2020 has been a difficult year for the Higher Education community in Australia and New Zealand. Wiley understands that despite the challenges of COVID-19 and remote teaching, there have also been lessons learned and opportunities realised, and that this disruption has helped many universities progress further down the path of digital teaching and learning.

We sat down (virtually) with Physics Professor Judith Dawes from Macquarie University, to uncover her experience, learnings and the challenges she faced during Semester 1 2020.

We hope this guest post provides you with some new ideas for digital teaching or simply that you are able to relate Judith’s experience with your own.

I teach Physics for both large junior and small senior classes, with a mix of those students who want to do Physics, and those students who want to do something else, but have to do Physics to support their future studies.

I love teaching: learning something so I understand it better and can explain it properly, making links between abstract Physics concepts and students’ everyday experience, crafting a problem to illuminate an idea, watching students work towards “getting it” – all of these are immensely rewarding. Marking too many terrible exams, well, let’s say that is less rewarding, as we all know.

When Australia began to shut down in March 2020 due to COVID-19, I had already been self-isolating for two weeks due to an early exposure to someone who tested positive with COVID-19. I was not sick, and continued lecturing and tutoring my small class online.

Judith Dawes

Professor of Physics at Macquarie University, Australia

My students showed great patience in the early days as we all worked out how to make the technology serve us better. So it has been a long period at home for me. In my department, we have responded to the shutdown in different ways. Each of us came to a clearer realisation of what “lockdown at home” actually meant to us personally, in terms of domestic life, more housework, virtual interactions with friends and family, limited opportunities for exercise outdoors, interminable hours staring at the computer screen showing other people staring at their computer screens… and no commute!

My colleagues and I have become adept at Zoom, and discovered other communication tools such as Slack or Teams. We have all worked to understand techniques for online assessments such as timed quizzes (multi-choice questions or randomised numerical answer problems) and online open-book exams (what do you do when your questions are not text-based, and need diagrams and mathematical formulae to solve?).

We scrambled to respond promptly to students’ enquiries, even when we ourselves did not know where we were heading! We recorded our lectures via a combination of Zoom and the University online platform, and narrated our tutorials in videos, recorded using a Smartpen or on tablets and iPads. In particular, for Physics, we created meaningful alternatives to practical experiences by making videos of the demonstrators doing experiments, so that students could watch the video, engage with a demonstrator in a virtual discussion and write up and submit their lab reports online.

” Each of us came to a clearer realisation of what “lockdown at home” actually meant to us personally, in terms of domestic life, more housework, virtual interactions with friends and family…”

In these past few months I have been stressed about maintaining effective online teaching, while juggling fluctuating anxiety levels and concern for family members in difficult situations. But there were some nice highlights in that period: for example, the time that the NBN failed me during a 2 hour Zoom tutorial. After 15 minutes I managed to get back into that Zoom meeting with a different internet connection, to discover that my first year students had moved on from the previous question and were animatedly discussing the solution to another Physics question.

They apologised for not waiting for me! Despite so many challenges for them, I have applauded my students working at home towards their degrees. Many of them have worked harder than perhaps they have done previously (fewer outside diversions?) and they have reaped the benefits.

In the meantime, many others in our community were stressed for other reasons as they lost their jobs or reduced their hours. With many universities announcing significant job cuts, none of us is complacent in the current economic environment.

“I have applauded my students working at home towards their degrees. Many of them have worked harder than perhaps they have done previously… and they have reaped the benefits.”

Small businesses in my neighbourhood have closed their doors, and I suspect others will follow in coming months. We have seen the global economy stumble, with reduced international trust and engagement. International students have been particularly vulnerable, worrying about their families back home, perhaps losing financial support and thus their ability to stay in Australia. We have seen the rise in awareness of racism, with the Black Lives Matter protests in the U.S. and around the world. Again, a source of so much distress and anxiety for many in our community.

And yet, I believe we will be saved by our ingenuity, and our research across Science, Social Science and the Humanities will help us to find the solutions we seek in this crisis.

From “The Weighing” by Jane Hirshfield:

The world asks of us
only the strength we have and we give it.
Then it asks more, and we give it.

We have managed to get through our special circumstances COVID-19 semester. We should take a deep breath to celebrate that and to ready ourselves for the challenges that lie ahead.

We hope you’ve learned something new or found inspiration in this post. There’s no doubt that instructors are more prepared than ever to tackle any adversity that may come their way in Semester 2, but Wiley will always be here to help institutions, instructors and students. What was your experience like during the COVID-19 shutdown? Reach out if you would like to share your own story!

About the writer:
Judith Dawes is a Professor of Physics at Macquarie University, Australia, where she teaches physics and photonics. She is the Director of MQ Photonics Research Centre and is active in promoting women in science, technology, engineering and mathematics. Judith Dawes obtained her BSc (Honours) from the University of Sydney, during which she studied physics with an earlier edition of Halliday. During her PhD in Sydney, she spent a year at the University of Rochester’s Laboratory for Laser Energetics (USA). Before joining Macquarie University, she held a postdoctoral position at the University of Toronto (Canada). She is a former President of the Australian Optical Society and a fellow of SPIE and OSA, both major international optics societies. She researches the use of lasers and nanotechnology for medical applications and sensing.

Take a look at our newest STEM titles, coming in 2020!

Materials Science and Engineering, 1st Australian and New Zealand Edition Physics, 1st Australian and New Zealand Edition Fundamentals of Physics, 1st Australian & New Zealand Edition
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