George Hurlburt is a mathematics instructor at SUNY Corning Community College in Corning, New York. We recently chatted with him about Quantway College Virtual—his experience, what sets the course apart from others, and how it can help educators amid a global pandemic. Here’s what he had to say.

How did you feel about teaching Quantway College Virtual?

Going into the class I was really worried that students wouldn’t be able to get through the material without a teacher there to guide them. You know, in a traditional class the instructor would be there to prod them along, give them little hints. I was worried without being there, students wouldn’t be as successful, but I think they’re actually more successful.

We talked about (productive) struggle with the Quantway materials, all the time. And you can really see it in this class because the teacher’s not there to give them that quick little hint. They really have to work through (the material together in their online groups).

The other thing I really liked about teaching Quantway College Virtual was watching the groups come together. Some of my students have become very close and very good friends.

How would you say you connect with students if you’re not there present with them all the time?

In Quantway College Virtual, you connect with the students through responses to their collaborations. After watching group collaborations, I would make a short video and send that to them trying to help them understand where their struggles were and show them how to move forward. Sometimes I would just type up things—I didn’t always make a video.

This class offers more flexibility if faculty want to be more involved. You could set this up so that you are leading some of the collaborations, if you wish. I wasn’t able to do that because my students’ schedules didn’t work with my schedule.

How is Quantway College Virtual different from other online classes you’ve taught in the past?

In my other classes, the students are very much on their own—they work individually, do the questions individually, they watch the lectures individually. In Quantway College Virtual, they see each other twice a week, and I get to see them twice a week through watching the videos. With my other (online) classes, I don’t usually see the students very often, except when I give exams. I can look at their homework scores, but I need the students to reach out to me to tell me where they’re struggling. Through watching the videos, I know where the students are struggling and that allows me to be a lot more proactive rather than reactive.

How does Quantway College Virtual help you track your students’ progress?

I’m able to track my students’ progress primarily through the videos. I know I’ve mentioned those several times already but I think they are key to this course and what really makes a difference. The videos allow me to understand what the students are thinking and how they’re attacking problems. I can see exactly where their issues are and I can address them in a timely manner before they’re developing bad habits and making the same mistakes over and over again. The system also gives you a lot of other information about student progress.

How has teaching this class impacted your online teaching style?

This class has not only impacted my online teaching style, it’s also impacted my traditional classroom style. I find I’m trying to do a lot more discussions in my other online classes that I teach. I’m trying to get more student involvement that way—trying to get them to feel more of a community. When students are directing their own learning, they learn much better than when I’m standing in front of the classroom or in talking or if I’m just posting a video for an online class.

What, if anything, surprised you about teaching this course?

The thing that surprised me the most about teaching this course is how successful the students could be without the teacher being in the room. I really thought it would be a problem and that I would have to regularly join the collaborations to help the students get through.

The productive struggle was real. I could really see it when I watched the videos—how the students talk to each other, work through things, try different things until they finally came upon something that seemed right. I could also see their frustration sometimes when they typed in the answer, and it wasn’t right after they’ve worked on one problem for five or 10 minutes. But they didn’t quit and that’s what impressed me the most. And they did get through—my success rate overall has been very high.

You’ve mentioned productive struggle a couple of times and seeing that play out in the collaboration videos. Can you explain what productive struggle is for those unfamiliar?

We know that students struggle in math. What we hope here is to not have them just struggle (and quit) but to have them struggle in a good way. We want them to not immediately know the answer but we want them to have the tools and the ability to try different things and develop the right answer.

So often, students will see a problem that they don’t know how to do and they will just quit. That’s not productive struggle. That’s struggle and quitting. And that’s a very bad thing. And that’s not what we want to have happen here. So we try to give the students a toolbox of different items they can try—different techniques—and work on something, recognize they get an answer and say, well, that can’t possibly be correct. And then they look at their toolbox and pull out a different technique and try that and work through it.

We started developing these online courses long before the pandemic was even a thought. How would you say these classes are meeting the moment?

Right now we’re sitting in an unprecedented moment in time. And I think this virtual class is very, very helpful. I think it gives a means for instructors to teach this course and maintain the group work feel, which is so important to the whole core of this course. I think it would be very, very difficult to teach this course without the collaborations built the way they are, without the built-in Zoom meetings.

I know my college is most likely going to be virtual in the fall so I’m scheduled to teach two sections of this course and I think it’ll make a big difference for my students’ success.