Universities around the world are considering whether and how to bring students, faculty, and staff back safely in the fall. In the United States, despite an ever-higher Covid-19 case count, models predicting high rates of infections at universities, and evidence of typical campus activities–housing, sports, etc–already being sources of spread, most schools are still planning to hold a substantial number of classes in-person this fall. With new rules in place that require international students to take in-person classes or lose their visa eligibility, schools have an even stronger incentive to offer at least some classes in person.
I’ve previously suggested that faculty should still be preparing for their classes to move online at some point this fall, whether their university is planning to be entirely virtual or not. Unless your school has strong institutional practices in place to minimize spread–that is, testing, contact tracing, enforced mask wearing and social distancing, and protocols for quarantines–there is a strong chance that an outbreak on campus will prompt another sudden move to online.
As a faculty educational developer, I had to figure out how I could best support my faculty as they made the transition to online teaching. In the spring I focused on training faculty to teach online using different platforms (Blackboard, Zoom, Microsoft Teams); consulting and troubleshooting; writing and evaluating surveys of students and faculty; and building and sharing resources on a webpage I put together. What else could I do with our one month break that would provide the biggest rate of return as faculty prepare for a fall that will likely include virtual instruction?
As the title of this post gives away, I’ve decided to go with a faculty learning community. I held a faculty panel discussion right before graduation where faculty who taught in the spring shared their challenges, successes, and insights–but as such panels do, it generated as many questions as answers. Those unanswered questions (and responses to the evolution for the event) guided the choice of topics for this summer-only event.
Here’s the basic model:
The learning community lasts for three weeks. Each week has a particular topic for discussion with a curated set of online readings. At the end of the three weeks, we will form a panel from amongst ourselves and invite the rest of the College to a roundtable discussion to share our findings. I will also post any resources we create or ideas worth sharing on the existing webpage that all faculty can access (access is not public, or I’d like it here).
Here are the three topics with a couple of sample prompts and accompanying resources. I’ll have a new prompt every day and many more resources to share, so this is just to give you an idea of what is to come.
Week 1: Building Community & Engagement
Many classes in the spring 2020 term started out in person and then moved to fully online. In addition, most of those students had been together throughout the year already. What are some specific ways we can try to build community for students that have never met in person and may not during the term?
The principle of Universal Design calls on us to design our classes to be inclusive—to make sure that the decisions we make as faculty ensure that every student is included and set up for success in our class. How can we make sure that we identify students that may be struggling, and set up our classes to ensure that every student has the opportunity to engage and participate?
5 Ways to Connect with Online Students Flower Darby writes for the Chronicle of Higher Education on how increase online community.
Week 2: Creating Effective Online Lessons
Students like the convenience of asynchronous work, as they can complete it on their own time, but they resent it when such assignments feel like busy work. What are some examples of solid asynchronous assignments that further student learning? How do we best connect these back to the synchronous sessions?
One general piece of advice in online teaching circles is to focus on essential core content, potentially cutting down the curriculum to what is necessary to meet learning outcomes. What experience do we have with reducing reading, content coverage, or assignments, and how do we strike the right balance here?
Active Learning Guide Vanderbilt’s Center for Teaching has a guide on active learning, including information on what it is, why it is important, and how to do it, plus some resources to get started. This doesn’t specifically focus on online teaching, but may be a useful place to start.
Week 3: Tools & Techniques for Online Teaching and Learning
Cage match: Zoom v. Blackboard Collaborate Ultra v. Teams. What are pros and cons of each, and can we make a recommendation to faculty with differing technical know-how on which ones to use? Under what conditions is each tool best?
What resources do students not have that they might need very soon in order to be successful in the virtual learning environment?
Workload Estimator Betsy Barre, Allen Brown, and Justin Esarey developed a tool that you can use to determine how long your assigned reading will take students, based on its page density, difficulty, and purpose. The new version of the estimator is housed at Wake Forest University, but the introductory blog from the original launch at Rice has a lot of interesting insights into how to think about how much work we assign our students.
As for the makeup of the learning community, I limited membership to 24 and I did have to turn some people down. This felt like a manageable size, and would allow everyone to see each other on Zoom. Membership was mostly first-come, first-serve, but with an eye to balancing participation across departments and units.
I will run the community on Microsoft Teams. Participants will get a new prompt every day in the channel for that week, and can engage in asynchronous discussion throughout the week on that and any other topics. Every Friday we will have a one hour call to identify key takeaways from the week, address unanswered questions, and preview the following week.
I used the OneNote Notebook app on Teams to keep the work of the team in one place. While the main conversations will happen in the threaded discussion board tab, the Notebook is a repository with links to resources, administrative details for the group, meeting notes, and the weekly prompts. It will also be where we can collaboratively capture key points, ideas, tips, tricks, techniques, and approaches that can be shared with other faculty during the closing panel discussion.
I’m hopeful that this will give faculty an opportunity to share ideas across departments and help answer some of the lingering questions that faculty have. I’ll report back here on how it goes.
As is true of all my posts, this represents my personal opinions and in no way reflects the opinions or views of my employer.