Taking Active Learning Online

In higher education, our first responders are the faculty. With a day (and a weekend … and spring break) you moved courses completely online. Faculty figured out new technology, took apart courses, and put them back together in the best way possible for our current context. Daniel McIntosh, associate professor of Physics, shares how he redesign and rethought his Intro to Astronomy course. 

Last March, Daniel McIntosh, associate professor in the Department of Physics, moved his teaching online for the first time. Over Zoom, I interviewed Dan about what the move to online entailed, what he learned, and how he is planning to build on his experiences for fall.

AP: In general, broad terms, how did the shift to online teaching go for you? 

DM: It was a big challenge. I never taught online at all and was actually opposed to the practice in terms of the impact on the students’ experiences. I have taught and designed my classes to be highly interactive where students are spending on average 50% of the time in lectures doing higher-order thinking and collaborative learning problem-solving together. Faced with the facts – there was no choice, my students didn’t sign up for an online class, and we are all stuck at home – I felt super invested to make that experience as high-quality as possible.

cartoon of a brain running

The first couple weeks I felt pretty down about what was happening in the world. I paid close attention to the news and the projections and then I could see where the death rate was going was obvious. So I was feeling really bummed out. I basically just threw myself at it [online teaching]. ASTR 150, Introductory Astronomy – Motions of the Cosmos saw the biggest change. The class had over 70 students and among those students included eight high school students from A Bridge to the Stars and five Propel students.  I focused on how to make that class as active as possible – it consumed weeks. I was staying up until 2 o’clock 3 o’clock in the morning trying to finish things. [Through that process,] I completely rethought what I was doing.

AP: What changed for Introductory Astronomy?

DM: My class was highly active and I weighted participation, you know, it was worth 20% of the course grade. Most of the course grade consisted of several high risk exams. I was teaching in this active way to help students master the content and build their skills. Students love it –  the evaluations are always good. Many students have shared that they didn’t think they could understand science or do well in science before Intro Astronomy. I had positive remarks because the active learning helped students master the material.

In the last year, I’ve been going to conferences, meeting with different groups, and learning about equitable education. The shift to online gave me the opportunity to incorporate what I have been learning about equitable education and culturally responsive teaching. I realized that the Introductory Astronomy class had 60 percent of the grade based on high-risk tests. What I really care about is do students learn the material, how do they learn the material, and what should I grade students for effort. I decided to shift my focus from the high-risk tests to the effort students put into learning the material. I set up online learning with discussion sections. Students watched a video lecture – basically a narrated slideshow. Then students joined a discussion group for collaborative learning that they completed with their peers, online, asynchronously. This way I could see their effort and I could grade their effort. I then set up mastery quizzes that were worth a lesser fraction of the grade.

AP: Aside from shifting your focus, what else changed for you?

DM:  I had to stop worrying about things like do students cheat. That’s not what I care about.

We get indoctrinated into the system of caring about is it fair or not? Are they going to cheat or not? Rather than what I really care about is did they learn or not? I had to figure out how to teach online in a way that encourages effort and recognizes that students learn at different rates. Spring semester, some students got really bummed out, fell behind, and  then got completely discouraged. I’ve been doing all kinds of work and lots of communication to encourage them.

AP: How did you encourage students?

two lightbulbs connected by wire

DM: I sent announcements with encouraging language with messages like “I understand how you feel.” “I can understand how tough it is.” The students who really were struggling with engaging online, and had 0s, I let them know there was still an opportunity to get their work in. They can still pass or better in class. Students started responding. They popped up and started getting their assignments in. They always started with an apology for being behind. I  always responded that I was so happy to hear from them, no need to be sorry. They then were excited and happy that I gave them that opportunity and said they would try their best.

AP: Yeah, that’s great. How do you set up your quizzes?

DM: Students get multiple efforts and they get a big window. This worked better than setting up the exam from four o’clock to five o’clock and if students ran out of time, tough.  This is what I realized from looking at all online blogs and listening to people talking about their concerns about cheating…. I realized that there are issues with access.  Some students might not have the same access to computer at the same time, or maybe they’re sharing the computer. Maybe they have an old computer with discouraging technical problems.  I want the students to have a chance to show me what they learned.

I set up the quizzes so students get two chances to take them. So, a student takes the quiz the first time and then sees which questions were wrong. I encourage the student to go back and study and then take the quiz again. I give students a 12-hour window to take their two attempts. Sure, some students could figure out which ones they got wrong, call their friend, and look around for answers.  They’re basically spending the same amount of effort as they would to look at the slides, and most students figure that out. They go focus their study, look at discussion questions and comments.

AP: What does active learning look like in your class?

DM: I decided I would do a bunch of mini lectures with a lot of interactive content integrating all the lectures together. It created a lot of work for me. I could no longer keep my active learning format I had built over several years. Now I have to carry each topic through like a normal traditional lecture, giving them all the content very clearly explained. I was worried about what the student experience would be like, as well as worried about access.

It was clear that asynchronous was the way to go.  I broke my hour and fifteen-minute lecture into mini-lectures. I decided to focus on one key topic to make short little units. The units ideally would be 8 to 10 minute long videos. Basically students watch the video and they click that they’ve done that. The slides are posted from the video.  The next thing is they have to join a group. Step 3 is to participate in the discussion of the group they joined. That’s worth a huge amount of their grade –  40-50 percent.  The rule for full credit is that they enter their own response to the question. To get the full credit they have to give at least a one-sentence description of why they think what they think is the answer. When they hit submit, they see their group’s answers and their group can see their responses. Students then have to select another student who has fewer than two responses and respond. They have to say they agree or disagree and a one-sentence explanation of why. Now, of course, some students could game it. They could not watch the video. They can just say it’s done. They can go to the discussion section and you know to type in something and see other answers. But this is collaborative learning and it’s asynchronous collaborative learning.  

AP: Are you going to continue teaching online?

DM: Yeah, I’ve had a complete phase change in my thinking about it. A lot of students want it for increased access – but it also creates access issues. Clearly a lot of people want online learning to happen. I don’t know about entire online degrees I think students would lose a lot of experiences. At the same time I can see where a lot of content can be delivered in an active way.  I got excited thinking maybe there’s something here about this facilitating active online learning. Maybe that’s what online learning needs to be really good. I’m even thinking about blended courses.

AP: Has there been anything that you didn’t anticipate that has come out of your move online that’s been really positive?   

DM: Well, personally yes. I have experienced growth for myself. I was a little bit troubled with my complete opposition to online learning because I felt sort of like a Luddite I was missing something or being resistant to change.  My resistance all had to do with the student experience. But  you can still do active learning online.  It’s like I want to do whatever I can to make learning online a really positive experience for the students. It was worth all the effort.  

AP: What’s your favorite feature of Canvas?

image of keys on a keyring

DM: Oh, wow. There’s actually a lot of good features on campus. I like the modular feature where you can set up steps and make them connect to each other to force things to be done sequentially. I like the discussion feature that makes it so that students can’t see the other people’s responses until after they contribute. The gradebook – I like how I can select a certain assignment and can send announcements based on how the students performed. And the speed grader is cool.

AP: Anything else you want to add that we haven’t covered?

DM: My big advice is communicate with students – repeated, repeated communication. That was one of the most important piece of advice that I read repeatedly in the beginning before I even set up a single class. I always valued communication, but making sure to have plenty of encouraging communication is important.

I think it was well-timed to learn how to do online education with learning about the equity.  My tendency before was to have hard lines. I think that’s the indoctrination that we went through in education. It’s easy to get caught up in fairness and in exams or more judgment, right?  Since I’ve been learning about equity, what has helped me the most is being 100% empathetic and flexible with the students. Even a year ago I would be very empathetic but I wouldn’t be as flexible. It’s easy to be caught up in this cycle of fairness and judging. We are trying to assess students’ abilities. We think that with our standard exams with the set time limit, it’s not fair to give other people more time. That is missing the whole point of trying to help people learn and reach a goal of knowing something. One analogy might be apprenticeship. Let’s say someone wants to be a plumber and they apprentice with an expert plumber. Some of the apprentices pick up the skills fast and others take two, three times longer. But if they eventually master the skills, they still get to be a plumber. The goal is not to decide who’s the genius; the goal is to help people learn and grow.   

AP: Thank you so much.

DM: You’re welcome. I can talk about this stuff forever.

Daniel McIntosh, Ph.D.

Associate Professor
Director, A Bridge to the Stars Pipeline Program
Provost Fellow (2018-2019)
Norman Royall Distinguished Professor (2017-2019)
UM President’s Award for Innovative Teaching (2016)

Office: Flarsheim Hall #250M
Ph: 816-235-5324
Email: mcintoshdh@umkc.edu
A Bridge to the Stars