Q&A with the Department of Mathematics’ Antoine Mellet and Susan Mazzullo on virtual teaching

When the University of Maryland suddenly went virtual last March in response to the coronavirus pandemic, departments had to make a quick shift from in-person to online learning. The Department of Mathematics was no exception. Department Chair Doron Levy and Associate Chair for Undergraduate Studies Antoine Mellet took swift action to create a smooth transition for their instructors in a time full of chaos. Together, Levy and Mellet transferred 366 classes, 110 instructors and over 8,000 students to online learning. We spoke with Mellet and Lecturer Susan Mazzullo to learn about their experiences transitioning to online teaching, and what they will bring with them when the department resumes in-person classes in the fall.

How did you feel when you learned that classes were going online?

AM: It was intimidating having to handle such a big undertaking. I was not teaching at that time, but I was tapped to supervise the transition from in-person to online learning along with Chair Doron Levy. Doron was a very crucial force in getting this done. We actually started planning for the shift a few weeks before the campus went virtual. Doron and I were following the news stories about the coronavirus and thought that this might be something we would have to do.

SM: I have taught online before, and in some of my classes I have done zoom “work” session classes and have found them very useful, but not to see the students in person at all was going to be tough. I just miss them terribly. There's something about being with the students in class and seeing their facial expressions and interacting in person. However, because we have tools like Zoom it cushioned the blow. You can ask the students to turn on their videos in Zoom if they want to, so you can see them and talk to them before class. Things like that helped me find new ways to engage with my students and made the shift a bit easier.

What was the transition from in-person to virtual teaching like?

AM: We spent the week of spring break and the week after, when classes were cancelled, making sure that all of the instructors were comfortable with teaching online. We formed a small committee of five of the more tech-savvy instructors and we met almost every day during the two weeks to create tutorials. We also held a meeting with all of the instructors to manage expectations. I think the initial reaction of a lot of my colleagues was that they were nervous about the idea of teaching online. We let everyone know that we didn’t expect anyone to become a master at online teaching overnight.

SM: Our chair and associate chair, Doron and Antoine, facilitated the transition with such care and diligence, we were amazingly prepared for such a dramatic change in course dilivery. They great care with giving us all of the information and equipment needed to hold our classes online. I’ve done distance learning before, so I was familiar with the technology, but putting everything online was so much more work than anticipated, so having information and assistance available was so helpful. They created an online community for the lecturers to talk with one another, share our tips and techniques for online learning, and just help each other out. The transition was really quite a beautiful experience, and everything just came together so nicely. With such a horrible, horrendous situation, for beauty to come out of it is amazing.

What was the biggest challenge?

AM: The main challenge that we ran into was lack of student engagement and low attendance. Pre-pandemic, attendance wasn’t a huge issue, and it was strong at the start of virtual learning but began to drop off toward the end of the semester. Since attendance is important for student learning and making sure they are getting all that they can from the class, we set some guidelines regarding attendance by requiring every course to have one live meeting every week. That helped increase attendance in many of the cases. At the start of the fall semester, attendance wasn’t a major problem anymore.

Another big challenge for us was exams. In a normal classroom setting, we would hold exams in person with no notes and no textbook. Once we started virtual learning, we had to accept that students would likely look to their books for assistance. For smaller classes, we started doing live exams on Zoom, which worked really well. It is much harder for students to go through their textbooks to find answers when you can see them through their cameras. For larger classes, many exams were timed. Students may have been able to look up some answers in their book or online, but with the time given, they would not have been able to do that for all of them.

SM: Not being able to see the students in person is very difficult. When you’re teaching in person, you can look at a student and kind of tell when they’re not getting something and then find a way to explain it better to them. Also, students can come up to you after class and ask questions, but on Zoom it’s just different.

I do office hours and test reviews via Zoom where I can talk with and connect with students. But the most helpful thing has been telling the students at least once a week that they can turn their cameras on so we can say hello and see each other’s faces. A lot of students will participate, and some might even have their hair all crumpled, still in their pajamas, but they were there and participating—I love it. It helped bring back the human element of teaching and I could feel the personality of each student and the class as a whole.

Is there anything from online teaching during the pandemic that you will carry over when in-person math classes resume?

AM: I think that before 2020, technology was slowly making its way into math classrooms. The pandemic has accelerated this movement and some of these tools will stay with us. For example, the collection of homework assignments online, which allows us to get the homework straight from the students to the grader, will likely be used post-pandemic. I also wouldn’t be surprised if some instructors occasionally post short videos for students to watch before or after class. These takeaways from the pandemic will allow us to all become more dynamic instructors going forward. But I think that these semesters of online teaching made it clear that, for most instructors and most students, in-person classes and the connections that are made in them are very valuable and not easily replaced.

SM: I am going to love seeing the students in person! I have missed the in-class contact that builds relationships. This year has encouraged me to continue what I had been doing before the pandemic, but with more, if not all, of my classes. Before the pandemic, I would do an online workshop class about once a week or once every other week for my upper-level classes. When I started these workshops, I found that students who did not like to engage in person seemed to engage more online. I have a feeling that if I have online workshops and in-person classes for all of my courses, then I will be able to actively engage a greater number of students overall. The more ways I am able to engage my students and excite them about math, the better. I am excited to test my theory!

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