allow lab courses to be designed in a way that half of the sessions are held on Zoom while half are held in the lab, providing hands-on experience for the most crucial experiments.

Increasing active learning and peer-to-peer feedback in large classes

Laura Pavelka, an instructor within the Department of Chemistry, described the flipped classroom model she implemented in her courses CHEM 212: Introductory Organic Chemistry I and CHEM 222: Introductory Organic Chemistry II (which had 100 and 450 students in Winter 2020, respectively).

Students asynchronously watched pre-recorded concept videos, and then attended interactive, live classes. Using the Visual Classrooms tool, students were able to post their answers to different problems and provide feedback to their peers.

Similar to Nik, Laura described how she found more student engagement than in previous classes. “Even if we did go back to in-person classes, I would continue using a tool like this for student engagement, especially for the peer-to-peer aspect, because they’re giving excellent, constructive feedback and encouragement,” she said.

Promoting skill development through adapted assessments

When adapting her course assessments, Laura decided to try something new. Instead of a final exam, she created a final research assignment, where students had the opportunity to develop skills such as searching the literature, finding data from reputable sources, and positioning the data so they could do comparisons.

Samuel thoroughly agreed with the value of assessments that allow students to develop analytical skills, such as developing laboratory protocols, interpreting data, and communicating science efficiently. He asked the audience, “Think about it—if I were to be a Master’s student in your lab, would you prefer me to be an excellent memorizer, or someone who has other skillsets?”

Suggestions for Fall 2020

Panelist recommendations for remote delivery, based on their experiences in the Winter 2020 semester, are provided below.

Suggested strategies:

  • Flipped classroom (interactive, student-led live sessions)
  • Asynchronous learning activities (pre-recorded content for a flexible schedule)
  • Opportunities for practice, questions, and feedback
  • Virtual demonstrations
  • Clear instructions, organized online
  • Assessments to promote knowledge and skill development, rather than memorization

Suggested McGill-supported online tools:

Access all video clips from the May 25, 2020 panel discussion here. TLS resources for remote delivery can be found here, and specific questions on course design, student engagement, and the use of technology tools can be answered through Remote Teaching Office Hours provided by the OSE (sign up here).

Photo by Chris Montgomery on Unsplash 

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