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Concordia’s Centre for Engineering in Society adapts and delivers flexible online coursework

Assistant professor Kari Zacharias champions Zoom and Moodle for teaching the Impact of Technology on Society
March 30, 2020
By Joanne Latimer

Kari Zacharias, assistant professor in the Gina Cody School of Engineering and Computer Science. Kari Zacharias, assistant professor in the Gina Cody School of Engineering and Computer Science.

It’s a unique and unusual engineering course, where students grapple with the role technology plays in people’s lives — and now it has been reimagined for online delivery due to COVID-19 closures.

The Impact of Technology on Society (ENGR 392) will still examine the cultural context and ethical dilemmas of technological change. However, students will no longer break into small groups to debate in person, obviously, and some course content is incorporating the current public health emergency.

“Their first assignment, post pandemic, reflects the students’ personal experience dealing with COVID-19,” notes Kari Zacharias, assistant professor in the Gina Cody School of Engineering and Computer Science’s Centre for Engineering in Society and one of the course’s instructors.

“The topic originally planned for this week was about technology and infrastructure — how we don’t think about a city’s infrastructure until something goes wrong, like road repair,” she says.

“Now I’m asking students to do assignments on the types of infrastructure they’re thinking about in light of the virus. They are choosing to write about hospital overload, concerns with public transit, internet access and more.”

This assignment was inspired by Zacharias’s own experience as an educator suddenly more aware of the teaching infrastructure and the challenge of embracing online teaching tools.

“I’m having a parallel experience, seeing distance learning technology in a different light, with a different urgency,” explains Zacharias, who is teaching two sections of the course, each with approximately 70 students.

Merci Moodle

“I always appreciated Moodle, but I didn’t know you could embed Zoom lectures and virtual class meetings into it,” she adds. “I’m also learning the effectiveness of narrating PowerPoint slides.”

Using Zoom video conferencing, Zacharias continues to lecture on the assigned readings by historians, sociologists, philosophers and anthropologists.

It’s also her preferred way to give one-on-one feedback about essays, and it’s how she meets with students doing group work assigned before the pandemic.

“I can talk to all five group members at once. The students are connecting with each other using Facebook, WhatsApp, Google Docs and Zoom. They aren’t missing out on the discussion-based nature of the projects,” says Zacharias.

"Together, they're analyzing how technologies like online voting systems and delivery drones can reflect social and cultural values. With all the technology available, we haven’t lost the rich exchange of ideas that make this course so special.”

Adapt and deliver

Indeed, ENGR 392 isn’t a typical engineering course, yet it’s perfectly at home at the Centre for Engineering in Society.

The centre has about 10 part- and full-time faculty members offering 20 course sections.

“I’m heartened and amazed by how our faculty is open to the online transition on such short notice,” says Govind Gopakumar, associate professor and the centre’s chair.

“They’re intent on giving our students an interactive experience, running discussion boards on Moodle and being flexible about alternative testing and assignments. They’re taking webinars, experimenting and sharing their experiences.”

What online teaching tips does Zacharias have for her fellow professors?

“Put kindness first,” she says.

“That includes patience, flexibility and transparency about what they can expect. Everyone’s stressed out. You never know what the students are dealing with. I’m recording my lectures and publishing them on Moodle in case students aren’t available during the scheduled class time.”

Learn more about the
Gina Cody School of Engineering and Computer Science.

Concordia’s campuses and libraries are currently closed, and courses have moved online as of Monday, March 23. Follow along with updates and info on COVID-19.

Check out online resources from Concordia’s Centre for Teaching Learning, developed to help professors move their courses online. And consult the schedule of live information sessions.



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