Wednesday, June 15, 2022

The great 8 pillars of IBL teaching and grading for growth

It's time to connect the pillars of IBL teaching and grading for growth (alternative grading). The idea here is that these two sets of pillars go together and help provide a holistic framework of teaching. The combo is better than the individual components.  Peanut butter & jelly. Peas & carrots. Mac & cheese. 

IBL pillars:

  1. Deep engagement in rich mathematics.
  2. Frequent opportunities for students to collaborate with peers and their instructor(s).
  3. Instructor inquiry into student thinking.
  4. Instructor focus on equity.
Alternative grading pillars:
  1. Clearly defined standards.
  2. Helpful feedback.
  3. Marks indicate progress.
  4. Reattempts without penalty.
Both IBL and grading for growth are frameworks or "big tents," within which are a set of tools for each. Instructors can select tools to address the needs and challenges in their teaching context.

When you are planning your next course, use the great 8 pillars

Disclaimer The number of pillars can change over time.  So this might be the fab five or the nine pillars someday. The number doesn't matter. The combination of IBL teaching and grading for growth is what matters.


Wednesday, June 1, 2022

Grading for growth in large classes: a first attempt

Here's the context. 1000 students are in first-year Linear Algebra, split into 7 lecture sections with 7 different instructors, and 14 TAs, who teach dozens of tutorials/recitations.  That's a lot of people!

We started the term online due to the omicron wave in winter 2022, and then taught the second half of the term with a mix of in-person and online. At the beginning of the term, we did not know when or if we would return to in-person learning, and had to setup the course in early January with the uncertainties of the pandemic. This post focuses on the assessments for the course and some initial thoughts.  

TL;DR You can implement grading for growth even in large, coordinated courses.

Here the assessment setup:

  1. First a major constraint... An in-person final is mandatory and "owned" by the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, and has to be at least 35% of the grade.  The other 65% of the grade was based on the items below.  Also note that in Canada, 80% is an A-, 70% is a B-, and so on.  So the weight of the final is not as immense as it would be in the U.S.  In the U.S. 25% is a rough conversion.
  2. I gave a two-part final. Part 1 tests core standards worth 25% of the course grade. Part 2 of the final had challenging problems worth 10% intended for students who want to improve their grade to an A or A+.  
  3. In lieu of midterms (which would have been online for at least one of them), students submitted 4 graded group reports. (Two additional assignments were reflective writing assignments for a total of 6 reports.) Group size was set at 2-3 students, and some groups were allowed to grow to 4 due to special circumstances (e.g. adding a student to a group). 
  4. Group reports (30%) were submitted online (Gradescope) and the TAs and instructors graded 2 or 3 of the 4 or 5 problems.  The ungraded problems were checked for completeness.  Problems that were graded, were graded with a rubric for mathematical correctness and presentation.  The entire assignment was out of 10 points, and written feedback was given to students.
  5. Students could resubmit group reports at least once.  For the early group assignments, we had the capacity to accept up to 3 resubmissions. The last group assignment, which was due near the end of the term, allowed us to accept one resubmission.
  6. Online homework (20%) was assigned on MathMatize, and the due date for all assignments was set for the end of term. Students were allowed to redo problems as many times as needed, and were given suggested completion dates that matched the pace of the course. 
  7. Because the course was a flipped, IBL course, students were required to do reading assignments (15%) before class. Reading assignments were done on Perusall, where they were graded using "threshold" grading with instant feedback.  If students made 3 or more comments they would get credit for the assignment.  Reading assignments had a hard due date, because we expected students to read the sections before we would do activities in lectures.  The 4 lowest scores were dropped, which allows students some flexibility. 
Lectures were centered on activities to support student learning of the core ideas. Tutorials were a mix of activities, practicing basics, and preparing students for their group reports.  I won't go into further details about how classes were organized, since the focus of this post is grading for growth.

Students could pass the course if they did all of groups reports, online homework, and reading assignments. Students would need to perform well enough on the final exam to earn an A or B.

The Whys? 
I wanted to accomplish a few things. One is to reset incentives towards learning and intrinsic values.  Another is to center honest, hard working students who want to learn, and reduce incentives for cheating.  A third is to avoid using creepy proctoring software (where students have to ask a proctor for permission to move if they need to vomit), which also use biased algorithms

One aspect of grading for growth that I appreciate is that the honest students, who do their own work and submit their mistakes are not penalized or behind, compared to people who lookup answers or pay for services that give them the answers.  Students who make mistakes receive feedback, and grow from the process.  These students appreciated being able to update their reports and fix issues.  Their grades aren't being negatively affected by those who cheat. The students who cheat will learn less and be less prepared for the final, future courses, their lives, and careers. Online cheating is a reality at the University of Toronto and sadly almost everywhere, when things are setup the old way with timed, rigid, high-stakes (online) tests as the bulk of the grade. 

The pandemic is a major factor still (and will be next year too, imo), and impacts students and their families. The gradient of risk also skews heavily towards the more vulnerable and marginalized.  Grading for growth with opportunities to resubmit work without penalty gives students more time to learn the material during the semester and crucially creates a more level playing field.  If students get sick or have to deal with a family emergency, flexibility is built into the course to help students get their work done during the term. It should not matter, if a student learned something in week 8 vs. week 10. 

Students who don't invest in the learning will not do as well on the final exam or in their future work (or life). The final exam is one of the ways that students are held accountable during the term.  More broadly, students need to learn the course material as well as learn how to learn, and the course philosophy is talked about with students. Students will need both the content knowledge and the improved thinking in their lives, and cheating/looking up answers won't help them become better and smarter.  

Group reports are focused on why questions or having students explain why things work the way they do. Sample questions on group reports:

Give examples of a plane in $\mathbb{R}^3$, using vector form, normal form, and standard/cartesian form. Explain the advantages and disadvantages of each representation.

The setting for this problem is $\mathbb{R}^3$.  Suppose you have a plane $P$ and two vectors $\vec a$ and $\vec b$ in $P$.  The task is about the general question, ``If you add two vectors in a plane, is the result still in the plane?''  More specifically, using examples, diagrams, and sentences, find characteristics of planes, $P$, such that $\vec a + \vec b \in P$.  Additionally, find characteristics of planes, $P$, such that $\vec a + \vec b \notin P$.

Some things I'd like to change  The reason why we have to have group reports vs. individual reports is due to TA hour limitations.  Without constraints I would have students submit individual reports and have all problems graded.  But that is way beyond the budget for TA time. 

Practically speaking, reducing the number of group reports to 2 per term could allow for individual reports, with 1 rewrite each.  The pros would be that there would be more individual feedback, and less incentive for students to divvy up group report problems and focus on fewer problems.  The downside of going down to 2 reports is that you have fewer topics covered and higher stakes per report.  There are other options such as 3 reports done in pairs or 3 reports done individually.   I'll have to sort this out this summer. One takeaway here is that there are options and tradeoffs.

Reading assignments and online assignments generally work as they are intended. They focus on basic skills and fundamental concepts.  The one issue that is specific to the University of Toronto is regarding Perusall and reading assignments. There are local tutoring services in Toronto that sell Perusall comments that customers can copy-paste into the system.  Some of these get flagged as "plagiarism" by the Perusall system, but students can make slight edits and work around the issue.  One way to get around this is to switch to reflective writing assignments submitted via Canvas and grade these for completeness. 

Tweaking the final into more sections to make clear what the standards are and what students are expected to know for the final is another area that will be worked on.  One idea is to have three parts to the final with specific themes. 
  1. Part 1: 10% of course grade is based on core skills (e.g. computing determinants, determining if a set of vectors is linearly independent.)
  2. Part 2: 10% of course grade on demonstrating conceptual understanding of core concepts (e.g. answering concept questions via short answer or sentences.)
  3. Part 3: 15% of course grade on applying ideas and skills to solve more challenging problems. (Prove why a given matrix is/is not diagonalizable.)
Students will be given a final exam guide with the details, sample problems, and a list of standards that will be covered on the exam.   Students who do all the term work would go into the final with 65% of their course grade in hand (or a course grade equal to a C).  Getting 80% of parts 1 and 2, will net 16% or a total score of 81% in the course, which is an A-.   Students who want an A or A+ will need to solve some or all of the Part 3 problems (or get 100% on parts 1 and 2 to get an A).

Setting aside the details of the scheme above, the main takeaway is that instructors can set percentages for the term work and final exam parts in ways to fit the assumptions and values of their institution.  What I did was try my best to think of something that would work and then I'll adjust as I learn and get feedback. 

Places to start A couple easy places to start with grading for growth is to make homework online with infinite attempts (WebWork, MathMatize, or whatever is bundled with your textbook) and setting up a standards-based final exam using.  I am unable to implement a standards-based (formerly called mastery-based) final at UofT due to policy restrictions. 

With standards-based finals what I did in the past is to write a Part 1 of the final with the core standards, where students need to earn 90% on it in order to keep their grade going into the final OR earn a C- (if the incoming grade is below a C-).  Students scoring less than 90% on Part 1 could have their grade go down on a sliding scale up to a whole letter grade.  Part 1 has core standards, such as basic skills and computations.  The theme of Part 1 is "If you pass this class with a C-, you should know these things."  (What is on Part 1 needs to be transparent to students with ample opportunities to practice.)

Part 2 of a standards-based final are challenging problems that are opportunities for students to demonstrate that they learned the material deeply and can raise their grade up to an A.  Part 2 problems can be proofs, explanations, or more challenging problem-solving questions.  

Again I could not implement this due to policy constraints, but standards-based finals are a way to start without having to change everything. Keeping all the other parts the same, and using a standards-based final is a reasonable starting place.   Once you get that down, then you can move onto other parts of the assessment scheme.

Final thoughts  I used grading for growth in small classes (enrollment 25-35) for many years, so the idea wasn't new to me.  Transitioning to coordinating large courses meant focusing on things like group reports, a "tiered" final exam, and then thinking about how to make things work within the TA hours constraints.  The smaller the class, the more options you have. 

One advantage of having a TA hours budget is that you have to think about what would work without spending all your time on grading.  It's not ideal or "excellent," whatever that means, but it's better.  And better is good.  More TA hours would also be good :)  

If you are teaching a small course and have no TAs, one idea is to think of your own budget in time. Set aside a number of hours you would spend marking per week or per term, and then figure out what could work in that time budget. 

I know that for many it is big step to use alternative grading, but there are major benefits to switching that needs to be emphasized again and again.  When you align assessment with learning and implement IBL or active learning, it's a much better experience for students and makes the entire course more aligned with the goals of education.  It brings us closer to our vision of humanistic math education. Thus, it is worth the effort to go down this route.

Resource Check out the Grading Conference group, their slack channel, and work with a community of educators working on this grading for growth. They are a fun, friendly group, and will help you get started. 

Thursday, May 5, 2022

Dual delivery: teaching in-person and online for equity and access for students with disabilities, marginalized students

Dual-delivery teaching is the idea of teaching in-person and online at the same time.  It's also called hyflex or hybrid teaching, and I am not sure how these are defined by others.  In this post, I outline why I chose to teach dual-delivery everyday for this past academic year, and why I think this is an important way forward as we continue to deal with the pandemic and ultimately provide better support for students with disabilities and students at higher risk.  I also share my tech setup and some of experiences from this past year.

Context I teach large lecture sections of 150-200 students, with TAs, access to Zoom and Zoom cloud storage, and being able to buy the necessary gear.  I teach at the University of Toronto, a large, urban, public research institution.  I am an able-bodied person with not health conditions, and my perspectives are as an ally. 

Why should we still offer some form of online option? The gradient of risk skews disproportionately towards poorer, marginalized, black, brown, indigenous, and disable people.  What this means is that they have to manage more risk and can suffer worse outcomes due to a range of factors, many of which are consequences of an unequal society that existed before the pandemic.  

Consider the case where a student is vulnerable or lives with someone who is vulnerable.  Considers the multiple layers of students who come from marginalized communities, take mass transit, lack access to good healthcare, sick leave, and options to work from home.  Additionally, when students get sick and need to isolate, they need access to the course. While these are just a handful of examples, the general point we can draw is that risks and consequences are not equally shared by our students. Marginalized, racialized, disabled student bear much more of the risks and consequences of the pandemic.  

Some politicians and administrators framed returning to in-person learning using the false binary of (A) in-person = good for mental health vs. (B) virtual learning = bad for mental health.  In reality we live in a much more diverse and complex world.  Some students are concerned about their health, and being forced to return to in-person classes is a source of anxiety. Hence, society has a wide spectrum of people and needs, and false dichotomies are by nature unequal, not inclusive, and can contribute to codifying systemic inequities.

If we take a step back and think about teaching over the past several decades, we have not given much attention to people with disabilities to our shame.  The pandemic exposed this clearly.  We don't do nearly enough for students with disabilities.  And as people get tired of the pandemic and rush back to in-person only learning, we also eliminated online access in most cases, leaving marginalized students behind yet again.  Many institutions chose in person only, and if students can't make or miss class, then the message was for them to "get the notes from a classmate," as if nothing happened between 2020 and today. 

But the thing is, we know how to do it better. We learned during this pandemic how to teach online, and provide more access and more support for disabled and marginalized students.  Offering students online options provides more ways for students to manage their risk and get an education.

My current tech set-up and typical day  
  1. iPad, apple pencil, laptop, Rode Wireless Go mic.
  2. Teach class from the physical classroom, and start a zoom meeting.
  3. Zoom screen share iPad, connected via cable (for quality and reliability).
  4. Project computer screen in class via HDMI, so students in class see the iPad screen.
  5. Use a mic setup that allows students in-class and online to hear you (necessary for large lecture halls, not necessary for smaller classes.)
  6. Class is taught using Notability (PDF annotation app) used as a virtual whiteboard with prepared handouts and google slides.
  7. Record class meetings to Zoom cloud, post to Canvas with PDF notes from class.
A typical day is similar to what I'd normally do. I have activities planned that switch between students working in pairs and whole class discussion. With the zoom option open, student can join breakout rooms or depending on the attendance, stay in a whole group discussion online.  The teaching experience is broadly the same, but there are differences. 

I visit in-person students as I would normally. I go around the room and check in on a subset of groups as move around the class to different locations each time. I use this to guide the timing and to seek out questions or topics we need to make public.

For zoom students, I tried a couple of different things, depending on whether I had a TA in the lectures (AKA lecture TA). When I had a lecture TA, I would have the lecture TA manage the zoom discussions.  In my opinion, this is the best option. It's hard to manage the zoom discussions and in-person discussions (for me and my context of large classes).  Having a TA dedicated to working with the online students worked best, and it's what I recommend if possible.

In some of my classes, I did not have a lecture TA, and in that situation, I am not be able to monitor the zoom class as much.  I did try having students work in breakout rooms, via selecting their own group or assigning students to groups randomly.   Some groups worked on the problems, and other groups were less active.  My sense is that for each class of students there may be different levels of participation depending on the specific people in the class, and there isn't a single strategy that works for all situations.  My approach is to go in with a strategy to encourage student engagement, and select from a list of strategies to see what works. As I get more experience, I may be able to say more and find ways to refine my teaching so that I can check in on the zoom students more frequently.   

One advantage for students on Zoom is chat.  Chat is the most used feature and I engage with students in class on Zoom via chat.  The chats would range from welcoming students at the start of class, asking 3-2-1-go questions, soliciting responses to math questions, and answering questions.  When I give the class a task to work on, I use part of that time to check on the chat, switching between chat and visiting students in class. 

Padlet/Google doc is one way to help students in both groups to share in a single space. I have had mixed success with this.  Moving to an app on a phone or switching to another browser is an extra step. That extra step is enough to see a drop in participation.  Instructions have to be clear and direct, where we ask each group (pair) to share their thinking. (One idea I may try in the future, is to ask students in-person to have one group member join the zoom meeting with video off, in order for the group to access the class chat. Another suggestion I learned about is to use Discord/Slack during class, but that also requires using another app.)

Why post a recording? Some students truly benefit from a recording, particularly some students with disabilities. Recordings allow students to stop/start/review the video enabling them to to stay focused on the content, see the live transcript, etc., where they might otherwise get lost in a live class.  This is the main reason to post recordings. 

There are other reasons to post recordings. If you teach a multi-section course, perhaps only one of the classes needs to be taught in dual-delivery mode. For example, some instructors may not have the skills yet to teach via active learning and dual delivery, and the recording can be used by students from any section.   Sometimes students need to revisit an idea or want to review, and having a recording is helpful in these cases.  Students who get sick may not feel well enough to join synchronously, and having options for catching up. I am sure there are more reasons, and this is merely a list from my experience.

The most common reason I have heard against posting recordings stems from a deficit mindset. The reasoning is more or less boils down to concerns that some students will become lazy and not attend class, if a zoom recording is available.  Therefore, their reasoning is to not offer class recordings in order to force students to attend class.  But let's be clear. The needs of students with disabilities should always take priority over something like attendance policies.  One of my former students said it best.
"Accessibility should never be a bargaining chip or an afterthought. It's about making something that isn't possible for someone possible, and that's not nothing for people who are disabled—it's absolutely everything, it's the whole wide world."  - anonymous student, University of Toronto
What's hard about dual delivery? It's more work, and involves a lot of juggling.  Ideally, instructors should be provided with enough TAs/learning assistants to manage the in-person and online activities. If you have small classes, then it is more doable without TA help.   For larger classes, having extra help makes a bigger difference.

I did teach a large class (enrollment 140) in dual delivery without any TA support in lectures. It's not easy, and you have to make choices with how you use your time.  What this meant in practice is that I did not have the time or resources to check on the zoom breakout rooms often. I primarily used chat to communicate with the online students, but was not able to manage group dynamics regularly.  During group work time, I would visit students working in pairs in the in-person portion of class, and the timing of in-person group work tends to go faster than online groups, which is another factor to consider.  One way to mitigate all this is to be sure that students knowhow class is structured, and they could still ask questions via chat or take their questions to their weekly 2-hour tutorial/recitation section or office hours.

Students are nearly universally understanding. In most of their courses, they do not have an online option. Thus, the existence of something and knowing that you are trying your best with the time and resources you have is well-received. The point here is that students understand when resources are limited, and offering something and knowing you are doing your best is appreciated, even if it is not ideal. 

The big institutional limitation is lack of support for the extra work this takes at the present time.  There exists solutions to helping a broader range of students in all our classes that can be implemented now.  Institutions should provide the TA/LA hours, the gear, and any necessary training and support for more instructors to do this effectively.  It's something I will be advocating for going forward so that dual delivery will become more widespread.

Technical stuff Audio is the biggest tech challenge, especially if you need to be mic'd up for a large lecture hall. The fix is to either use two mics, or to use a line splitter.  I chose the latter. 
  • Rode Wireless Go transmitter on my shirt sends the audio signal to the receiver.
  • The receiver sends the audio signal to a line splitter.  You then need two more cables to connect one line to the AV system in the classroom and another line to your computer. (The cable to my computer requires a TRS to TRRS adapter.) 
  • Good audio makes a big difference for video or zoom, so I suggest investing in a lavalier mic or wireless lavalier mic system. When audio is poor quality it can make the videos much harder to learn from. 
Technical setup time is about 5 minutes to get the AV system on, mics on, iPad and zoom meeting up and running and then all the window management that comes with zoom.  With repetition it gets easier, but it's a lot of setup time and you do have to double check each day that you have all your gear ready, batteries charged up. It's a production I repeated for each and every class meeting this year. 

I should note that there are other ways to setup your tech. What I described is a bit ad doc, based largely on the equipment I already had and what I am familiar with. If you try something like this, your tech setup might look different.

Assessment Another piece I'll only mention briefly is standards-based grading. This topic deserves its own blog post.  What I'll share is that equity and accessibility also intersects with assessment, and having flexible due dates and opportunities to resubmit work is another piece of the approach I am using.  Given the turmoil of going to college during a pandemic, students getting sick, etc., having a flexible assessment system keeps more students moving forward in their education.  I didn't have to deal with tons of emails about needing extensions or petitions for missed midterms, etc.  The assessment system was designed so that students were encouraged to learn, get feedback, and continue learning. 

Summary Now that we have the tech, skills, and experience, more of us can move forward with reaching and supporting a wider spectrum of our students.  It's more work, and it'll require some training and investment from our institutions to help us manage an appropriate workload and do it well.  The big benefit will be in creating a more humanistic educational experience for a wider range of students. 

Dual Delivery + Active Learning + Standards Based Grading + Humanity

The pandemic is not over yet.  No matter how badly we want it to be over, it's not over, especially and particularly for marginalized people.  In fact, with the way public health measures have suddenly disappeared this year, at-risk people are possibly in a more dangerous time now than in 2020.  Further many student needs (students with disabilities) will continue to exist even after the pandemic is in the past. Thus, providing dual delivery gives students the freedom to manage their risks and make decisions that work for them.  Rather than going with a one-size-fits-the-able-bodied students as some of us are being encouraged to subscribe to, we can instead use what we learned to show grace, kindness, empathy, and humanity and teach all our students.  

Thursday, December 16, 2021

Liminal space

 “Honor the space in between no longer and not yet.” 

                          - Nancy Levin.


I’ve written this post a dozen times, and have deleted it a dozen times. I am still processing.  What existed before (pre 2019) is no longer, and what we will be in the future is not yet here. We’re in liminal space. 


Fall 2021 has been the hardest semester that I have ever experienced as an educator by far.  Even though the coronavirus is not done, some people or many people are done with it. I totally understand that it’s been hard, and we want to move on.  Along with covid fatigue I have seen less empathy and kindness, and I learned quite a few very unwelcome things about the systems and societies we live in. Many of us lost loved ones or colleagues, have had to deal with covid, or had to work in unsafe conditions and the stress that goes along with it. 


Team education is about the long game. We are educating today’s youth, as a social responsibility to them, to prepare all of them for their future lives. While some try to spin education as a commodity or individual good, I push back against this “consumer” notion of education and re-center it as a social responsibility. Using the social responsibility lens has helped me understand where we have come from and where I hope we can go.  


Where we were wasn’t all rainbow cupcakes and unicorns. Back in 2019 and before, we know we had major cracks in society from inequality to inequitable systems to classrooms that still were based on the weedout culture. 


I also understand that we want to get back to being able to do some things in person, such as see our friends for lunch. Yes, we want those basic, human parts of normal back and I am all for it. I'm not talking about that part of normal.


The other part of normal is what I hope we don’t go back to. That part of normal, brought us to how we mismanaged the pandemic in the context of a spectrum of inequities. Teachers and nurses quitting or thinking about quitting their jobs, because they were treated in undignified ways. Witnessing a non-expert suddenly in charge of managing how a campus deals with a rapidly evolving infectious disease, despite there being much better qualified people available, without enough safety precautions, and requiring students to sign waivers to release that campus of tort liability, all the while ignoring the concerns of the local community.  It’s like that time when you went to dinner with a friend, who treated the waiter terribly, and you learned that person isn’t someone you wanted to hangout with anymore. It’s that feeling times 1,000,000.


Where do we go from here? I don’t have answers, but I know a direction for the long game.  The striking thing to me as I have observed and watched people and society, is that the lack of collectivist values and empathy are things that desperately need to be addressed.  I don’t know how we accomplish this in college math classes yet, but I do know that it’s not enough to teach math as isolated from humanity. 


Sometimes new beginnings are disguised or start as painful endings. Sometimes we are betwixt and between. This time could be merely a waiting place, where we just sit it out. Liminal space, however, could be a graced period, where we create something special for the next phase.  The active learning movements were not born out of some mythical halcyon days, where students were all learning and succeeding. Thoughtful people noticed that there were shortcomings in education and that we needed to do better for our students.


So I have a direction to travel through this liminal space. That direction is towards humanistic math education.  Humanistic math education has risen in my thinking more and more over the years. Initially it was about inclusion and equity and helping students succeed at math, and I see even more now that it’s also about somehow teaching people to be more collectivist and that education must also be about all of us. Knowing math is not enough to be a moral citizen, and likewise teaching via IBL without the humanistic element is not sufficient. 


Take care and stay safe!


Saturday, October 2, 2021

Resources for Professional Developers (short post)

Note:  I've been backlogged for a few months from moving and starting at a new job. More posts on IBL topics coming. 

Last August, I gave the Leitzel Lecture at MAA MathFest.  In that talk, I shared some resources for professional developers.  Here's a link to a webpage on the AIBL site with a range of resources.

Some items you find are:

  • N things to consider when facilitating a workshop
  • AIBL Handbook for Online Professional Development: Lessons Learned from PRODUCT Workshops
  • AIBL Workshop Modules for course coordinators running department-level workshops on IBL
  • Self-paced course on Race in America
  • Links to blog posts on equity and inclusion
  • Explainers and evaluation reports for about what IBL workshops are and evidence about their effectiveness. 

Saturday, April 3, 2021

Umami and Teaching: "Feeling Closer to the Teacher of My Vision"

Umami is a Japanese term from the culinary world described as meaty, savory deliciousness that deepens flavor (Link).  Umami as an idea has other forms. For example, umami can also be the first sip of coffee in the morning.  Ahhh!  Or it can be taking a refreshing hot shower after a long hike on a warm summer day. Ahhh!

We usually talk about IBL teaching in terms of benefits to students, the key features, or the nuances of how to implement it well.  What faculty gain is talked about less, and is often overlooked.  For many of us  teaching is a calling, and it's not only because we love our subjects. The enjoyment of teaching is in meaningful human interactions, students and instructors working together towards to learn, discover, and grow as humans.  

One of the big reasons why instructors should use IBL methods is because it's enjoyable and fulfilling for instructors. A centerpiece of IBL teaching is building community, and when students and instructors work as a team, then the magic happens. Enabling the dreams of students and transforming their lives is a great thought to wake up to in the morning. That's a form of umami within the grasp of every teacher.

The evaluation team (Sandra Laursen, Devan Daly, Tim Archie, Chuck Hayward) for the NSF PRODUCT asked participants, what did you gain personally from employing IBL methods? Below are a some responses from participants about umami and teaching. Enjoy!

“I personally enjoy going to class more each day.  When lecturing I sometimes found myself dragging myself to the classroom with particularly challenging groups. In IBL classrooms, I am generally excited to see what my students will do each day.” 

“Teaching using IBL methods keeps me excited about teaching, helps me see things from different angles and I learn new things from students all the time.” 

“When I can do it, I feel really proud and energized--feel closer to the teacher of my vision.” 

“I feel that the IBL workshop helped me adapt my pedagogy in small ways to try to create equity and make my students feel that this was their classroom and that I believed in them unconditionally. I held those beliefs prior to the workshop, but the workshop opened my creative thinking to all the ways I could adapt small (and large) behaviors to support my goals.”

“I enjoyed my time in class more, was able to interact more with the students and develop deeper relationships with each.” 

“I've learned more about the material than I thought I had left to know.” 

“I found it much more enjoyable designing a course around IBL methods, and implementing these methods in my classroom. There's only so much you can do with a lecture, and it becomes boring after a while. It was exciting when students surprised me with the answers, both correct and incorrect.” 

“I enjoy teaching more, and find my work has much more value. I'm not just teaching students calculus, I'm changing what they think mathematics is and their views of themselves and their own view of their ability to do mathematics.” 

“It was a lot of fun! It felt like my students and I were working together and that they were like mathematicians in training/apprenticeships.” 

Monday, March 1, 2021

The case for virtual conferences and workshops post pandemic



The future is not written. We can secure the prosperity of future generations through our actions today. We can make choices that determine how we ultimately manage the climate and human climate crises, AKA the twin crises, of our time. We need both policy and individual actions to address these crises, and while individual actions are small in terms of contributions to the CO2 footprint, changing norms and influencing the policy requires individuals to take part in the process by raising awareness. We influence the people in our circles. 

Everyone wants to see friends, family, and colleagues in person and enjoy activities we can do together. Conference travel has taken me to places I wouldn’t have traveled to otherwise, and I have been able to meet new people and learn new ideas via work-related travel. No one wants to travel more than I do, and I understand how going virtual impacts people. 

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Warming_stripes

But my thinking has drastically changed the past few years, and now I’ve come to the conclusion, where I strongly believe we need to do things differently in higher education.  We should plan virtual meetings and conferences post pandemic as the default (with allowances for regional hubs). More and more faculty are concerned about our role in the climate crisis, and some believe we should do our part to reduce our carbon footprint and set an example for other sectors of society. My individual actions are tiny compared to what professional societies and institutions can do, and purchasing an electric car or reducing my air travel is minuscule in relation to what the math profession or the larger education sector contributes.


How much CO2? For one of the 2019 IBL workshops offered by AIBL, the total flight miles was about 90,000 miles traveled by just 33 participants and facilitators. These flights created about 24 tonnes of CO2, and does not include airport transfers, conference room service, and if family or significant others also traveled. 


Conferences create orders of magnitude more carbon footprint than a single, small workshop. One large example is the Fall Meeting of the American Geophysical Union (AGU). “Take the Fall Meeting of the American Geophysical Union (AGU) — the world’s largest Earth- and space-science conference — held in San Francisco, California, last December. We calculate that its 28,000 delegates travelled 285 million kilometres there and back — almost twice the distance between Earth and the Sun. In doing so, they emitted the equivalent of about 80,000 tonnes of CO2 (tCO2e).” (Link).  The Joint Math Meetings or MathFest are much smaller, yet still could account for thousands of tonnes of CO2. 


I think most people understand generally why this matters. David Wallace-Wells wrote about some terrifying studies in his book, “The Uninhabitable Earth.”  Half of all CO2 emitted in history has been during the last 30 years. In one study just the difference between 1.5C and 2.0C and only looking at air pollution (and not other factors) results in an estimated 153 +/- 43 million deaths. This is unconscionable, especially given that poorer, developing regions and BIPOC communities will bear the greatest burden, and they have contributed far less to the crisis (Link to cited article). Not only is climate the largest problem we have faced, it is also the largest social justice problem we have ever faced. What scientists have learned is that we are on the path past +2C, and that climate change is a dial, not a binary on-off switch. The less carbon we emit, the less suffering there will be, and humans control how far we turn this dial. 


Another major reason why I believe in the value and promise of virtual options is equity. There are a handful of groups of people that often are not able to participate in professional development workshops or travel to conferences. These are people with small children or other people in their care, people with health issues or disabilities that prevent them from traveling, non-tenure track faculty, and instructors who do not have access to travel funding, who often work at 2-year colleges and regional institutions. 


Even before the pandemic, people in these categories were not able to travel to conferences or workshops. For those who have been able to travel in the past for work and are looking forward to doing it again, imagine all the people working in our profession who have not had such opportunities. During the pandemic some of them were able to attend virtual JMM or a virtual IBL workshop, and if things open back to the way they were, these groups will once again be locked out. Even if we had the technology to create zero-carbon air travel, equity will persist as an issue. 


One overlooked consequence of going back to 2019 is that it puts the onus on individuals to try and navigate systemic issues. Individuals would have to choose between the climate or attending a conference to advance their careers. Some individuals will not be able to attend, and all they can do it email the organizers, if there will be remote participation options. This is one way systems perpetuate social problems, and hence it is the responsibility of professional societies and institutions of higher ed to work on these issues and develop systemic solutions to system induced, contributed, or created problems. 


One aspect of addressing the climate and equity crises is the essential role of policy. In our small corner of the world of math associations, policies could be crafted that help us do better in both reduction of our carbon footprint and increasing access for all people in the math profession. Otherwise, we will continue to add to climate problems and maintain social inequities.


Biennials, regional hubs and virtual attendance can significantly reduce emissions (Link). Carbon offsets can be purchased to mitigate absolutely necessary travel (and could be built into the cost of registration fees. I personally use Native Energy). I We can also develop virtual events during conferences and workshops to include activities for informal community building, recreating some of the valuable informal time at in-person conferences. We can innovate how we organize these sessions and utilize technology to make these experiences check all the boxes.


One oversimplified mental exercise is to ask, "Would I rather spend part of our carbon budget on work travel or on visiting family once a year?" This is not a real choice. It's an exercise in engaging in defining priorities and attempting to connect to our values.


As a profession we say we care about climate and equity, and if we go back to the way things were in 2019 after the pandemic, then it’s tantamount to looking the other way. Looking the other way normalizes human suffering and inequities, which is exactly the opposite of the collectivist values needed to pull us together to deal sufficiently with the twin crises of our time. So let’s not look the other way and languish in complacency, because we need a more empathic, active response. Let’s look forward and think creatively to recreate better and more inclusive ways to meet and do our work.