MDS Spotlight: In-Person to Online: Teaching MDS Remotely

The COVID-19 outbreak has forced many institutions like UBC to move all classes online. The UBC Master of Data Science (MDS) program was no exception and has been teaching online since March 16.

To move to this new way of teaching, the MDS team used a variety of online tools like Collaborate Ultra and Zoom for lectures. Slack and GitHub to communicate with students and Canvas to administer exams.

We spoke to a few of our MDS teaching staff to see how they’ve adjusted to this new way of teaching and lessons learned.

Tomas Beuzen

Q: What have you liked about using these online tools to teach the MDS students?

Tomas Beuzen – Postdoctoral Research and Teaching Fellow, MDS Vancouver: In some cases, using these tools has helped highlight things we could do to refine and improve our in-person teaching styles in the future. For example, when hosting online lab sessions, students have mentioned to me that the ability to listen in on other student’s questions to the instructor and the subsequent answers to those questions has been very beneficial.

Khalad Hasan - Assistant Professor, MDS Okanagan: Using Collaborate Ultra gives students the flexibility to join the class from anywhere. Additionally, all the classes are recorded. Thus, students now have the chance to revisit the class lectures, if needed.

Varada Kolhatkar - Postdoctoral Research and Teaching Fellow, MDS Vancouver: For the course I was teaching this block, pre-recorded video lectures with Camtasia plus Q&A on Collaborate Ultra during lecture time worked great because the material was a bit complex and this format gave the students some time to take in the material, digest it, reflect on it, and then ask deeper questions during the Q&A session, which made our discussion sessions more productive. 

Garrett Nicolai - Postdoctoral Research and Teaching Fellow, MDS Computational Linguistics: I much prefer teaching in-person, but I feel the 1-on-1 setting has the students more likely to ask questions, as they are not afraid that their classmates will hear where they are struggling.

Apurva Narayan

Q: What has been the biggest challenge to moving your classes online?

Apurva Narayan - Assistant Professor, MDS Okanagan: The biggest challenge was to bring the personal touch among my students. Moreover, transforming my assessments to suit this new method of delivery.

Kolhatkar: One of the main challenges for me is the difficulty in gauging student engagement and encouraging quieter students to participate. 

Garret Nicolai MDS Computational Linguistics

Nicolai: A lab setting often allows students to join in if they hear the instructor discussing a certain problem that they, too, are encountering.  This is missing in the online setup, and I often find myself explaining the same concepts half a dozen times, which then means that it takes longer for students to work on their labs, which leads to more frustration.

Q: How have you been able to overcome these challenges?

Narayan: To bring the personal touch to students, I have more interactive sessions (individually or in small groups) than I would have during normal classes. Secondly, converting the quizzes and assessments to more mini projects gives them more hands-on experience. 

Kolhatkar: [I’ve done] breakout rooms during Q&A sessions and labs that provided a place for students to discuss a list of questions in groups. This gave quieter students a chance to participate and share their thoughts.

Varada Kolbatkar

Nicolai: If I encounter multiple students with a similar problem, I post some general comments about it to the class Slack channel, but it's often [not enough]. Coding is very idiosyncratic, so general tips and pointers can help, but often don't resolve a very specific problem that has arisen in a student's code. I try to make myself available to students outside of posted lab times and office hours, with the understanding that I will respond, but not as quickly as during those designated times.

Q: What has been the reaction from your students to this change?

Beuzen: Generally good. I think the students appreciate how drastic of a change this transition has been for both instructors and students.

Nicolai: The students are stressed right now, but I think they've done a good job of adapting to the online learning.

Q: How have you been able to stay connected to students if they need help or have questions while they are learning remotely?

Beuzen: I’m available on Slack pretty much 24/7 and Collaborate Ultra for hosting remote “office hours”. I think we’ve managed to foster a fairly healthy online environment in MDS where efforts have been to not just facilitate remote learning, but also to create and join in on social events such as remote hang-outs, online games, etc.


Hasan: I asked students to communicate with me via email or I set virtual office hours with Collaborate Ultra where students could join the office hours and ask me questions.

Q: Final thoughts on teaching online?

Beuzen: While the transition to remote teaching has been a challenge, I think that a lot of the lessons we have (or will) learn during this time will ultimately help us to improve the “in-person” teaching and learning experience in the future. Being able to teach in pyjamas has been a plus!

The article has been edited for clarity and length.

Vanessa Ho is the Marketing Coordinator for the MDS program. She holds a Bachelor of Journalism degree from the University of Regina