Over the last two weeks colleges across the U.S. have made the decision to shift all classes from face-to-face to remote instruction in an attempt to reduce the spread of the COVID-19 virus. In this episode, Flower Darby joins us explore the challenges and the opportunities associated with this transition. Flower Darby is the Director of Teaching for Student Success, an adjunct instructor in several disciplines, and the author, with James Lang, of Small Teaching Online. She is also one of the developers of the Online Teaching Toolkit created by the Association of College and University educators (or ACUE).
John: Colleges across the U.S. have recently made the decision to shift all classes from face-to-face to remote instruction in an attempt to reduce the spread of the COVID-19 virus. In this episode, we explore the challenges and the opportunities associated with this transition.
John: Thanks for joining us for Tea for Teaching, an informal discussion of innovative and effective practices in teaching and learning.
Rebecca: This podcast series is hosted by John Kane, an economist…
John: …and Rebecca Mushtare, a graphic designer.
Rebecca: Together, we run the Center for Excellence in Learning and Teaching at the State University of New York at Oswego.
John: Our guest today is Flower Darby, Director of Teaching for Student Success, an adjunct instructor in several disciplines, and the author, with James Lang, of Small Teaching Online. She is also one of the developers of the Online Teaching Toolkit created by the Association of College and University educators (or ACUE). Welcome, Flower.
Flower: Hi, John. Hi, Rebecca.
Flower: Thanks for having me.
Rebecca: Thanks for joining us quickly.
Rebecca: Today’s teas are
Flower: I’m drinking a tall iced tea.
Rebecca: It can never be tall enough these days, right?
Flower: That’s right.
John: I’m drinking Ginger Peach Black tea.
Rebecca: I’m drinking English afternoon. Sometimes you just got to go with comfort.
John: This would be one of those times.
Rebecca: Yeah, I think so.
John: We’ve invited you here to talk about the transition that faculty are having to go through throughout the country, and probably throughout the world, on fairly short notice to migrating classes from face-to-face to remote instruction. And a lot of faculty are really anxious about that. What advice do you give faculty in terms of where
they should focus their attention, especially if they haven’t done much work with online instruction?
Flower: I think the most important thing to start with is frequent communication with your students. Students are also very anxious, and so even if all you’re saying to your students is that you don’t know yet how it’s going to go, I think that that really puts students at ease, and the transparency will really serve everyone well. In addition to that, I know that centers like the one that you have there are offering all kinds of support workshops, tutorials, self-help, articles, all kinds of resources that faculty can avail themselves of. I’m not sure that the word is consistently getting out to faculty members. So, I would encourage you to turn to your teaching and learning center or your learning management system support area in order to find out what they’re offering. Schools across the country have broken down: Here’s the basics that you need to know to get up to speed with your LMS, especially for people who aren’t familiar with or don’t typically use it.
John: One of the nice things is how widely those resources are being shared. Look online and there’s lots of places, and your teaching and learning center is likely to be sharing them with you fairly regularly as long as you open their emails. [LAUGHTER]
Flower: I was working one-on-one with several faculty members yesterday in our drop-in support sessions, and my experience was that faculty didn’t know about all the websites that we launched last week and all the resources. So, as you said, John, one of the heartwarming aspects of this current situation is to see how institutions are sharing resources with each other very openly. So, as you said, do a little exploring, see what’s available generally online and what your own institution is offering as well.
Rebecca: I think along those lines, though, there’s also information overload because there is actually so much being shared right now. So if we’re looking for specific topics or subject matter related to this, what are maybe a couple of things that faculty should focus on to just get going?
Flower: That’s a great point, Rebecca, because I myself have felt that I’ve been in a blizzard of emails and resources, and distilling the awesome information into usable and organized material has been a real challenge this past week. So, again, I think the main thing at this point is to communicate. So, learning how to use the announcement tool in your LMS, deciding what is going to be your primary communication strategy, it might be that
you’re going to use email. Then the next thing that we recommend is getting your syllabus and a course schedule into your LMS if you haven’t already done that, and then third, understanding how to use the grade center to allow students to track for themselves how they’re doing in your course. Those are communications, uploading basic files or putting basic, like I said, course syllabus type of information and then beginning to understand how to use the grade center. That would be my recommendation.
John: And in terms of the syllabus, perhaps an updated or some type of addendum for the syllabus might be useful to let students know how things might be modified given the shift in instruction, right?
Flower: Great point, John. Faculty, while we don’t want to let go of or change our learning outcomes for the course, it is absolutely the case that many of us might be modifying what the original plan was, we might be changing the structure of tests and quizzes or creating new and different assignments. So yes, I love that idea of post an updated or an addendum to syllabus. And of course, maybe you also include a prominent statement that says “Subject to change with appropriate notice” to the students. One of the things that I’ve always communicated to my students is that if I make any changes in the syllabus or the course schedule, it will always be to your advantage. And I think students appreciate that sort of sense of security, that knowing things could change, but it will be done to help them if needed.
Rebecca: I think one of the other things that faculty are feeling a little overwhelmed by are all the possible tools and technologies that they can use, right, and sometimes this is opening wide doors of possibilities that they didn’t know existed, but then also, there are so many possibilities… “And my colleague here is using this tool and
my colleague over here is doing this tool, should I be doing that, too?” ends up being this common question, and I know my response has been “Don’t introduce too many new tools because information overload or that now there’s a whole learning curve there.” What are your thoughts on this? There’s so many tool possibilities.
Flower: Sure, Rebecca, I think we’re exactly on the same page, and I’ve been doing this kind of support work for several years now. And my philosophy really does align, as you might imagine, with the book, Small Teaching Online, and James Lang’s original , which is to start small. In terms of technology, I always recommend faculty to choose
something that they themselves are comfortable with, and to not make the mistake of trying, as you said, either several new tools, or possibly trying a tool, a technology, that is so sophisticated and complex that it’s outside of faculty’s comfort zone. So, I’m a big fan of deciding something that you feel comfortable with… starting small. One of the things that I’ve been thinking about is we’re kind of in triage mode, I mean, pretty clearly right now,
but maybe four weeks from now, we may have settled into a better rhythm and you may be able to add or layer on additional approaches or technologies or different ways of engaging with your students. Again, as long as you’re communicating with your students, this is what we’re going to start with. And then later on, if you have the bandwidth personally to learn something new, or maybe after surveying what your colleagues are doing, you identify and isolate the one thing that you really want to bring in. Definitely keep it simple and understand that if you as
faculty are not comfortable using a tool, it’s going to create additional challenge for yourself and for your students as well. So stick with what you’re comfortable with.
Rebecca: I think that’s really good advice, and sometimes faculty just need a little reassurance that what they know is okay.
Flower: Absolutely. For sure.
John: Might you also recommend that they check with the students to see how it’s working and ask them if they have any barriers to whatever they’re doing? We have some people in the region who live in areas without broadband, or there’s some people who are living in households where they can’t afford wireless.
Flower: Yeah, there’s a really robust national conversation going on, which is helpful to really think about the student experience. Once again, I think it’s really important to remember that we’re all people and worldwide this is a weird situation, and everybody is under unusual stress and anxiety. And so another one of my basic rules of advice or guidelines here is to practice empathy and flexibility as much as you can. And so that said, I’m seeing contradicting opinions or different approaches, I should say, “Should we be asking students what technology they have available? Or should we not? Is that too intrusive?” I think, again, being transparent with your students and saying, “Hey, we’re going to try this, and if it’s not going well we will figure it out, we’ll change the plan,” can be a really helpful way to go. And then the other guideline that I’ve been sharing with faculty is to go low tech as
much as possible. So I know many faculty and many institutions are suggesting synchronous, live lecturing, audio and video options. Those are actually the hardest and most complicated, and the most prone to fail or challenge. That’s the peak of what we could be doing. In order to ensure the greatest accessibility, including both student access to technology and also any students who might be using things like screen readers or other tools, going lower tech and
using the tools and functions that are within the learning management systems, such as PDF readings and online discussion forums, and quizzes and assignments, those are actually the most possible to create success. Again, for the moment, it may be that later, after you’ve taken the pulse of how your students are doing, you might add more. Or you might host optional synchronous sessions, maybe a virtual office hour or a review session. But for the most success, I recommend going low tech, aiming for the lowest common denominator.
John: And that would certainly satisfy lower bandwidth requirements for people who might be on slower connections.
Rebecca: What are some things faculty might want to think about if they know that a lot of their students are using mobile technology rather than desktops and laptops? So in addition to this lower tech approach, are there other things that you would recommend when you know screens might be small that our students are relying on?
Flower: Great question, and I’ve long thought that higher ed is way behind the curve on mobile learning. If you look at industry or corporate training and professional development, there’s some really great mobile apps now. I’m not
saying that now is the time to go out and find a new mobile learning app, let me be clear about that. But I think higher ed has some work to do here, just a couple of simple strategies to consider. First of all, keep in mind the powerful computer that the smartphone is, and again, you have to be careful not to assume that everybody has a smartphone, but it can be a really interesting tool. Maybe students will record video reflections on their smartphone camera, the tablet camera, and upload those or maybe instead of a long, robust written assignment, maybe
you’re going to be okay with little blurbs of text that students can type with their thumbs on their device. It’s a time for flexibility, for creativity, for rethinking the way that you normally do things, and just embracing the adventure, really.
Rebecca: One of the things that I’ve thought a lot about too is making sure that you’re not putting too much emphasis on things that have nothing to do with your learning objectives. So if grammar and spelling really isn’t part of your learning objective, then some forgiveness over mistyping,[LAUGHTER] and maybe using voice commands and
things like that and using voice to text maybe is appropriate in this case.
Flower: Yeah, Rebecca, I think this is a time to rethink everything, honestly, in higher ed. And I’ve been thinking hard about “What are we going to reflect on looking back when we’re through this immediate crisis situation?” Absolutely, I’m a fan of: if the scholarly citation isn’t really needed for this particular demonstration of student knowledge, then maybe you don’t need to require that. So, I would invite faculty to really critically examine all of their usual practices because it’s not the use right now.
Rebecca: What are some of the questions that you’re getting hammered with?
Flower: Faculty have different levels of experience and comfort, and so some faculty are like, “Okay, I already use the Learning Management System, help me think about additional ways to engage my students online.” The necessity of building and creating and maintaining community cannot be overstated. Again, especially in precarious times such as
these, so many faculty want to know how to engage and interact meaningfully with students. Then we also have, of course, the very predictable question about “How do we do what we do in person such as a lab, or a studio or performance class or field work experience? How do we do that in an online setting?” That’s complicated and challenging, but faculty are resourceful and creative people, and I know that they’ll figure it out. The main takeaway for that question is really identify what the learning goal is for that activity, and then think creatively about how students can achieve that learning in an online or remote setting. Now, keeping in mind that it may be the case that you start to have students do some kitchen sink science labs, or some living room dance moves, or whatever it might be. Students don’t have to stay in the learning management systems, again, with their devices, they can capture video, they can take pictures and upload the evidence of what they did. Just a matter of really focusing on that learning goal and then thinking about the activities that will help students… and again, we have to be careful
not to assume that all students have all the things, that providing options for students to achieve that learning no matter where they are.
Rebecca: Can we circle back to this community piece? You’ve mentioned facilitating community is really important. You’ve talked a lot about communication. What are some ways to get students to come together and feel like they’re still a cohesive whole, rather than disparate people who have been dispersed across the world or across the nation?
Flower: So, before all of this happened, if you’re familiar with my work, you may know that I’ve really focused a lot on increasing the social connections in online classes because there is an inherent distance. It is most often the case that students doing online classwork are by themselves sitting at their home desk or at a coffee shop. It
is unusual for students who are doing online classwork to be sitting with another student or with others. And so just really thinking about that physical isolation, and then thinking about how we can’t use the non-verbal cues that we use when we’re in the classroom. So if we’re explaining something as we’re presenting a mini lecture, and we see a whole bunch of furrowed brows or we see that students are clearly off daydreaming about something else, we can
adjust our approach, we can stop, slow down, re-explain, ask the students what their questions are, and we don’t have that real-time feedback in an online environment. So it’s just very important to be really intentional to cultivate that. It can absolutely be done, you think about how we interact in social media settings. We can engage with other people in online situations, but it takes a little bit more intentionality. So, be visibly present for your students, post those announcements, return assignments, timely answer emails… students still say all the time
that they just wish their online instructors would answer their emails. But those are just ways that you want to be visibly present, posting in an online discussion forum, those kinds of things. And then encourage students. You know, I wouldn’t be surprised if it might be helpful to just create a discussion forum just to say “What’s on your mind right now? How can we help? What are you dealing with? What are the challenges?” and just encourage people in
the class to interact with each other as people.
Rebecca: Wait, we’re all people? [LAUGHTER]
John: Students don’t always have that perception of their faculty face-to-face. This is a nice opportunity to open up in ways that perhaps you haven’t done in the past.
Flower: For sure.
Rebecca: I think a lot of faculty will be teaching remotely from their homes with their own levels of distraction and pets and kids and relatives.
Rebecca: Other habitats, right, to their households, just like students. And I think the more that we can share that and that we’re also trying to manage, or even strategies that we’re using for managing that, could actually be useful as a model for students as well.
Flower: I read a really funny, the beginning of what I think will be a series in The Chronicle of Higher Ed this morning, and it was basically, I think The Chronicle has now dispersed to all working from home. And this one reporter was just describing the challenges of sharing a house with three other working adults and two pets that
don’t get along with each other, and trying to be professional, and be on video conference calls or whatever when the cat’s rear end is brushing against the monitor. [LAUGHTER] So I do think, Rebecca, your point about being really authentic about the challenges that we’re all facing, and again, just practicing flexibility, both for your own approach, and then encouraging your students to do the best they can and you’re there to support them. I don’t think
we can message that frequently enough.
Rebecca: I certainly had cars getting drawn across my keyboard yesterday. So… [LAUGHTER] And up my arm and on my head. [LAUGHTER]
Flower: It’s a challenging situation, and this is just one aspect. You think about the potential financial impact that students and their families might be facing as so many businesses are shutting down right now. You think about if a student becomes sick themselves or somebody in their family becomes sick, there’s so many potential challenges
and barriers. I really think this is a moment for humanity to shine without overstating that, and just supporting each other and being willing to be as flexible as we possibly can, helping students achieve the learning, holding them accountable, but being really willing to flex and empathize as needed. I guess I would just reiterate that we should be kind to ourselves, we should not expect to be online teaching rockstars, we should remember that this is not online teaching as we traditionally think of it, this is a triage mode remote delivery of instruction. And we can’t become really well developed online teachers on the spin of a dime. So be kind to yourself, be patient, take it slow, do what you know how to do. It may be the case that in coming weeks, you can add more, you can become more educated as you avail yourself of the resources that your center and others are providing. But ,just kindness is all that I can really recommend to yourself and to your students.
Rebecca: I think that’s a perfect note to end on, and a good reminder that that flexibility goes both to yourself as well as to your students.
Flower: Absolutely. These are unusual times. We’re all freaking out about lots of different things. And so we have a job to do, and students have a job to do, and we can band together and support each other. I’m just thinking about what movie will be made by Hollywood. [LAUGHTER] I mean, there’s got to be tons of movies that will come out after
this, but specifically about higher ed, that would be interesting. [LAUGHTER]
Rebecca: I think the term you used earlier was weird times, and I would agree, we can all be together in these weird times. [LAUGHTER]
Flower: Just practicing basic humanity and consideration for your fellow human beings, I think, is gonna go a long way.
John: It was just so much nicer reading Stephen King novels than it is to live in one of them.
Flower: That’s true. This is bizarre. Let’s just admit that and determine how we can best move on.
Rebecca: Well, thank you so much for the tips, and also just allowing us all to realize that we’re not alone.
Flower: That’s a great reminder, Rebecca, we are not alone. Let’s help our students feel like they are not alone, and we’ll get through this. We’re resourceful people.
John: We always end with a question. What are you doing next?
Flower: So, John, just this morning I offered and was encouraged to write a new column for The Chronicle. Now, I haven’t written it yet. But the tentative title of my new column, which I hope to develop in the next couple of days, is “Okay, So You’ve Pivoted Online. Now What?” and I really want to talk to people about, there was all this adrenaline, and all this frenzy and excitement, and then after we get through this rush, I can imagine that people might begin to deflate, they might become discouraged, the prospect of finishing this semester, it might not be really energizing to people. So I would like to write out some suggestions for regaining your energy and your enthusiasm and discovering the benefits of teaching remotely in this particular situation. We’ll see, I haven’t written that yet. We’ll see.
Rebecca: Yeah, I know that some of the conversation about graduations, and in my department it’s senior exhibitions and things, those kind of capstone moments that are really special and how we can make them special remotely, maybe they’ll be extra special.
Flower: So much opportunity for creative thinking right now. I’ve been wondering if this is going to be the demise of the higher ed conference or other industries as well, if we’ll ever get back together in person or if we’ll find so many other ways to interact virtually that things might be really different from here on out.
John: I know in our workshops, we’re seeing a lot of people coming in over Zoom that we’ve never seen before in workshops, and we’re hoping to see a lot more of them in the future. So, it’s opening up this type of remote access to people who have never tried it before, and that’s a really positive aspect.
Flower: Yeah, I love the focus on the opportunities that this situation is affording us. And then let’s think carefully, when we get to a point that we can kind of look back on the situation, I think higher ed leaders really need to be thinking critically about what needs to change to support effective teaching with technology, because if
there’s one thing we’re learning here, it’s a staple, it’s a support that we can’t do without. And yet many institutions don’t really support the effective use of technology in our teaching in a really sort of simple and sustainable way. So I’m, I’m encouraging, again, specifically leadership in higher ed to think critically about centers such as the ones that we live in, and about the role of instructional designers and “How do we make this much more of a core function in support of our institutions?”
Rebecca: I hope those conversations start.
Flower: I’m gonna do everything I can, talk to everybody I can about it. [LAUGHTER]
John: And I think those types of support are more valued than they ever have been before. I think a lot of people have discovered the instructional designers and the teaching centers across the country.
Flower: 100%. Again, that’s an opportunity that we’re being afforded right now is to help people see what we can do and access those people who haven’t come to our workshops before and demonstrate our value, a real opportunity to do that right now.
Rebecca: Well, thank you so much.
John: Thank you. It’s great talking to you again.
Rebecca: Stay well.
Flower: Thank you, you too. Thanks for having me.
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Rebecca: You can find show notes, transcripts and other materials on teaforteaching.com. Music by Michael Gary Brewer. Editing assistance provided by Brittany Jones and Savannah Norton.