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Tossed About, But Not Sunk

This fall, the College returns to a new school year unlike any other.  Already tempered by the challenges of spring and summer quarters taught remotely, faculty have rethought the classroom, collected and shared ideas, and now meet the fall more prepared to teach and learn remotely.

Teaching and learning remotely for me, and likely most of us, has been new and foreign, sometimes exciting, sometimes scary or intimidating. Until now, the only other remotely similarly jarring educational experience had been the start of a youth exchange year abroad in France. It was an eye-opener that shocked with a strange language, strange customs, and strange classes. Everything looked similar in the abstract but was wildly different in the specific. In most cases, the disconnection was less about the language and more about the culture and process. Then, as now, great networks were fortunately available to provide support.

Starting from Somewhere

If we have approached the fall with any added comfort, it has been partly attributable to the many collective initiatives and programs across the campus. Weinberg IT Solutions (WITS) and the Media and Design Studio (MADS) have contributed to many of these important efforts over the past months, joining campus partners such as Teaching and Learning Technologies, the University Libraries, and the School of Professional Studies.

Efforts of the past seven months have been fortunate to build on the foundation of past decades’ progress. In my time here, classrooms have become “smart” with more lecture material delivered electronically, PDFs have increasingly replaced photocopier course packs, and learning management systems, such as Canvas, have become necessary rather than novel.

Early Response

The earliest collaborative efforts focused on bolstering familiarity with two fundamental platforms: Canvas and video conferencing via Zoom. In addition to the training programs initiated by Teaching and Learning Technologies and the School of Professional Studies (gleaning from its already successful remote programs), the staff of MADS joined the cause by offering dozens of remote consultations to faculty on these two technologies.

Once acquainted with Canvas and Zoom, faculty began to turn attention to the dynamics of teaching via video conference. To assist in this process, MADS work-study students joined NUIT student workers to act as mock students in simulated teaching sessions conducted via Zoom. In these sessions, faculty could try sharing PowerPoint slides and other screen content, assign students to breakout rooms, and explore other collaborative tools such as chat and shared whiteboard. Over 150 faculty and teaching assistants participated in this program, 60 of whom were from Weinberg. Many faculty would later claim that these simulations were among the best things that had helped them to prepare.

Cope(ing) with Remote Instruction

Teaching remotely amid a global pandemic would turn out to present many hurdles in addition to learning new software. Students who had previously been locally connected to the activities of campus and its lightning-fast network were now spread across the globe in different time zones, with varying access to high-speed Internet, and often challenged to find dedicated times and places from which to participate. Faculty and teaching assistants faced similar challenges and additional challenging puzzles:

To help faculty address these difficult questions, Weinberg College launched the Community of Practice Experience (CoPE) at the debut of Spring quarter. Over 150 faculty from all parts of the College joined sessions facilitated by Nina Weida and Elizabeth McCabe, together with Ricardo Court, Assistant Dean of Academic Integrity. Weekly discussions enabled sharing anecdotes and new ideas over a number of topics ranging from course design to student engagement to assessments and office hours. Cecile-Anne Sison of MADS routinely joined me in offering insights or answering questions about relevant technology.

At the conclusion of Spring, Nina and Elizabeth gathered the collective knowledge and ideas of the group into an impressive guiding document: the CoPE Compendium. It is an essential read.

Many of the Weinberg faculty who participated in CoPE have also shared some of these insights in a set of thoughtfully curated testimonials, the Keep Teaching Video Series, recently published by Northwestern IT (NUIT).

Theory and Practice Makes Perfect

Spring quarter was, in more ways than one, a learning experience and a triumph of achievement, particularly given the circumstances. Yet, there were still ways to refine and improve. Several campus groups, including the Northwestern Libraries, Searle Center for Advancing Learning and Teaching, and Northwestern IT, joined forces to develop a new practicum series, Foundations of Online Teaching

This program united Northwestern’s best insights on universal design, course objective mapping, and active learning and paired it with individualized consultations offered over three weeks. By the end of the program, the aim is to have developed a robust course design that is optimized for remote instruction. 

Two series of the practicum have run. Three cohorts met in Spring for Summer Session courses, followed by four cohorts for the classes taught this fall. In total, nearly 470 faculty signed on to participate, with more than 160 from Weinberg College alone. MADS reached out to 60 of these faculty to provide specialized consultation and support. 

Of those with whom we worked, some of the greatest interest and excitement surrounded new annotation and discussion tools recently added to Canvas:

Both and Perusall transform reading assignments into active, discursive experiences. Students can highlight passages of the reading and provide reactions, interrogations, and classifications. 

Padlet gives a classes a rich discussion framework using a corkboard/sticky-note metaphor, and Flipgrid enables an entire class to easily contribute video-recorded comments to an on-screen matrix of video responses. Recorded demonstrations of these tools and several others are available from the virtual “Tools Fair” hosted by Northwestern IT in August.

Navigating the Uncertain Seas

Moving to remote and hybrid instruction has been a major feat, and thankfully one that we’ve faced with the technological tools we have at hand today.

Thinking back to those more paper-driven times a few short decades ago at the start of my year abroad, I recall a short trip to Paris with some newly-minted school friends. While they were obsessed with seeing beautiful spray-painted tags and graffiti of the big city, I fixated on a short Latin phrase carved into many buildings and written on signs: “fluctuat nec mergitur.” This motto for the city sometimes appeared along with a crest depicting a boat bravely navigating rough seas. The Latin roughly translates as “tossed about [by the waves] but not sunk.” This motto stuck with me as I navigated the challenges of adapting to my new school. I adopted it as my own mantra.

I’ve come to appreciate this motto time and time again, even now as we have faced the challenges of an uncertain pandemic and the radical ways we have needed to respond to it. If Northwestern should be my boat, and my colleagues my fellow crew, I am proud of how bravely and deftly we continue to navigate these tumultuous times. Indeed, fluctuat nec mergitur.

Next article: MS Bookings

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