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Our teaching-and-learning experts give you insights on what works in the classroom. Delivered on Thursdays. Teaching is written by Beth McMurtrie and Beckie Supiano. We love hearing from readers, so please don’t hesitate to reach out to us directly. You can also read more articles about teaching and learning.

April 30, 2020

From: Beckie Supiano

Subject: Why You Shouldn’t Try to Replicate Your Classroom Teaching Online

This week:

  • I share one expert’s ideas on how professors can move beyond trying to replicate their face-to-face teaching online.
  • I describe one start-up’s answer to Zoom fatigue.
  • I share how one writing instructor is encouraging students to see their place in history.
  • I pass along a few ways professors have tried to make the last day of class special.

**How can professors adapt inclusive teaching practices for an online classroom? Hear ideas from two experts, Kelly Hogan and Viji Sathy, who are professors with administrative duties at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, in the Chronicle’s next faculty forum, at 2 pm Eastern on May 1**

Not Translation. Adaptation.

When colleges shut down in-person classes this spring, many instructors took pains to say that what was offered instead was not online learning. Other terms have been offered up — emergency online teaching, remote instruction — though probably none is quite right.

The distinction between online learning and the scrambling to adjust courses midstream was initially pushed by instructors and experts who know that well-designed online courses and programs are effective. They were worried that students’ and professors’ experiences this semester would give online learning a bad name.

But maybe the distinction also mattered to professors who never imagined they would teach online. Perhaps that’s why some of them tried so hard to replicate their existing course in synchronous video conferences, despite the many arguments against this format from online-teaching experts.

I’ve been thinking about this more since I interviewed Robin DeRosa, who directs the Open Learning & Teaching Collaborative at Plymouth State University, for my recent article about Zoom fatigue. DeRosa, who is also a professor of interdisciplinary studies, described some of the online tools she favors in her own teaching — tools that let her connect with students differently than they could face-to-face. For instance, she uses an app called Hypothesis, which lets people socially annotate a text.

Even Zoom, which so many professors are already teaching with, could be used to do more than gather the class in one online place, DeRosa says. In class discussions of a text, for instance, she has included its author on the platform.

This would be a great time, she says, “for professors from different institutions to start putting their classes in conversation with each other, because we’re all online anyway, and we have to use these tools.”

Instead, DeRosa says, many professors have mostly tried to replicate what they were doing face-to-face.

Maybe creating an online version of a course is like adapting a book for film, I suggested. It’s not about dutifully capturing every word on the page, and it works best when the movie version takes advantage of things that books can’t do.

DeRosa said she liked the analogy — but that she understands why professors working in a crisis see their task as translating a course, not adapting it.

Still, she said, “what we’d really like to see is for faculty to really understand the choices they have, and to make those choices in an informed way, so that we can use the benefits of the internet, but also so that we don’t just do what we’ve done before many times in learning, which is let the most powerful companies, with the most available technology and the best sales pitches, decide for us what learning looks like.”

That’s food for thought as colleges lay plans for the fall.

A Cure for Zoom Fatigue?

My Zoom-fatigue article also quotes Jeremy Bailenson, a professor of communication at Stanford University and founding director of its Virtual Human Interaction Lab. After we spoke, he connected me to Kiran Bhat and Mahesh Ramasubramanian, founders of Loom.ai, a start-up for which he’s an adviser.

This week the company rolled out a service called LoomieLive, which lets users create a 3D avatar that’s animated in real time using their voice. This “Loomie” can then be used within a videoconferencing platform like Zoom.

Bhat and Ramasubramanian explained that their product is meant to mitigate many of the sources of Zoom fatigue described in my article: concerns about privacy and looking professional, the need to stay in place in front of a screen — and the one Bailenson focused on, the stimulation of staring at human faces at close range.

If videoconferencing platforms made the necessary changes in their platforms, the founders said, their avatars would not have to appear in grid form. They could, say, sit in a lecture hall or around a table. And the company could create custom clothing options — and campus settings — for a college that wanted to offer a more distinct experience.

If professors do in fact incorporate Loomies into their classrooms, it would not be the first case of college instruction via avatar: Remember Second Life?

Have you used avatars in your teaching before? Do you think anything’s different this time around? Share your thoughts with me at beckie.supiano@chronicle.com, and they may appear in a future newsletter.

‘Little Details Count’

We’ve been featuring readers’ stories about bringing a creative approach to their teaching in this semester of upheaval. This week’s example comes from Janet Mazur, an adjunct professor in the writing program at the College of New Jersey:

I teach academic argumentation, a writing course that roughly two-thirds of our first-year students are required to complete. I shook up the second half of the semester and altered my paper topics entirely to embrace the times. To do otherwise would be unconscionable! I've assigned an informal (brief, no research) paper, "Your Pandemic Experience," in which students write a letter to a future generation describing their experiences, observations, and feelings. The kinds of things history books omit. Little details count, like the need to disinfect groceries, the crucial role of social media, the tyranny of no sports to watch, etc. I've emphasized that they are witnessing an unprecedented historic event, and their role in it matters. This shocked them! So far, what I am seeing is heartfelt and heartbreaking, with many expressing anger and sadness at the abrupt ending of their freshman year. However, many conveyed an optimism that I found moving.

In addition, I also assigned a blog post (they write weekly blogs, visible only to other class members) in which they post a song, any genre, that best captures their experience in isolation. The goal was to explain their selection and also comment on a classmate's choice. Great way to sneak in writing, but also telling and cathartic. I was blown away at the songs — everything from inspirational gospel to reggae and even a Disney tune from Tangled, a recent take on Rapunzel, the girl captive in a tower.

Who says this way of teaching (on Zoom, btw) can't have some fun elements? However, I sense a deep need on their part to process this surreal situation, and what better way to do it than in a writing class?

Last Day of Class

Judith Scott-Clayton, an associate professor of economics and education at Teachers College at Columbia University, recently asked on Twitter how professors were ending their last class session in a “reflective” and “celebratory” way, given the limits of remote instruction. Among the responses: a class movie viewing (“bring your own popcorn”) and creating a class soundtrack on YouTube or Spotify.

Her tweet reminded me of this cute and rather touching last-day-of-class video from professors at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, which Kelly Hogan, associate dean of instructional innovation and a STEM teaching professor in biology, tweeted out the day before.

Thanks for reading Teaching. If you have suggestions or ideas, please feel free to email us: dan.berrett@chronicle.com, beckie.supiano@chronicle.com, or beth.mcmurtrie@chronicle.com.

Beckie Supiano writes about teaching, learning, and the human interactions that shape them. Follow her on Twitter @becksup, or drop her a line at beckie.supiano@chronicle.com.