Article by Todd Dresser.
Last spring, we all talked about how the pandemic would re-shape higher education. Now, a year from the beginning of the pandemic, we want to look at how those discussions have evolved. What questions did we ask? How did instructors answer them? What new questions emerged? And what will we carry forward from teaching in the age of COVID as well as the overlapping crises of the past year? Since all politics are local, I spoke with three instructors at UW-Green Bay to get their perspectives.
I spoke with Jillian Jacklin, a lecturer in Democracy and Justice Studies who had the serendipitous experience of starting her journey at UW-Green Bay in the Spring 2020 semester. I spoke with Kiel Nikolakakis, a lecturer in Natural and Applied Sciences who has a broad array of teaching experiences in lab courses, Gateways to Phoenix Success (GPS), as well as in UW Collaborative Programs. And I spoke with Heidi Sherman, Associate Professor of History and Humanities, who has experience as a chair, advisor, and instructor.
The discussion below should provoke thought as to how the last year has changed our teaching practices. It’s not an exhaustive compendium of experiences by any means. In fact, we wish to hear your stories as well, so please see the opportunities to continue this discussion at the bottom of the post.
Blending online and face-to-face strategies
In 2020, “hyflex” was in the air. This term combining hybrid delivery and flexible participation has been around since 2006 but has been a niche format with much of the research on its effectiveness centered on graduate education. Yet, suddenly, higher-ed circulated podcasts and think pieces about its applicability to the pandemic context.
These offerings had two main themes. First, as Brian Beatty put it “a well-designed HyFlex class, with effective alternative participation modes that all lead to the same learning outcomes, can provide meaningful learning opportunities for all students.” Second: “resiliency.” Again, from Brian Beatty, “looking ahead, if it becomes necessary to close campuses again for almost any reason (natural disaster, smoke and fire threats…) students and faculty in HyFlex classes should be able to continue without interruption.” Hyflex held out hope of maintaining quality education resilient against future disasters.
Yet, even the textbook on how to create a hyflex course acknowledges that it takes multiple semesters to develop a truly hyflex course. So how did instructors blend online and face-to-face methods together? How did it go? And what will remain?
Online discussions give all students a voice
Dr. Jacklin teaches two sections of History 206, each capped at 65 students. Stimulating discussion in large classes is challenging face-to-face and often favors those more comfortable expressing their ideas publicly. She noted that in “lecture halls students don’t get to see each other’s ideas. A lot of people talk on Canvas who wouldn’t talk” in a lecture setting. Though she plans to return face-to-face in Fall, she intends to “spark discussions in Canvas” to allow “all students to continue to have a voice.”
Dr. Nikolakakis also found virtual discussions let students gather their thoughts. He had his first-year students prepare PowerPoint slides in response to discussion prompts and describe their ideas in VoiceThread. This exercise led to a “higher degree of engagement” than classroom discussions and “students did a better job” getting into depth on course materials.
Both Drs. Jacklin and Nikolakakis found online discussions alleviated some anxieties of in-class participation and allowed students to express their ideas in a more relaxed way leading to more complicated insights.
Digital spaces for digital faces
Discussions around “synchronous online” also evolved. Dr. Sherman described how the “virtual classroom” allowed students to discuss complex material more comfortably. She noted the virtual environment “alleviates the social anxiety that weighs on you” when trying to unpack primary historical sources in front of peers. She allows students to participate with webcams off, which turns their voices on.
Dr. Jacklin held online “venting” sessions where students decompressed, which were important given that much of the material she covered in her courses overlapped with news events about racial injustice.
Dr. Nikolakakis faced the challenge of preparing students to conduct labs. In a typical semester he would offer an overview lecture prior to the lab, but classroom restrictions meant he could not lecture to everyone at once. Instead, he created mini-lectures students could watch ahead of in-room labs. Many of these lectures will be available for future use.
These are all creative examples of how instructors have adapted and enhanced their synchronous teaching in ways that the prognostications from last summer did not anticipate.
Getting your digital feed beneath you
Both Drs. Jacklin and Nikolakakis developed a rhythm for teaching in distance environments. For Dr. Nikolakakis, Fall semester felt “more chaotic” than Spring 2021. While this feeling of relative ease comes from many sources—practice, for example—he noted creating modules in Canvas mimicking a calendar (so students know what to expect every week) works for him. He found that students use the Canvas calendar as their to do list and has made sure his assignments appear there.
Similarly, Dr. Jacklin noted she has gotten better at “scaffolding” assignments so smaller assignments help students build toward larger ones.
Technology and equity
We never signed up for distance education but found ourselves online, so questions arose about how to serve students ensuring equitable access and ability to complete course materials.
A map of public wi-fi locations helps document a scramble to assist those without robust internet access and conjures the feelings of dislocation and unease which made the map necessary. The ramifications of teaching across the web raised concerns. Bryan Alexander argued in a widely circulated blog post that “students would be better served by dialing back the Zoom and shifting instead to a greater emphasis on asynchronous tech” noting “live video means assuming students have access to infrastructure.” In a world where people were learning from parking lots over public wi-fi, that was not a safe assumption.
Nonetheless, virtual classroom emerged as the most common teaching mode at UW-Green Bay. How did we go from a reluctance to a reliance? And, how has equity fared?
Virtual classroom revealed accommodations I didn’t know I needed
Just ask Heidi Sherman. Dr. Sherman was initially reluctant to teach via virtual classroom out of a concern for student access. Her colleagues relayed they were able to have good conversations with students over web and her experience as an advisor showed many students preferred virtual classroom to other distance modes. So, she took the plunge this Spring.
She found virtual classroom enabled deeper connections with students and course material than even face-to-face allowed. As a historian, Dr. Sherman teaches through primary sources and these sources (in Islamic history and Medieval history) are complicated and difficult to parse. As a someone who is visually impaired, Dr. Sherman notes that she “needs to hold a book close to my face” while helping students unpack the readings.
Virtual classroom alleviated some of tensions felt while teaching face-to-face. The documents are still complicated, but she and the students can do so with webcams off, meaning students do not have to put their struggles on stage and that Dr. Sherman can read in relative comfort. She noted, “when the teacher is comfortable; the students are comfortable” which enables freer and deeper discussions than were possible face-to-face.
Teaching through web conference revealed other troublesome aspects of face-to-face, but she thought she would just “have to deal with.” For example, the “clock in a regular classroom is not easy to see,” which makes it hard to pace a lesson. Similarly, the computer monitors in physical classrooms are small and hard to work with. Also, students in virtual environments are not “distracted by all the social things” that “weigh on you” in a classroom where they struggle more publicly with difficult material.
Betty Friedan famously described “the problem with no name” which arose from a “strange stirring” that many women felt in the 20th century when the world as it was did not match the world as they were told it should be. So too did Dr. Sherman note that virtual classroom revealed “accommodations I didn’t know I needed.” She thought the unease of teaching face-to-face was part of the job. Teaching virtually put a name on a set of accommodations which unlocked teaching as it should be for her and her students.
The conversation about synchronous online teaching began from a concern about equity related to infrastructure. While those issues undoubtedly remain, what emerged is a more complicated relationship between technology and equity. Dr. Sherman notes that the constellation of attributes for virtual classroom align well for her but that it has opened a deeper discussion about how to align “technology with equity” so all people have access to an education (and a workplace) to take advantage of their assets.
Further explorations into technology and equity
Dr. Sherman is not alone, Dr. Jacklin also explored the equity–technology relationship by deepening her relationship with Open Educational Resources (OER). While she uses an open textbook for her class “Who Built America?” because the publisher serendipitously decided to make it open, it has grown into a passion for how OER can alleviate important pressures for students.
Similarly, Dr. Nikolakakis has recorded many mini-lectures for his chemistry courses which extend and reinforce his instruction. He plans to continue to continue using this large outlay of labor for students in the future who need reinforcement or who have planned absences.
What about you?
The Center wants to hear your stories. How did you think last year would go? How did it? How did you manage? What will you carry forth?
Join us synchronously on May 14 at 11 a.m. via Microsoft Teams where CATL and the Center for Civic Engagement will host a discussion on “The Things We’ll Carry.” You’ll even get to talk with Jillian Jacklin herself!
Also, please respond to this survey where we will collect more stories about what people will carry forth from the year and use the responses to help inform future opportunities from CATL and the Center for Civic Engagement.
Finally, we encourage you to comment below and keep the conversation going!