5 Lessons From Teaching an Online Course

I taught a physics course and I had a blast!

The course was a numerical computing course aimed at high school students covering the basics of programming in python, and the scipy ecosystem. During the course, the students would recreate the Voyager I orbital path via simulation of the gravitational interactions by numerically solving the second order differential equation to get the equations of motion, and then optimizing the initial conditions to exploit the slingshot effect to escape the solar system.

I also learned a lot - that teaching is (much) harder than it looks - motivated people learn quickly - and the difficulties of online teaching. I have collected a few lessons that I want to share.

Lessons

1. Developing a course is a lot of work

It takes a lot of time to develop a course. When you are a student, it is easy to underestimate how much effort that goes into creating a good course. For example, developing the 6 week course and coordinating everythong took 5 months. While you can probably do it faster if you have a lot of experience, creating a course is just plainly a lot of work.

Even preparing and fine-tuning the individual lectures takes a lot of times. I spent around the same amount of time preparing to teach as it took actually teaching.

2. Teaching online is lonely.

Teaching online and talking to oneself for an hour or more with little feedback is weird. When you sit alone and talk to a computer screen without the feedback of talking directly to people, it can quickly feel like you're just talking to yourself for an hour. This can be a bit lonely.

It also hurts the quality of the lectures.I would also catch myself going through content a bit too quickly and not having a feeling for how well people were following. I have much more respect for why my professors want to get back to physical lectures.

Zoom meetings can both give rise for a lot of engagement since it feels closer than being in a lecture hall, but it also lets people hide more. Being isolated might also create less social pressure to engage with the lecture, and it's easier to become distracted.

3. Timezones are difficult.

Timezones are stupid. Changing timezones twice per year, but at different times, so the time of different geographic regions go out of sync is even more stupid. When you're dealing with international borderlines - coordinating across timezones always pose a problem - over time, one becomes used to it, but I didn't account for different timezones switching to daylights savings time at different days.

This ended up causing some confusion.

4. People are good at learning!

I was surprised by how much motivated people can learn in a short amount of time. People can learn a lot in a really short period of time if they are motivated. In just 6 weeks pre-calc students were able to learn how to program and understand and solve second order differential equations. Of course, we had to skip over a lot of nuance, but I still find it very impressive that people are able to learn so much in such a short amount of time. Enough to solve real problems. But you can teach relatively advanced things when people are motivated.

5. Teaching can be scary, but also a great way to learn.

Teaching is really scary. You worry if you explain the material well, if the lectures are engaging, if the flow is good. But it is also fun and rewarding!

Not only did I learn a lot about teaching, but I also developed a greater appreciation and more nuanced view of the material. Something happens when you're forced to think about how to best explain the material to someone else. It forces you to confront any illusions of compentence, and engage with the material at a deeper level.

Conclusion

Teaching is difficult - especially online lectures. And it can be stressful, but also rewarding. Not just the teaching itself, but it can also be a good way of better understanding the material. Even if you don't ever show it to anyone, trying to explain something in a simple manner, can be a good way of confronting the illusion of compentence.

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