Guest Post-Teaching Math: From Homework to Home Work- An Interview with John T. Nardini, PhD, Postdoctoral Scholar, SAMSI & N.C. State University

by | May 25, 2020 | 0 comments

By: Bob Nardini, Vice President, Library Services ProQuest Books 

John Nardini

John Nardini was one of the many thousands of university professors across the world forced by COVID-19 to move their teaching so quickly from an actual classroom to an online classroom. John and I talked recently about what this experience was like for him and for his students. 

John, please tell our readers a little about yourself. 

Hello! I am currently a postdoctoral scholar in Biomathematics at North Carolina State (NC State) University in Raleigh, NC. I also have a joint appointment in precision medicine at the Statistical and Applied Mathematical Sciences Institute in Durham, NC.

Tell us about the course you’re teaching, and about your students.

I am currently teaching MA 225: Foundations of Advanced Mathematics. My students are transitioning from very computation-heavy calculus courses into the more analytical aspects of advanced mathematics. The focus of the course is to introduce students to methods commonly used to prove mathematical claims, proper presentation of these proofs, and the logical structure underlying these different proof methods. 

My current class is pretty small. I have 18 students, most of whom are either first or second-year students. Most are mathematics majors, although some are also double majoring in an engineering discipline or majoring in statistics with a minor in mathematics. 

How far into the course was the class before it went online?  How much notice did you have to prepare for online teaching, and how did you prepare?

The semester is 15 weeks long, and we found out that we’d be transitioning to an online format 9 weeks in. We were told about this transition during our spring break, and NC State cancelled classes the following week to give faculty time to prepare. That week was very helpful for me, as I was able to read articles on useful technology for online classrooms, practice using this new technology, and determine how to best structure my future lectures, homework, and exams. 

The most valuable resource for me during this preparatory week was Twitter. I follow all sorts of academics on my Twitter page, and my feed was full of suggestions for how to be accommodating of students’ needs during this trying time. For example, many professors were advocating to just give all students A’s at the end of semester because of the extreme difficulties some may be facing. While I didn’t adopt this strategy, I was sure to be clear with my students that all course assignments were now secondary to their health, happiness, and well-being. I am continuously telling students now that they can consider all assignments due on the last day of finals. 

What platform or software are you using for the class?

We are currently using the Zoom software to meet for synchronous lectures and office hours. Because my students are now scattered throughout the country and may have difficulty maintaining their previous schedules, I also record each lecture (a built-in Zoom function). I also use the Moodle platform for online course management. On my class’s Moodle page, I now post all previous assignments with solutions, in-class assignments, class recordings, lecture notes, and the textbook pdf.  With so many possible challenges for all of my students during this transition, my goal is just to make class material as accessible for students as possible. 

 You mentioned a textbook.  Can you tell us about the textbook you use?

Professor Jo-Ann Cohen from NC State has written her own lecture notes for this class and made them openly available to students and faculty teaching this course. I am happy to use this resource because my students are not required to spend any money on a course textbook. I’ve enjoyed these course notes because they encourage students to think critically about course definitions and their implications. For example, we begin with proofs on even and odd numbers early on in the course. Instead of simply stating that “a whole number cannot be both even and odd,” Dr. Cohen’s book asks students to explore what might happen if a whole number were both odd and even (answer: this number would end up contradicting the definition of being either odd or even!).

How common is it for your colleagues to assign textbooks not produced by a traditional publisher?

It isn’t common.  Dr. Cohen’s book is one of the first of its kind that I knew about. The majority of math classes are taught from textbooks published commercially. But I am very encouraged by Dr. Cohen’s book and hope to see more open access books like this one offered for students.

Do you assign any library resources in the class?  

I have not. But students often ask me how they can get extra practice on problems before exams or how to access more material explaining class topics differently. In these cases, I always direct students to other textbooks available for checkout at the university library (during the switch to online courses, I now direct students to websites, e-books, or YouTube videos).

In teaching math, is that a typical approach to library resources?

It’s typical for most math classes. We tend to keep things simple and often stick to only the course textbook and/or lecture notes.

But I would like to add a bit about how important the library can be in serving students and faculty for online teaching. NC State benefits tremendously from a great library system that offers workshops for professional development and technology lending for all faculty and students. Technology lending includes laptops, tablets, and headphones, all of which can typically be checked out for several hours or a week. For the pandemic, however, the library system has been checking out this technology indefinitely, which was crucial in allowing many students to access their courses. I even checked out a pair of headphones that I use for classes and meetings because the headphone’s microphone is better than my laptop’s. I also have not had access to physical textbooks at the library during the pandemic, but e-books have made it possible for me to read some textbooks during this time. 

What has your overall experience been, then, in teaching this course online versus teaching in person, regarding preparation, actual class time, office hours, and exams? Anything else you’d care to mention?

Preparation has been very different for me after this switch to online courses. When teaching in person, I am often engaging with students by answering questions, soliciting feedback, or interpreting their body language. This helps me to identify challenging areas for students so that I know which topics I can gloss over and which topics need more in-depth explanation. This is all much more difficult online!

Reading the room has been near impossible for me online. Furthermore, recording my lectures so that students can go back and re-watch them afterwards means that a lecture must be self-contained, present all necessary material, and be easily digestible. When preparing for online lessons, I now begin by identifying the key topics and then try to break it down into brief and easy to understand blocks. I ended up splitting most online 50-minute lectures into four 10-minute intervals. During each interval, I would introduce a topic, explain its basic principles, provide an example, and then review the highlights and solicit questions. It was far less fluent and engaging than in-person lectures, but my students seemed to appreciate being able to go back and re-watch lectures.

I switched all of my exams to be take-home and gave students all day to complete them. I told students they were open course notes (textbook, lectures, etc.), but told them they were on the honor code to not look up the solutions online. It’s not a perfect strategy, but I’m not sure if there’s a better option.

How about your students, what can you tell us about their experience with this online class?  And your colleagues, do you have anything to share about their experience?

It’s been very difficult for my students. Everyone has experienced unique challenges, including limited internet access, having to coordinate studying and childcare, or trouble adjusting to a new learning format. I understand that academics may not take priority for my students during this pandemic, so I am sure to let students know that all deadlines and policies are flexible. I have many more requests for assignment extensions than ever, and they are all granted without question. I am also a bit more lenient than usual when grading because it didn’t feel fair to hold every student to our normal high standards during this time. 

In talking with my colleagues, I’ve learned that everyone has their own unique approach to online lecturing. I’ve detailed how I structured my courses already, but everyone has been doing theirs differently. I have colleagues who are having students watch pre-made lectures and then holding weekly Q&A sessions, others have students watch videos before lecture and then assign problems in class (this allows for more 1-1 feedback that you typically get in person). I am interested to see if such a variety of methods within the department will persist for the next few semesters or if departments will eventually converge to standard methods for online instruction.

In the future, what do you think the role of online teaching will be, for you, for your department, and for North Carolina State?

I have no idea what the future holds! But I would guess that virtual learning may quickly become central to the day-to-day workings of a university. Until a vaccine is developed, there is a good chance we’ll be alternating between in-person and online lectures. And some people may begin to favor the online format over in-person meetings. It will be interesting to see how this develops over the next few years.

John T. Nardini, PhD, Postdoctoral Scholar, SAMSI & N.C. State University. For more information, or to contact him, please see: Welcome!

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