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 sat down with instructor Gabby Resch, an instructor at the Faculty of Information, an affiliate of the Clinical Making Lab and the Semaphore Research Cluster at the University of Toronto, and a postdoctoral researchers at the Synaesthetic Media Lab at Ryerson University. Gabby’s research focuses on data objects in digital and analogue spaces and how we can make sense of them. You can learn more about his work here. His engaging teaching brings together a variety of tools and platforms, highlights student contributions, and brings together the best of research being done both at the University of Toronto and Ryerson University.
What has been the most surprisingly fun thing about teaching online?
I’m teaching a Bachelor of Information data visualization course at the moment, so the students are part of a cohort, and are already acquainted with each other. While I strongly prefer teaching in person, as I find it is much easier to get to know students when I can interact with them face-to-face each class, I’ve encouraged the group to make ample use of the chat window in Bb Collaborate. This seems to have allowed us to develop some of the rapport that would normally only come from in-class conversation. While our subject matter is often serious, our discussions sometimes resemble an ICQ/MSN/AIM chat room of yesteryear. The combination of abundant pandemic-related visualization resources and the U.S. election has meant that we’ve never been short of material to discuss.
What was the biggest change you had to make to your courses to adapt them online?
I already use materials that are designed for online interaction, so adapting my teaching hasn’t been particularly challenging, but it has taken time for me to get used to not seeing students’ faces. I have a very discussion-oriented teaching style, and am not a huge fan of one-way lecturing, so it can be a bit difficult to “read the room” when I can’t see or hear anyone. On that note, I like to do plenty of in-class group activities, and I’m not convinced that breakout rooms on any of the various platforms I’ve tried are a suitable alternative.
How have your students risen to this challenge? How have they made this online environment more engaging for you as an instructor?
Students in the course I’m currently teaching seem more than comfortable using the chat window to raise provocative questions, share resources, and bring up discussion topics. It took a bit of time to get comfortable juggling multiple windows – slides, speaker notes, and links I’m sharing – while staying on top of the chat conversation, but the group has been patient with me. I don’t like to miss addressing any of the great points they raise organically in class, but I also don’t like breaking the flow of a lecture or losing my train of thought. I feel like we’ve got a good compromise going where we’ll “shelve” points or questions until an opening in the conversation, and the students seem perfectly fine with a somewhat scattered flow. It is a bit of a cognitive balancing act, but we’ve probably all been forced to get used to that throughout the pandemic.
What lessons will you take from your online teaching experience and apply in your in-person teaching once we’re back in classes?
I really try to facilitate group discussion in courses I teach, but I also recognize that some students are more comfortable speaking to a room. This, unfortunately, has the tendency to encourage the more vocal students to dominate the conversation. In the past, I’ve asked students who are less inclined to speak out loud in class to make use of discussions on Quercus. While that has been successful, I find that students feel anxious about having extra “channels” to monitor – and the dominant voices in class also tend to be the dominant ones online. The pandemic live chat has been a real blessing, though, and I imagine I’ll keep some element of it when I return to in-person teaching. I’ve never been the kind of instructor to discourage students from having their laptops open in class, so I’ll probably experiment with projecting a running chat – with polls and emojis and all the other things that have been so common these past few months – during future classes.