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Promoting Connection (Pandemic Teaching Fragment #1)

Over the years many students have made good friendships in my classes: working on challenging math problems together is a great way to bond. I’ve always been careful to call such relationships a pleasant byproduct of the pedagogy, not the goal. But in the pandemic, when students are extra isolated, providing opportunities for connection feels critically important for mental health, and classes will be one place where students regularly interact with the potential for community.

This is the first semester I’ve ever starting teaching remotely. Some of my students are coming to the classroom in person, and many others are at home in the U.S., China, India, and other countries. Time zones are a huge issue: for a student in Korea, my afternoon class runs from 3 a.m. to 4:15 a.m.; there is no way that I would encourage, let alone require, a student to come to class at those times.

Over the summer, colleagues and I experimented with many different tools for teaching remotely. I had hoped to be minimalist and pick a few key tools to not overwhelm both the students and me: we would use CampusWire for class communication — it has both threaded feeds and chatrooms and includes Latex for math notation. However, before the semester started, I realized that CampusWire does not embed videos and it’s clunky to attach them. Especially since many students will not be able to make it to class, I want students to be able to share quick videos, and so I added Flipgrid back into the mix. When we tried it over the summer, some colleagues and I forgot that we hadn’t talked about a subject in a Zoom meeting because the video conversation about math on FlipGrid felt so interactive.

In one of my classes I assigned students to make video introductions on FlipGrid and in the other two classes I gave them a choice of introducing themselves on CampusWire or FlipGrid — so far, most have chosen text introductions on CampusWire. I asked them to also including recordings of how to pronounce their names, and many are also including photos of pets, food, scenery, etc. I assigned students in my two Discrete Math classes to play the game we played on the first day with at least one other person from class that they don’t know, using CampusWire to connect. That assignment might have been a lot to ask after one class meeting, so I’m not sure how it’s going to go, but it did signal an intention and I hope give students permission to reach out to each other.

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