Teaching chemistry in an online world

Associate Professor of Teaching Jay Wickenden. Photo: UBC.

Associate Professor of Teaching Jay Wickenden (PhD '14) has taught chemistry for over 10 years at UBC. With lab classes interrupted by COVID-19, he explains how he handled the switch to online classes and offers tips for teachers and students engaged in distance learning.

What were some of the challenges during this online transition?

This was the first time I taught an online course with 430 students. Preparing for things that could go wrong was vital. I came up with procedures such as: what happens if the Canvas platform crashes, what if we are Zoombombed. It’s all written out and there’s a guide for each particular case.

Students had to flip to online learning quickly. They had problems with their Internet, with their computers. There are questions like, where do I study? Do I have to study with my little brother or sister in the background? Where can I get peace and quiet and learn the material?

You were teaching a lab class, which is a very specific scenario. How was that transition?

Lab teaching involves practice and handling glassware. We had covered most of the material I needed to see them do in person. I was able to give them lab data that they could interpret and work with at home. But I was also aware that they had other courses and challenges, and I don’t think I overwhelmed these students with work. 

What are some tips that you might give to other science professors?

Plan ahead. Write a very detailed syllabus. Really evaluate the learning objects, focus on the crucial ones. Think about the complicated learning environment students are in and allow them time to learn the material in their own way. I actually looked at some of the work I was doing and cut some stuff out. These were things that were nice to do in person, but didn’t make much sense to include now when there were more strategic questions I could ask. Think about spreading out the assessment percentages, even it out. Don’t weigh it all so that midterms and finals are the only assessments. Thinks of other ways to keep students engaged, such as quizzes.

I also recommend you try to recreate the class environment as much as you can. When I taught my class in person, I arrived earlier and stayed a bit after class so students could ask questions if they wanted to. I do the same thing online. 

What can UBC do to support professors during this transition?

Listening to what faculty are asking for is important, and be aware online teaching comes with a heavier administrative load. Students don’t have an in-person ability to talk to us, so we get more e-mails and discussion board posts. Questions now include much more technological content, in addition to our area of expertise. It would be nice to have a place to send students if they are experiencing issues on the technology front. UBC has offered some online courses to faculty through Skylight and the Centre for Teaching, Learning and Technology (CTLT) for example, which I found very useful. I would expect that they will continue to offer these resources to faculty.

Have you seen any benefits by moving the courses online?

Yes. In the Fall, I teach a course that has 1,200 students enrolled. Physically, there’s no way to get them all in the same lecture theatre for review sessions—even if you book two lecture theatres in the evening, during the busiest time of the year, some students can’t attend. Online teaching allows me to hold review sessions that can be recorded and students can see the review at any point. In the past, review sessions held at 9 pm were not great. Students that commute using transit would find it difficult to be on campus that late.

People arriving late to exams has dramatically dropped because, again, you don’t have to deal with commuting issues. There are benefits that are tangible for Faculty, too. I found office hours more engaging as I wasn’t distracted by my office phone ringing, or students from other courses popping by—my office is in a teaching lab.

It’s still a great time to innovate. A colleague and I have been working at developing two-stage exams with an online setting. Two-stage exams have been used in many courses in the Faculty of Science at UBC. We began using two-stage exams a few years ago in CHEM 233. These exams have students write their midterm exam individually first, and then submit their work.  Students then form groups of four or five, and write the same (or very similar exam). The key here is that only one paper is submitted by the group, and everyone in that group gets the same grade.  This requires students to discuss why they think they are correct, or sometimes concede that they are incorrect.

Along with my colleague, Professor Jackie Stewart, we piloted online two-stage exams in the summer term. We think they worked well. There are definitely areas that require optimization, which can be done in the fall semester

Are there any tips you would give to students who haven’t taken online classes?

Check your tech! Don’t leave it until the midterm to discover you don’t have a working camera or there’s a piece of software you need.

Students should minimize bandwidth consumption during class time. Work in an area that allows you to focus on your work. Check to make sure your technology works before things are about to start, try out the software that may be assigned for use in the course prior to the first due date. For example, in my summer course I held “virtual coffee tech-checks” before the first day of class. This allowed students to make sure everything was working, and let us all meet informally in the online world.

Also, interact with faculty. It’s really important. Take advantage of office hours. I don’t require students to use video and audio, but it is easier for me to put a name to a face this way. Because after this is all over we will meet in person and I’d like to know you!

More information 

I also recommend you try to recreate the class environment as much as you can. When I taught my class in person, I arrived earlier and stayed a bit after class so students could ask questions if they wanted to. I do the same thing online. 

Geoff Gilliard