Educators all over the world are currently facing a common challenge: How do we teach in the new COVID-19 environment?
One thing we have always had on our side as educators has been time. We have time to research the topics, to research pedagogical approaches, to design courses we will teach in future way in advance. We have time to think, to deliberate, to arrive at optimal solutions. However, with COVID-19, we have suddenly been thrust outside the old world we knew.
Those who taught during the Spring semester know and appreciate how mid-way through the semester, instruction was moved completely online. You wanted more time to plan and design the online experience for your students? Well, too bad. Those of us (including me) who are teaching in Fall 2020 have more time but also a lot more uncertainty. Will classes be held purely online? Will there be an in-person element? What would a blended/hybrid course look like? By some estimates, 65% of colleges plan to re-open for the fall. However, "re-opening" will look drastically different in the new world. Colleges are already discussing how to enforce social distancing norms and masks in classrooms, with fair concerns surrounding their success in practice.
Given the uncertainty for Fall 2020, what can you do as an instructor to be prepared to the extent possible? I have been in online education for nearly a decade now. I have worn many hats during this time: A high school teacher, course designer and marketer for online exec ed courses, a doctoral student, and now an assistant professor of marketing. While these many roles silently prepared me for the challenges we face today, there are no definitive answers right now. So, I've been asking peers and mentors. I have been enrolling myself in online courses. I've been talking to elearning teams, videographers, and experts at Coursera. I've been participating in an intensive 3-week program offered by the U of I elearning team.
What am I learning about teaching in the online space?
1) Learn and own the tech:
Campus elearning teams are swamped! In the ideal world, I would walk into a studio and deliver my content. The videographer will film it. Someone on the team will work on post-production and someone else will put it all together. Voilà! My online course is up and running. The reality is these teams are swamped right now. Consult them, ask them specific questions, show them stuff and get an opinion. Other than that, learn and own the tech.
Here are some more tips from Coursera on how to record home videos. I invested in inexpensive tripod and lapel mics. It also helps to record shorter videos segments in fewer cuts so post-production is easy and at the same time, the content is nicely chunked and organized for students.
2) Survey other courses:
I have found it super helpful to talk to instructors who have been successful at teaching online (even in the pre COVID era) and surveying their courses. These courses can be MOOCs or online LMS for degree courses. These courses can be within your discipline or beyond. When you survey them, think like a designer. Reverse engineer it. Look for elements that you would never have thought of but that can be central to learning in a highly distracting online environment. For example, my colleague Aric Rindfleisch teaches a popular Coursera MOOC on digital marketing that offers a practice quiz at the end of each module in addition to a graded quiz. These practice quizzes can serve as a diagnostic tool for the instructor as well as a self-assessment tool for learners. Similarly, economics professor Jonathan Meer at Texas A&M University and his co-instructor in their online course have a full-fledged course orientation module #0 setup as a pre-requisite. Course LMS should be super intuitive, right? But as he points out in some of their videos, students can often miss a critical link to the module videos, central to their learning and not notice it as half the semester goes by. Jonathan summarizes his key lessons from online teaching in this video I HIGHLY RECOMMEND on how to set up an online course.
Organize, prepare, plan your scripts, include a co-instructor when possible, use other forms of digital media including podcasts or videos to break the monotony. Host at least a few live zoom sessions with your students so they can see you are a real human being.
3) Include and make LIVE interactions fun:
There is value in incorporating a few live sessions over and above the asynchronous videos. Whether these are online or in-person, plan these well and incentivize students to show up and participate.
One of the best ideas I have received on garnering engagement during these online live sessions came from Elizabeth Luckman, Clinical Assistant Professor of Business Administration at Gies. Elizabeth opens a shared google doc that groups of students simultaneously work on in breakout rooms in zoom. In her own words:
"I did a “reflection exercise” at the beginning of the live session. I had four reflection questions I wanted students to address, and I created a google spreadsheet with the same number of tabs as groups. Then I put them in breakout rooms and in those rooms, they had to type answers into the doc. So that means that even though they were in breakout rooms, I could see (and they all could see) what each of the other groups was doing. I had never done it before but it worked really well! The crowdsourcing doc that I showed is live all the time, and they can add to it at any time. My goal is that they can use that information for their final projects - and also just have this cool resource that they can download and save after the class ends. Keeping discussion going during live sessions is rough. My experience is that smaller numbers of students in live sessions, the google doc during breakout groups, and (sadly) incentivizing discussion is sort of the right mix."
To better teach online, we must first learn to learn ourselves. Overall, don't fret!
Accept that teaching in the new world will look different. Accept that it will require unlearning and relearning, and higher investment of time and energy. Be patient with yourself but open to learning new tools and techniques. Try to place yourself in the shoes of your students and wondrous new insights will emerge!
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