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Positives from the Pandemic

For TEACHx 2021, I made a video titled “Glass Half Full.” It explored, with an eye toward the future, the positives of the forced move to online learning due to the COVID-19 pandemic. In early 2021, I conducted a series of interviews with Northwestern University faculty about what they liked about teaching online and what they would bring back to in-person teaching. There were so many positives! I saw themes arising, so I organized the feedback into six main categories:

(1) Changes in Attitudes about Technology

Forgiving attitudes from students about using technology allowed instructors to try new tools and incorporate them in teaching. The baseline for tech know-how is now higher for faculty, and perhaps there is less fear about trying new things. Tablets, whiteboarding and collaborative apps emerged as “keepers” for in-person teaching—preferable to using the document cameras of the pre-pandemic era. Quizlet, Padlet, Kahoot and other apps were utilized to make more engaging synchronous and asynchronous activities.

(2) Re-evaluation of Syllabi

What seemed like daunting tasks in the past, such as course reorganizations and digitization, had to get done quickly during the pandemic. Taking the time to flip classes, utilize Canvas effectively (and not just as a repository for files), record and streamline content, address accessibility and utilize Universal Design concepts have resulted in courses that really focus on learning objectives. Resources can be reused in future classes now that the work is done. Starting discussions before synchronous sessions, via constructive comments and annotations in reading software or via discussion boards, was another successful flipping strategy that several professors said they “would use forever.” The flexibility of offering students asynchronous material (including quizzes) has only made it easier for students to succeed.

(3) Collaborative Tools

Faculty maximized the time they spent with students by focusing on activities that could only be done when everyone was together. Google Jamboard, Miro, Padlet, OneNote and other whiteboarding tools made activities easy to prepare prior to class. They also provided archives for students to refer to after class. Google Docs brought structure to breakout rooms. In fact, breakout rooms may have been more efficient as compared to, in a physical classroom, finding a group and rearranging furniture. Students using personal devices in classes might be here to stay.  

(4) Student-centered Activities

As no one was in the classroom, some activities were designed to take advantage of that: exploring the outdoors, using the home for experiments or using props or local subjects for writing material. These sorts of activities not only increased motivation, but also allowed for more creative inspiration and unexpected output. Relevant and real-world examples kept students engaged. This is something that does not have to go away once we move off-line. Polls and built-in analytics within software were also helpful in "taking the temperature" of  students and allowing for lectures promptly to address topics the students were interested in or having trouble with.

(5) Incorporating Outside Resources

ZOOM was a game changer for everyone. The ability to teleconference has existed in the classroom for many years now (teleconferencing with a University of Chicago class or videoconferencing with colleagues), but the ubiquitousness of ZOOM enabled Northwestern faculty to expand the classroom community. Guest speakers, mentors, and networking all became much easier. Access to spaces they might not have been able to visit became as easy as a tour with a phone’s camera. The ease of access to technology for non-Northwestern people means class visits and even pre-recorded videos can now—and forever—be easily incorporated into class content.

(6) Empathetic Teaching Practices

Along with addressing equity and accessibility through Universal Design, during the pandemic, everyone had to deal with a fuzzier line between home life and work/school life. There was a humanization of both sides of the equation: both faculty and students saw each other as people. Attention was intentionally paid to building a community among the students. As students and faculty opened up to each other, they allowed themselves to be vulnerable and honest. Mental health was recognized as important to nurture. Some faculty relished becoming more approachable , and this has changed how they will view the teacher-student relationship.

Empathetic Teaching

Due to time constraints for the conference, I wasn’t able to spend much time on any one category, but empathy in teaching is one that I found to be the most important as we make the move back to in-person classes. Professor Jasmine Roberts (The Ohio State University) put it very clearly in her TEACHx keynote address: “We are teaching students, not content.” This framing of WHY we have classes colors each of my previous categories in some way. We want students:

Professor Roberts offered some ideas about how to teach with empathy: for example, allow for flexibility and soft deadlines. Many of these suggestions I have already seen our faculty do, and this is wonderful.

I’d like to highlight a few other successful strategies that came up during my interviews:

Change types of assessments.

Faculty went from the usual exams, quizzes and papers to projects where students could choose the format. One example is from Lis Elliott’s Slavic class where her students submitted a midterm study guide instead of taking a midterm. She was impressed by her students’ grasp of the course content, the creativity of what they turned in and the visuals that wouldn’t have been possible in a traditional exam format.

Allow for multiple modes of feedback and respond in a timely fashion.

As remote learning was new for both teacher and student, there were more frequent checks on student progress (mid-quarter surveys or open invitations for feedback): students could tell faculty what wasn't working, which activities were demotivating, or what needed to be re-conveyed. These types of solicitations cannot exist in a void, however. As long as the faculty member kept up with the communication, they were able (a) to respond to it and (b) to do something about it.

Some professors aimed for even more immediate feedback (e.g., polls) but also encouraged back-channeling during synchronous sessions. Jili Sun (Chinese) said that allowing her students to back-channel with her both increased participation from her more shy students and also provided an opportunity—in real time—to see which concepts were difficult for the class to grasp. Sun didn't have to wait for a traditional assessment!

Create a dialogue with students about how they are feeling.
For some faculty, it was as simple as opening a class session early to have some non-class conversation. Barbara Butts (Theater, School of Communication) began each class with a color wheel. Students could anonymously note how they were feeling that day, and then there was a minute or two of silent meditation so they could all get in a headspace to be fully present for the session. Unsure of its worth, she surveyed the class and only received positive remarks about it.

That’s what I think the pandemic could be for us: a breath—a break—to examine WHY we teach.

And now we’re ready to come back. 

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