Online teaching and Zoom lectures are hot topics in academia these days. Here is a short article about one of my similar initiatives.
It’s been 13 years since I started blogging. Blogging has grown into an essential ingredient of my life. From the deepest fears to greatest success – I would share it all with my blog. It also helped me hone my writing skills. Maybe that is why my first-ever teaching experiment had something to do with blogging.
Less than two days into teaching back in July 2017, I was fascinated by the idea of starting a blog for my students. Though I was very excited about it, as a novice teacher, I decided to stop, think about the cause and effects of the endeavour before I start it off.
Why? The first question I tried to tackle is, why do I need such a blog. For this question, I convinced myself with a two-fold argument: to share information and to maintain a diary to track course progress.
What? Then what all do I post? Animations, puzzles, facts related to the lesson, extended reading materials, video lectures were a few things I could list. I could also share the prerequisites and objectives of the day’s class so that they can come prepared if they wish to. Though not initially, I started posting extra puzzles and simple project ideas. This list was the go-to whenever I was confused about what kind of materials to look for when posting lecture notes.
For whom? Who will be my target audience? The primary audience will be my students. But I must eventually focus on making the content more appealing to a random reader from the internet.
How much should I invest? As it was just two days into the job, my bank balance was zero! Free plan and LaTeX support in WordPress.com made it my obvious choice. The only investment I had to make was time. Will I be able to post there regularly? It was too early to answer that question.
What do I name it? Next question I wasted a lot of time on is the site address, name and tagline. I found the exercise not worth my attention at the moment and simply named it mccmathnotes.
Can there be other hurdles? The next question that triggered my curiosity is, why did none of my professors attempt a blog like this? Given my inexperience, I decided to be careful. I thought of possible issues that may pop up, like “He forced us to refer his blog“, “He posted some classroom content in the blog and did not teach it in class” etc. I listed them all. How will I avoid such unnecessary questions?
I tried to distinguish between “things to be taught in class” and “things I can share in the blog“. Unless I discuss in the class, I will not post anything important in exam point of view. I also decided not to monetize this site, even with ads.
It’s not enough that I am clear about the line I have drawn, I must make it known to the students as well. Once I fired the blog up, the first thing I did was to define the purpose of the blog – you can see it on the homepage even now. From choosing the content to mentioning the blog in class, I was alert not to overstep this line I drew.
Another way I could exploit the blog is by using it to prepare them to understand lectures from experts across the globe. After teaching a particular topic in class, I would recommend related talks from MIT-OCW in the blog. Most of the students consider such lectures hard to follow, hence wouldn’t even try it once. I aimed to convince them otherwise through this exercise.
The blog also helped me to engage with students outside class hours, generate curiosity and prepare them for the next day’s class.
It’s nothing new that a professor runs a blog to aid teaching. I was a huge fan of websites like Paul’s Online Math Notes, which helped learn the basics of differential equations and mechanics. My real inspiration was Mr Arun Koshy (Department of Economics, Madras Christian College), whom I had helped in a similar endeavour earlier, arunkoshy.in.
His willingness to take an extra step for his students, inspired a youngster like me to try it out. It was not required of him to do so, but he decided to invest some extra effort into teaching. I should take a moment to thank him as for being an “Ettan” (elder brother), an inspiration and a mentor.
Did it have an impact on the students? That’s one of the factors I ignored when I was planning for the blog. Though some students regularly followed my posts and got back to me with their doubts, majority skipped it. A trick I used to catch their attention is to leave simple remarks like “the first five to post ‘I saw it, bring my gift tomorrow’ in the group gets a chocolate tomorrow”. Once the first person posts it, others would flock to the blog. I would save them for the day I am posting something important.
Another obstacle was time. The administrative duties assigned to me later forced me to reduce the post frequency. But I kept posting once a week or at least twice a month. To reduce the load, I refrained myself to PG papers and abstract papers in UG.
End of the line
I decided to drop the project once I moved from MCC. A few articles like “On Learning Analysis“, “Interactive Coursework for Integral Equations” etc. were too precious to delete as well. I decided to retain selected articles in the domain Mathematicos.in @Christy Varghese gifted me in February. I’m moving them one by one, along with new content curated on the go.
I randomly stumbled on the “All-Time stats” for that blog a week ago. I was surprised to see that more than 50% of the world is coloured blue! A list of 75 countries followed. My decision to march forward despite being let down by most of the students seems to have benefited thousands across the globe!
WordPress manages SEO automatically. That made the blog one of the top 5 results in search engines like Bing. For example, try searching “bounded and totally bounded subsets” in Bing/Yahoo – the blog will feature in the top five.
I would like to end this article with just one note: I am not suggesting that you start a blog! Being a blogger and web developer, this was one way I could use my skills to take teaching to another level. I already told you how I used another interest of mine, storytelling to teach programming.
Look at your pool of talents – spend some time figuring out how to use it to better the learning experience in the classroom. And as I did, before you implement your newly devised strategy, try to discuss its cause, effects and the risk involved in-depth. Teaching experiments are calculated risks that should be taken with utmost care. Our thoughtless experiments must not destroy a student’s life.
If you would like some help, you can always get in touch with me. I may be able to give some helpful pointers.
Do not worry if it’s not as welcomed as you expected! If it motivates at least ten of 150 students you do it for, you’ve made a difference. We don’t know, like how my content helped thousands across the globe, a deed with good intentions never goes unpaid!
I would recommend WordPress.com anytime if you’re planning to start blogging – for science and humanities alike. Use this link to register in WordPress. Get in touch with me if you need help with WordPress/coupon codes. If you would like to run advanced polls or surveys in your site, you might want to check out CrowdSignal. You may be welcomed with exclusive offers if you register using this link!