We are continuously reminded of the stark reality that higher education teaching and learning is indeed different today than it was a few months ago. Since Circadence is committed to cyber security education and training, we try to stay on top of the latest developments with distance learning so that we can think through how to keep supporting cyber and information security teachers during this unprecedented pandemic time. We often hear from higher education partners and customers how much of a challenge distance learning and teaching can be, so we sat down with our own Dr. Bradley Hayes to hear firsthand what his experience has been like. Brad is the Chief Technology Officer at Circadence, and Assistant Professor in the College of Engineering and Applied Science, Director of the Collaborative AI and Robotics Lab at the University of Colorado, Boulder. We also solicited the perspectives of several other higher education teachers who were willing to share their thoughts on the challenges and opportunities to adapt to this ‘new normal’ of teaching and learning.
We hope by sharing his story with you, our readers, it can help ignite conversation and ideas that make teaching cyber security better for both educator and student.
How has distance learning requirements impacted you as a professor? Your class? Your teaching style?
Distance learning has been a massive shift for many of us, and certainly requires a different approach: preparing for it and delivering lectures as if it were an in-person class does not work! For many professors, the lack of in-person social cues is the most noticeable change, especially if students aren’t sharing their video. Delivering a lecture to a computer monitor is difficult enough, and removing the implicit feedback mechanisms of in-person instruction can exacerbate issues that wouldn’t normally be problematic in lecture delivery.
I teach a graduate class on the Algorithmic Foundations of Human-Robot Interaction in the Spring, which has been quite different now that there is greatly reduced human interaction (and no human-robot interaction!). I’ve certainly learned a lot, as I had to quickly transition to using robotics simulation environments (instead of having students use physical robotics platforms) and set student project teams up for effective remote collaboration on very short notice. Ultimately, I find that remote instruction is no substitute for in-person instruction, but it does encourage a more scalable mindset to assignments and mentoring that could have real benefit when we resume in-person classes.
Switching to remote lecturing has had substantial impacts on my teaching style as well. The following observations have risen to the top as key learnings:
- I tend to be very animated when teaching, which doesn’t particularly work as well over video and I feel has been detrimental to student engagement.
- I have found it takes extra effort to engage students with the material, particularly if they’re in an environment that isn’t conducive to focused learning.
- Encouraging more hands-on exercises can go a long way toward bringing their focus and attention back to the material, but this takes more advance preparation work than if it were an in-class exercise.
How are your students responding to the remote learning shift?
It’s been difficult for them, but to their credit, they’ve done a great job adapting to it. Social distancing and quarantine guidelines in general have caused a lot of upheaval in their lives, adding stress and instability that may not be outwardly obvious to us as their professors, which has necessitated a recalibration of expectations regarding coursework. One of the most important changes to keep productivity high was the adoption of real-time collaboration tools to facilitate group-work and bring more course material-relevant conversations into a more visible medium for others to benefit from and participate in. Even though most students were able to continue attending class synchronously (i.e., joining the video conference at our normal time), most of the interaction that would’ve traditionally happened in the classroom shifted into our online collaboration tools.
To be an online learner, one needs to be independent, disciplined, organized and communicative with questions, responses and/or if issues exist. What can be a little frustrating is reaching out to students with no response…not knowing how they are doing; being worried about them, hoping they are ok – it is a TEAM approach in all aspects. The students are paying for their education, thus, the importance of high communication and engagement from both student and instructor is paramount. ~ Julie A. Shay, MBA-HIN, RHIA, Program Director for Health Information Technology Programs/Lead Faculty/Professor – Santa Fe College
What was needed to make the transition to full remote teaching?
A chat-based online collaboration tool was absolutely essential, as this became the new forum for conversations that would naturally occur at the conclusion of the lecture when students would typically walk up to the lectern with questions or ideas to discuss.
These informal interactions can be approximated with post-class discussion through collaboration tools, though there’s an additional activation cost that requires priming from the instructor to kick things off. Another important consideration is the space from which you’ll be delivering your lecture: having a professional-looking environment with adequate lighting makes a big difference and can have a positive effect on student engagement.
What challenges came with transitioning to a remote classroom?
Since we go through a decent amount of complex mathematical derivations in my course, I had to weigh the advantages and difficulties of using a virtual whiteboard versus moving everything into slide format.
- Personally, I’ve found the move away from the whiteboard to be advantageous in terms of clarity for the students.
- It forced me to explicitly describe each step of what we’re going through in a clear, permanent way on slides that can be easily distributed.
- Unfortunately, this makes it a lot more difficult to step through equations by letting students lead the process, as the smaller the ‘minimum revealing step’ in each equation is (e.g., do you reveal one character at a time, or one whole term at a time?) the more difficult and time-consuming it is to prepare in advance.
The biggest challenge has been tracking student engagement and understanding of the material. In the absence of social cues, the feedback loop becomes much longer, as assignments or tangible work products from student projects become the only measurable signal. Learning to properly take advantage of remote collaboration tools has also been a difficult process, as many of us are adapting on-the-fly, leading to trial and error that puts additional hardship on the students.
Understand that teaching in a remote environment will require a different leadership style and, in my opinion, that style is Transformational Leadership. In essence, this leadership style will require [the professor] to motivate and transform the mindset of the student to perform at a higher academic level…yet, remotely! ~ Dr. Eric Todd Hollis
What have you learned/observed throughout this distance learning process?
By far, the most important aspect of making distance learning work for students who are used to in-person instruction is to stay in communication with them, soliciting and listening to their feedback. Maintaining student engagement and keeping your students interested in the course material is more difficult from a distance learning perspective, and requires more effort than you may be used to! There is a common tendency to disengage entirely when feeling lost or demoralized by a class that is greatly exacerbated by the distance learning experience — it is critical to budget extra time and put in extra effort to connect with students who are at risk of disengaging.
Since in-class group exercises may not be an option anymore (especially depending on how lectures are being delivered), additional resources, creativity, and preparation are necessary. Specifically, this past semester has really underscored the importance of providing ‘hands-on’ learning experiences to foster engagement in lecture and encourage retention of the material. The addition of a simulation environment that students could interact with was a game-changer not just in terms of making concepts ‘real’, but also in terms of giving students the tools they needed to really apply and experiment with what they were learning. Once there is an opportunity to explore the course material in an interactive environment, I’ve found that students are far more likely to bring up new ideas for discussion or implementation, reinforcing their interest in the course content and leading to better outcomes.
What is one thing you’d advise other educators who are struggling to sustain distance learning for foreseeable future?
Learn how to set up and use established online collaboration tools and learning environments! This will save you a lot of time and headache over cobbling together your own while also trying to develop an adapted curriculum. Establish a cooperative atmosphere by being transparent with your students when trying a new pedagogical approach, and regularly solicit their feedback to refine your strategy.
We thank Dr. Hayes for taking the time to share his personal successes and challenges with us and the great higher education community of teachers. To hear Dr. Hayes in ‘virtual’ person, we’ve extended this topic of distance learning challenges and tools into a live webinar panel discussion in partnership with Microsoft. Join us June 9, as we dig into the state of distance learning today and introduce technologies that can help educator’s adapt to a blended classroom teaching experience as we head into the Fall semester season.