At some point in their studies, most undergraduate students in Georgia Tech’s H. Milton Stewart School of Industrial and Systems Engineering (ISyE) encounter Damon P. Williams as an instructor. Williams, who himself earned a bachelor’s degree from ISyE in 2002, is a lecturer and advisor in ISyE’s academic office, and he has a reputation for being an engaging – and demanding – teacher. In fact, Williams recently won a teaching award from the Institute’s Center for Teaching and Learning that was based on student course surveys.
Williams describes his pedagogical style as student-centered; he expects his pupils to drive their own learning. In a normal semester, he starts each class session with a quiz – intended to train the students to quickly analyze and solve problems, a skill they’ll need in their post-graduate professional roles. The quiz is then often followed by having the students rotate to the whiteboard in groups of two or three to answer questions.
But obviously, given the sweeping social changes mandated by the novel coronavirus, these aren’t normal times. When the Institute moved to entirely online learning in late March, was Williams able to adapt his teaching approach for a virtual classroom?
The short answer is “yes.”
Over spring break, Williams – like most instructors at Tech – experimented with recording his remaining 14 lectures for ISYE 3104, Supply Chain Modeling: Manufacturing & Warehousing, and setting up videoconferencing via BlueJeans. Being able to teach effectively, he quickly discovered, requires multiple devices.
“I have two laptops and my tablet connected to BlueJeans,” Williams explains. “One laptop is for managing the videoconference, where I can see all the students. Then I screenshare my tablet and give my lecture to the other computer, while writing on the tablet. That way, the students can both see me and see what I was writing on the tablet – as if I was in the classroom writing on the whiteboard. Implementing best practices for online instruction has been key.”
The 60 students enrolled in ISYE 3104 watch the asynchronous videos Williams recorded over spring break prior to each live session, which he begins with a quiz, just as in his face-to-face classes. The students write their answers to the quiz questions on quiz template paper, just as they would in William’s on-campus class, and when they’re finished, they use their smartphones to take a picture of their responses, save them as a PDF, and upload them to the class Canvas page to be graded.
Then Williams dives into his lecture for the day. He says that despite the online format, student engagement has not suffered. His students expect to be called upon by name – generally in alphabetical order, since that’s how BlueJeans orders participants – at least once per session. Many of the students hang around for Williams’ office hours, which immediately follow class.
ISyE fourth-year student Maggie May serves as Williams’ teaching assistant for ISYE 3104. She has also moved to an online format for her office hours and review sessions, which she holds each week via BlueJeans from her family’s home in Maryland.
“I actually have seen a great turnout from the students for these virtual sessions,” she says. “We had an exam this past week, and 40 students showed up to review the test material. I also hosted a couple of extra review sessions, in response to student requests. I think that’s due to Damon’s expectation that his students are personally responsible for engaging with the material, as well as the solid work ethic he instills in them.”
In addition to covering course material, Williams has also used the online format to teach his undergraduates some basic videoconferencing etiquette: Dress appropriately (no pajamas!), remember that your surroundings should not be distracting to other participants, and – above all – mute your audio when you’re not speaking. He gives the students one extra point per class session, which they lose if they forget to silence themselves at any point during the class or don’t remember to unmute themselves when they’re responding to a question.
“These students are going to be in professional positions after graduation where they will be regularly working with colleagues around the world via videoconference,” Williams notes. “And being able to be effective in this format is essential. I was not going to lose this opportunity to help my students learn how to do this.”
Makala Muhammed, an ISyE fourth-year student enrolled in Williams’ class, says that his effort to maintain an effective learning environment for his students has paid off.
“He gives us numerous opportunities to grasp the material and shows us multiple ways to solve problems. That’s classic Damon,” she explains. “But even more than that, he checks in with us to make sure we’re doing okay, which means a lot in the middle of a situation that is difficult for everyone.”
“The shift to a fully online format has been relatively smooth,” May adds. “Apart from learning to use these technologies effectively, such a transition means that everyone – Damon, me, and the students – have to be adaptive and flexible within incredibly challenging circumstances. But largely the level of class engagement has been the same, and Damon provides an excellent example of how an online class can be taught successfully.”
Williams is already thinking about how he’ll approach teaching this summer, since classes at the Institute will continue to be virtual. One idea: Have the students demonstrate their grasp of the materials by putting them into an instructional posture.
“Being able to teach someone something is the highest form of comprehension,” he says. “Every semester, I give my students hundreds of problems to solve. A student recently sent me a three-minute video of his correct solution to a problem that I solved in a different way for the class. His video, in its quality and brevity, ended up being a great resource for the rest of the students, and it occurred to me that student-made short videos may be something to incorporate more fully this summer. To do this successfully, a student really has to learn the material in a deep way.”
Williams considers the transition to fully online teaching a success, all things considered. “The students in my class are Georgia Tech students, which means they have the capacity to work hard and be professional even in the middle of a pandemic,” he says. But like most of the Georgia Tech family, Williams is also looking forward to eventually returning to campus. He’s ready to interact again with his students face-to-face.
H. Milton Stewart School of Industrial and Systems Engineering