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Reimagining Mathematical Learning in a Virtual World

The COVID-19 pandemic has altered the way we interact, work, and travel. And perhaps most of all, the pandemic has forever changed education.

Long before the world went quiet in March 2020, the Dana Center team had been exploring how to better support educators through virtual professional learning. With budget cuts an ongoing reality and demands on time ever greater, the need for K–12 and postsecondary instructors to access high-quality professional learning virtually had increased in recent years.

When mathematics instructors were forced to move to online instruction due to COVID-19, the Center had already built the experience and expertise to quickly respond, according to Denise Thornton, a professional learning facilitator for K–12 mathematics. Thornton points to projects such as the Department of Defense Education Activity (DoDEA), for example, in which the Center provided virtual professional learning for DoDEA mathematics teachers at U.S. military bases around the world.

“We have spent a lot of time innovating our approach to ensure that whatever we taught in person could translate to a virtual setting,” said Thornton. “The team at the Dana Center understands what it’s like to be in the classroom, because we were all teachers. So, we understand how to design virtual trainings in ways that facilitate learning, by modeling creative ideas and ways that teachers can, in turn, engage their students online.”

Supporting Educators in Going Virtual

Given the practically overnight move to virtual learning when COVID-19 hit, the Dana Center staff drew from their experience to quickly move into action to support hundreds of K–12 and higher education mathematics instructors. This support included offering a series of free webinars and hosting office hours to help math instructors move their courses to a virtual format.

Spearheaded by Joan Zoellner, a course program specialist on the Dana Center’s higher education team, these free webinars offered in March and April 2020 served more than 500 higher education faculty members from 26 states, the District of Columbia, and Great Britain. Zoellner’s initiative during the height of the COVID-19 emergency provided immediate support for faculty.

This work would set the stage for the Dana Center to receive grant funding from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Carnegie Corporation of New York, and Ascendium Education Philanthropy to provide ongoing professional learning for math faculty. Through the Center’s popular professional learning series Focused Online Collaborative Interactions (FOCI), higher education faculty can access virtual professional development covering a range of topics—from designing lessons and student-to-student interactions to shared engagement in intellectual inquiry and addressing issues for low-income students and students with disabilities.

FOCI is intended to provide instructors convenient ways to access professional learning without leaving their campus, explained Paula Talley, manager of professional learning for the Dana Center’s higher education team.

“We really want to create meaningful collaborations among faculty to ensure they can learn from one another,” she said. “And this goes beyond math faculty. We have participants in FOCI that are from other departments, such as English and psychology, because when it comes to supporting students, it is critical that we can bring multiple stakeholders to the table.”

As both Thornton and Talley can attest, whether teaching at the K–12 or the postsecondary level, there are several key considerations to keep in mind when supporting students in virtual learning environments.

A pair of teenaged sisters work on schoolwork at home. They sit at a table in front of two open laptop computers.

A pair of sisters, both high school students in Austin, Texas, during a school day at home. Photo by Phil Swann.

3 Essentials for Effective Virtual Learning

Whether your instruction is synchronous or asynchronous, many educators now understand the mixed bag of joys and challenges that come with making the switch to online instruction. While there are many best practices and even more technology considerations, there are three core essentials that are critical to keep in mind when teaching in a virtual environment.

  1. Be intentional in your course design to ensure culturally responsive teaching. This includes staying mindful of inequities to consider in the student experience, especially in virtual learning environments. “We really focus on helping higher ed instructors think about their course design to focus on where inequities might be present,” explained Talley. “How can you work across campus teams—especially with corequisite implementation teams—to ensure the experience supports students just as well virtually?”
  2. Keep technology as simple as possible. The digital divide is perhaps proving to be one of the biggest barriers to equitable access in today’s new virtual environment. This is why the Dana Center team encourages instructors to design their courses to function effectively through the least common denominator of technology. “Many students are having to use their cell phones to take classes because they don’t have tablets, laptops, or even consistent access to the Internet,” Talley said. “You don’t need all the fancy bells and whistles, just give students the information.”
  3. Stay flexible and focus on your teaching goals. Embracing the uncertainty isn’t always easy, but it’s essential for instructors right now. “I feel like it’s a common excuse for teachers to say, ‘we don’t know what’s going to happen,’” said Thornton. “At some point we have to acknowledge the fact that the future is going to continue to be uncertain. But if you commit to your teaching goals and keep pursuing new knowledge and new pedagogy through professional learning, you can apply that insight to whatever context you’re teaching—whether in-person or virtual.”

Where Do We Go from Here?

It’s anyone’s guess where we will be a year from now when it comes to the pandemic and its impact on education. One thing is certain: virtual instruction of some variety is here to stay.

And by investing in virtual professional learning for themselves, Talley notes, educators can explore ideas firsthand that they can take back to the classroom—around content and pedagogy, ideas for student engagement, or simply a better understanding of students’ everyday experiences in a virtual learning environment.

“Many instructors who take our professional learning walk away with a deeper sense of compassion about what their students experience,” Talley explained. “So, it puts instructors in their students’ shoes to see that often students aren’t making excuses—they genuinely need different types of supports to learn effectively in a virtual environment.”

Lara Zuehlke
Growing up on a pig farm in central Texas, I was certainly no stranger to the idea of working hard. My parents were both educators, teaching students across K-12 and postsecondary. So my passion for education comes naturally and has led me to sharing stories through marketing and communications at four different Texas universities over the past 20 years.

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