My desire to teach at the college level came from a yearning, even a mission, to connect with students in these critical years of identity development and vocational exploration, empowering them with the tools of reason, wisdom, and knowledge, that they might find not just lucrative careers, but rewarding lives. In other words, I desire to teach in a way that promotes formation. Online education doesn't change that intent, but it surely changes the form.
These last few weeks of web-based learning have both reaffirmed some lessons and brought new insights. I share just a few here to continue the conversation around how we can best serve our students as educators in an era COVID-related online education.
- Relate your pedagogy to student's priorities. Many of my students now have entirely different schedules than when we were all on campus. Some are out of work entirely, while others are working twice as many hours in shipping centers and grocery stores to make up for job loss experienced by other family members. Expecting them to all be available at the same time we initially agreed upon when the world wasn’t in the midst of a pandemic doesn’t relate to the entirely different set of priorities that emerged for them - and for us. Adjusting some class times and providing asynchronous modules has been essential in retaining student engagement.
- Reformat your office (on campus or at home) to enhance engagement. There are many content creators already on the internet who have helped us think through simple logistics to make your recorded and live interactions more engaging to your audience. This short and particularly helpful clip from the VlogBrothers offers some insight into space, lighting, and equipment. Helping see your face, hear your voice, and appreciate your context provides multiple points of connection for those on the other side of the screen.
- Augment - or avoid - information dumps. Information dumps are a mixed bag. For any of our courses, a certain amount of information is essential. Many of us are used to giving that information via lectures, while others utilize activities in class that require creativity. While it’s relatively easy to record a lecture for students to watch, that doesn’t necessarily promote content retention. Youki Terada provides a helpful literature review and provides five strategies to promote increased cognitive recall. I’ve found success with two of those suggestions in particular.
- Peer-to-Peer engagement, a common tool in physical teaching, can still be accomplished in online learning. If meeting in a synchronous class, technology like Zoom allows educators to separate the class into smaller groups to promote discussion among peers and then return to the larger group for a report back on their discussion. In asynchronous models, additional assignments to meet outside of the lecture and reading provide students a similar opportunity. Students can then record brief summaries of the conversation and send them to the instructor to both increase their repetition of the information as well as provide accountability to participation.
- Incorporating images with teaching helps many types of learners access an additional reference point for the essential information. Where I’ve had particular success is utilizing a core image to guide a theme, sometimes for one class, a section, or even an entire semester. This provides a sort of touchstone, to which other selected images then relate. One hint here: too many images can become distracting and reduce student interest. I only utilize images - and, at times, videos - for major themes in any given class, which usually amounts to 3-5 per class.
- Gamifying still increases engagement. My mother-in-law, Kim Conti, is a math whiz and Senior Lecturer with SUNY-Fredonia. She also taught me the wonders of Kahoot, a learning platform she’s used to rave reviews in her classroom for courses like Math for School Teachers. Quizlet, another resource she commonly uses, reports that 90% of students who use it earn higher grades. These tools allow users to utilize content created by other professionals or create their own games. Most importantly, while initially designed for use in a physical classroom, they’re now introducing new features for web-based interactions.
In all of this, it’s important to remember that alternative delivery methods aren’t lesser delivery methods. We may, however, have less skill at these methods, which requires more of us as educators to learn and employ new ways of forming our students. That, then, is the key to doing this all well. Simply taking all of our in-person content and deploying it in the easiest fashion (for us) on the web can be called online teaching, but it doesn’t necessarily promote digital formation. In periods of crisis - and indeed, in all eras of education - we ought to design courses in ways that promote true formation. The best online teaching utilizes web-based tools to create points of contact that foster digital formation. The above suggestions can enhance our practices in ways that it promotes digital formation through our delivery of online teaching.