In the Spotlight: Teaching Math in a Remote Semester

Even in more “normal” times, few subjects cause college undergrads more anxiety than Math! Add to this the stress of distance education during a global pandemic and, well, you have a definite challenge on your hands. 

However, the Math department has done incredible work this semester, leveraging the OpenLab to facilitate effective remote teaching. This week, I spotlight three of their recent initiatives.

Model Courses

Over the summer, three departments/ programs created Model Courses: Communication Design, the English Department’s First Year Writing program, and Mathematics. These model courses are subject-specific and open to all faculty to clone to use with their students, via the OpenLab’s shared cloning feature. They contain course information, sample assignments, and resources for students–all of which are designed to help faculty meet recommended best practices for teaching online. Math faculty can choose to use these courses in whole or in part, adapting them to meet their needs. Because the courses are public, faculty can still access course materials if they are using another platform (e.g. Blackboard) to teach. You can find these model courses in the Courses directory by checking the “Model” checkbox.

Course Hubs

The Math Department also created Course Hubs, each boasting a collection of vetted open source materials that address core topics. These were created through the OpenLab Model Course Initiative and made publicly available on the OpenLab. In the space of a few weeks, Hubs were created for seven different math courses, including the traditional sequence from Algebra through Calculus and a number of others. In preparation for a fully-online semester and in support of a large and heterogenous department, the team collected student- and faculty-facing resources to support a wide variety of distance-learning activities and approaches, including online lessons, course coordination information, and more. We especially like that these resources include videos that are useful to students, and training opportunities for faculty adapting to distance education!

Assignments to Foreground the Human Side of Math

While the model courses and course hubs provide faculty with valuable teaching resources, they are, at the end of the day, tools that have to be made effective by the instructors implementing them. No tool will ever replace the boost in confidence students receive when surrounded by supportive faculty members and peers. This is why assignments like Prof. Kate Poirier’s are so important. Prof. Poirier invited students from one of her more advanced math classes to post advice to students in her introductory class. Conversely, students in the introductory course were invited to post questions to more advanced students. You can view some of the wonderful advice the more advanced students gave here, and the questions newer students had here. There are too many witty, compassionate, and insightful comments to list here, but as a highlight, I’ll just mention student Sierra Morales’ post encouraging newer students to slow down and write their work step-by-step (no rushing to get quizzes in first!), and to “practice writing out your method and reason for solving each problem the way you did.” The post ends by reminding students to be patient, invest in themselves, and seek out peer advisement when needed. I also want to point readers to Kate Poirier’s other creative assignment inviting students to watch and respond to a viral TikTok video on “whether Math is real” (i.e. useful in real life). In the absence of face-to-face interaction, this online dialogue is heart-warming and necessary–an undervalued but brilliant component of successful learning and teaching.

Congratulations to the Math Department and Math instructors on their innovative work this semester! Make sure to check out these resources and assignments for inspiration!

In the Spotlight: Experiential Art & Design Club

This week, I spotlight the amazing student-led group, the Experiential Art & Design Club. This club provides a “space to create & playtest digital experiences”: you can join to “make video games, immersive art, AR filters, websites, and literally anything else you can think of.” How has this club adapted to remote learning? They’ve moved 100% online and use the OpenLab to maintain an effective digital presence! Some highlights from their OpenLab site and profile include:

  • Featuring links to their Discord (where they meet every two weeks) and Instagram on their profile page.
On their profile page, the club features links to their social media accounts.
  • A “Sign-Up Now!” button at the top of their home page, where it is difficult to miss–and that’s a good thing!
EXP Club's "Sign Up Now" button sits at the top of their home page,
  • A sign-up form in the right-hand widget sidebar of their site, again making it as easy as possible for folks to join the club and get in touch with club leaders.

  • FAQs directly on the site’s home page. These are featured at the bottom of the page, in a collapsible accordion menu which doesn’t take up too much space. The reader can glance at the questions when first landing on the site, and decide whether or not they need answers before joining the club. I love that these questions address potential student insecurities about participating: “I suck at coding,” one of these questions reads, “can I still join?” The club leaders want to reassure you: “the whole point of our meetings is to get better. None of us started off where we are right now. If you’re bad at it, come anyway.”

Finally, beyond maintaining a wonderful site, the EXP club has also adapted their 2020 activities to fit the constraints of a pandemic-stricken world. They note: “For 2020, we’re switching to quick solo projects so everyone can try something new at their own pace. These ‘challenges’ take place every 2 weeks and come with inspiration, tutorials + download links to get started. Check out all of those here.”

This site provides a great example of how to use the OpenLab to keep your club members active and engaged. Check them out for inspiration!

In the Spotlight: OER at City Tech

This week, I spotlight the library’s fantastic new(ish) resource: the O.E.R at City Tech OpenLab site. As a reminder, the acronym “O.E.R” stands for Open Educational Resources and “refers to any educational content that is free and openly-licensed.” From the academic year 2017-2018 to the present, NY State has awarded CUNY $4 million annually to “scale-up O.E.Rs” across the university system. This site is your go-to hub for all things O.E.R at City Tech and–dare we say–at CUNY. Its main function is to showcase exemplary O.E.Rs at the college, but it also includes other invaluable resources, such as O.E.Rs developed CUNY-wide (not just City Tech-specific), different search engines and repositories from which to search for O.E.Rs developed worldwide, and a curated list of O.E.Rs by Subject, relevant to the disciplines offered at City Tech.

The entire site is worth checking-out, but I’d like to draw your attention to a page titled Find O.E.R to teach with. This page builds out from more generalized O.E.R search tools to repositories that showcase a specific digital medium. Thus, you’ll find a list of search engines to help you with Getting Started on your quest to find O.E.Rs, but also narrower repositories of open textbooks and curricula and open courses. Lest we forget, O.E.R refers not only to texts or websites, but  also to audio files, images, and videos, that is to say to things like free digital recordings of concerts and music, public domain photography, and TED talks. The site helpfully points the visitor to search directories to find each of these, including highly specialized repositories that curate collections of media such as “pictures of trans and non-binary models” and “music remixes under Creative Commons licenses.” I highly recommend navigating to this page as you teach this semester and look for new, creative, online tools to enhance your pedagogy. Using multimedia is important to meet the needs of different learning styles, and the library has done us all a great favor by highlighting these resources and search tools.

I also recommend following the O.E.R at City Tech News blog which, highlights “one O.E.R relevant to each school at City Tech in every (weekly) post.” The O.E.R featured here are exemplary and can inspire your teaching in a remote semester.

Curious about O.E.R.? Visit the site to learn more. Note also that if you’d like to get more involved in developing O.E.R at City Tech, the site lays out different workshops and faculty development programs to help you do so. Happy exploration! 

In the Spotlight: Architecture Club

The Architecture Club has existed for over 30 years at City Tech! This week, I spotlight their OpenLab site, which shows how clubs can use the OpenLab to keep members engaged during this period of distance education. Below are some noteworthy features of their site.

A dynamic homepage

In OpenLab workshops, we encourage members to think through whether they would like their homepage to be static or dynamic. Static homepages, we explain, work well to communicate information that is unlikely to change much throughout a semester. For example, a club’s homepage might include a welcome message and an overview of the site. The copy written at the start of the semester for this page will likely need very little updating.  A dynamic homepage, however, might be better if the club maintains an active blog with time-sensitive information to be communicated to members. 

The Architecture Club shows how well the latter format works in a remote semester. Their homepage takes the form of a regularly updated blog with announcements reminding visitors of upcoming club events. In separate posts, they recap those events for anyone who misses them. The club also posts resources that are helpful for architecture students, and uses short blog posts to invite conversation from club members and keep the spirit of the club alive. I especially like this recent post that shared pictures of last year’s Halloween, when the club had a pumpkin carving  contest wherein the winner ended up “having their pumpkin printed as an adorable keychain!” The flurry of regular activity on this blog tells the visitor that club life is going strong, even during the pandemic.

Updates to the Welcome Widget

The right-hand sidebar of the site features a text widget with a “Welcome to the Architecture Club!” message. In “normal” times, this message might feature a sentence or two about the club, as well as where it meets, and contact information for the club leader. In the context of distance education, however, the Architecture Club has smartly updated the text to tell the visitor “we are now online” and to provide the Zoom link to their club meetings so that newcomers can easily pop in.

An Events Widget

It’s always a good idea to include a club calendar of events on your site, which the Architecture Cub does. But just to make extra-sure that visitors know about the latest club happenings, they also use the Events List Widget to display upcoming events on the right-hand sidebar. Smart! 

It’s not easy to keep a club going during this period of distance education, but the Architecture Club shows that a well-maintained OpenLab site is both a tool for communicating information and keeping community together. I encourage all club leaders to visit the site for inspiration!

In the Spotlight: Pharmacology (DEN 2315)

Header image for Pharmacology (DEN 2315), rainbow-colored lined up in a row.

This week, I spotlight Dr. Bowers’ Pharmacology OpenLab course, which implements some innovative practices well-suited to distance education. These include:

  • Indicating virtual meeting locations (i.e. OpenLab and Zoom links) right at the top of the syllabus. This is information you want students to access easily and placing it at the top of the page increases your chances of making sure no one misses it.
  • Separate pages and menu tabs for lecture slides, lecture video, and lecture audio. Students who are members of the class can download and print the slides, and stream the videos or just the audio for the class lectures. This gives different media through which to learn course material and is a great way to meet the needs of students with different learning styles. I’ll also note that providing a “just audio” alternative to video streams of lectures is a smart way to reach learners who may get distracted by video but do well with an audio recording. It also does a favor to the many of us who have issues with slow internet at home, and for whom audio is more easily streamed uninterrupted than video, which takes more bandwidth.
Students can access course content from the main navigation menu, but have 3 options: one for downloading slides, another for streaming video, and another for streaming audio.
  • A contact form inserted directly into the main navigation menu. As screenshotted below, this contact form invites students to write a message to their instructor and is a wonderful way to promote student-instructor communication. You can read more about using the plugin Contact Form 7 to create these kinds of forms and add them to your site here.
This contact form has four fields: one for the student’s name, a second for the student’s email, a third for the subject of the message, and a forth for the body of the message.

Do you have other tips for making your lectures more accessible online? For encouraging your students to contact you? Join the conversation by replying to this post!

In the Spotlight: ComD Internship Coordination Site

Last week, I spotlighted ComD Advisement Information site, which digitally guides students through the advisement process, and is replete with  information they need to stay on track and complete their majors. This week, I spotlight the ComD Internship Coordination site, which “is designed to help” students “find fieldwork/ situations of approximately eight hours per week at an internship site approved by the Department Internship instructor such as an advertising agency, graphic design firm, corporate design office, publications art department, photography or illustration studio, TV or multimedia production company.”

On the site’s blog, students will find timely announcements about (now virtual) events to attend to find jobs and internships. But the site also includes pages that outline Requirements and Documents for the ComD Internship, tips on Where to Find an Internship, Networking, and Writing Resources. Students will also find resources for Portfolio and Resume creation.

If you are a ComD student and thinking about how to gain professional experience in your field, make sure to check out the site

In the Spotlight: ComD Advisement Information Site

Header image for ComD Advisement site is a text box against a solid backdrop. Text reads "COMD Advisement Information Site."

Student advisement, like much of college life, has moved online this semester. This week, I spotlight the ComD Advisement Information Site, which is replete with “online advisement tools” and shows how departments can use the OpenLab to provide guidance for students moving toward graduation, even during a largely virtual semester. Below, are some of the site’s innovative features:

  • The site’s menu links to a page for virtual advisement office hours, allowing students to navigate quickly and easily to the information they are most likely to need. A nice touch here is that the department has embedded a Google Calendar that visually displays each advisor’s office hours. Students can add this calendar to their own Google account if they so wish. 

    While, these days, most of us are getting used to working across multiple platforms, it can nonetheless be hard to keep track of which tools are being used when. A good practice is to link to the other platforms or applications you are using from your OpenLab site. ComD shows how this can be done by prominently featuring a “Blackboard Advisement Link: Click to Enter” button at the very top of their office hours page. The link takes the student directly to their advising meeting, which is held on another platform–Blackboard Collaborate–making the process of switching back-and-forth relatively painless. 

  • The site also includes a page on preparing for advisement. Here, students are presented with six steps to take before an advising meeting. Note that these tips are presented briefly, in bulleted form, with plenty of white space on the page. This is a great way of communicating key information. 
  • Does your department have an active Facebook page? If so, you might activate the Jetpack Facebook Page plugin on your department’s OpenLab  site. ComD has done this to great effect: as shown in the screenshot below, students can view information and events posted to Facebook directly from the widget in the right-hand sidebar of the advisement site.

All-in-all, the ComD Advisement Information site provides a great model of a clean, easy-to-navigate site that students can bookmark and return to again and again as they move through their college careers. 

In the Spotlight: Understanding the City, Fall 2020 (LIB2205ID ARCH 2205)

Header image for Learning Places, a bridge extending over a river.

This week, I spotlight Professor Muchowski and Professor Duddy’s Understanding the City, a “special topics course” that “offers an interdisciplinary approach to investigating the built environment.” The course is taught every year and asks students to engage in “on-site exploration and in-depth research” on New York City. The city’s vast concrete landscape becomes the classroom, and when we spotlighted this class in 2015, for instance, students had just visited and written about Vinegar Hill and the Farragut Houses. 

Learning in such a course usually takes place in-place. Pedagogy entails a careful and embodied inquiry within the material world. How do students feel in different parts of the city? What memories do the smells and sounds invoke? What stands out when they observe public spaces like parks, or touristy spaces like DUMBO? What do they know about the history of the city’s different neighborhoods? Does learning this history change their perspective as they walk through these places? Full disclosure: I’ve taught similar place-based courses myself and find that exercises like walking tours and site visits are some of the most exciting tools for helping us all make sense of our world, not just through dialogue with one another but through direct observation of scenes unfolding in front of us. I spotlight this site this week to think through how such a course can be adapted to a pandemic world where it is not entirely safe to wander outside and where normal life–including for New York, a bustling tourist life–has not yet resumed.

What stands out in Professor Muchowski and Professor Duddy’s beginning of semester assignments is that they ask students to draw on memory: their first blogging assignment has students write about a public building or space in their neighborhood. Students describe watching these spaces evolve over their lifetimes and reflect on their experiences. The professors connect with students over the meaning of place by sharing their own ties to the sites students mention and describe, for example, exclaiming in (a blog) response: “I used to live at 98th and West End…there was a great playground at 95th where we would take our daughter.” Reading these blog posts and the professor-student exchanges in the comments is heart-warming, a reminder that, as different and isolated as our individual lives may sometimes be, especially in the current moment, place and memories of place give us a shared foundation.Students in the Mulberry Settlement House library in 1920, some reading, some laughing and talking, some browsing books on the shelf.

Other assignments rely on observations of photographs of city spaces, such as the one included above. I’ll note quickly, as I have so many times before, what a great platform the OpenLab can be for sharing and commenting on such visuals. This is a different type of exercise than going directly to a space, but it also makes for more focused observation. Photographs capture snippets of people’s lives and focus the gaze on details of the built environment that might be overlooked in an exercise like a walk-through or field trip. Interpretation of these details is left to the viewer, and students responding on the blog reflect imaginatively on what they see, speculating about the sounds that fill the spaces captured–did the wooden chairs in the 1920 Mulberry Settle House library creak? Why are some of the students in this old photograph of the library smirking? Did someone tell a joke? What memories does the picture invoke? Again, the exercise is both thought-provoking and validating, helping plunge students back into the city they live in, its past and, by extension, its possible futures.

Does your course usually incorporate place-based learning? How are you adapting it to these virtual times? Join the conversation by replying to this post, and, in the meantime, don’t forget to visit the Understanding the City course site for inspiration!

In the Spotlight: Celebrating Julia Jordan

Last fall, long-time Professor of Hospitality and Director of the Faculty Commons Julia Jordan retired. Last week, faculty and staff gathered (over Zoom!) to celebrate her service to the college. 

Anyone who interacted with Julia over her years at City Tech knew her to be Former Faculty Commons Director Julia Jordan posing for camera in front of bookshelves.kind and generous, warm and welcoming, entirely dedicated to progressive and student-centered pedagogy. Her OpenLab bio reveals much about her ethos: “after 40 plus years in education,” she once wrote on her profile page, “what drives me is the evidence that learners who are successful take responsibility for their own education, they practice and question, and when they are supported and guided, they solve problems with their peers.”

Her position as Director of the Faculty Commons made Julia a lynchpin at the college. She turned the second-floor Namm space into a vital community hub where everyone could feel like a valued member of the City Tech community. As a leader, she exuded patience and care as she guided her colleagues and brought boundless energy to the events she organized. 

Over the years, her support for the OpenLab proved critical. She gave the OpenLab team a space from which to conduct our daily activities–our meetings, office hours, and our Digital Pedagogy events. She mentored new members of the team as they got to know the sometimes maddening intricacies of City Tech life. She encouraged faculty and staff to use the platform and cheered them on as they got familiar with new technology. She did this day-in and day-out, without complaint, and with characteristic hospitality.  OpenLab Digital Pedagogy Fellow Jesse Rice-Evans says of Julia, “it was such a joy to feel a kinship in our similar backgrounds (front-of-house food service). I noticed right away that Julia could anticipate needs of workshop attendees, facilitate comfort and community, and keep everyone fed and watered!” 

We wish her a very happy retirement and thank her for her tireless work and generosity in giving to the City Tech community. 

In the Spotlight: Student Technology Needs Survey

Photo by Volodymyr Hryshchenko on Unsplash

This fall, the OpenLab launched a new course template that comes with an “optional student survey that faculty can use to understand how their students are situated regarding technology, working space, etc.”

The survey was adapted from research by Maura Smale and Mariana Regalada. Focusing on“use of technologies for academic work,” this study showed the barriers that commuter students like those at City Tech have to accessing technology. At home, most students will use their phones to access digital materials; many have to work around challenges like an unreliable internet connection. Obviously, these barriers have to be taken into account this semester, when most of City Tech is fully online. 

The survey in the course template is intended to help students privately pinpoint their technology needs so that faculty, in turn, can adapt their pedagogy and advocate for student access. Below is an overview of the survey and how you, the instructor, might build from it going forward.

Survey Content

In the course template, the student survey asks basic yes/ no questions: do you, the student, have a smartphone with a data plan? Do you have a laptop or desktop computer? Do you have broadband internet access at home and an appropriate space to do your coursework? It then invites open-ended remarks on “anything else” the student would like their instructor “to know about their situation regarding coursework.” 

How you present the survey to your students is up to you, but we like that English professor Carrie Hall uses an introductory welcome post to invite students in one of her courses to “vent” about how “being an online student” is “intimidating, confusing, and difficult.” Acknowledging that distance education this fall will present a new set of challenges is important. So is letting students know that you are on their side–the purpose of the survey isn’t just to gather information but to inform pedagogical practices so that instructors can be flexible and effective in meeting students where they are.

How was the Survey Built?

The survey was built using a plugin called Gravity Forms Quiz Add On. We highly recommend reading the help documentation for this plugin if you are using the survey. The documentation walks you through building a new survey, editing existing questions, and viewing survey results. These results are found in your site’s dashboard, where you can go to Forms> Entries, and view the survey takers names and answers, as pictured below.

Dashboard showing survey results

You can export the results to a spreadsheet. Note that this set-up means that you will need to create surveys for each of your courses, and will receive separate survey results for each course. You cannot create the survey in one course site and link to it in your other courses.

Preliminary Results and Future Surveys

Three OpenLab co-directors shared some of the insights they gained from the survey. As expected, the survey showed each of these instructors that they had students who lacked an adequate workspace and reliable internet. M. Genevieve Hitchings  was actually able to use the survey to help a student get an Apple computer from City Tech.

But they also learned from the process of administering the survey itself. For example, Jody R. Rosen noted that she’d originally envisioned a follow-up survey asking for student preferences in mode of communication, but hadn’t realized how hard it would be to get full participation in multiple surveys throughout the semester. It might be a good idea to include all your most pressing instructor questions in your first survey, when you’re likely to get the most responses! Jonas Reitz found it fruitful to modify the survey in this way from the get-go, and added some questions about student preferences for synchronous vs. asynchronous class sessions.

Did you use the survey this semester? Did you learn anything unexpected? Do you see yourself using it in the future? Join the conversation by replying to this post!