Lessons learned from a year of teaching during the pandemic
The email that we all had been expecting arrived at our inboxes on March 11, 2020 at about 6:30 p.m., the Wednesday after spring break. The President wrote “Because the COVID-19 virus has spread to Oakland and Wayne counties in Michigan, Grand Valley will cancel classes March 12 - 15.” In a later email same day, the Provost sent the instructions:
“IMMEDIATE ACTION: Classes are cancelled Thursday, Friday and Saturday (March 12-14) in order for faculty to have the time to start migrating teaching and learning online. All faculty should move their courses to remote delivery by Monday, March 16 and be prepared to continue teaching remotely through March 29.”
Thus began our ongoing journey through online teaching and learning in its various modes with words unfamiliar to many of us in a teaching context: synchronous, asynchronous, staggered hybrid, hyflex, and more.
The Monday or Tuesday before these emails came, expecting something to happen, most of us told our students during our last in-person class of the semester that there was a likelihood that we would switch to online learning and that it could last a while. We found out that we really had no idea how long it would last.
The day after we received news of the switch to online, almost all faculty from our department huddled together in a room in the basement of Mackinac Hall to share experiences, thoughts and concerns with each other as most of us were entering this unknown territory called “online teaching” for the first time. We exchanged information on which options to use for video conferencing and recording, which tools would work best for active learning methods in our classrooms, how to make the best use of our content management system, and more. These two hours constituted our crash course on online teaching.
Each of us then went into our own online classrooms and finished the next five weeks of classes in a haze, due to both the unknowns involving the pandemic overall and the challenges involved in the emergency switch to online teaching. Dr. Robert Talbert, serving as department chair at the time, reports regarding the beginning of the pandemic: “It was extraordinarily challenging to make sure that not only was the department running properly, but also that we were all taking care of each other. We had to find ways to connect with each other when we couldn't be physically present, make sure people got the information they needed and were able to voice their questions and concerns, and build a culture where people felt safe being vulnerable with each other and asking for help and giving help. And we succeeded in all those things. So it was a massive challenge and by far the most fulfilling experience of my career.”
During the summer, the university explored balancing the safety of our students, their families and our communities and the best teaching and learning options possible under the health and safety restrictions placed upon us due to COVID, and decided to introduce multiple options for instruction. Completely online courses never met in a physical classroom; some met live online (“synchronously”) through Zoom or other video conferencing options during class times, some never met live but students completed all work online (“asynchronously”), and some employed a combination of the two. Hybrid classes sometimes met in a physical classroom and sometimes online. Due to social distancing requirements, the university allowed at most half of the students in the physical classroom. For some courses, students just came to class half of the time and did work online on their own other days. For some other courses, half of the students came to class on a given day while the other half attended the class through video conferencing, referred to as the hyflex mode. For small enough classes, meeting in person in the traditional format was still an option. During both semesters in this academic year, our department offered classes of all these types.
While the university planned different modalities during the summer, the faculty new to online teaching received more rigorous training through workshops offered at Grand Valley or attending online workshops or courses themselves. We planned how to teach in one of these modalities and how to provide the best learning experiences to our students. Our efforts paid off nicely. Regarding his experience with the hyflex mode teaching, Dr. Will Dickinson shares that “Hyflex teaching, where some students are present in the classroom and the rest are remote, is a little like herding cats, some of which you can't see. Getting this mix of students going in the same direction (and without audio feedback) during hybrid virtual breakout groups is a challenge, but once group and classroom norms were set up, my students rocked it!”
Dr. Feryal Alayont reflects on her overall experiences of teaching online as “If at the beginning of last year someone had asked me whether I believed online teaching could be effective, I would have said no. My understanding of online teaching was students watching a recorded video of a lecture and doing assignments online individually on their own. I believe in students being active during instruction and it felt to me that was not possible in online learning. 2020 taught me a wonderful lesson, that I can design my own way of online teaching and there are many technological tools to make the learning effective and active.”
Dr. Talbert compares his previous online teaching experience to this year’s experiences as “I'd taught online before the pandemic, but only asynchronous courses where there were no scheduled meetings. When we pivoted, I first taught hybrid courses with synchronous online sessions in the Fall and then fully online synchronous courses in the Winter. Somehow I thought it would be easier than asynchronous, but it isn't -- just different. I've learned that it's possible to teach synchronously online in a rigorous yet engaging way, and in many ways I prefer it to face-to-face instruction. But it's also hard and requires a lot of skill, patience, and ingenuity both on my part and on the students'.” Visit Dr. Talbert’s blog to read more of his reflections on this pandemic year. A survey sent out to all students taking a math course in the fall semester showed that most math students indeed rated their online learning experiences in their courses satisfactory or better.
We are still learning how to teach and learn better online (and in person!) . We still collaborate with each other on ideas and tools to make our teaching more effective. When colleagues were asked for what advice they would now give themselves at the beginning of March 2020, the pieces of advice were
- “It is going to be a wild ride, but you will learn a lot.” (Dr. Alayont),
- “Keep calm and trust your students to rise to the occasion.” (Dr. Dickinson),
- “It's all going to be okay. Keep telling yourself and your students that.” (Dr. Santana)
- “Be ready to move and learn quickly; listen more than you speak; take lots of detailed notes for posterity; and surround yourself with good people and lean on them when you need help --- and be available to let them lean on you in return. And especially, be sure to take especially good care of your children, and your students.” (Dr. Talbert)
Good advice for instructors in all circumstances, but especially for instructors in a pandemic.