Real time concept mapping: Challenges in the face of Covid-19

Gautam Sethi, Center for Environmental Policy, Bard College

The semester of spring 2020 began on a high note for me. I had taught this modeling course before so I only had to do a limited amount of prep. Learning from previous semesters mistakes, I modified the syllabus to make it more cohesive and a bit faster-paced. During the first week of the semester, I learned that 10 of 14 students in my class already had some programming experience, although none had used MATLAB. This made my task significantly easier and I looked forward to the rest of the semester.

Learning from the previous time I had taught this course, I divided the semester into various modules (such as financial models, statistical models, simple simulations, Monte Carlo simulations, chaotic systems, and linear programing). I used the first 2-3 weeks of the semester teaching the basics of MATLAB after assigning On-Ramp to the students to be completed over winter break.

Within each module, I split the time on each module in submodules, the first of which was review the theory, followed by developing a concept map (C-map). In my experience, C-maps are not only a useful visual tool but they also help in the next stage, where I ask students to generate a pseudocode, that would form the basis of the actual code.

When the College switched to online teaching in the middle of the term, I had little difficulty in adapting all but one of these activities. It was fairly easy to communicate the theory online, and it actually became easier to send students to breakout rooms where I would join them to help them develop both their pseudocode as well as the final code.

The hardest part of teaching online was felt at the level of C-mapping. Since we would work very interactively in the face-to-face setting and we would collectively iterate towards the final C-map by drawing an initial one on the board and modifying it until it fit the parameters of the question at hand, this was hard to replicate online. For one thing, the whiteboard feature didn't work very well, and out interaction was not as nearly as interactive. I attempted to overcome this by making an animated PowerPoint, but that clearly didn't have the same pedagogical value. Eventually, we used a mix of animations and student-led whiteboard sessions where we took turns to generate the C-map, which was a bit more effective but a lot more time consuming compared to face to face teaching.

Overall, though, aside from this one issue, I actually enjoyed online teaching for this course. Since much of the work involved coding on the computer even pre-Covid, the transition to online teaching didn't have much of a significant impact of most of what we did in the classroom.

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