Boris Nguyen Shares Experience Transitioning to Teaching Math Online

Thursday, May 14, 2020

By Boris Nguyen, Professor, Mathematics

For a classroom instructor at Valencia for the past 22 years, the switch to online education is a source of renewal, optimism and comfort. I am very proud that the institution I serve moved quickly and adapted to protect students and employees from physical harm while maintaining its goals of shaping the next generation of learners, leaders and researchers. This also means a lot of work for instructors and administrators.

My first struggle was equipment: my personal laptop does not have a touch screen, and my tablet is so old that it cannot be fitted with a stylus. This was an issue because in a classroom I use the immense whiteboards to work out the many steps of calculus or differential equations problems. Without the ability to write nicely on a laptop or tablet screen, I had lost a powerful way to communicate.

I quickly decided to buy an iPad tablet: the newest and best model. However, right after I made my decision, Apple closed its physical stores and warned customers that delivery of items purchased online would take two to three weeks. Pressed by time, I started my research and discovered pen tablets. A pen tablet connects to a laptop and allows the user to write on a virtual whiteboard. The cheapest tablets are a small fraction of the cost of an iPad. On top of that, the tablet I ordered was delivered on the very day I bought it. I now use it in conjunction with Microsoft Whiteboard. It is even better than my using markers on a classroom whiteboard because I now have  access to an immense array of colors and tools such as a ruler and templates for geometric shapes like circles and rectangles.

My next struggle was to make essential connections with students and keep them engaged, happy, comfortable and reassured. Interestingly, this spring semester I had decided to not conduct all my office hours from the office or classroom. For once, three of these were online and students had opted for Google Hangouts.

One week a student asked for a private session through Zoom. I reminded him that I was handling the online meetings through Google Hangouts and expected him to use that venue for our interactions. However, I changed my mind. I downloaded the Zoom App and created a Zoom account. I met my student on his own terms. My decision was based on going with something my student wanted. It was easy for me to accomplish, so why not please him?

I had no idea Zoom was going to become so important for me and the College. I would not have foreseen that, after the campus closed, all my class sessions with students and office hours would be conducted through Zoom and recorded, edited and posted on Canvas. I also stressed that students were not required to attend the sessions and that recordings were made available through Canvas. This helped students who had to work extra shifts or take care of sick relatives.

The greatest positive impact on students was my meeting with them through Zoom conferences where they could see me streaming from my office or patio during fixed meeting times. I was able to display my Microsoft Whiteboard, the textbook through the publisher’s site and a mirror of my phone as well.

At the end of the semester, students thanked me for the interaction. They had no obligation because everything was recorded and posted on the College site. However, most decided to participate in the live sessions.

They were relieved because after the closure of University of Central Florida (UCF) and Valencia campuses, students had sometimes not seen, nor heard from instructors. Many students were simply asked via emails to read the text and take exams.

They really wanted live interactions. Some wanted the comfort of some normalcy in a time of great disruption, and others had more time because they had to stay home. My greatest achievement was to help and counsel a UCF student who felt overwhelmed. She was not expecting to learn Calculus II online and was planning on withdrawing. Thanks to a one-to-one, non-recorded Zoom session, I changed her mind. She wound up keeping the course and passing it with a B.

The hardest thing for me was to not see my students very often. Many, knowing they were recorded, just stopped the video feature once in the Zoom chat.

The exception was the smallest of my two Calculus I classes. These guys were real troopers. They even gloated, after seeing a video of the other section, about how much more interactive their group was. Indeed, they showed their faces and did not hesitate to engage in conversations, make comments and ask questions. With a little imagination and the ability to share my whiteboard with students, I was able to engage all of them in doing some group work.

I have recorded a fabulous moment when four Calculus I students interact and work out a problem step by step on my shared board. One, who could not use a stylus on her phone, dictated to another student what to write on the virtual board. This was a very successful moment and felt as if it had happened in their regular classroom before the campus closure.

That same class had a habit of drawing cartoonish alligators on the board in the classroom before class meetings. We joked a lot about these alligators. And this happened again during our Zoom sessions. At the end of the semester, one student drew on my whiteboard an excellent looking alligator thanks to some program. It was reassuring to see that the flavor of the jovial and friendly interactions experienced in a face-to-face class was preserved when we moved to the online format.

I must learn a lot about teaching online. Like many of my colleagues, I discovered many things on my own before the end of Spring Break thanks to YouTube, College resources and colleagues. Also, very quickly, as soon as we returned, online committees, some with hundreds of participants, met to discuss and implement changes in practices and policies.

Now, I am a student in one of several Digital Professor Certification processes (mine is a 10-week course with hundreds of colleagues). We are making all the possible adjustments that will allow us to meet the students where they are and bring them to where they need to go. In this respect, my colleagues and I are faithful to the Valencia tradition.

17 Comments

  • Gerri Morrison said:

    Boris.
    How are you? What an amazing article. I can better appreciate all of the adjustment, readjustments a lot of faculty had to go through to get this online teaching going. I appreciate how all had to step out of their comfort zones, some, like you had to buy, or obtain new laptops. Hats off for all that you and many others have done in these unprecedented times we are living.

    Kudos to you, my friend.

    PMThu, 14 May 2020 16:02:01 +0000Thu, 14 May 2020 16:02:01 +0000pm20,4:02 pm

    • Boris Nguyen said:

      Thank you, Gerri. We are lucky technology allows us to bounce somehow: from ordering food stuff online for delivery…to interacting with 300 colleagues through Zoom! I do miss my visits to the Testing Center and chats with your Team!

      PMThu, 14 May 2020 20:16:41 +0000Thu, 14 May 2020 20:16:41 +0000pm20,8:16 pm

  • Karen Murray said:

    I was not surprised to learn that Professor Nguyen sacrificed his own comfort and habits to accommodate his students. He has long been a student-centered educator.

    Very nicely written article!

    PMThu, 14 May 2020 19:48:04 +0000Thu, 14 May 2020 19:48:04 +0000pm20,7:48 pm

    • Boris Nguyen said:

      Thank you, Karen. This is very nice of you to say: I do not do half as much as you do for students!

      PMThu, 14 May 2020 20:19:19 +0000Thu, 14 May 2020 20:19:19 +0000pm20,8:19 pm

  • Rachel Allen said:

    I am inspired by your article! You were so innovative and willing to try new things during a challenging time. I plan to share your article with my children’s math teacher as a source of inspiration. I love that you held synchronous classes for your students and provided recordings, as well. I see lots of positive consequences from this challenging time we are navigating. Kudos to you!

    PMThu, 14 May 2020 21:26:52 +0000Thu, 14 May 2020 21:26:52 +0000pm20,9:26 pm

    • Boris Nguyen said:

      I am touched and honored by your comment, Rachel. Though, like your children's math teacher, I am very lucky: I have phenomenally wonderful people in my classes!

      AMFri, 15 May 2020 00:41:29 +0000Fri, 15 May 2020 00:41:29 +0000am20,12:41 am

  • Karen Reilly said:

    I love this article Boris. Great work! Your dedication is apparent in the personal connection you established with your learners given the circumstances. Many KUDOS for being nimble with your pedagogy. You are an artist of instruction and student learning.

    AMFri, 15 May 2020 07:40:06 +0000Fri, 15 May 2020 07:40:06 +0000am20,7:40 am

  • Shaw Le'Tang said:

    Boris, great article. Thumbs up for making things happen for our students, despite the obstacles you faced. Keep up the excellent work my friend.

    AMFri, 15 May 2020 09:49:49 +0000Fri, 15 May 2020 09:49:49 +0000am20,9:49 am

    • Boris Nguyen said:

      Thank you, Shaw! With your spouse and you, all our colleagues, and our fantastic students, I am in great company! It is easy to make adjustments when working with smart and dedicated people.

      AMFri, 15 May 2020 10:59:38 +0000Fri, 15 May 2020 10:59:38 +0000am20,10:59 am

  • Roel Belin said:

    Good morning Boris,

    Hope all is well. I just read you article. You explained how difficult things were especially having an old laptop with not many features available for you to do your job as a professor. But you were able to take care of that. I applaud you for trying new things and taking that step to accommodate your student on their times. You also made it fun.Great job!

    AMFri, 15 May 2020 09:50:43 +0000Fri, 15 May 2020 09:50:43 +0000am20,9:50 am

    • Boris Nguyen said:

      Thank you, Roel. When I bought my laptop 6 years ago, I thought it had everything I needed…;)
      There definitely things that technology cannot replace and I miss our chats in your office!

      AMFri, 15 May 2020 11:03:50 +0000Fri, 15 May 2020 11:03:50 +0000am20,11:03 am

  • April Montallana said:

    Wonderful share! It warms my heart to see how actively engaged you and the students are in your class in a virtual setting. We all could use some joy right now. Valencia appreciates your dedication to providing excellent instruction for students!

    AMMon, 18 May 2020 10:46:25 +0000Mon, 18 May 2020 10:46:25 +0000am20,10:46 am

  • Sonia Cuadrado said:

    Way to go Boris! God bless you in all you do!
    Stay safe!

    PMMon, 18 May 2020 16:18:04 +0000Mon, 18 May 2020 16:18:04 +0000pm20,4:18 pm

  • Tiffani Morrison said:

    This is a very great article Boris…. great job on all your hard work and efforts!

    PMMon, 18 May 2020 21:56:48 +0000Mon, 18 May 2020 21:56:48 +0000pm20,9:56 pm

  • Tyrone Reese said:

    Thank you, Boris for going beyond and above the call of duty, this shows your commitment and determination to meet the needs of your students, Dedication to your students has always been a powerful trait that you have demonstrated throughout the time that I have known you as a professor at Valencia College. Your students are blessed to have a professor that cares as much for their education as they do. God's blessing.

    PMWed, 20 May 2020 12:39:36 +0000Wed, 20 May 2020 12:39:36 +0000pm20,12:39 pm

  • Teasa Mays said:

    Professor Nguyen,
    Thank you for demonstrating great leadership. This was clearly not just an adjustment for your students, but for you as well. The last eight weeks have indeed been unprecedented for everyone, but you went above and beyond to ensure a meaningful and engaging learning environment.

    Kudos to you and all of your students!

    PMWed, 20 May 2020 21:42:16 +0000Wed, 20 May 2020 21:42:16 +0000pm20,9:42 pm

  • Joe Vaught said:

    Hello Professor Nguyen! I took your Calc 2 and Diffy Q classes back when I was at Valencia College. I, like the students you are describing here, really enjoyed your class as well as your everlasting devotion to helping us learn. I just happened to stumble upon this article from LinkedIn, and it was a pleasure to read. I’m happy that you have been able to make a positive transition to online teaching while also keeping your classes engaging, fun, and insightful as always! I’m glad you and your students are doing well, and I will continue to reccomend you for any math related class at Valencia!

    PMWed, 24 Jun 2020 18:21:10 +0000Wed, 24 Jun 2020 18:21:10 +0000pm20,6:21 pm

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