Faculty Spotlight: Gail Poitrast, M.Ed.

Gail Poitrast has been an adjunct faculty member at Granite State College for the past 10 years and presently serves as Mathematics Education Resource Faculty for the School of Education and Lead Mathematics Faculty for the Outcomes Assessment Project. In the spring of 2007, Gail received the Distinguished Faculty Award for Excellence in Teaching from Granite State College.  When not teaching mathematics, Gail enjoys spending time with her daughter, son, and five grandchildren in Henniker, NH. Her interests include kayaking, gardening, and learning how to play the violin with her granddaughter.

How Times Have Changed

Gail Poitrast has seen a lot of change in her 39 years of teaching, especially since she began teaching online 10 years ago. Back then online courses were presented in Outlook Express folders and the teacher-student interaction consisted of emails with attachments.  Now she uses a variety of tools to engage the students in her classes.  Real-time interaction with her students is a critical component of all of her courses.  For this, she uses Bb Collaborate, a web-conferencing tool, to meet with her students and to review problems on the whiteboard.  For additional support, Gail has created her own math tutorials, uploaded them to YouTube and embedded into her Moodle lessons for students to watch at their own convenience and as many times as they want.  Already her Youtube videos have nearly 63,000 views from students around the world and have received positive feedback such as “Thank You SOOOOOOOO MUCH. I’m so glad that YouTube allows for others teachers to explain things in a way that is different from what my teacher does. It helps me look at things differently”.  

To respond quickly to students’ questions, she uses a smart pen, LiveScribe and the Replay Notes app, which allow her to record a written and audio explanation of a problem and share it via the web or an email link.

Demonstration of how Gail uses Bb Collaborate (formerly Elluminate).

But Gail hasn’t stopped looking for ways to improve the teaching and learning.  She explained, “I am always looking for new and innovative ways to help students learn mathematics online!” She will be attending the 2nd annual USNH Academic Technology Institute this June at Keene State College.  Last year’s institute was hosted by Granite State College. 

Connecting with the Students

Connecting with students online can be challenging at first.  Faculty quickly learn that their approaches for accomplishing this in the classroom don’t always translate well in an online environment.  Gail explains her approach here:

Many students come into math classes with well-developed math phobias.  Helping them to overcome these feelings, to realize that everyone “can do math,” and to then feel successful in mathematics is always both my biggest challenge and reward.  In an online class, it is essential to create a connection with the student so that this can happen.

As a new class begins, I try to be present in every aspect of the course, from posting announcements and commenting on our ‘ice-breaker’ activity to having our first Bb Collaborate session within the first few days of class.  I hope that if I encourage students often enough to participate and ask questions, they will! In the online classroom, there is no hiding in the back corner.  Every student must respond to our weekly forum questions and then respond substantively to others’ postings.  While some are hesitant at first, students do realize that these forums are in a safe, supportive environment.  I enjoy this aspect of our course because I get to see the thought processes of every student in the class.

“As a new class begins, I try to be present in every aspect of the course, from posting announcements and commenting on our ‘ice-breaker’ activity to having our first Bb Collaborate session within the first few days of class.”

Gail’s Advice for online teaching:

An online course must be thought of as a work in progress.  There are many ways to enhance a course with technology and innovative activities, but if you try to incorporate too many new things at once, it can be overwhelming.  One of my education mentors told me once that if you change 10% of what happens in your class every year—new activities, technology, etc–your courses will continuously evolve without being overwhelming.  That applies to online courses as well.  My best advice to new online instructors is to start simple and then add to the course as you feel increasingly comfortable in what is a very different environment than the traditional classroom setting.

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