This week may mark your first time remote teaching. Maybe your institution remains on spring break, and your transition is next week. Or perhaps you’ve been embroiled in our new normal for a few weeks now. No matter what phase of a COVID-19 environment you are in, as professors all across the world engage in remote teaching, having a plan in place is the best strategy.
This is an extraordinary time where institutions of higher learning must uphold a dedication to academic excellence while remaining flexible as we move to remote instruction.
Before we get into specifics, it’s important to first remember that remote learning choices will depend on what options are available, how many students one is teaching, and the discipline being taught. I am at the University of Richmond, a liberal arts college, where I teach math. I am not a distance learning expert. I am just a faculty member who has been thinking about and preparing for this transition for the last couple of weeks, and I am deeply invested in the well-being of my students and helping them succeed. After talking with colleagues from around the country, I am employing these five tips in my own transition to remote teaching, and I hope other faculty may find these ideas helpful.
I also sent a distance learning survey to my students. I used Google Forms to collect their responses, but one could also use Qualtrics or just ask students to respond directly to an email. My survey asked about internet reliability, ability to stream videos, access to course materials, and time zone. I also gave open-ended questions through which students could voice other concerns. One-third of my students responded to my survey in the first hour. To me, this was evidence they are hungry for something to do and wanting to engage in conversations about their learning.
Dr. Heather Russell
I am also doing live meetings with my students via Zoom as a way to answer their questions, clarify points that were unclear in my videos, and discuss additional examples. I will offer several options for meeting times including an early-morning time that is easier for my students in countries like China (which is about 12 hours ahead of EST) to attend. I am also posting a rough list of topics or questions we might discuss in our Zoom meetings, so students that cannot attend can work on their own through that list. One could also consider recording live meetings and posting them for students to watch later. Make sure to ask students for permission! I chose not to record my classes because I want to minimize student discomfort and maximize participation.
Time and time again, students have told me having to post these summaries encourages them to actually do the reading or watch the video. As an added benefit, this practice promotes reflection, which is a key part of learning. I had actually taken the summaries out of my distance learning plan because I was trying to simplify what was required of my students. The students requested I put them back in to help them stay motivated. As another method to incentivize student engagement, I am shifting some portion of my students’ grades for the remainder of the semester to reward regular participation.
Virtual timed tests are very difficult to administer reliably. Some of my colleagues write amazing take-home exams, and they can use that skill this semester for remote assessment. I envy those talented people, but I am not one of them. Hence, my exams will be somewhat minimal. My colleague and fellow mathematician Della Dumbaugh offers this insight: “The real learning for an exam happens during the preparation.” With this in mind, I am thinking of administering short, individual, oral final exams where questions are taken from a lengthy but finite list of the most important things I want students to know from the course. I can use this format to shift the focus away from grading towards individual one-on-one interaction and assessment. I might also have students submit an executive summary of the course as part of the final.
Remote teaching will give us an opportunity to share a bit of our non-academic lives with our students. Many of us will be meeting with them from our home offices or kitchen tables where our dogs or our children may casually saunter through the background in the midst of a Zoom meeting. This is a beautiful moment to acknowledge that we are all whole, multi-faceted people with a diversity of experience.
It is my hope that this unprecedented moment, with so much uncertainty and stress, can provide us a pathway to bring our humanity forth as part of the learning process and encourage our students to do the same. I wish the best of luck to my faculty colleagues across the country as we enter these uncharted waters.
Dr. Heather Russell is an assistant professor of mathematics at the University of Richmond.