November 23 Day 260: Not a Complete Disaster

And that is good enough for me. I introduced a new technology to our classroom; it had a few hiccups along the way. I knew it was going to be risky but we all needed a change of pace with more interaction, more freedom, and less zoom. So I held our class in Gather for the first time.

Setting the stage: Calculus II is probably my favorite lower division class—not because of content but because I see the students grow as mathematicians. This is really the first time they have multiple methods to tackle a given problem—and the idea of sorting through methods, appreciating and valuing false starts, persevering until they find ways that work, and discussing the beauty of different options are brought into my classroom. Honestly, I care more that they understand why certain choices don’t work than that they have the correct solution. After all, there are computer algebra systems that can solve any problem I would ask at the drop of a hat. So it can’t be about the mathematical mechanics. Symbolab and WolframAlpha can give them details on one path to get to a solution. I want them to understand why other paths do or do not succeed.

We have gotten to the point of the quarter where all the analytic integration techniques have been learned and students are facing problems without knowing what section of the text they come from. It can be hard to push through self-doubt, take a leap of faith, and try something without knowing if it is right. But that leap is easier with the encouragement with others. I wanted to make that interaction happen virtually, the same way it would in my face-to-face class.

The plan was to recreate a classic jigsaw activity. Before beginning, each person selected a random number between 1 and 100. In the gather classroom, I had created six interactive whiteboards in six “private spaces”. Students created balanced groups amongst the six areas. They had the freedom to choose their group and their location, subject to no group being too big or too small. They were instructed to become experts on the problem prewritten on their board.

I allocated plenty of time and had a chance to visit each group more than once—listening to their discussions and asking questions of their work. If they completed their problem before the timer expired, they continued working on other questions. If needed, they could seek help from the expert group for an associated problem by walking to their board and asking directly.

Finally, I created new groups based their on initial random number selections. Recreated groups had at least one (speaking) expert from each of the original six. These groups simultaneously walked the gallery space and an expert for each board was responsible for presenting the solution to their smaller group. Presenting to the entire class can seem dauting. Presenting to a more intimate group, less so.

Huddled around a white board in the “green zone.”

The technology challenges: There were growing pains with the technology. Chrome is the preferred browser. Microsoft Edge does not seem to work at all. Students must enable the camera and microphone by clicking on the lock icon in the browser address bar to work and even then, there were issues with sound. Sometimes a microphone that had been working fine just stopped. It was nigh on impossible to work together when you could not hear each other (or me). Respawning your character or closing the tab and signing back in often fixed the sound problem, but not always. Some students had to work through the chat. Others wrote notes on the white board. And at one point, I had my iPad logged into Zoom with its camera pointed to my computer screen so a student could spectate because Gather let him down.

The embedded whiteboard is not bad (I still prefer Limnu), but really lags when too much writing is happening. One group accidentally wrote on top of one another without knowing until it was too late. (And how do you remove extra pages once added? I haven’t been able to figure that out.)

The successes: Overall, the interactions were positive. When I experienced my own sound issues and could not respond, I watched students take control, stay on task, and follow through on the directions. It was inspiring. I should remember to say less more often.

“Spotlighting” allowed me to talk to (not with) all students, even those in private spaces, and share my computer screen to everyone. I have been a long-time user of Doceri, a virtual smartboard for the iPad. It worked beautifully with the screenshare in Gather. I was delightfully surprised.

All six problems were solved. Students practiced talking mathematics. There were good discussions.

Lessons learned: This type of jigsaw activity could not have happened in Zoom without serious upfront planning. ..and such planning could easily become outdated since attendance right now is highly variable.

The black-box of doom is worse in Gather than Zoom. I understand students don’t want to or don’t have the band-width to turn on their cameras. I’m getting used to it by now. In Zoom when someone speaks, a yellow outline appears around their box. Gather has no such feature. So I was not always able to identify the speaker just from the sound of their voice.

I could imagine teaching class this way with a little bit more practice. Synchronous classes are attempting to reproduce aspects of the in-person experience. Today, Gather did something I would not attempt in Zoom. But to go further I need to be sure the sound is robust (and for those that cannot attend, I need to find a way to record any “lecture” component.)

It did succeed in my goals of changing the pace, increasing interactions, and allowing students more agency in their own education (at least for those that showed up.) When class finished, we all hit Z and did a happy dance.

Published by Jenny Quinn

Mathematician. Mother. Wife. Leader. I am a professor of mathematics at the University of Washington Tacoma. Mother of Anson and Zachary. Wife to Mark. President of the Mathematical Association of America.

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