This week:

  • I share readers’ experiences on what pandemic-driven innovations they think are worth keeping.
  • I point you to stories and advice pieces about teaching you may have missed.

The New Classroom

This week I’m sharing more of your thoughts on which innovations from the past year you want to keep even when campuses resume normal operations. Earlier this month I described a few of them: flexibility with deadlines and grading, taking time to connect with students, and virtual meetings of all sorts, from office hours to tutoring to guest lectures.

Here are a few more of your ideas:

Recorded lectures and classes. This year many, many instructors found themselves recording short lectures for their students to watch before class. Their aim was to spend valuable class time in discussion or on group work, rather than lecturing into the void on Zoom.

As it turns out, those recordings have proved enormously helpful in other ways. Several readers said that their students liked being able to replay lectures, perhaps to review material they’d missed or had trouble understanding the first time around. Similarly, many faculty members recorded class sessions this year, so they could be shared with students who were in isolation or had to miss class for other reasons. The professors suggested that this innovation stick around, too, given that students will continue to have scheduling conflicts after Covid, such as when athletes need to travel for games.

Hybrid teaching and teaching with technology. Technology entered professors’ lives in a major way this past year, and it turns out there’s a lot to like. Even those who had only a passing familiarity with their learning management systems before the pandemic found themselves mastering tools to better connect with their students.

Some readers reported success with collaborative tools, such as Google Docs or Perusall, that enable students to work together virtually on readings, problems, and projects.

Students learn more effectively when they can see how their classmates write, and how an instructor discusses and corrects that writing, said Mona Eikel-Pohen, an assistant teaching professor of German at Syracuse University. “Collaborating on texts has become easier, too, and making mistakes has become so obvious that students have fewer anxieties to embrace making mistakes as learning opportunities and not as defects.”

Others want to continue to hold classes on Zoom when needed, such as when a professor is home with a sick child or the campus is closed because of a snowstorm.

Victoria Thomas, a senior lecturer at Washington University in St. Louis, wrote in to say that she found it valuable to pivot online, both synchronously and asynchronously, around holidays.

“The flow of the course was maintained, but students were not stressed about how to fit in their work with their family obligations or travel schedules,” she said. “Travel was cheaper because they did not have to fly at peak times, and everyone was grateful to have their pressures understood. For Thanksgiving, I arranged a team game for those students who were able to Zoom into a synchronous session, and we all had a blast together just enjoying each other’s company. We shared a hot drink and a piece of cake, and celebrated together in the comfort of whichever home we were in. Parents and grandparents, extended friends and pets, all became part of our class.”

Other faculty members have become fans of discussion boards, which expanded and deepened the conversations among students in their classrooms.

“In face-to-face discussions, even a ‘great’ session typically involves contributions from just part of the class. Many students who are reluctant to contribute to in-person discussions raised great questions and offered exceptionally thoughtful reflections in the online space of the discussion board,” wrote William Kerrigan, a history professor at Muskingum University, who used them in his masked and distanced classroom. “The synchronous discussion board provided a second forum for students to demonstrate engagement with the course material.

“In addition,” he continued, “even though all posts were viewable to the whole class, students seemed more willing to ask good questions that they might have feared were ‘stupid’ and were reluctant to ask in class. The result was I had a much better sense of what students understood and didn’t understand in the reading. I often used some of these questions to begin our discussion on the next in-class day.”

The themes running through all of these innovations are flexibility and engagement: The more ways in which people can participate in the classroom, contribute to discussions, and share their ideas, readers found, the more learning improves.

More focus on accessible course materials. Many of the stumbling blocks that hampered effective teaching this year existed long before the pandemic. It’s just that online learning forced them into the spotlight. One of those pervasive challenges has been the difficulty some students face in getting access to learning materials. As a result, when professors designed their newly online or hybrid courses this past year, they were often asked to use a framework known as the Universal Design for Learning, which takes into account students’ diverse learning needs.

Professors found themselves narrating PowerPoint slides, for example, or captioning video lectures and creating transcripts of those lectures for students with hearing or visual impairments. Those principles proved helpful, too, for students with technology challenges, such as limited bandwidth, that prevented them from streaming live lectures. Instead, they were able to read transcripts afterward. All in all, readers said, those strategies offer a valuable and needed approach toward teaching materials.

“For years folks have argued that learning how to record/Zoom/caption/transcribe was too hard for just a few folks, but most of us were able to make it happen when we shifted online in the spring/fall,” wrote Molly Metz, an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Toronto. “Now that so many more people have these skills, it is simply not acceptable to not make more things available. Frankly, I am ashamed I did not make an effort to learn these things sooner. They benefit *everyone*, not just students with registered accommodations, not just practically but emotionally.”

Teaching outside. It’s not quite as common as the other innovations perhaps, but a number of readers told us they had come to enjoy running their classes outdoors.

“Though the climate in Iowa only allows for seasonal use, the pop-up outdoor classroom we created allowed a range of instructors and groups to meet in person when that wouldn’t have otherwise been possible,” wrote Jim O’Loughlin, head of the department of languages and literatures at the University of Northern Iowa. “While the occasional class outside was a tradition pre-pandemic, sitting on the ground under a tree always had some limitations. But with socially distanced chairs, a portable TV/computer hookup, and extended Wi-Fi, the outdoor classroom is a place where meaningful work can be done without walls. Next year, the chairs will be closer together, but we’ll still use the outdoor classroom.”

ICYMI

  • Beckie takes a deep dive into what it’s like when one-on-one learning has to take place online, at a college built around that kind of close mentorship.
  • James Lang, a Chronicle columnist and English professor at Assumption University, writes about why he stopped grading students on class participation in this advice piece.
  • Flipped learning can transform teaching after the pandemic, writes Robert Talbert in this EdSurge opinion piece.

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

—Beth

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