Sandy Keeter is a Professor in the Information Technology Department at Seminole State College in Florida.
What a year to remember! We may not know what lies ahead, but we can certainly learn from this past year, make the necessary changes to ensure we are meeting our students where they are and chart a new path forward. We realized more than ever that one-size-doesn’t-fit-all; our students want choices, flexibility and options. Institutions need to be ready to deliver.
As we look back over the last year and move forward to the fall semester, instructors need to prepare themselves to enhance students’ learning experience based on hurdles we have all overcome. COVID offered the chance to rethink instruction and learning so we need to take advantage of that. As we look at our old ways of teaching and blend it with the new, we can create something new and better for our students. Institutions must commit to supporting faculty to take this opportunity for change.
Being flexible, giving up a little control and being willing to change is the first step as we move into the fall semester. We’ve learned that adapting to different learning styles is now possible using intentional technology, along with a mix of online, on-campus or synchronous delivery. Students gained opportunities to work independently at their own pace or with groups. They learned how to manage their time, think critically through issues and become better problem solvers.
Flexibility Is Key
We’ve learned that students are resilient and can learn anywhere given the correct instruction, tools, resources and support. As we outfit our campus classrooms with Zoom technology to connect with remote students while working with campus students, then posting recordings later for the online asynchronous students, we are giving our students options in their education. By giving them a choice in how and when they attend class, we are seeing more growth in our students and retention in our classes.
Giving students the option to learn on campus, online or remotely via Zoom allows them to be in control and switch on a dime since they can make the choice weekly based on their health, family and work commitments. Instructors must clearly explain expectations so students can choose the best option for how and when they interact with their peers, instructors and course content.
Educators gained opportunities to try out new learner-centered approaches and strategies that will continue as we move back to campus. We didn’t have the ability to see our students’ confusion or watch them get instant feedback as we did in the classroom, so we used digital technologies to check student understanding. New rubrics were created and reports were generated to ensure completion and success on tasks.
These changes will enable us to focus more on course goals and cover what is most important in our classes. We took the time to get to know our students individually and used new technology tools to drive teaching and learning. Hopefully, this will continue with more intention and purpose in all modalities as we move into the fall semester.
8 Lessons Learned from Teaching in a Pandemic
Offering a variety of learning options, assessments and resources and connecting with my students allowed me to maintain interest and meet their needs in a challenging time. I went from dreading a switch from the familiar to brainstorming and getting excited about how to do things differently. I’m looking forward to implementing these best practices in all my classes this fall.
1. Asynchronous Design
Whether you are teaching online, on campus or a blend of both, asynchronous design is a must. Students need the opportunity to learn on their own, when and where they want. Asynchronous learning allows students to complete independent activities, review the material, take time to process content and ask questions as needed, at their own pace.
Offering a synchronous component on campus or via Zoom will give students a choice to join the professor and peers if necessary or desired. While synchronous sessions may not be mandatory, attendance should be incentivized. For example, students may not want to miss class for fear of missing something important. A blend of both asynchronous and synchronous leads to a richer, more personalized learning experience.
2. Student Connections
Connecting with students through weekly discussions and video announcements keeps them on track. Students say they feel more connected, understand expectations better and get a clear sense of the assignments due each week. In addition, detailed assignment feedback and regular kudos work well to encourage and motivate students.
Communication and collaboration between students are important, especially in the virtual environment. Discussion forums and Zoom breakout rooms are proven ways to build cohesive online learning communities and support student persistence and success. Academic communities and personal connections with classmates and instructors can be rewarding and supportive as well as improve student engagement and academic motivation.
Feedback from students this past year is that they enjoyed opportunities to engage, connect, collaborate and communicate in their classes. Creating support groups and connecting students to peers via Zoom or LMS discussions, along with on campus and online tutoring will be an integral part of our courses this fall.
We offered student connection (office) hours via Zoom throughout the week. Students could connect with me or their peers to discuss readings, assignments or current events outside of normal class times. Student connections are not limited to just the physical classroom or Zoom connection hours; they find other ways of connecting with peers via the community in their online classroom and off campus, in person.
3. Group Work
Although many students groan at the thought of group projects, there is potential for students to be more productive, creative and motivated when working on a team, both on-campus and virtually. Studies have shown that positive group experiences contribute to student learning, retention and overall college success as well as the development of many skills that are important in the business world.
Working on projects collaboratively teaches students about communication, team building, time management, conflict resolution, dependability, reliability and responsibility. By working together, students can tackle harder projects and expand their critical thinking. This past year, we found that students felt more isolated and wanted a peer group to collaborate with for additional support.
4. Recorded Lessons
Providing students with narrated slides and video walkthroughs allows them to personalize their learning, at their own speed, asynchronously. Those who meet synchronously can replay these slides and recordings at their leisure to confirm understanding of topics and assignments at another time.
5. Improve Technology and Services
Tutoring services will be expanded, tech support improved and librarian and counseling services will be offered more widely to ensure all students are served. These support services are a necessity (both online and on campus) to make sure all students get the help they need “just in time.”
Integrate technology tools for greater flexibility and to extend teaching and learning. Technology promotes collaborative learning and engagement and provides course and individual analytics more easily. Technology can and should be used to deliver courses in new, innovative and effective ways in any modality, but there must be balance. You should never use technology to simply use technology.
6. Vary Your Assignments
Include a mix of learning options to give students choice, but not so many as to overwhelm them. Consider high-stakes and low-stakes assessments, group activities and oral assessments. Mix it up, make the course challenging, but keep it interesting, meaningful and fun.
7. Set Clear Expectations
We’ve learned that we need to be even more clear with course expectations and instructions to reach all learners. By providing students with an easy-to-navigate learning path and multiple ways to review material and complete assignments, along with resources and support tools in case of issues, students will be more successful in all modes of learning.
8. Use Resources Efficiently
Use existing resources and support as much as possible. Don’t re-invent the wheel. Collaborate with colleagues and team teach, if possible, to share the load and give students another point of view. Remove course clutter to avoid distraction and create a more intentional learning environment.
Remote instruction combined with traditional instruction allows us to work around local or global emergencies and extends our reach. If we don’t adapt and make the necessary changes, we will fail as an institution. Going back to how things used to be is not an option or in the best interest of our students.
Just a few years ago there were many who thought remote learning wasn’t effective and students could not be successful. It has become abundantly clear that remote teaching and learning does work, and students CAN learn anywhere with the right content, instructions, tools, resources and support.
Challenges faced this past year have helped us build flexible learning environments and develop independent learners. Institutions had to take a hard look at how they teach and how students learn. With our hybrid (Learn Anywhere) classes, students now have a choice in how and when they want to learn and can take ownership of their learning.
Once the current pandemic is over, there may be another catastrophe that gets in our way, but the resilience we’ve seen in our instructors and students is remarkable. Instructors made rapid shifts in teaching methods, changed curriculum and used new digital tools. They became superheroes—adapting to seismic changes on an extraordinary level, putting student needs first by rethinking course design and delivery.
A Better Normal
When we talk about going back to normal, I’m convinced it will be a new, better normal! We’ve realized that adapting to many different learning styles is possible. By providing students and faculty with the hardware and software resources they need, using flexible technologies and providing training on the different teaching and learning opportunities, choices can be made for when, how and where teaching and learning takes place.
In the classroom there can be time constraints, but through distance or remote learning students can work at their own pace. Education needs to stop operating from “one-size-fits-all” and work on reaching every student. Student feedback indicated that they like and want more digital in their classes along with collaboration and group projects for additional support. They enjoyed getting to know classmates and instructors virtually and want more of that in the future.
Just because more can be covered in distance learning, doesn’t mean we should. Instructors must figure out what is most important and leave out extras. We need to take time to focus on connections and getting to know our students. Less is more! Drill down to the most essential skills and offer extra help where and when it is needed.
A More Equitable Future
Institutions have known for a while that inequities existed, but they were highlighted even more with COVID. The neglect of certain populations was seen on a broad spectrum. Moving forward, my hope is that we can start recreating systems of practice that help our students on a greater level and make learning more equitable for all.
The pandemic has shown us that there is more than one way to go to college. As the world returns to some semblance of normalcy, learners expect an education that is flexible enough to fit their lives in case of another local or global emergency. The Learn Anywhere model gives our students that flexibility. Our students are becoming stronger and more independent learners. They have a choice in how they learn and how they thrive.
Still working on your plan for returning to campus? Get tips by watching our Empowered Educator webinar Boundless Teaching: Blending the Best of Virtual and Traditional.