Early reflections about what worked and what we learned

This tip is the first in a series of Teaching Tips written by UAF faculty and instructors willing to share their teaching experiences in response’‹ to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Have you ever been at the beach when the surf is strong and tried to stand in the waves? The power of the water can take you by surprise, knock you off balance and leave you staggering backward a few steps, only to then suck the sand from beneath your feet in the opposite direction, back out to sea. Our experiences as faculty over the past six weeks or so might feel a lot like this.

I recently reached out to several UAF faculty members to ask about their experiences transitioning from in-person courses to remote delivery. I realize that we all need much more time to process recent events, so my goal is simply to capture these early reflections and call attention to the questions and concerns that emerge.

The observations below reflect the thoughts and experiences of various full-time and adjunct faculty members across UAF in a variety of disciplines, teaching classes from 0-level to graduate-level. All of them had to come up with alternative delivery methods.

Everyone I spoke with was concerned about their students’ ability to access the course materials. Bandwidth issues are not an easy fix, especially in rural Alaska, but clearly, this cannot be ignored. Even local students struggled to connect. Instructors especially struggled with this after campus access was restricted. Anecdotally, it seems that most students who dropped out did so because they didn’t have the technology — whether it be wifi, a computer, or other equipment — to participate. Everyone agrees we have to address this, and perhaps we will find some solutions now that we are not just in reaction mode.

A few faculty responded to my questions in a confessional style, admitting they had never once logged into Blackboard or that their kids helped them navigate their Zoom meetings or Google classrooms. Others wrote that the rapidly exploding impact of a world health pandemic forced them into an online world that they never would have entered willingly. For some who had only dabbled in the online education world, COVID-19 accelerated those online projects that were lying in wait. An example of such a project is an online math and writing tutoring. For years I have been toying with various ways to deliver academic support online, but guess what happened in a five-hour meeting with a very helpful colleague? The online writing lab went fully online, and in a format that we will retain even after social distancing is behind us.

Many faculty realized the need for a different pedagogical approach when teaching remotely. An English department faculty member found that he needed to find ways other than discussion to provoke and demonstrate learning. Another writes that he initially saw this “Zoom-thing” as just an extension of a face-to-face lecture, but then jokingly asked “How many times do you look dead at yourself while you lecture?” In the same vein, many found it challenging to manage the chat and watch for Zoom-raised hands all while delivering a lecture. A math instructor described Zoom lectures as “talking to the air with no feedback;” ultimately, she decided to record video lectures because she wasn’t getting feedback from students.

All of these concerns touch on the need to meet student learning outcomes via new teaching and learning strategies. Suddenly, the fallback of classroom discussions, small groups or hands-on practice isn’t working, so the burning question is what can we do to meet those learning outcomes?

Some answers to this are very creative! I was amazed when I heard that Sean Walklin, the program head for the culinary arts and hospitality program, had transitioned all culinary classes to remote delivery. I learned a few things from Sean that might serve us well going forward. The culinary program is cohort-based, so when the big switch happened, faculty and students already knew each other well — a culture of collaboration was already strong. Sean credits the cohort model with holding the group together. Early on, Sean leveraged students in the program who were natural leaders in their class to help with student buy-in and maintain a positive team vibe. When students were suddenly spread all over the country, with varying access to a kitchen, materials, and ingredients, Sean worked hard to give students lots of options to make sure they were still able to succeed (recorded lectures, flexible due dates, etc). When hands-on practice wasn’t an option, Sean considered what useful information could best replace that loss, including guest lectures from top chefs around the country. One student could not continue with classes because of connectivity issues in her rural village but the rest have successfully passed.

A discussion I keep hearing centers around synchronous instruction: One faculty member describes her desire for more research on how to effectively teach synchronously versus asynchronously in a remote setting. She had anticipated that when switching to distance delivery, asynchronous would be best. However, she noted that students who originally signed up for face-to-face courses appreciated synchronous course meetings, as this gave them some tethers to their class experience. Others agreed, saying that adapting to alternative delivery methods was made easier by the social capital that was already established. Despite the criticisms of video conferencing, many instructors mentioned their interest in continuing hybrid classes — even instructors who have only taught face-to-face before. It seems imperative, then, for our university to increase support for faculty development in this modality. UAF CTL has summer programs to help faculty find their footing in remote delivery. The Faculty Development partners at UAF are also collecting feedback on future opportunities.

I am writing this knowing that COVID-19 may continue to disrupt the delivery of higher education as we know it. If we are to truly fulfill our mission, we cannot write off the casualties from this switch in delivery methods. Every student who struggled or had to withdraw matters. We must find ways to make education accessible to all of our students.

I’m not sure what all the takeaways from this semester are, and I wonder what this article would look like from a student’s perspective. For now, it seems important to share our experiences. We must ask questions that will help us best shape instructor and student experiences going forward.

For example: What role might the cohort model play? When is synchronous the best mode for students? How can we encourage student participation? What role do class discussions have? How can we use Zoom breakout rooms effectively? How can we build a sense of community online?

In the midst of these powerful questions we can also find opportunity. What student life experiences can we also deliver online? How can we better integrate our online student body into the Nanook community?

The same professor who fessed up to never using Blackboard before shared that he nearly fell out of his chair the other night when he successfully invited himself as
a co-host guest to a course and screen-shared a sketch pad feature from a Surface Pro tablet. Welcome to a brave new world.

Need a little online meeting humor? Watch this short clip.

My special thanks to the faculty members who took time out of their busy schedules to share their perspectives.

Jennifer Tillbury

Jennifer Tilbury

Jennifer Tilbury is an Associate Professor of Developmental Writing at UAF. She is also the Director of Student Success & Instructional Support at the Community and Technical College.

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