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Banda’s efforts in online education greatly benefit math department, University during pandemic

Shanna Banda, associate professor of instruction in mathematics
Shanna Banda, associate professor of instruction in mathematics

Long before the COVID-19 pandemic forced colleges to move classes online, the Department of Mathematics at The University of Texas at Arlington was ahead of the curve. A big part of the credit for that success goes to Shanna Banda.

Banda is an associate professor of instruction in mathematics and recently was named assistant chair of the department. She oversees the Math Lab and Math Clinic, which provide tutoring services to students, and has led the push for improvements in online resources.

Banda’s efforts recently led to her being named recipient of the 2020 UTA President’s Award for Transformative Online Education.

“Just being nominated for an award of this caliber is humbling,” she said. “I strive every day to serve our department, university, and the surrounding community to the best of my ability. To me, that means helping students, faculty, staff, and people in general to be their very best self, so to be recognized as a transformative leader is an honor.”

When she started at UTA in 2013, the math department became possibly the first unit on campus to require instructors to host live online sessions with students. Live sessions were supplemented with hundreds of short, topical videos as the department redesigned courses to align with Quality Matters, a national program that strives to improve online education through development of quality standards and evaluation tools and procedures.

“We also integrated Blackboard, and now Canvas, with our online homework systems to provide single sign-on for students and faculty, synchronized grades, and enhanced data analysis,” Banda said. “Simultaneously, we launched the Affordability Campaign to drastically reduce the cost of course materials for students and make their electronic materials available to them on the first day of classes, even prior to their purchase.”

The department was also one of the first in the state to bring co-requisite (remedial and college-level) material online for specific student populations. In addition, the department provides technology and teacher training for faculty at the beginning of every semester.

“These trainings allowed us to be ahead of the game when we abruptly went online because of COVID,” she said. “Most of our faculty were well-prepared, and others took advantage of recorded trainings and a faculty development course to quickly learn how to teach online.”

While the department was well-prepared for the pivot to online learning that happened in March with the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, the effort still necessitated a massive amount of work in a short amount of time. It also came while Banda was working to complete her Ph.D. in Education, which she received from UTA in August.

“Within practically 24 hours I became one of the primary contacts for hundreds of math and College of Science (COS) instructors,” she said. “They were already familiar with me because I had served as the COS Canvas Champion and helped them build the online portions of their courses the year before. I enjoy helping people, but the days were long and hard. I would say it easily tripled the workload at a time when I was also trying to finish my dissertation and balance some time-consuming family commitments.”

“I cannot imagine and shudder to think how this year would have gone had we not been fairly well-prepared for online education. In addition to our coursework, we also had to move all of our tutoring operations online and train dozens of Learning Resource Center workers on how to engage students and tutor effectively online. Combine that with hours of planning and status meetings, and it was a rodeo.”

Jianzhong Su, professor and chair of the Department of Mathematics, said that Banda’s efforts in online education have been exemplary and have allowed the department to maintain its commitment to helping students succeed, even during a pandemic.

“Shanna is a tremendous asset to our department, and her work with online resources has been nothing short of amazing,” Su said. “The dedication of our faculty and staff to providing excellent support for students in the online environment is inspiring, and Shanna has greatly facilitated our ability to do so.”

When the coronavirus lockdown, Banda was teaching a MATH 1308 Elementary Statistics course that incorporates service learning – the idea of taking course concepts into the community in a way that mutually benefits students and organizations.

“It’s a great concept because the students are able to strengthen their understanding of course objectives by providing a service to the public,” Banda said. “In the Intro to Statistics course, we use the service-learning model to provide a statistical report and presentation to local non-profit organizations. Student groups work together to collect or gain access to community data, often cleaning it up and organizing things for the non-profit they’re working with, and then performing descriptive and inferential statistics in order to answer a question or meet a need for their partner.”

The concept grew from an idea in 2018 generated by Alice Lubbe, senior lecturer in mathematics, to start a statistical business operation. The idea morphed into a community partnership, and Lubbe and Banda worked to secure community partners in Arlington. Lubbe taught the first MATH 1308 service learning class in spring 2019, and Banda taught the second in spring 2020, when the partner program was expanded to Dallas, Fort Worth, and other nearby cities.

“Most non-profit organizations do not have statisticians on staff, but they are in need of reports and data to submit their results for grants and other funding sources,” Banda said. “Our students are able to help them accomplish that goal while learning how to clean data and analyze real-world statistics.

“When the COVID-19 lockdown happened, our data collection halted, some of our partners closed their doors, many of the non-profit staff were laid off, and I had to help my students redirect their projects. Everyone was stressed, but we did the best we could, and I think we had a remarkable semester. The hardships allowed resilience to shine, and I’m proud of our community.”

The subject of Banda’s dissertation was based on the 2019 results from the service-learning course. It focused on the problem of how in spite of increasing college enrollments, only 60 percent of first-time, full-time undergraduate students obtain degrees within six years. Poor performance in gateway courses, including entry-level math classes, is a major contributor to student attrition.

The purpose of the quantitative study, Banda wrote in her dissertation, was to analyze factors contributing to students’ motivation and to determine the extent to which students' sociodemographic characteristics, academic background, motivation, and participation in service-learning affected their performance in college-level mathematics. Additionally, the study attempted to address the gap in service-learning research in the area of mathematics and lead to recommendations that may improve student academic success and degree completion.

The research found that service-learning students were almost three times more likely to achieve a passing letter grade in the course than students in the non-service-learning sections of the course, Banda said. It also revealed that service learning increases the likelihood that students will be successful in mathematics. Therefore, there is a need to find ways to incentivize diversity.

This means not just encouraging students of color to participate in these activities but giving them the means to do so, by addressing racial and socioeconomic inequalities. Service learning could be a means to help reduce racial achievement gaps, Banda added.

In addition to the 2020 UTA President’s Award for Transformative Online Education, Banda received the 2019 UTA Provost’s Award for Excellence in Teaching, and the 2018 College of Science Award for Excellence in Teaching.