Published: June 2, 2020 By

Applied Mathematics

The Spring 2020 semester was an unprecedented semester with many challenges, roadblocks, and unexpected turns that led to an equally fulfilling and successful semester after rising to the occasion given the COVID-19 pandemic. The Applied Mathematics Department underwent critical changes after the announcement from the Chancellor, which directed the University to shift to remote learning effective March 16, 2020 through the rest of the semester. Eventually, this was changed to be effective through the summer terms.

As the situation began to unfold, APPM began to move quickly to keep continuity in classes for students, especially as their academic and personal situations changed. The Department’s faculty, graduate and undergraduate students had their own important roles in helping move courses to a remote platform and take advantage of various technologies. The Graduate Committee Chair, Associate Professor Mark Hoefer, explained that his graduate class was smoothly transitioned thanks to the technology that he was already using in the course. Dr. Hoefer highlighted that his course had “been using online tools already this semester for homework submission and communication, so these modalities continue.” This sentiment is true for most classes, as the online-based Canvas application that is also used during in-person semesters is a tool used across campus to submit homework, distribute announcements, assignments, class notes, and more. Canvas was important within the Department to stay involved with students and send updates about the class throughout the transition to remote learning. 

Some classes, like Dr. Hoefer’s were also aided by technology already used when classes were in-person. Dr. Hoefer explained: “For lectures, I was using an iPad projected onto a screen during class with a note taking app, and posting the iPad handwritten lecture notes as a PDF online.  All I had to do was shift from being in class to sitting in front of my computer.” A student in APPM also explained: “Amazingly, remote learning has been a good thing for me. I’ve started reading from textbooks a lot more and spending more of my free time doing schoolwork … I would say the quality of my education remained fairly consistent! Things felt different, but the quality was the same.”

The shift was certainly not without its challenges, however. When taking away the in-person component of a class, it can be difficult to engage students, especially when remote learning hasn’t been done before in this context. This issue of engaging students was an issue uniquely dealt with by different instructors. Splitting students into smaller discussion groups was one technique, using polling, similar to Clicker questions, was another way to keep students engaged.

Initial issues were eased by the leniency of deadlines of assignments to accommodate for the quickly changing direction from the University. The Department recognized that students may be moving away from Boulder, so part of the transition was to give leniency to students while still keeping courses continuous. 

Remote Learning

The pacing of courses was another challenge that Dr. Hoefer mentioned was present. While being online, it’s more difficult to read the body language of students that is often critical feedback for the pacing of the course. Lecturing at a computer doesn’t give the feedback necessary to understand where the students are at. When asked how the pace of the classes have changed as a result of remote learning, Dr. Hoefer noted that the “pace of class has slowed down, and rightly.  We are in the midst of a historic pandemic and everyone is being impacted differently.” In  an effort to combat this, Dr. Hoefer asked his students to turn their computer cameras on during live lectures so that he could have input on the pacing of the course and see where students are at in their understanding of the material.

Instructing students to turn on their webcams is easier in a small class, but much more difficult to achieve in larger courses, such as the Calculus courses, which have 70 students in a lecture. Asking students to utilize their webcams if possible helped students feel more connected to those around them and create a more realistic lecture environment. Furthermore, encouraging students to continue participating in study groups/sessions on Zoom, or other video conferencing applications, aided the course instructors and the students in understanding where more attention in the course may be necessary.

Examination of undergraduate classes was also an issue, especially in the larger, lower division courses, which administer exams to hundreds of students on exam days. One Applied Math student explained that the department was very concerned with “maintaining original logistical plans” and tried to keep things consistent with how exams would have been proctored in-person. TAs were important in the exam proctoring in some classes. In the lower-division Differential Equations course Applied Math offers. For example, TAs set up Zoom rooms in which they could be present with students during exams just as they would have if they were in-person. To keep the exam as close to “normal” as the exam could be during the extraneous circumstances, students had their webcams on to feel more in-person, but also to deter students from cheating. 

The situation the University and Department are in with regards to online learning are far from over, however, as more online learning is expected for the Fall semester after Fall Break. Dr. Hoefer explained:

“Anticipating more online teaching this Fall, Applied Math is using the summer to prepare and develop materials that will be helpful for instructors and TAs.  In addition to the usual instructors and TAs for our summer course offerings, we are hiring graduate students in support roles to bring their perspective and expertise to preparing for Fall online courses.  Not only does this help the Department as a whole but it also provides employment opportunities for the students.”

Closing the semester for the graduates was an important part of the transition to remote learning for the Department. By switching to a virtual graduation, the Department tried to provide as normal and significant of a departmental graduation as safely as possible given the circumstances. Furthermore, the students who graduated were invited to return next year to fully celebrate their accomplishments. 

Whether it be exam administration, remote teaching, graduation, or may other obstacles, the students have been able to take the changes in stride and succeed in the face of adversity, which is a lesson that cannot be taught in the classroom. The Department congratulates all students for getting through a tough semester and looks forward to returning to campus for the Fall semester in a safe and effective manner! 

“I admire and am in awe of the students for persevering amidst these changes.”

- Associate Professor Mark Hoefer