It’s Just Not the Same, Part 2
May 12, 2020
To decide whether they would use synchronous learning (e.g., live videoconferencing), asynchronous learning (e.g., prerecorded lectures or discussion-board posts), or blended methods of course design and delivery, each Southwestern faculty member had to consider each class’s size, their upcoming assignments and evaluation methods, their students’ access to the Internet, and their students’ and their own familiarity and dexterity with the available tools. The faculty then independently researched or worked with Julie Sievers, director of the Center for Teaching, Learning, and Scholarship, and Melanie Hoag, instructional technologist, to reimagine their courses—no small feat considering full-time professors at Southwestern teach two or three classes each term on top of their service, advising, and research commitments.
“Talking to my dots”
Erika Berroth, an associate professor of German, shares that she and her loved ones have been “living in severe physical distancing since before spring break to protect vulnerable family members,” and she’s been sharing what she describes as a “precarious Internet connection” with her husband, a fellow teacher, and her a son, a college junior. Nevertheless, her work as a coauthor of an open-access online educational resource for Beginning German, Grenzenlos Deutsch, which aims for inclusivity in its design, images, texts, and topics, helped make the transition to remote learning smoother because, she explains, her network of collaborators from around the world “started sharing resources, insights, best practices, best failures, and best strategies for self-care.”
For her German language classes and her advanced-entry seminar, International Climate Fiction, Berroth decided to make synchronous class meetings through Google Meet her primary mode of instruction. She affectionately refers to these sessions as “talking to my dots” because, as she describes, “after the initial excitement of seeing their peers at their homes subsided, many of my students turned off their cameras and were present as ‘dots with letters’ and in their voices.” Luckily, Berroth and her students had previously established trust and rapport through group projects and guided discussions, so even camera-less interactions went smoothly.
That engaged dialogue was made evident not just in the recorded class sessions but also in each of the Google Docs that she would share in the chat function during those meetings. In the document, Berroth might refer to assigned readings and/or include links, images, questions, quotes, or writing prompts; students would then type in their names and share their responses and comments. Students participating asynchronously could access the recorded class session and then contribute to the document when it was convenient for them, and the compiled documents would then be archived in Moodle. “The fun effect I discovered when several German students translated a sentence at the same time was the way they self-corrected as they saw what peers were writing on the same page at the same time,” Berroth says. “Seeing sentences and thought processes evolve in real time for a group of learners made me ‘see’ in a whole new way how effective collaborative learning can be.”
Taking STEM online
When the university shifted to distance learning, says Professor of Chemistry Maha Zewail-Foote, “I tried to keep the overall layout and overall objectives of my courses while cultivating a sense of community.” Zewail-Foote, who is teaching Advanced Biochemistry Lab and The Biochemistry of Nucleic Acids this semester, used—and found useful—a variety of technological applications, such as capturing her writing on a whiteboard to solve problems, creating online videos and quizzes, using online video conferencing, and incorporating real-time collaboration tools. She also facilitated peer support by holding weekly group help sessions and assigning breakout groups in which students could work on chemistry problems together online, such as in video chat rooms. “Of course, it is not the same as being together in a classroom,” Zewail-Foote acknowledges, “but I tried to facilitate interactions both between me and the students and among the students.”
Ben Pierce, professor of biology and holder of the Lillian Nelson Pratt Chair, is teaching Evolutionary Biology, an upper-level seminar with 20 students and no lab, and Methods in Ecology and Evolution, a foundational course for sophomores. “I didn’t have to abandon anything outright,” he recalls. “Some people took the approach that there might be better ways to teach the class online, that you should really shift the class, and I might have opted for that if we’d had more time, but we had only one week, and we were asking the students to shift to something very different very abruptly. … I didn’t want to overwhelm them by using lots of different tech.”
Pierce transitioned much of his content to asynchronous work, using PowerPoint and Loom software to record videos of material he’d normally cover during in-class lectures and administering quizzes and tests through Moodle. During synchronous class times, he used Google Hangouts to facilitate discussion and to field questions. He admits that the half-semester methods course required a bit more retooling because the students had met for only two weeks prior to spring break, so they hadn’t built as much rapport as students who had been in class together since January. It’s also a very hands-on course, requiring students to complete a research project that includes collecting data, doing statistical analysis, and writing a paper. The students had not collected data before the university went online, so Pierce had to supply them with data collected by previous students. His current students also learned statistical analysis by working through step-by-step exercises in a book on the programming language R, which they can then ask questions about and discuss during online class meetings. “I’d much rather be in a room with people and interacting with them, but it’s been better than I thought,” he reflects.
The benefits of being a millennial
Kim Guiler, a part-time instructor of political science, says that when she first learned the university would be transitioning online, she thought her course, The European Union and Turkey, would just continue meeting synchronously online, with few other changes. But after consulting with faculty friends at other institutions, reading up on online instruction, learning about the difficulties some SU students were facing in terms of lacking Internet access or needing to do work asynchronously so that they could take care of ailing family members, and considering the needs of her own family, Guiler knew what she had to do: “I had to completely redo my syllabus,” she says.
Her new goal was to make the remote-learning experience “as palatable for the students as possible while still making sure that they got the necessary key information that I wanted them to retain afterwards.”
Her new goal was to make the remote-learning experience “as palatable for the students as possible while still making sure that they got the necessary key information that I wanted them to retain afterwards.” So she pared down the required readings to the essentials, asking students to respond in their own time in a Moodle discussion forum or else by email. Students who were previously expected to present reading responses in class are now doing so in videos that Guiler then posts to the forum, where classmates can respond. She also began making videos of her own, something she had never done before but learned quickly with the help of a friend. She started with one to explain the revised syllabus and another to provide feedback on the quizzes her students had taken before the break; since then, she’s developed a series of minilectures featuring PowerPoint and voiceover, including one previously unplanned presentation focused on the spread of COVID-19 throughout the EU and Turkey.
It’s all time consuming, of course, but Guiler is enjoying it—“and I feel more millennial than I ever have having a YouTube channel!” she laughs. She also feels that “it’s been a useful tool to cultivate” for use in, say, high-stakes research presentations that she’ll need to create in the future. But Guiler also says that it’s the optional synchronous office hours that she treasures most. “I love teaching,” she shares. “I look forward to going to our discussion time every week because every time I have a wonderful, positive engagement, it reminds me why I’m putting this much time and work into this.”
The necessity of prior classroom rapport
By contrast, Erin Crockett ’05 decided to teach her psychology courses all synchronously using Zoom and Ring Central, including her intensive project-based Research Methods course. She begins in class mode before splitting the students into groups; she then pops into those groups’ virtual rooms whenever they ask questions via the platform. Crockett and her students keep things light all the while, choosing to laugh through technical glitches or the unceremonious intrusion of camera-hogging canines.
And even though she records all her lectures and notes so that students can review them in their own time, Crockett shares, “It’s an 8:30 morning class, and every student has been there for every class!” She attributes this perfect attendance to that sense of community she and her students had already developed during the first months of the spring semester, when everyone was still in the classroom together. “It honestly saved me that we had met regularly in person before we went online because so many procedures, expectations for participation, and our rapport had already been established—I already had a sense of what worked for students and what didn’t. That made a huge difference.” She adds that for some students, the real-time class meetings provide needed social interaction, so “even though it’s 8:30 in the morning, they’ve never been so excited.”
Historian Jess Hower confirms that having had nine weeks of on-campus interaction earlier this spring in her two seminars, History of the British Isles since 1688 and Witches, Nuns, Prostitutes, Wives, and Queens—not to mention having taught most of her current students in previous semesters (the norm for faculty at small universities like Southwestern)—are the only reasons “this has worked to the extent that it has—and I hesitate to say it’s been successful,” she disclaims.
Like Guiler, Hower has been recording minilectures using Screencast-O-Matic and offers students the options of contributing asynchronously to Moodle forums or joining synchronous discussions through Google Hangouts. All but a couple students in each seminar have been regularly attending those live conversations. “I certainly wouldn’t say it’s perfect or approximating what we do in class on campus. I never forget that I’m not in the classroom or behind a screen,” she observes. “But there are moments when I’m able to suspend this disbelief—when we can all still talk to one another and have some of the same kind of conversation we had before. It’s still been fun and amazing and sophisticated and scholarly. It’s still really rigorous work. And each class is the highlight of my week.”
In the third installment of this series, I’ll explore how SU faculty reimagined courses and assignments that are difficult to translate online while addressing the needs of their students.