An Interview with Gordon Williams

Faculty Perspectives

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In this interview with Gordon Williams, we found out how he developed Calculus III (MATH F253X) for online students and why video became an important tool.

Q: What was important to have ready before the class started?

It would have been nice to have everything ready, but I had to settle with just having two weeks worked out in advance given the time constraints.

Q: Explain some of the pedagogical decisions you’ve made while building a course as it’s running.

A lot of the techniques I’m using in the course came from the suggestions and practices of my colleagues. For example, using worksheets in combination with (preferably brief) lecture videos using the same template, having students complete those worksheets by following along on the video, and having students submit them weekly is a reasonably handy way of ensuring students view and follow the content of the videos.

Discussions with colleagues who have spent time looking into best practices for online courses also suggested I needed to find ways to incorporate my own presence into the course as much as possible. This helps students feel like there’s a person on the other side of the computer screen. One of the ways I eventually settled on doing this is arranging, at least occasionally, to record short glass board introductions to the lecture videos so that they can see me as well as hear me from time to time.

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Another conscious choice was to try to structure the videos as the briefest possible introduction to the subject matter and techniques, and rely on supplementary materials prepared by colleagues and the text for providing additional details, commentary or examples.

Q: What makes a quality 30-minute video? Why did you choose a longer length for your videos as opposed to shorter, less-than-15-minute videos?

I’m trying to keep the material self-contained. I could have artificially broken out the material I felt needed presenting into separate videos, one covering an introduction to a concept, another showing a single example, a third introducing a related concept or expanded technique, followed by another separate example video. But I don’t think this would be more effective for the students since it would dilute the narrative. Instead, I’ve tried to structure the videos so that they can be watched through in a fairly breezy way for an introduction, and if there are steps or concepts that a student is struggling with, they can go back and pause or replay the relevant sections to get more details.

I could make them even shorter if I had more time and better editing tools at my disposal (there are pauses of longer length than I would like in a lot of the audio, and I could trim at least a minute or two from many videos just by eliminating unnecessary pauses or repetitions). I would also prefer to be able to write tighter scripts for the videos, but due to time constraints have had to instead rely on outlines and templates. This means I’m partially improvising the content, and doing a lot of the scripting in the editing and recording process.

Q: What lessons have you learned that you plan to implement next time you teach this course online?

I’d like to get the early videos even tighter and crisper and incorporate the glass board introductions to all of the lectures, not just some. I’d also like to incorporate more computer video simulations for some of the ideas.

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