By Kevin Cheung, Associate Professor, School of Mathematics and Statistics

Since I started using digital technology in my teaching, I have always had a bit of anxiety for what could go wrong and when. After all, Murphy’s Law states that anything that can go wrong will go wrong. Still fresh in my mind are some moments when the data projector failed, the presentation program froze, the learning management system went down during an online quiz.

I have always tried to have a “low-tech” back-up plan whenever I can. In particular, I am almost always prepared to give a chalk-and-talk lecture if necessary. The need to have such a plan is something that I learned from Scott Berkun’s Confessions of a Public Speaker. Admittedly, as I rely on digital technology more and more, such back-up plans become less and less comprehensive because certain learning activities simply cannot be well approximated through non-digital means.

Ironically, today in the midst of a pandemic, what I need to worry about is completely the opposite. Crucial aspects of traditional means for teaching are now inaccessible. The main one being that I can no longer be in the same room as my students. I now have to rely on technology to provide students with a substitute for what they could obtain in an in-person setting.

My previous experience in online teaching helps little for courses that I rarely or have never taught. The reason is that when teaching a class in person, there is the luxury of seeing how students react and adjusting things (e.g. pace, examples) on the fly. In an online course, even with live (synchronous) lectures, it is not so easy to “read” the students. No doubt, online tools such as polling apps can help to a certain extent. But the screen between me and my students remains a barrier, both physically and psychologically. Perhaps someday, virtual reality technology will eliminate that barrier. Unfortunately, it is highly unlikely for that day to arrive before Fall 2020.

What I have come to realize over the past two months is that good teaching is fragile. To me, the principle of universal design for learning now has the added dimension of agility—the ability to adapt quickly to disruptions. The pandemic has now forced instructors all over the world to confront the need for agility head on. One possible positive outcome is that much will have been learned after the crisis is over.