How Mount Holyoke College brought online courses to life for educators this summer
By Gena Mangiaratti
Reprinted with permission from August 4 Daily Hampshire Gazette
SOUTH HADLEY — When Seattle math teacher Ellen Kleyman found through a Google search that Mount Holyoke College was the only place offering the professional development course she wanted, she was initially disheartened by the 3,000 mile distance.
Then, she learned of an option for online participation, and thought, ‘Well, it’s better than not doing it at all,’ she said.
She guardedly signed up for one of the two, week-long courses she was interested in. After five days of getting up at 5 a.m. to participate in the class that begins at 8:30 a.m. Eastern time — or 5:30 a.m. Seattle time — she signed up for the other course.
“It was worth it,” said Kleyman, who has worked as a classroom teacher and is now a math specialist working with students in kindergarten through second grade at Graham Hill Elementary School. “I would say it wasn’t even just ‘good enough’ — it was good.”
Kleyman was among more than a dozen educators from around the world who participated in the launch of a new “blended model” of the Developing Mathematical Ideas institutes, which are professional development and graduate credit classes offered as part of the Mathematics Leadership Programs Summer Institutes at Mount Holyoke. The program combines those who are taking the class in person with those taking it online using a video call program called Zoom, the aim being to create a real-time classroom experience for all participants, or “online learning that doesn’t feel like online learning,” said Mathematics Leadership Programs director Michael Flynn.
“Rather than change the way we do things to fit technology, we found technology to fit the way we do things,” he said.
The summer math programs for educators have been around since 1983, and began being offered online in 2009.
This summer, for the first time, the college offered two Developing Mathematical Ideas courses in the blended model. Virginia Bastable, former director and now the associate director of the Mathematics Leadership Programs, said she is excited for the new digital format. Online courses, she said, can feel like a “dead medium” in that there is a lack of live interaction.
“It feels canned, dead — already done,” she said. “Here, it builds.”
At a recent session in a classroom on the second floor of the Mount Holyoke College Art building, Flynn goes over mathematical problems while half of his students sit at desks in front of him and the others appear in rows of boxes on the large screen behind him. There were a total of 16 participants in the class titled “Making Meaning for Operations,” with eight taking the class in person and eight tuned in from locations that included Amsterdam, Chicago, Florida, Arizona, and southeast Africa. The other course offered in the blended model, called “Building a System of Tens,” had five in-person participants and five online.
The screen in the classroom also shows the views that are seen by the online participants, which include different camera angles of the people in the classroom and Flynn lecturing. He explained that he did not want the view to make online participants feel like they were looking at footage on a security camera, and compares his role to that of producing a live show. One of his big challenges, he said, has been to provide convenience for those participating remotely, while still providing a high-quality experience for everyone involved.
He directs the participants to break into small groups — each containing two in-person participants and two online participants — to come up with visual representations of a set of math problems using fractions. Flynn said the class aims to provide the teachers with not only mathematical knowledge, but knowledge of how different students understand mathematical concepts.
“My online folks, you’re getting the handout right now,” Flynn said one day last month just before the small groups gathered.
While many digital handouts were emailed to the online participants ahead of time, Flynn later explained that he does not want anyone seeing the math problems ahead of time, so those are sent during class.
In various corners of the hallway, two participants in the flesh meet with two online participants whose faces appear on a laptop. The two in-person participants work on a large poster board, and frequently lift the laptop over the their drawings for their online counterparts to see.
Jim Hanson, a math teacher at Amherst Regional Middle School, recalls that when he first walked into the classroom and saw the screens, he thought to himself, ‘Is this what I signed up for?’
But now, he said, he has found that the online participants are “as much a part of the community as the people here.”
He said he finds the class format more interactive than other online environments such as webinars. Interacting through video, he noted, forces him to be more articulate when explaining some ideas and concepts.
“I really enjoy it, and I’m really excited to be part of the model,” he said. “I feel like I am engaged in the best possible circumstances for getting a master’s.”
When the class took a short break, Flynn did not turn off the large screen at the front of the room, which allowed online students to continue interacting with their classmates when class is not in session.
In a telephone interview from her Seattle home, Kleyman said this was one of the aspects of the way the class was run that made her feel part of the group.
She recalled one day when she overheard two teachers in the classroom working on a math problem during the break. They moved over so she could see what they were working on, she said, and the three of them had a conversation about the math problems.
“Things like that can make a real difference,” Kleyman said.
On her screen, she said, she sees both the other online participants and the classroom participants. There is also a setting in which her view will automatically switch to whoever is speaking, she said.
She said she had never used Zoom before taking the class, and prior to that had “only used Skype a handful of times.” Flynn contacted her before the class started to provide some explanation of the program, but after that, she said, it didn’t feel like a huge learning curve.
Flynn said he learned about Zoom from his colleague, visiting lecturer in education Megan Allen, who told him she had used the program to bring in guest speakers. He said he finds Zoom to be faster and more powerful than Skype, and includes features such as allowing participants to share their screens. The Zoom account cost the college a total of $40, or $10 per meeting space — one in the main classroom and three spaces for small groups, he said.
Online participant Jessica Boland, a math specialist who works with preschool through fifth-grade students at the American International School of Mozambique, said she did not see the online participants and in-person participants as two separate groups.
“Even though we’ve got the virtual and the in-class, there’s a clear sense that we are a classroom of learners,” she said in a Skype interview from an airport in Qatar, shortly after she finished the second-to-last day of class. She had been taking the course on her commute from her home in Arizona to Maputo, Mozambique where she teaches.
She has made plans, she said, with an in-person participant who teaches in Massachusetts to continue their discussions through Zoom, Skype or email.
“The learning’s not going to stop now that the course is almost over,” she said.
Gena Mangiaratti can be reached at email@example.com.