Instructors challenged to rethink virtual teaching and reach students online
When UW-Green Bay instructors began planning their teaching for fall 2020, their focus was on learning, especially in the context of the online environment forced on colleges and universities by COVID-19.
A good portion of their summer was spent learning the software needed to present information, but also on teaching online in stressful times, said Caroline Boswell, associate professor in Humanities and History, and director of the Center for the Advancement of Teaching and Learning (CATL). Funded in part by money from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Stimulus (CARES) Act, and in part from a grant from the University of Wisconsin Systems Online Learning Initiative, the training helped instructors adapt to the new normal of teaching during a pandemic.
The new training, she said, focused not just on the pedagogy of how to teach a course, or even the nuts and bolts of how to deliver a lesson online, but on how instructors can reach students when their presence is mainly digital.
Boswell said nearly 130 instructors participated in the two sessions. The first session trained instructors on how to use Canvas, the learning management system for the University.
“We want to ensure that faculty feel confident using Canvas and know how to use it to communicate with our students,” she said.
The second, more advanced training was a two-week course in which instructors learn about how they can reach students—either by breaking up their online lectures, or creating online group assignments or even redoing their lessons to ensure that all students have access to it.
“The second part of the training was to help faculty think about how we can create full course citizenship for all of our students including students who may not be able to attend for a certain period of time because they are ill or they need to take on caregiving (for a family member or loved one), or that they’ve had to move back home, and their job schedules have changed. We have to be responsive to that,” she said. “And it’s also asking them to think about how issues around equity, inclusivity, and accessibility that are exacerbated within this context. Many students entered the semester online or having classes that are both in person and online, and they may be less familiar with learning in that environment. If our principle presence is digital, how do they know that we’re there for them and that we understand?”
The training takes into consideration everything from keeping students engaged in classes, to facilitating learning across a broad array of pandemic related situations by allowing groups of instructors learn from and work with one another to come up with solutions.
Jessica Van Slooten, associate professor in English, Writing Foundations, Women’s and Gender Studies, Humanities, and the co-chair for Women’s and Gender Studies program, said she was re-evaluating everything in terms of what could engage her students and make them successful.
“The way I would usually teach is face-to-face in a classroom…(using) a lot of active learning techniques and group work and students stopping to write some things,” she said. “I wanted to think about how I could translate those things into this online format. I was most concerned about my first-year writing class because these are all brand new college students, and they come with a wide variety of writing abilities and experiences. I just wanted to create a class that would allow all of them to be successful.”
To do that, she eliminated traditional methods, like selecting a book for the class to read and use to generate writing prompts, and replaced it with shorter writings, TED talks and podcasts for her students to consider. Additionally, she said, she would assign four main papers, and a variety of shorter pieces, that they will be able to select from to turn into a larger, much more
“They could turn it into a letter or podcast or even a video,” she said. “I just want to get them to think that writing has a lot of uses, in the broader world. And, hopefully that will also make it more relevant for them. So, I felt like that really translated well into an online format.”
In order to help students be successful, she said, it was important to be flexible.
“One of the resources that we shared in our trainings over the summer was this document that mapped out different kinds of learning activities along bandwidth requirements,” she said. “It really encouraged me to think about making sure that most of the activities I do are low bandwidth. Because we have a lot of students who don’t have great access for one reason or another, and I want them to feel like they can complete the class.”
Understanding that students are struggling with disruptions—from jobs and family to having to drive to a Starbucks in order to get internet access—helped Alan Chu, assistant professor in Psychology and chair of the Sport, Exercise, and Performance Psychology masters program, to consider equity when designing his class.
“I think the equity is a big piece that we’ve been talking about because not everyone has the same access at home,” he said. “Back in the spring when everything got moved online, some of my students told me that they had to drive to a parking lot next to a Starbucks just get the WiFi to do their homework. And I heard about some other students having to use their cell phone to write a whole paper. So, I did quite a bit of thinking and planning, to lay out some of the ways I could make my class more equitable.”
Chu also attended several conferences to learn more about using what he already knows about psychology to help his students.
“In the spring, I was including some of the positive psychology concepts into my classes,” he said. “In the discussions before class begins, I will ask them to list three things that they are thankful for before we go into the detail about the chapter discussions. And the students said it was great for them to be able to connect with other students in a way that is not about the course, but about life in general… some of them said it was helpful for them to be more positive in that and in other life challenges that they were experiencing.”
The advanced training also covered how to make information accessible for students by captioning videos, or making videos of classes that students could access on their own time frame. Instructors also worked on adapting how students can complete their assignments in order to not create more barriers to success.
And while the changes to the courses designed over the summer may be applicable to life during the pandemic, Boswell said she sees the changes to a more student-centered approach to learning to be something more permanent.
“When instructors put together their classes, they were also thinking about the positionality of their students. They are thinking about deadlines and whether or not they actually make sense in
the context,” Boswell said. “Are deadlines absolutely necessary, or are they kind of creating a barrier for students who might not be able to meet a deadline, for example, because their Internet isn’t working that day… or they have to share a computer with their siblings, and they didn’t get to choose who wins in those sorts of things. I think that a lot of that kind of thinking—about how the world structures your class—will definitely have long-term implications.”
Story by freelance writer Liz Carey