Transitioning Rapidly to Teaching Online
In September 2017, an earthquake devastated Mexico City. The school I work at was destroyed. I had a week to learn how to use technology, restructure classes and curriculum, and restart our classes online for the rest of the semester. Even though the COVID-19 pandemic is a very different context, the rush and the emotional aspects of my previous experience are similar. I wanted to share with you my experiences and tips that helped me have successful classes during a period of rapid transition.
Technology is an important factor to consider, but the most important thing for me was to first evaluate what I wanted my students to learn. Ask yourselves: What do I want my students to remember from my class? I’ll bet that most of us will answer skills or practices rather than specific content.
With this in mind, the first thing I did was to undo all of my planning and reorganize by identifying the important content for standardized tests, other regional evaluations, and the development of scientific competencies. Secondly, I determined the complementary topics that would help develop my students’ scientific skills. And lastly, I identified those topics that could be left out in case I didn’t have enough time (but could be added back in if I did).
Once the course content was adjusted, I focused on selecting activities for the immediately following week. The physical and mental effort required for academic planning for an entire course at once can be too much, especially when you add the emotional fatigue of facing a hard sociocultural situation. We must take the time to take care of our health as we care for our students and our class. Selecting resources week by week allows us to have a clear mind for a proper selection of materials, and also allows us to account for our students’ development and adaptation to the online model and the previous content.
One thing to keep in mind is that, in online classes, students’ attention diminishes considerably because their visual stimulus is focused on one spot, their electronic device. In an online course I took, it was suggested to shorten my classes by 15–20 percent. This helps students to concentrate their energy and attention on the class content and not on how much time is left before class ends.
In order to select my new activities, I therefore looked for ones that demanded a higher mental effort from my students and that took less class time to do. For example, before the earthquake, I used to play the short film The Double Helix and have my students do the film activity in class as an introduction. This took 50 minutes total. Then we had another 50-minute session to explain the process of transcription and translation using a PowerPoint and two examples on the board. Finally, we had a third 50-minute session for whiteboard exercises, which involved transcribing and translating a list of DNA sequences as a group.
So I changed the three sessions into two. In the first session, I briefly explained the processes of transcription and translation, then played two short BioInteractive animations: DNA Transcription (Basic Detail) and Translation (Basic Detail). After that, we started the “Molecular Genetics of Color Mutations in Rock Pocket Mice” activity, which we completed in the following session.
I also switched the "Modeling Food Webs in Darién, Panama" activity I previously used to the fillable PDF, which I shared through Canvas (our learning management system). I used the breakout rooms function in Zoom to split my class into small virtual teams. I asked one student per team to share their screen so that everyone in their group could see their progress in the fillable PDF. This took approximately 60 minutes, split over two class periods. After each group completed their PDF, I closed the breakout rooms in Zoom and had the class share answers by sharing their screens, with one student presenting at a time.
Because a close follow-up is essential, I created a WhatsApp chat — you can also use Remind, which is a free app, as an alternative — with every group to give them a more personal and immediate response instead of using email, which usually requires more time.
Finally, our students are the best thermometer to see if what we’re doing is working. Crises mean facing our fears, and being willing to change if we need to. Syllabi and standards are guides, but our students are the present and the future; what they need is what we need to put as a priority. As teachers, we know this just by observing them or talking to them, even if it is through a webcam. My students were tired of being in front of the camera for six to seven hours a day, and I could see that; yet they thanked me for always asking about their feelings and emotions before starting the class (this made them feel cared for and important), for using a lot of activities in class, and for not assigning extra homework that required more time on the computer.
Cinthya Fernández is a high school and higher ed science teacher at Tecnológico de Monterrey University, Mexico City Campus. She also facilitates professional development for teachers in multicultural education, STEM, and inclusive teaching. Her lifelong passion for STEM and education has involved her with very different networks including BioInteractive and FIRST FRC. She also plays flag football and soccer, and loves mystery novels.