A journey through HyFlex: Teaching mathematics during the pandemic and what is next

By John Quintanilla

The hybrid flexible, or HyFlex, course format is an instructional approach that combines face-to-face (F2F) and online learning. (Educause)

Zoom, Colored Pens, Student Interaction, Dual Screens, Canvas, Absenteeism and other observations and tips.

Spring 2021, I was one of the relatively few instructors at my institution, the University of North Texas, who taught face-to-face classes. Several adjustments to face-to-face teaching were mandated by the university to mitigate the spread of COVID-19. Some of these requirements — for example, daily temperature checks with an oral thermometer, biweekly nasal COVID tests, mandatory masks for both instructors and students, spreading out 50 students in a lecture hall designed for over 300, and a prohibition against traditional small-group work — were prudent given the circumstances but will nevertheless be happily forgotten someday.

My university also required me to record my lectures so that any students in quarantine wouldn’t fall behind. Accordingly, I used Zoom and a document camera instead of my normal in-person method of using the chalkboard or whiteboard. To my great surprise, this part of the COVID method of teaching an in-person class was warmly embraced by my students. Indeed, I’m deliberating how much of this COVID method to retain in my teaching practices long after the pandemic has passed. In this essay, I share some mechanics on these adjustments to my usual teaching style that I made as well as some thoughts on the efficacy of these methods.

While my own experience is limited to teaching mathematics courses, I hope that at least some of these thoughts might help instructors in other disciplines.

At UNT, all general-purpose classrooms are equipped with (among other things) a computer with Zoom, a monitor for the instructor (some classrooms have dual monitors), a document camera, a classroom projector, and a projection screen. Even though I taught face-to-face classes in Spring 2021, I used Zoom very similarly to how I taught from home in 2020. I used Zoom to display the image from the classroom document camera onto the in-class screen. (I should emphasize that I did not use the other software available on the classroom computers that also can project the document camera onto the classroom screen.)

I used the “pin” option in Zoom on me (really, the image from the document camera) and then used the full-screen option when projecting the document camera, so that only the projection from the document camera appeared on the main screen at its maximum possible size. (A small note: I had to wait until after a student joined from home before I could pin and full-screen the projection from the document camera.)

I also used Zoom to record my lectures in the cloud. Occasionally, I accidentally recorded to the classroom computer instead of the cloud. When this happened, it was a bit of a hassle to retrieve the recording.

On the document camera, I adjusted the magnification so that one page-width was projected. I also used the auto-focus feature to ensure that my handwriting was clear and then turned off the auto-focus before class started (so that my handwriting would stay in focus when my hands were over the page).

Although I was required to record daily attendance in Spring 2021 to facilitate contact tracing, I was not allowed to require attendance. (Indeed, even before COVID, I never required the attendance of my students.) Before the semester, I created a dedicated Zoom ID as a recurring meeting for each of my courses and posted the Zoom ID on Canvas (UNT’s learning management system). In this way, students had the option of attending class from home or else watch a recording on their own time and would see on their home screens pretty much the same thing that my in-class students would see on the big classroom screen. (More on this later.)

Even though I consider myself pretty tech-savvy, I always came to the classroom at least 10 minutes before the start of lecture to check for possible technological problems. I would log into Zoom, select the correct recurring meeting, and check that the Zoom settings on the classroom computer were appropriately set. Last semester, I found that I’d have to reset something about half the time — usually flipping the screen video, choosing the appropriate audio channel, or turning up the volume so that I could hear any students asking questions from home. Checking for such Zoom problems was necessary since classroom computers are a shared resource; in 2020, I didn’t encounter this issue because other instructors weren’t altering the settings on my home computer.

Colored pens.
At the start of the semester, I splurged and spent about $40 on a nice set of a dozen pens of assorted colors. I wanted to make teaching with a document camera kind of like teaching with a white board, where I’d have about four different colored dry-erase markers at my disposal. I then wrote on the paper notes that I had prepared in advance for that day’s class. By rotating pens and not overusing any one color, all of my pens lasted the entire semester even though I taught two classes with them.

I didn’t use a strict color-coding system, but I tried to be somewhat strategic and purposeful about switching pen colors. I changed pens every time I started a new example. When appropriate, I switched pens in the middle of an example to do a side calculation or to break up a long calculation into smaller pieces.

It seems insubstantial, but my students absolutely loved the colored pens. In my course evaluations, they emphasized that the use of different colors helped them organize their thought processes. (A minor note: I learned the hard way that lime-green pens don’t project well.)

Student interaction.
As a precaution against unfortunate oversights, I told my students on the first day of class to interrupt me — mid-sentence, if necessary — if I ever forgot to start the Zoom recording or else take attendance. Predictably, I made this mistake a couple of times during the semester, and I’m glad that my students pointed this out to me when this happened.

I’ve always been a walker when teaching my face-to-face classes, and I made a point of walking around the classroom as much as possible despite teaching with Zoom. I don’t like the feeling of being tethered to the classroom computer like I was when I taught from home in 2020. However, I necessarily had to stay close enough to whatever microphone I was using so that the Zoom recording could clearly capture my voice. For one class, this was a non-issue since I was in a large lecture hall and used a lapel mic to amplify my voice. For my other class, however, I was in a smaller classroom and did not need to use a microphone for my in-person students to hear me clearly. For this smaller class, I walked around less so that I stayed close enough to the classroom microphone and my voice could be recorded properly.

Because I was mostly looking at my paper under the document camera (when writing) or my students (when not writing), I often did not immediately see when a student from home posted a question using the Zoom chat feature. When this happened, my in-person students, to be helpful, would instinctively start pointing to the screen to alert me that somebody from home had a question. I must admit that I was a little unsettled the first couple of times that my students started pointing at the screen behind me — I thought something on the computer had crashed! In time, I eventually got used to my in-person students pointing at the screen at unexpected moments.

Dual screens.
In Spring 2021, I taught in one classroom that had a single instructor monitor and other classroom that had dual monitors. For sure, the dual-monitor set-up was better for teaching my class with Zoom. As mentioned earlier, I chose the settings on Zoom so that the image from the document camera occupied an entire monitor which was then projected onto the classroom screen. I put all other windows on the second monitor — the Zoom participants, the Zoom chat window, the classroom clock, the Canvas attendance sheet, and/or any other webpage or application that I planned to show my students during that particular lecture (of course, I had to use screen-share so that students from home also could see these). I did not project the contents of this second monitor onto the classroom screens; I only projected one screen and kept the second screen for my own private use (unless I was screen-sharing something that day).

All of the above can be done in classrooms with a single instructor monitor, but it’s more difficult. To screen-share something with my class, I had to deactivate the full-screen option, pull up the screen that I wanted to share, screen-share, show the application, stop screen-share, and then restart the full-screen option.

Canvas as a repository.
After class, I would return to the office, use the office copier to scan that day’s lecture notes in color and email the PDF file to myself, return to my office, adjust the order of the pages in the PDF document if necessary, and save the PDF file to my computer. (The above hand-written lecture notes were produced in this way.) By then, usually enough time had passed to receive the Zoom e-mail me with the link of that day’s Zoom recording, and then I would post both the Zoom recording and the PDF file to Canvas for my students. This process usually took about 10 minutes per class period.

Student perceptions.
At the end of the semester, I surveyed my students about whether I should return to my usual teaching style (writing on a large chalkboard but unrecorded) or keep my Spring 2021 style (document camera and recorded) after COVID-19 becomes a distant memory. I fully expected my students to recommend using the chalkboard since much more information is visible at any one time on a chalkboard than on a document camera. There were plenty of times last semester that I had to creatively fold my papers in order to get information from two different sheets of paper onto the same screen, and that was a bit of a hassle.

However, to my surprise, my students said my use of the document camera was no big deal, and they absolutely loved having both the full recording of the lecture and also the PDF file of the hand-written notes that I made in lecture. I am definitely considering their advice for my future classes.

An unexpected problem: absenteeism.
With 20/20 hindsight, I should have seen this coming before the start of the semester, but I’m afraid I didn’t. In both of my classes — and especially my early morning class — an appreciable percentage of my students rarely came to class when I wasn’t conducting an exam. A lot of these students didn’t even participate in the live Zoom sessions and presumably only watched the recorded lectures on their own time.

Because I took daily attendance of in-person students for contact tracing, I could correlate in-person attendance with final grades. The results were predictable. I did have a handful of high-flying students who attended class in-person less than half the time who nevertheless earned As for the semester. However, and unfortunately, the vast majority of students who chose this approach flunked my course.

As a teacher who cares for the success of my students (and who selfishly doesn’t want to be known for flunking lots of students), I have a dilemma. There certainly are legitimate reasons for a conscientious student to miss class on any given day — illness, family emergencies, car problems, unexpected heavy traffic, etc. When life throws such obstacles in my students’ way, being able to watch that day’s class asynchronously is a wonderful back-up plan. My students also told me that they appreciated being able to re-watch the lectures that they had attended in-person to remind themselves of how to do homework problems or to study for my exams. So there are legitimate ways that class recordings can be beneficial to students.

It’s also an unfortunate fact of life that recordings that could be legitimately used can also be abused to the detriment of my students. I don’t yet have a good answer for how to best prevent abuse of course recordings. I have dismissed a couple of options that I won’t be enacting, like giving the Zoom links only to students who I deem conscientious (which would be inequitable) or else only to students who ask for them (which would create many extra e-mails for me to answer).

For the moment, my resolution of my dilemma is that poor decisions by some students should not deter me from doing something that could greatly benefit others. My students are adults, and, like every other piece of technology that they have, it’s up to them to not abuse the class recordings that I’m providing to them.

Postscript: Student responses.
Below are a couple of representative comments that I received from my Spring 2021 students about whether I should continue to use Zoom and a document camera to record my classes in the future:

“I really like the way class was done this semester being recorded through zoom and using the document camera. Being recorded through zoom allows for people, if for any reason can not come to class, they have a way to be there in real-time. The zoom recording being posted allows for students to video the lecture many times over on their own time. I also benefited from the professor posting the lectures on zoom. Using the document camera allows students to simply go back a page to look at the professor’s notes talked about say 5 minutes ago.”

“I have difficulty focusing sometimes so having access to recordings of the lectures and completed notes helps me make sure to get as much out of your lessons as possible. The recordings were also convenient for studying purposes when I needed a refresher on how to solve certain problems. I’m also a big fan of how you used multiple colored pens for your notes which made steps easier to track as well as remember. I also liked how you would take breaks away from the projector to move around in front of the class for explanations or anecdotes, the change of pace helped lectures not seem so monotonous. While I don’t think you’d want to teach your classes exactly the same next semester, I do think you should carry over some of the methods you used this semester that were helpful to students and had positive impacts on their grades.”

In the interest of full disclosure, there were a few dissenting comments encouraging me to instead return to using the chalkboard or whiteboard after COVID, but even these students encouraged me to figure out a way to record myself when writing on the board.

Dr. John Quintanilla is a University Distinguished Teaching Professor of Mathematics at the University of North Texas. He is also Associate Dean for Undergraduate Studies for the College of Science and the chair of UNT’s Learning Spaces Strategy Committee. He keeps a biweekly blog on mathematics and mathematics education at www.meangreenmath.com.

Adam D. Fein (PhD, Illinois) is the VP of Digital Strategy & Innovation at the University of North Texas. His research examines multimedia learning performance.

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