Instructor Spotlight: Matthew Brower

With classes going online late last year, our educators were thrown headfirst into a brave new world. Students and staff alike are so grateful for our amazing instructors here at the Faculty of Information, and so we at Living the iLife are profiling some instructors whose online instruction have truly stood out to our students this term.

Every instructor discussed in this series has been specifically nominated by you, their students.

This week we’re catching up with Dr. Matthew Brower, an Assistant Professor in the MMSt program. Students have appreciated how he organizes his online classroom and other online spaces, and how receptive his is to student feedback and needs. Another perk: the music he plays before classes.

Dr. Matt Brower, Assistant Professor at the Faculty of Information

What has been the most surprisingly fun thing about teaching online?

There are a number of things about teaching synchronously online that have unexpectedly been fun. I’ve really enjoyed the conversations that have developed in the chat. Students have been commenting on the material, asking questions, responding to each other’s points, developing in jokes (shout out to the class turtle), posting links to supplementary materials, and generally supporting each other and the course. The chat has been parallel to the spoken discussion and has enabled us to really get in depth in our discussions of the material. It has changed the nature of the conversations, the lags that typing and posting introduce mean we’re looping back more but it also changes the nature of the contributions from trying to be quickest to respond to thinking things through before typing.

The other big thing that’s been unexpectedly fun has been playing music before the start of class. It felt really awkward being on camera in an empty course room for half an hour waiting for everyone to trickle in so I started playing music to fill the space. This had led to interesting conversations in the chat from students about the movie references the music evokes and helps us all wake up and focus. I also try to say good morning to everyone as they enter the room so that we acknowledge each other’s presence even if we’re not yet beginning the discussion.

What was the biggest change you had to make to your courses to adapt them online?

The museum management class was easier to adapt. Case teaching lends itself well to an online setting and there were good materials available from Harvard Publishing on transitioning your course to online learning. The hardest part of adapting that class was working out how to translate the participation self-assessment form from a paper document to online quizzes.

Curatorial Practice was harder to adapt as I had to change the focus of the course from producing exhibition experiments on the museum studies wall. I’ve structured the course instead around developing exhibition proposals. To deal with the more difficult coordination problems about group work, I’ve been devoting time each class for students to work in their groups. I’ve made permanent breakout rooms for them which seems to have helped as well.

How have your students risen to this challenge? How have they made this online environment more engaging for you as an instructor?

The students have been great. They’re committed to learning and to supporting each other. One of the most rewarding things this term has been discovering that the management students have formed a budget club to go through additional business cases and develop their skills in doing budgets and reading financial statements.

What lessons will you take from your online teaching experience and apply in your in-person teaching once we’re back in classes?

The biggest lesson has been about providing more space for reflection in class. The lags introduced into response times by typing answers has made it clear to me that students need time to respond effectively. Rather than expecting them to have immediate answers to questions, it works better to give them time to reflect (and perhaps discuss the issues in small groups) before trying to have a discussion with the whole class. The discussions are then richer and a broader range of students participate. My own grad school training really emphasized being the first to name things, but I don’t think it’s a good model for a professional program where we’re trying bring everyone along rather than sort the cohort by smartness.

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