Embracing the Paradox: Lessons Learned from Teaching Virtual Field Courses

Intro from Meghan: This is a guest post from Alicia Farmer and Stephanie Shaulskiy from the University of Michigan’s Biological Station.

This is Stephanie and Alicia. We work as staff* for the University of Michigan Biological Station (UMBS), a teaching and research field station located near Pellston, Michigan in the state’s northern lower peninsula. 

When coronavirus forced our home institution’s instruction online in March, UMBS was less than two months away from welcoming several hundred researchers, instructors, students and staff to our Northern Michigan site for our usual field season. In a normal year, we offer 20 – 25 field courses, divided among a 4-week spring session, an 8-week summer session, and a 2-week late summer session. Once the university approved us to offer classes on-line, we gave our instructors the option of adapting their northern-Michigan, place-based classes to a fully remote and virtual environment, or canceling their class for this year. To our surprise and gratitude, fifteen instructors signed on. 

Because we had already been assessing outcomes and impacts of the UMBS field experience, we were set to pivot to an assessment of this year’s online instruction. What follows is a distillation of actions and lessons learned from our focus groups and individual interviews with faculty and students participating in our 2020 remote field courses.**

9 SUCCESSFUL SYLLABUS/COURSE DESIGN ACTIONS for REMOTE INSTRUCTION

as piloted by UMBS Spring/Summer 2020 Faculty

C = Builds Community
E = Heightens student Engagement with the content
F = Especially important to courses with a Field component
P = Builds sense of Place
S = Important consideration for course Structure or Syllabus 

1. Incorporate Physical Materials (C, E, F, P, S)

Students in one course wrote letters to each other. One faculty member sent the students items for an assignment; package “unboxing” happened in a Zoom session. Several lab classes (including Chemistry, Ecology, and Fishes) had UMBS staff assemble and mail lab kits to students.*** These enabled students to sample and study their local environments, including their residences. 

Materials sent to students in Biology of Fishes class

[Image caption: Materials sent to students in Biology of Fishes class. Image description: Items spread out on a table surface include a bucket, a minnow trap, a bundle of flags, flagging tape, a tape measure, rope, latex gloves, bait, plastic bags.]

2. Take advantage of and take into account students’ diverse locations (E, F, P, S)

For some classes, students sampled water and soil in their own kitchens, yards or neighborhoods. In other classes, students took photos or made sketches wherever they were living and added these to a common Box folder or Slack channel to share with each other. The instructor for the Biology of Fishes, where students were spread across the country, observed that everyone in the class enjoyed examining the regional data on fish communities that they could build by combining everyone’s individual data. Another faculty member observed that for many students, these excuses to be outdoors during the pandemic brought a “source of restoration and a calming during this moment.” 

That said, it helped to have flexibility built into assignments to accommodate students’ varying locations and access to the out-of-doors. In a pollinator lab, students needed to adjust the methods around what flower(s) were available where they were. In Plant Biology, the online identification resources were richer for some student locations than others. Assignments also needed to accommodate students who were unable to safely go outside. In a biology project, a home-bound student focused on doing a statistical analysis of the group’s data instead of collecting it. An art class student substituted kitchen produce for living plants to illustrate features like branching and spirals. 

Some faculty made (or asked staff to make) videos of specific habitats that students wouldn’t get to visit in person. Others used guest speakers to bring the wider world to the class environment.

 

[Image caption: A student heads out into the field for her Fishes Class. Photo credit: Sophia Margaritis. Image description: A young person with a mask covering her mouth and nose and a handful of orange flags stands in front of a lake. Everyone included in a picture gave permission for their image to be in this post.] 

3. Create Collaborative Teaching Teams

Spring faculty invited summer faculty to meet with them weekly. This allowed spring faculty to share what was working or not as summer faculty were planning their courses. It also gave spring faculty a venue for sharing their successes, frustrations and questions. 

4. Set Clear Expectations for Online Communication (C, E)

Faculty recommended

  • surveying students in advance to see how many can attend synchronous sessions;
  • surveying students in advance about wifi/connectivity;
  • being explicit about what expectations are for course participation: is it okay to turn off cameras? to miss a discussion if you are feeling “Zoomed out?”;
  • having a discussion with students in the beginning of the course to create ground rules (e.g. is Zoom Chat for Q&A only or for sidebar conversations? Who decides who speaks next?).

5. Keep Student Autonomy in Mind / Use Specific and Clear definitions of concepts (F, S) 

In a traditional field course, the instructor or GSI typically guides students through field work. In the virtual setting, students have more control over when and how they conduct their field work. Faculty perceived that students were empowered by this freedom; however, if students didn’t understand exactly what they were supposed to be doing, they might make mistakes that were hard to identify or correct after the field work was complete. For example, plant and fish identification often rely on looking at a specific part of the organism, but students might mis-identify because they were looking at the wrong structures. 

Several instructors noted that students collected less data on their own (and generally the data collected by the class spanned a wider geographic area) than they would have at UMBS. So while students were still able to participate in field work and the research process, their data required different analyses and conclusions than in a typical lab/project. 

Additionally, spring term instructors noted that if given the choice, students worked in individual and small group (2-3 students) projects, instead of forming the larger groups that are the norm in field courses. Rather than helping the usual 5 or 6 groups with their research ideas, instructors were working with closer to 10-15 group/individual projects. This required the instructor to spend much more time giving help and direction to different projects. 

6. Schedule Time and use different platforms to Build Community (C, E, F, S)

Some activities that let students and instructors get to know each other better included

  • informal lunch gatherings where faculty ate their lunch with any students who wanted to come; sometimes faculty discussed things like their own career path or invited a colleague to talk about race or gender in the field;
  • scavenger hunt where students had to find something that told the class something about themselves, such a book they’re reading or game the’re playing or their favorite thing in nature;
  • on-line Adventure Race where teams of students worked together to solve clues that introduced them to Northern Michigan field sites;
  • faculty v. GSI head-to-head online challenge (e.g. pipetting) with students picking sides in advance and watching a live competition;
  • using side channels like discussion boards or chat channels as venues for ongoing and wider-ranging topics between course sessions.  

However, not all of these had high participation. It was the observation of some faculty that students didn’t want to be on Zoom any more than they had to. Platforms that allowed asynchronous interaction (chats, photo galleries) had more robust participation than extracurricular synchronous events.

Everyone used Canvas as the academic home for the course. But most faculty tried to approximate the more informal and immersive experience of field camp by engaging additional software:

  • Slack for fun field photos, chats.
  • Zoom for informal activities like a virtual campfire, a scavenger hunt, and brown bag  lunches where guest speakers shared their experiences as young scientists.
  • Box for group collaboration and portfolios

[Image caption: The General Ecology class meets for a “virtual campfire” to just hang out and talk. Photo credit: Hannah DeHetre. Image description: A laptop screen view shows a Zoom call in progress. The dominant image is of a campfire with a lake in the background. Participants’ screen views are minimized along the side. Everyone included in a picture gave permission for their image to be in this post.]

7. Check-in and Revise as necessary (C, E)

Ask students early and often how things are going. Venues our faculty used for this included Google forms, one-on-one meetings, GSI-led video discussions, and text group chats (on Slack channels and Canvas discussion boards). Be prompt and flexible in responding to students’ concerns. One instructor developed a daily to-do list after receiving feedback that students wanted more clarity on daily course requirements. Another reduced the amount of weekly Zoom meetings when students complained of burnout and loss of focus. They reworked the class to allow more work to be done asynchronously and saw the quality of synchronous meetings improve. Other classes added late-night office hours (staffed by GSIs) in response to students’ requests for help at times when they were working. 

8. Consider the Amount of Content (E, S)

Material takes longer to teach in a virtual setting compared to an in-person setting and students take more time to orient themselves when they are on their own without being directed by an instructor. In particular, any sort of experiment or guided learning takes longer and requires more time for explanation. Build in more time to explain assignments and go through expectations (and check in with students) than in a traditional semester. But don’t be surprised if students can have pretty thoughtful and thorough discussions. They are paying attention! One faculty described the coverage as “less material, more in depth.”

9. Be cautious when using analytical software programs (E, S)

Software was harder for students to use remotely. Many students struggled with R (a statistical program) and Excel, especially if this was their first time using them. In a remote setting, faculty can’t walk around a computer lab and peek over students’ shoulders. Especially in an asynchronous class, students can go a long way down an erroneous path without someone on hand to answer questions, catch errors, or ensure the software is doing what students think it is (e.g. one group ended up running a regression on text). If you’re using software, build in extra tutorials, open labs and office hours to address confusion. Faculty also found that students worked better with simpler and more straightforward data sets

BROADER CONSIDERATIONS

Additional topics came up repeatedly as we talked with faculty. We suspect you are hearing about these from other sources, so we won’t belabor them here. But they are worth being aware of. They get more to the heart of self-care, for students as well as instructors. Everything that’s true of students here is true of instructors whose non-academic lives are merging with work, too.

  • Especially if students are attending classes from home or another off-campus location, the rest of “life” (e.g. family, employment, home and neighborhood concerns) is more in the foreground than when they live on campus.  
  • Mental health issues may be more common and/or more severe while also being harder to detect in remote formats.
  • Students expect 24/7 responsiveness more than ever. Many instructors stressed the importance of clearly communicating and then sticking to the hours they were available. Some tried to replicate the camp feel by holding late night office hours (usually staffed by GSIs) or being broadly available during waking hours; others maintained office hours as they do in a regular semester. 
  • Even in a virtual environment, students could still learn a lot about the research process—how to interpret significant findings (or not finding significance) and when to use different kinds of statistical tests.

A final note from Alicia, Stephanie, and Meghan

While we did not specifically ask about how instructors considered accessibility and inclusivity in their courses, UMBS faculty discussed being flexible (e.g., giving parallel assignments depending on what environments were available near students), considering accessibility (e.g., working with students who did not have a good internet connection or working with students who could not go outside to do fieldwork because their country implemented a pandemic lockdown), and getting to know students (see “Schedule Time and use different platforms to Build Community” above). These are all practices that get recommended on lists for inclusive teaching. Accessibility and inclusivity are important topics that should be considered when designing all courses and the three of us wanted to make sure this was noted in this post. This resource has information on Access to Remote Instruction for Students and Faculty with Disabilities and this is a guide to inclusive teaching (aimed at UMich, but useful more broadly).

Footnotes:

*Stephanie is the Program Evaluator and Alicia is the Program Manager for UMBS’s Transforming Learning Program.

**The courses and instructors included in this analysis:

  • Art in Nature, Cathy Barry (UMich)
  • Biology and Ecology of Fishes, Amy Schrank (UMN)
  • General Chemistry Lab, Levi Mielke (UIndy)
  • General Ecology – 4 sections, Curt Blankespoor; Paul Moore (BGSU), Bob Pillsbury (UW-Oshkosh), Brain Scholtens (College of Charleston)
  • Great Lakes Arts Cultures and Environments (GLACE) Program (AMCULT/NATIVEAM 311, ANTHRCUL 298, ENGLISH 221, ENGLISH 320) – Ingrid Diran (UMich), Kendall Babl, Jennifer Metzger (UMich), Daegan Miller, Margaret Noodin (UW-Milwaukee)
  • Intro Biology Lab, Cindee Giffen (UMich)
  • Plant Biodiversity in the Digital Age, Charles Davis (Harvard) and Susan Fawcett

***If someone other than the instructor is assembling and distributing the kit, they should send a kit to the instructor, too, so they know what materials students have to work with.

Guest post: 8 Lessons for Teaching over Zoom

Post author: Morgan Tingley

It has been a long ten weeks. As SARS-CoV-2, the virus causing COVID-19, was spreading rampantly across the United States in late March, most colleges and universities were returning from spring break, looking forward to finishing the academic year and the relief of summer. Here at the University of California – Los Angeles, however, we are on a quarter system, and our new “spring term” started on March 30th, just two weeks after campus officially closed and all classes moved online. As campuses shuttered across the country, an incredible diversity of resources were shared online for how to teach remotely. These resources often included conflicting advice, and also frequently assumed that instructors had months or years to re-design courses around online education.

After quickly becoming both overwhelmed and frustrated with the available advice, I figured that if I just entered the term with a sense of both humor and empathy, the students and I would be able to figure it out. Ten weeks later I’ve emerged mostly unscathed and feeling vastly more proficient at remote lecturing. So for those of you who are currently enjoying your summer breaks, but are starting to feel nervous about the fall (or spring 2021) semester, I’ve assembled below my top lessons for teaching over Zoom.

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Open discussion thread: field-based courses in the time of coronavirus

In the past, if we used the word “remote” when talking about field-based courses, we would have been referring to going to a far-off location. Now, during the pandemic, talking about teaching field-based courses remotely means teaching them with the instructor in one place and the students dispersed in many different places.

I know a few folks who are trying to figure out how to teach their summer field-based courses (e.g., field ecology courses) online. They definitely have some good ideas, such as taking advantage of Zooniverse, having students upload observations to iNaturalist, linking with Project Feederwatch or eBird, and using other publicly available data, such as data from NEON. There could even be some advantages to the students being spread out, including by asking students to compare and contrast what the class is finding in different regions or habitat types (as long as those activities are optional, to take into account different access to resources & different social/physical distancing realities).

It seemed like it could be helpful to have an open discussion thread where folks share what they’re thinking of doing, where they ask for suggestions for things they are trying to figure out, and where they share resources and ideas for how to teach this type of course as inclusively as possible. This will hopefully be similar to the open thread on the science of the coronavirus pandemic, with the goal of providing a place where the ecology community can have a discussion, in this case about how to teach field-based courses during the pandemic.

What are you planning doing in your field-based courses? What are you worried about? What would you like to find out more about? What do you hope people teaching this sort of course will think about?

Recording lectures is good for students, good for instructors, and good for public health

I’ve been thinking of writing a post about my experiences with recording lectures in Intro Bio for a while, and, with coronavirus spreading, now seems like a good time to finally write it up. Overall, I think there have been a lot of different benefits — well beyond what I initially anticipated. And, at a time when we really don’t want sick students showing up in lecture halls, there’s a strong public health argument for recording lectures and setting up class structures so that sick students aren’t penalized for staying home.

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Update on recording office hours: It seems to be working!

Over the summer, I wrote a post thinking about how to make office hours more accessible, specifically wondering about whether I should be calling them “student hours” instead of “office hours” and whether I should record them. This post is an update on that. The short version is:

  • I decided to stick with “office hours”, but also explained on the first day of class and in the syllabus what office hours are and who they are for (everyone!)
  • I have been recording office hours and think this has worked well, though it was harder to set up than I anticipated.

The rest of this post will focus particularly on the recordings, since I’ve had a few people ask me for more information about that. As I wrote about in my earlier post, this idea came from my UMich colleague John Montgomery, who records his office hours (which he calls “Open Discussion”) and who reported that student feedback on it was really positive.

At first, it seemed like it would be easy to record them. My lectures are recorded through a university system, so I thought that I would just be able to do the same with office hours. But no rooms with lecture recording capability were available for me to reserve for office hours. “No problem,” I thought, “I’ll just figure out another way.” And I did…eventually. A couple of people have asked me for more info about how I’ve been doing this, so I figured I’d share it in a blog post. I’ll also talk about the response to the recordings & things that could be improved.

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An incomplete list of things that blow the minds of Intro Bio students

Early in the semester during an Intro Bio class, a student asked about whether it’s ever possible for individuals of two different species to breed. That led to discussion of zebroids and, at some point in the back and forth, I mentioned that Homo sapiens had successfully interbred with Neanderthals. At least a quarter of the students (maybe even half) were visibly surprised—and I didn’t even explain that the evidence is this happened repeatedly! (Don’t worry, we covered that in a later lecture.) That night, I was making lunch for my kids and thinking about that moment in class, and I thought “Just wait until I tell them how much of their genome is viral!”

There are parts of teaching Intro Bio that are hard or annoying or both. But there are some parts that I absolutely love, and one of those is routinely getting to introduce students to things that are literally jaw-dropping. It makes me think of this xkcd:

It is always a highlight of my day (week!) when we have one of those moments in class.

So, in that spirit, I present an incomplete list of things that blow the minds of Intro Bio students (many thanks to my colleague Cindee Giffen for helping me with this list!):

  1. (Almost) all of your cells contain all of your genes
  2. Humans interbred with Neanderthals (repeatedly)
  3. About 8% of the human genome is viral in origin
  4. Plants get infected by viruses. (This comes up because I show a thermal image of a plant leaf that has been infected by a virus when talking about respiration. Speaking of which…)
  5. Plants respire
  6. There are photosynthetic organisms that are not plants
  7. Male anglerfish fuse to the female
  8. Damselfly penises
  9. Gerboas
  10. Taxonomy, including humans are fish, whales are mammals not the things we generally mean by “fish”, and birds are dinosaurs. Or, to quote a former student, “So, sharks are fish, dolphins are mammals, whales are mammals too, and penguins are birds, and birds are dinosaurs, so penguins are dinosaurs?!?”
  11. Fecal transplants
  12. Judas goats

I sometimes think that, if we filmed students while introducing those things, we would get really, really good reaction gifs.

The above list are mostly factoid sorts of things, but there are some bigger conceptual things that are definitely mind-bending for some students. Three that immediately spring to mind are:

  1. The same thing can be an ancestral or derived trait, depending on your frame of reference
  2. The way you can zoom in through taxonomy, sort of like you’re zooming through Google Earth (for example, humans are eukaryotes and animals and deuterostomes and vertebrates and mammals and primates and apes and hominins)
  3. Food webs — that something happening way over here in a food web can influence something way over there, and also the differences between how energy flows and matter cycles

Another thing that definitely blows their minds is that ecology involves math. I address this head on now at the start of the population ecology class, and my sense is that helps, but it still really surprises many of them when equations start appearing.

I initially started compiling this list because I thought it might be interesting to others. But I’ve found it has helped me during a very busy, challenging semester — it’s ended up being a really nice way of noting the little things that are fun that I might otherwise just blow right by in a frenzy of trying to get things done. (It’s also led to me adding notes to the front of my lecture notes that say things like “damselfly sex”, in an attempt to remember to add that to the list.)

So, I’m curious:

  1. What things have you found blow your students’ minds (in a good way!) And
  2. Do you have any routines or other things that help you note the little, fun things that occur while teaching?

 

On getting a sense of perspective…or not

This summer, I unexpectedly spent 8 days in New York because my father was in the hospital. At first, things seemed pretty bad. I went to see him in the hospital, which was really emotional and hard. After sitting with him through dinner, I left the hospital and drove back to my parents’ house, feeling sad. When I got home, I checked my email and saw that a manuscript that I’ve been really excited about had been rejected.

I felt even worse. There was a part of my brain saying, “Come on! Dad is in the hospital! A rejected manuscript is not a big deal! You should be saying ‘Well, this gives perspective on what really matters!’” But, instead, I was feeling like I’d been kicked while I was down.

But, with other things or at other times, I do have that sense of perspective. Did I explain the Law of Segregation perfectly when a student asked about it in office hours this semester? Nope. Was it recorded? Yep. Was it a matter of life and death? Nope. I could make sure I explained it better in the next class and move on to other stuff.

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Creating environments where it’s okay to make mistakes and ask questions

When I first started at Georgia Tech, I had the tremendously good fortune to hire a really, really, really good technician. (One of my first blog posts was on hiring a tech vs. a postdoc when starting a new lab.) Jessie was an amazing technician for a whole bunch of reasons, including that she was really good at working with undergrads in the lab.

At one point, I was in the lab while she was training a new student in the lab and I heard her say something like, “I’m not sure if I did a good job of explaining that. Can you tell me what you heard so I can try again if I didn’t explain it well?” I loved that approach. It made it so that, if the student got something wrong when they explained it back or tried it the first time, it wasn’t their fault – it was that it hadn’t been explained well enough.

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Changes I made the last time I taught that I think were useful

The last time I taught Intro Bio (in Fall 2017), I felt like things went really well in terms of interacting with students. And, while they’re a flawed metric, my teaching evaluations were notably higher than they’d been in the past. I mentioned that to a friend, who knew I had set goals before the semester about what I was going to do differently, and asked if I could write them out. So I did. And then I forgot I had done that.

In May, I wrote a post on a small change I made to try to make it clearer to students that I really care a lot about their learning. The short version is: before answering a question a student asked in class, I tried to do more to signal that I appreciated them asking the question. In the comments section, someone asked if it improved my teaching evaluations. My answer was “My student evaluations were unusually high after I did this, but I changed a few things so it’s hard to know how much of an effect this had. I wrote out all the changes for a colleague who was curious, and it might be worth turning that into a blog post.”

So, here is a modified version of what I sent my frolleague (friend + colleague = frolleague!):

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Why teaching Intro Bio makes me think we need to radically change qualifying exams

When I first arrived at Michigan and began teaching Intro Bio, the course had four exams. In that first semester, I added in clicker questions. Since then, we have added in frequent quizzing, so the students now have four exams, plus two quizzes a week (completed before coming to class), plus clicker questions in class. We have all of that because we know that frequent testing improves student learning. (Here’s one review, here’s another, and here’s a summary of the changes we made in Intro Bio and their impacts on student performance.) As a side bonus, when the testing is low stakes (as with the quizzes and clicker questions), students get those learning benefits without paying a cost in terms of increased anxiety. Given all that, I would never consider changing the format to one where we have just a single, pass/fail, high stakes assessment at the end of the semester.

Now, let’s consider graduate prelim/qualifying exams.

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