I am a reformed self-professed instructional technology Luddite. Before Fall 2020, I used my campus learning management platform, Canvas, only to upload a PDF of the class syllabus and to input final grades. I also forbade students from using computers, phones, or other devices in the classroom. Pre-pandemic, my classes were somewhat dynamic: During a typical 75-minute class, I would allocate approximately 30 minutes to lecture, 25 minutes to small-group interactions, and 20 minutes to whole class debrief/discussion. I genuinely believed that students would learn better by having only interpersonal, non-mediated instructional experiences. But that style had to change completely when my campus announced that fall instruction would be 100% remote. While as a public health professional and resident of the community worried about COVID19 I applauded that decision, as an instructor, I panicked. But I’ve just taught my class of the year and I feel great about this semester. I know the students gained new skills, and I believe that I became a better teacher. Indeed, teaching this semester ended up being one of the bright spots of the year for me, so I wanted to reflect a little about what worked and what did not work, and what we learned together.
Preparing to teach online
I did not teach in the spring and thus I did not have to transition to online instruction in the middle of a semester. But during the summer I ran my research team virtually, so I had the chance to get to practice formal and informal interactions with students via Zoom. I also got to hear from some students about what had worked and what had not worked for them in virtual settings, so I incorporated those lessons into my planning.
I spent A LOT of time last summer reading about how to teach effectively. Some of my reading was specific to teaching online but I also read more generally about engaged teaching, because my early research on teaching online uncovered the importance of engaging students to succeed in online learning. Here are some resources I found especially helpful:
- Geeky Pedagogy by Jessamyn Neuhaus
- Small Teaching by James M. Lang
- Small Teaching Online by Flower Darby with James M. Lang
- Teach Students How to Learn by Saundra Yancy McGuire with Stephanie McGuire
- Teaching Effectively with Zoom by Dan Levy
- Teaching in Higher Ed by Bonni Stachowiak, especially episodes:
- 132: Teach Students How to Learn with Saundra Y. McGuire
- 228: Teaching Effectively with Zoom with Dan Levy
- 233: Why They Can’t Write with John Warner
- 325: How to Create Engaging Online Classes with Laura Gibbs
Designing a semi-synchronous online class
The first decision I had to make was whether to hold my class live in real time (synchronous) or to design content to be consumed by students at their leisure (asynchronous). Most of the students at my institution, and even more of them who major in Public Health, are first-generation college students, ethnic minorities (mostly Latino), and from low-income families. These are students whose families struggle even in a non-pandemic year and this year, and among the hardest hit by the pandemic owing to persistent inequities. There were reports from the spring transition that many students lacked adequate devices and high-speed internet access to participate in live online instruction off-campus. I thus worried that holding live classes would pose a challenge. On the other hand, my summer informants told me they needed the externally imposed structure of regularly scheduled live courses to hold them accountable for learning. They did not want to be left to fend for themselves in online classes. In the end, I decided to split the difference: I would hold live classes on one of the two assigned days, and record these to ensure that everyone could view them if they could not attend live. I would hold office hours during the regularly scheduled second meeting day.
The second thing I realized is that the online format freed me from some restrictions I had perhaps arbitrarily imposed on myself in non-pandemic classes. If students were going to do some of their learning outside of their interactions with me, I could vary the formats. I’m a traditional academic nerd: I did well in school because I love to read, and I learn best when I can see the information in written form and make my own notations in written form. I have come to appreciate that not all of my students have the same learning style and that creating an inclusive classroom has to mean taking different learning preferences into account. And luckily for my students, there are many high-quality, professionally produced podcasts, films, and other formats that cover the topics in my class. Conversations on academic Twitter were enormously helpful to identify teaching resources. I found these resources especially helpful as I sought to incorporate principles of metacognition into the syllabus:
- A short video to encourage students to use office hours: What Are Office Hours? (3:41) Andrew Ishak
- How to read for class: Interrogating Texts: Six Habits to Develop Harvard Libraries
- How to listen to a podcast for class Abby Mullen
In terms of the content, I had so much fun designing this class! I am fortunate that my research and teaching are very well-integrated. This semester, I got to teach my favorite class, Health & the Media, an upper-division elective for public health majors. The overarching aim of the course is to provide students with an understanding of the ways the public communication of science (i.e., the media) influences public health outcomes. I have taught this course before, but it’s been a few years, so the content was due for a refresh anyway, and the structure had to change completely due to the pandemic, so I completely revamped it. I will give more detail about the content in a separate post but generally speaking here are some resources for free content that I found helpful:
- TED Talks: They are short, the production quality is usually terrific, and they have professional transcriptions.
- Podcasts: These can be long, but it’s another way to engage with great content. The big ones also have professional transcriptions available. This semester, we listened to:
- Documentary films: There are so many good ones! This semester, we watched:
- Longform magazine articles (not necessarily free, but available via university subscriptions): Because this course was focused on science and health information in the media, reading magazine articles made sense. But I think these might be useful even in other classes. Students enjoyed these because while they can be challenging to read, their style is more narrative and interesting than typical academic journal articles.
- GAMES! Well, there was only one game, but everyone enjoyed it!
I am so thankful for the staff at the UC Merced Center for Engaged Teaching and Learning and the Instructional Designers, who ran a series of workshops on designing online courses. I was frequently the only attendee at these summer workshops, so I got a lot of personalized attention and assistance with my course design. I spent countless hours developing the format for the course.
Stay tuned for the next installment in this series, where I will reflect on how teaching online during a pandemic actually went, how students reacted to the course, and most importantly, what we learned.