In the spring of 2020, we were faced with the task of quickly transitioning to emergency remote teaching. For many of us, this meant trying our best to recreate our face-to-face class structure in the remote environment by using Zoom to deliver synchronous lectures or facilitate live discussion. The summer months that followed afforded us an opportunity to reflect on those experiences and to begin to design and develop online learning in a somewhat less reactionary manner, taking advantage of pedagogies, technology, and teaching strategies more aligned with best practices for online learning. This fall, we were able to focus on and begin to implement more robust online learning strategies to support the Flex@Pitt model.
These past several months have demonstrated an evolutionary trajectory in which we have progressively leveraged online pedagogy to make the most of the online learning environment.
To understand better how we can continue to implement best practices in online teaching to add value to what we are currently doing, we asked the instructional designers and teaching consultants in the University Center for Teaching and Learning the to make recommendations for improvement for those who taught in the fall. Here, are their responses. In a future blog post, we will explore recommendations for those who did not teach in the fall and are new to the Flex@Pitt model.
For those who taught in the fall, what one recommendation would you offer to add value, beyond what they did in the fall, to their online teaching for the spring?
Set appropriate expectations. Balance high expectations, structure, clear rewards/consequences, on the one hand, with empathy, flexibility, investment in student success, and understanding that because we remain in extraordinary times, each student may be encountering unique challenges affecting performance in the class. If you shift too far on the expectations/structure side, you risk not appropriately attending to the reality of our students as human beings with unique human struggles during these challenging times. If you shift too far on the flexibility/understanding side, you run the risk of disorganization, lack of standards, and fostering an atmosphere in which students don’t feel motivated/obligated to fulfill course requirements.
Break the mold. Think about getting out the rote “lecture – reading – quiz” mode when planning courses. Think about exercises that develop cognitive and critical thinking (these can be non-graded) that extend beyond the expected norm and cycle of lecture, reading, quiz.
Asynchronous content. Think beyond the synchronous mode. This is a cultural shift that takes us out of the “emergency remote mode” to help create lasting asynchronous assets such as course and unit introduction videos, short online video lectures, assignments, threaded discussion boards, and other asynchronous activities. This helps to prevent simply create a replica of our in-person classrooms.
Synchronous Preparation. Prepare for synchronous discussion sessions or group/breakout work. Take the time to identify the objectives of the synchronous session (what should students know or be able to do after the session?), be clear about what you expect from students, and plan the session with an eye toward structure and pacing. Consider breaking out sensitive sessions into non-recorded discussions.
Review and reflect on the fall semester. Review student feedback from the fall semester and look for trends in responses. Reflect on your own experience teaching. What were your teaching and learning strengths and challenges? Make a list of lessons learned (review correspondence with students, announcements, changes you needed to make mid-stream, areas of inefficiency, areas which were “good enough” but didn’t quite live up to your own high standards etc.). Use this information to identify a manageable set of actionable goals for improvement for spring. You don’t need to radically reinvent your course (unless you want to!) to make changes that significantly improve your students’ learning experiences. Working with clearly defined objectives and a concrete list can (rather than a vague or general goal), helps prevent repeating previous mistakes and facilitates steady improvement.
Assess your syllabus. Revise your syllabus and course schedule to prioritize clarity and flexibility, which Pitt students have identified as key characteristics of effective teaching within the Flex@Pitt model. If you have not already done so, begin reviewing Canvas trainings now so that you have adequate time to process and practice what you learn.
Develop a student communication plan. Calendar out your communications to students. Outline and plan what, when and how you plan to communicate with students for the term. What are you going to put into announcements? How often are you going to send announcements and updates? You are less likely to forget if you plan. Help students understand how to set up notifications and let them know exactly how they you will be sending important information. Utilize the Canvas app more (students use their phone).
Expectations for Zoom sessions. If you expect your students to have their cameras on during synchronous sessions, demystify the use of video in Zoom. Start by focusing in why keeping their cameras on would be beneficial for them (the students; “What’s in it for me?”) and move on to providing some technical suggestions. This guide is helpful in insisting on the fact that you don’t have to be “camera ready” to keep learning.
If you have questions or would like to discuss a teaching issue or Flex@Pitt, contact the Teaching Center.