SIAM News Blog

Teaching in the Time of Coronavirus: A Letter from SIAM VP for Education

By Kathleen Kavanagh 

Kathleen Kavanagh

To say it has been overwhelming and challenging to transition teaching and learning online would be a dramatic understatement. By definition, transition means “process or period of changing from one state or condition to another.” It was more like a jump-discontinuity for many professors and students. All over the world, with little to no warning, students were told they couldn’t return to their campuses after spring break—some with their belongings still in their dorm rooms. Professors, in many cases, had only a few hours to evacuate their offices due to state lockdown guidelines.  

While faculty tried to wrap their minds around what they forgot in their office (I, for one, left all of my academic advisees’ paperwork, but did manage to grab my window plants), IT staff across campuses stepped up and seemed to instantly have support and training in place (thank you!!!). New syllabi had to be rapidly adapted and new technology quickly understood. Then came the barrage of advice from all over the universe about teaching online. Although full of valuable ideas, I found that it often conflicted with itself and with what I personally felt my students would need. 

When I was asked to give my thoughts on resources and provide advice for online instruction and learning, I initially threw my hands up, shook my head, and shrugged—I had no idea. I consider myself a passionate and effective teacher. I love teaching. But teaching online was not my way of doing things. Even though I am a computational applied mathematician who loves programming and large-scale simulations, I still write on a chalkboard. I walk around my large lecture hall filled with 100 students and chat with them while they work on problems. I take pride in creating a comfortable learning environment in which students can interact with each other, ask questions, discuss why math is important in the real world, and do math—with me there to support them. I was absolutely baffled by how I could continue to be myself while teaching online.  

With little time to dwell on the predicament, and the comfort of knowing that my experience was not unique, I cobbled together a home work space consisting of a tray table and an ancient desk that had been in my garage for years! I prepared as best as I could for the next morning when I would begin a new way of teaching and interacting with my students—the first of many firsts. 

First Week and a Half

For my calculus class (85 students), their first assignment was to answer two questions: What are your main concerns about class going online? What are you going to do for fun while you are home? I asked them to write their responses on a piece of paper and figure out how to take a picture or scan it as a PDF and upload it to Moodle. I gave them information about a wide range of apps that could do this. By the due date, 19 of them hadn’t done it. I followed up repeatedly and finally, two days past the due date, I had heard from all but five, whom I still haven’t heard from. 

I admit – I cried reading most of their responses. Students expressed anxiety, sadness, disappointment, and confusion—not geared toward the university or me, but at life. Most said they didn’t know how they would be motivated, manage their time, deal with the different schedules their professors had laid out, or learn without a person there to explain. Almost unanimously they were overwhelmed with how to deal with so many emails. They missed their friends. Some told me they were being tested for the virus already and one already had it. 

First Exam

An exam was scheduled for Monday and, while I felt horrible asking my students to have to think about the chain rule, I knew it was important to create a sense of normalcy and maintain some structure in their lives, at least from an academic standpoint. During my six office hours that week, I heard from three of the 85 students, who mainly just talked about the COVID-19 situation, not math (completely reasonable). My teaching assistant held a three-hour review session on Zoom the day before the exam so anyone could drop in with questions, but no one did. My plan, which I shared in advance with the students, was to post the exam questions online, have them work on their own paper, and then scan it to a PDF and upload it, allowing extra time for this process.

The test seemed to go well at first, and then right at submission time my inbox started exploding with emails from panicking students. The issue was that I had arranged for one document to be uploaded, but they had only practiced scanning one page. I had assumed they would scan the entire test into one document, not each individual page separately! It’s kind of funny looking back now, but at the time, I was frustrated and the whole process felt like an epic fail. On top of everything, I felt guilty that I had stressed them out. After being upset and ranting about it, I was overcome with a feeling of “Does this even matter right now anyway?” That night I sent my students an email voicing how proud I was of them for showing up and taking a calculus exam...likely few people in the world did that on that day.

In the end, I had roughly 35 emails with multiple pages of the exam attached to each one while the other roughly 40 students successfully scanned and uploaded their whole test. Grading was not fun, but not as bad as I expected, and I was surprised to see that students' grades were consistent with what they had on their previous two exams. I had 11 students just not take it, and I found out later that at least two of them were sick and waiting for COVID-19 test results. 

Adjustments and Being Flexible

Luckily, two of my three classes this semester are smaller, so we are able to meet synchronously. I have one student, though, who is in Guam; she was able to get home (with a flight involving five layovers) before things closed. Because she’s across the world, I meet with her at 8 p.m. (10 a.m. the next day where she is). When I met with her the first time, she held a baby the whole time – her 8-month-old adorable and incredibly relaxed nephew who she cares for. The last thing either of us really wanted to do was talk about the curvature of vector functions. We chatted instead about how she now must share her laptop with her brother who is in high school, learning from home, with spotty internet access. I told her that I wished I had been able to give her a spare Chromebook before she left, and she told me that she was grateful that I was extending the due dates on some of the assignments. Similarly, when I met with my Ph.D. and undergraduate research students, I mainly just wanted to know that they were safe and knew how to disinfect their groceries. 

First Things First

It has only been a few weeks of what I’ve now heard referred to as “Emergency Remote Teaching” (ERT) for me. It feels like many months. Yesterday, after it took three tries and about 90 minutes to record my lecture on the Fundamental Theorem of Calculus, I decided to wear silly hats during my videos to lighten my own mood. When I look ahead, I want to get through the next few weeks (months?) so I don’t have to be on Zoom talking to myself for most of the day! I miss my students and I am so incredibly grateful that I can still (sort of) do my job, which I love. I find comfort in knowing that there are literally millions of educators out there dealing with the same challenges; we’re in this together and – although frustrating at times – there are many lessons to be learned from this experience with regards to science, teaching, and life in general. It’s OK to miss your students, to try to keep things light even when things are dark, and to be grateful that we’re still able to teach, even if it’s not quite the same. We will get through this – and I am certainly looking forward to seeing the other side!

Helpful Virtual Teaching Resources

Included below is a list of some resources. This is by no means an exhaustive list – it is simply a jumping off point. If you are aware of other helpful resources, for the benefit of our colleagues, please share them in the comments of this post.

Mathematical talks

Learning management and web conference platform

Proctoring tools 

Other Teaching Resources

Kathleen Kavanagh is a professor of mathematics at Clarkson University and the Vice President for Education at SIAM.
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