Manya Whitaker

Associate Professor of Education at Colorado College

What an Ed-Tech Skeptic Learned About Her Own Teaching in the Covid-19 Crisis

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It turns out you can learn a lot about yourself as a teacher when you’re rushing to move a course designed for a face-to-face classroom into a virtual one — not that I’m recommending the experience. Most every faculty member has been trapped in that particular pressure chamber these past few months, thanks to Covid-19. And it’s been toughest, perhaps, on those of us who tended to resist educational technology.

I’m at a liberal-arts college where, beginning in late March, I found myself suddenly using digital tools to teach a pair of three-week courses (that’s the structure of our academic calendar). The enrollment difference between the two — 24 students in the first course, five students in the second — allowed me to conduct a mini case study on the strengths and shortcomings of my emergency shift to remote teaching.

Plenty of academics are thinking about what we’ll do differently in the fall, given that at least some portion of our teaching is likely to happen online again. What follows are some personal reflections and some ideas for how I might change things up in September. I share them here in the hope that all of us can view this strange experience as an opportunity for professional growth.

What I learned about my teaching this spring. My field is teacher education. This crisis helped me to see that I do a lot of teaching “on the fly” in a face-to-face classroom — meaning that I change my approach in any particular class session based on how I read the room. I rely on students’ physicality as a way to measure the tone of the classroom and to gauge whether they are understanding the material.

That’s not easy to replicate online. In a remote classroom, I can’t “feel” their energy or notice looks of confusion or budding comprehension. In my first remote class, I found myself constantly scrolling through 24 video images in hopes of catching students who looked as if they had a question. It was exhausting to keep trying to solicit the kind of feedback I prefer that, ultimately, a digital classroom can’t provide.

Looking for a different way to assess whether students were grasping the material, I settled on creating daily low-stakes assignments. That was a decision I ended up regretting. While students didn’t resist the daily assignments, and the work did identify their learning progress, I soon realized that that wasn’t the type of feedback I really was after. All those assignments did was create daily work to grade — they didn’t offer any “data” to inform my in-the-moment style of teaching, which I now know to be my preferred style.

I’ve also discovered that my teaching tends to be very adaptive. During my second remote course, the one with only five students, it was (not surprisingly) much easier to hold class discussions via Zoom than in the class with 24 students. Listening to them talk about the course material, relate it to their lives, and speculate on its future application helped me adjust readings to better align with their interests and needs. For example, upon hearing where my students had taken teaching jobs for next year, I altered the syllabus to reflect the issues I knew they were going to encounter at their future schools. Class discussion also revealed their deep interest in curricular tracking, so I was able to offer an impromptu history of tracking in American public schools. My students really appreciated those on-the-spot adjustments.

What I learned from my remote pivot was that, without substantive class discussions, I miss out on teachable moments and on offering a course that is personally meaningful for students. I need to figure out how to build community so that students know that — even in the virtual world — the classroom is their space and that I am willing to deviate from the planned agenda to accommodate their interests.

The problem is that course structure is much more rigid online — with preplanned content and materials, particularly on asynchronous days — than it is in person. In my face-to-face classes I always had a lesson plan in mind, but, to be honest, it was a rough outline of what I hoped to cover that day.

Before the Covid-19 crisis, I didn’t have a set of premade digital presentations, lectures, or quizzes ready to be dropped in place, as needed. My digital toolkit, pre-pandemic, amounted to links I’d jotted down on the back of a reading, in case I wanted to play a quick video in class. I had to create all of that digital content fast: presentations (sometimes with narration), reading guides, quizzes. I also had to find relevant online supplementary material, such as Ted Talks, Khan Academy lessons, and YouTube videos.

While I love that I now have so many digital resources in my arsenal to support students’ learning, it didn’t feel natural for me to focus so much on content when I much prefer to focus on students’ development of cognitive skills. For the fall, I am wondering how I can revise my courses to place equal emphasis on both content and skill development, especially in a virtual classroom

 

That goal is further complicated when I factor in the reality that a third of the undergraduates at my college receive learning accommodations. As someone with a processing disorder, I know firsthand the difficulties of passive learning. And by passive, I mean classes in which students have little opportunity to engage with course concepts and material in class, through dialogue and hands-on activities (as opposed to teaching yourself the material on your own after class). My in-person teaching focuses on just such dialogue and hands-on activities.

Of course, during our emergency shift to remote instruction, I honored all students’ accommodations — offering extra time on tests and quizzes, creating recorded synchronous sessions, and making sure readings were accessible in multiple formats. But I struggled to create opportunities for students to play around with course concepts and develop new understandings. I fear that this failure disproportionately affected students with learning differences who need those structured opportunities for deep cognition.

What I will do differently this fall. The list that follows may seem overly ambitious, but some of it I’ve already done. With the summer ahead to properly design online courses, here is what I will do, or continue to do, in my future virtual classes:

  • Give up the notion that everything must come from me, and take advantage of existing material (e.g., predesigned presentations, software that accompanies textbooks).
  • Explore educational technologies that have long been used in elementary and secondary classrooms to enhance students’ learning opportunities at the college level.
  • Collaborate with colleagues who teach similar courses at my own or other institutions.
  • Cultivate a curriculum that is a mix of academic readings, personal narratives, documentaries, and podcasts. Organize the curriculum into modules that help students track their own progress.
  • Provide supplementary resources (reading guides, discussion questions, online tutorials) but help students prioritize which of those resources are most important.
  • Share rubrics, sample assignments, and templates with students.
  • Especially in a totally asynchronous course, provide a suggested pacing guide to help students manage their time.
  • Be prepared to mail a hard copy of the curriculum to students who may have inconsistent access to technology, the internet, or both.
  • Resist the urge to hold students accountable through daily assignments, and instead, during synchronous meetings, integrate informal classroom-assessment techniques.
  • Be certain to have at least one assignment that requires revision, so that students are revisiting course concepts multiple times and applying feedback to future work.
  • Create study groups and design assignments that require students to meet in those groups and discuss course content.
  • Foster community by beginning each synchronous session with a “check-in,” by using breakout rooms for small-group activities and discussions, and by offering virtual opportunities for the entire class to watch assigned movies and listen to assigned podcasts together.
  • Ask one or two students to create a group text or email discussion group so that students can easily communicate with one another outside of class.
  • Poll students throughout the course to solicit quick feedback about readings, assignments, and the overall structure. Adjust the course accordingly.
  • Instead of devoting synchronous class time to lectures and presentations, use it as an opportunity for students to ask questions and do activities in breakout rooms.
  • Conduct “active” office hours twice a week to offer mini-lessons for students who need further clarification, the opportunity to talk through material, or both.

The spring semester required far more work, and far more pedagogical adjustments, than usual. But it wasn’t just stressful; it was also exciting.

One reason I love teaching is that it poses so many challenges. It requires me to stay engaged with disciplinary scholarship and connected to students’ out-of-class lives. But before Covid-19, I’d resisted integrating technology into my courses in a meaningful way because I didn’t fully understand its possibilities. The present crisis forced my hand and, in truth, pushed me to become a better teacher.

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