235. Pandemic Teaching: Week 109

We take a break from our usual interview format in this episode to reflect on how our teaching has continued to evolve as we moved through a second year of pandemic teaching. We also speculate a bit about the longer term impact of the pandemic on teaching in higher education.

Show Notes


John: Roughly two years ago, our campus shut down for a two-week pause until the COVID-19 pandemic was brought under control. And now we’re celebrating a two year anniversary of that.

Rebecca: We’re celebrating that, John?

John: Well… [LAUGHTER] Let me rephrase that. [LAUGHTER] So this is now the second anniversary of that temporary shutdown, which has had some fairly substantial consequences for teaching and learning in higher ed. We thought this would be a good time to reflect back on how the pandemic has altered the way in which higher ed is taking place in the U.S., and also to speculate a little bit on what the long-term implications of these changes might be on instruction in higher ed.


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: …and features guests doing important research and advocacy work to make higher education more inclusive and supportive of all learners.


Rebecca: Today’s teas are…

John: Since I’ve had lots of tea earlier in the day, I am having a Twinings Pure Peppermint tea.

Rebecca: And that seems good, that seems good. Given that we’re needing to find comfort, because this has been going on for so long, I have reverted back to my dear old friend, English Afternoon tea, for today’s episode.

John: Very good. We thought we’d start by reflecting back on where we were before the pandemic. What was our life like?

Rebecca: Oh, my life was glorious, John. I was on sabbatical, I had a studio space set up, it was all perfect for working. Had my really big monitor that I invested in because I was going to spend so much time in this studio. I was doing research, I was immersed in accessibility related research, inclusive pedagogy, and taking online courses.

John: I had some classes that were going really well, I was going to a lot of conferences, I had several conference presentations scheduled. And in general, things were really positive. And then we had this shutdown, and things have changed quite a bit.

Rebecca: I know, I had so many travel things planned too, John. I had conferences, travel, there were so many glorious things happening. [LAUGHTER]

John: And I think we’ve talked about this before, individually, but I don’t know if we’ve talked about it on the podcast, but the nice thing about going to conferences in person is that you can focus on them. You can actually focus on the topics that are presented, you can go to sessions and focus entirely on those sessions. And then there’s all those wonderful hallway conversations with the presenters and with other people doing similar work, without the distractions we have in our regular day-to-day work weeks. Conferences since then, at least for me, have been entirely remote conferences. And that’s been a somewhat different experience.

Rebecca: Well I’m going to so many conferences now, except… [LAUGHTER] I intend to go to so many sessions, and then often have to make concessions about what I can go to and what I hope to at some point in the future revisit in a recording later on. So I really appreciate the ability to engage with a lot more material. The potential is there with these remote conferences that in many cases didn’t even exist before in that format. So I appreciate that component of it, especially having a small child and not having to uproot for long periods of time. But if I’m in the office, or people know that I’m around, that I’m still teaching my classes, or going to meetings and all these other things are still on my calendar, even though I’m supposed to be at a conference the whole time.

John: And that’s been exactly my experience, that I sign up for these conferences expecting to attend three or four or five sessions with the hope of catching up on the others later. And I’ve been lucky to attend more than two or three at any of the conferences I’ve virtually attended this year. Again, it’s nice to have those videos, but it’s very rare that I’ve had time to actually go back and watch them. And I’m very much looking forward to the return of in-person conferences.

Rebecca: Yeah, I mean, I’ve definitely had some great information that I’ve been able to access through virtual conferences, but I really do miss some of the opportunities to engage with colleagues that I don’t know, are new to me, who might have some similar interest that we might be able to collaborate or share resources. And I deeply miss that.

John: And also, I found I have a lot less time for professional development reading and other professional development activities, not just the ones at conferences, but also ones within the discipline: catching up on reading, reading new books, new journal articles. It seems as if we have much less time in the day now than we did prior to the pandemic.

Rebecca: I used to have a really regular routine prior to the pandemic of reading, both within my discipline but also pedagogy and other relevant professional development readings every morning. That’s how I started my day. I don’t do that anymore, I don’t have time.

John: And also I found, especially recently, I spend much more time browsing the news to see what the current potentially world-ending crisis is at any given day. Right now we’re in the middle of the war in Ukraine. And that certainly provides some substantial distractions from the areas that perhaps we might prefer to be focusing on. And I think that’s also true for our students.

Rebecca: Yeah, I think that our attention is more divided in that way. I might be paying more attention or more careful attention to the news, or health-related news in a way that, although I certainly consume news on a regular basis, my consumption of such things is up significantly, and basically has replaced some of the other things that I might have read otherwise. And I think our students are feeling that too.

John: And one thing I’ve also noted is that the workshops that we do in the teaching center tend to have a bit less attendance this year than in the past. In the first year of the pandemic, we had an explosion of interest when people were transitioning to new teaching modalities. But this past year, faculty have generally been reporting that they feel a bit exhausted, that they just can’t fit in one more thing. And one of the things that’s made this a little bit more challenging on our campus and throughout the SUNY system, is that we’re going to be moving to a new digital learning environment this summer. And for those of us who are teaching in the summer, we’re going to have very few weeks to learn the new environment and to prepare our courses. And that’s been somewhat challenging. And a lot of faculty are very concerned about this one more disruption in the way they’re teaching. And I think that’s been making it much more challenging for many people.

Rebecca: Yeah, I think faculty are just tired. So many lifts that needed to be done to survive during the pandemic. We all went kind of in survival mode, put in way more hours to make experiences that were good for students. Because, as teachers, we really care about these student-centered approaches, and there was a real commitment on our campus by all of our faculty to do this. As John mentioned, lots of people participating in professional development, really putting the commitment and time in. And that’s really valuable work. But we’ve been doing it for two years. [LAUGHTER] And I think that faculty are just starting to get to a point where they’re trying to reclaim some time back for research, or reclaim back some time, dare I say, for leisure.

John: I remember reading about that at some point in the past. [LAUGHTER] But following up on your comment there, one of the things we’ve learned about inclusive teaching, partly from Viji Sathy and Kelly Hogan, is the importance of providing students with structure. And from my observations, students need that structure more than ever in a world filled with so many other distractions and disruptions. And that all requires some work on the part of faculty to provide more complete directions, more instructions, and, more generally, just to provide more support for students than we had been doing in the past… that we probably were doing too little of it in the past, but I think now it’s needed more than ever.

Rebecca: You’re making a good point here. I know that one of the things that I shifted to doing that students have really responded positively to is providing weekly updates, or at this point, four semesters in, I’m doing recaps of each class period with, like, what to do for the next class period. And students await that to help structure their time outside of class. But one of the things that I’ve definitely had students report is just how much distraction there is, challenges that they’re facing. They’re also reporting things like mental health challenges, the state of the world weighing on their minds, and being distracted by health related things, war, race-related issues in the United States. The other thing that students are reporting is that they’re really self-conscious about interacting with other students, about giving feedback or receiving feedback. In my case, I’m teaching online, and they’ve all said that they would appreciate people having their cameras on, for example, in the Zoom class, but all report that they don’t, because other people don’t, and they’re conscious about their appearance. But also they’re reporting in reflection assignments that they’re really afraid of just what other people think of them, generally.

John: I think one of the costs of the year plus of remote teaching in general is that students lost a lot of connections with other students. And not only were there some issues in terms of a learning loss, it was also a loss of social interaction. For the classes that did take place in person in the first year of the pandemic, people were wearing masks and were separated often by six or more feet, and were actually discouraged from interacting in small group discussions and so forth, or small group interactions in general. And I think that’s led to some issues where people have to re-learn how to interact with each other again.

Rebecca: Yeah, I think unfortunately, some of the aftermath or during-math of the pandemic has been sometimes an over-reliance on sage-on-the-stage methods in the classroom, in part out of necessity, because facilitating those interactions was too difficult, especially in person.

John: In the fall semester, it was my first time back in the classroom after a year of teaching remotely, I was teaching our large class where most of the students were first-year students. And I had about 189 students in the classroom, but they were spread out in a room that seats about 420 students, which had often been filled with 420 students in past semesters. And when I tried to get them to interact, it was a real challenge because sometimes they were 10, 15 feet away from other students. Some of the students did interact, but whenever they were talking to other students they were pulling down their masks to do so, which was also less than optimal. So it was a bit of a challenge trying to encourage students to keep masks on but also to talk to each other. And it was a far lower level of interaction than I’d ever seen before. Now, I’ve noticed in the spring semester that interactions are much closer to what they had been prior to the pandemic, partly because I’m teaching juniors and seniors I suspect, but also partly because I’m dealing with smaller classes, and we actually did end the mask mandate just two weeks ago. And I think that has been a signal of a return to normalcy that I very much have enjoyed seeing, and I hope it lasts at least for another month or two before the next wave of the pandemic hits. But it’s been nice hearing students more clearly without the mask, and it’s been nice to actually see the faces of the students who choose not to wear masks. Some students have been consistently choosing to wear masks, and that’s probably not a bad strategy, especially if they face any health issues.

Rebecca: One of the things that has been really enlightening for me over the last couple years, having not really taught online before but teaching online synchronously, is how much using some text-based communication is so helpful in getting to know the students and allowing them to ask questions and get help. It’s not that I wasn’t using text-based communication before, because I have typically used chat tools like Slack as part of my class structures. But there’s definitely more of a reliance on that, and I’ve ramped up things like reflection assignments that are more written. And this is interesting, because I typically teach design classes, so there’s a lot of visual work that’s happening, and so the written work isn’t always a common element. But it’s interesting how honest students have been in those reflections in revealing things like being self-conscious, or being concerned about what their peers think, or being honest about mental health issues, and revealing that knowing that I was going to read that, and that that information I would then have. So it’s interesting, because I have not seen the faces of many of my students. [LAUGHTER] I’ve interacted with them synchronously, but not seen their faces, and still actually feel like we have a pretty strong connection. And I think that they’ve revealed or indicated that they have strong connections with each other as well. Despite what maybe from the outside would look like a lot of barriers.

John: I do have to say that it’s been such a relief to me to go back into the classroom, because when I was teaching that large class on Zoom and seeing that sea of black boxes, it was really hard to maintain my enthusiasm and to try to maintain engagement, because there were always a number of students who were just tuned out… who when you called on them just were not responsive, when you sent them to breakout rooms just kind of ended up hanging out there, and in general it was also reflected in their performance on all the graded activities in the class. And that was kind of depressing. And I’m very much enjoying the classroom interaction again. Now I’ve been teaching online for many years, asynchronously, and that worked very well all through the pandemic. But I think part of that is that the students were older and had very strong motivation for being successful in the classes because they saw the importance of the classes in their educational or career goals, which is not something that freshmen and sophomores always have intrinsically, at least.

Rebecca: I might add to what you’re saying, John, in that I certainly had that experience teaching mostly through Zoom. My class size has been relatively consistent throughout the pandemic as what it was before, which is smaller, about 25 students in total. And I definitely experienced feeling like, “What are you guys doing in these breakout rooms? Just like sitting staring at a wall? I’m not sure what’s going on here.” I’d pop in, and no one’s talking to each other. And I still have that experience [LAUGHTER] to be clear. I still pop in, and it seems like nobody’s engaging with one another. But what’s been interesting is that in the kinds of reflection questions I’ve been asking students, they’ve revealed more of what those interactions are like when I’m not present. And what’s interesting is that many of the students are indicating that they’re relying on each other to troubleshoot, to help each other out, to brainstorm, to get feedback from one another. They’re just not doing it constantly the whole time they’re in there, but they are getting a lot of value out of that. And my timing just is terrible? I don’t think they have any reason to lie about that, because there’s evidence of it, they’ve given specific examples of the kind of feedback that they’ve received or the kind of help that they got, and what happened. So certainly I’d like to see more engagement, but I also think that they’ve become more accustomed to working in that space, and knowing what the expectations of that space are. And I’ve also set up more structure for those spaces, and I’ve provided instructions and ways to intervene in those spaces. Using Zoom you can’t chat to breakout rooms using the chat feature, so we set up Google Chat to do that, and all of those things have helped manage those interactions in a way that I wasn’t doing in those first semesters.

John: And I should note that my experience was in the first full semester of remote teaching. And there the students themselves were complaining that some of the other students were not actively engaged in the breakout rooms, that they’d call on them and they just wouldn’t respond. They’d actually show up because they had to intentionally choose to go into the room, but then they just wouldn’t talk to each other. And I got that response from about 35 to 40 percent of the students, so it was a pretty significant issue. Maybe with more experience they’ve gotten better, but I’ve been out of that teaching modality for the last year, and I’m very happy to be out of it, because even though I’ve never required students to turn on their cameras, it makes teaching a lot more challenging when you can’t see the people that you’re interacting with. Sometimes you hear the voices, but not always even then, and most of the interaction was through chat. But the class that I taught in the fall of 2020 had over 300 students in it, and the chat with 300 students was often a constant stream of text. The signal to noise ratio in that was not quite as high as I would have liked. So I did rely on breakout rooms a lot, but they just were not as effective as I had hoped or have been in other contexts.

Rebecca: I think the kinds of classes we teach also has a big impact there. I’m teaching studio classes, we’re in class together six hours a week. I have a smaller class size, I know the students very well, and I have the opportunity to interact with them all individually on a pretty regular basis, which I think perhaps does guilt students into participating more. [LAUGHTER]

John: That makes a lot of sense. And my large classes are intro classes, and it’s their first experience in college and generally their first experience in a large class. And it can be perhaps a little bit intimidating, especially when they’ve just come out of a period where they were taught remotely in their high schools…after the end of their senior year was spent in remote instruction of somewhat varied quality depending on the resources of the school district and of the individual households.

Rebecca: Not to mention really some of the very sad results of having to go remote. For many of them, they missed in person graduation. Something that’s supposed to be a really culminating experience ended up being, for many, a letdown. And it’s no wonder why we have a lot of students experiencing some mental health challenges.

John: What are some of the challenges that you’ve seen during the past academic year? Now that we’ve had a year of adjustment to teaching during a pandemic.

Rebecca: I think the biggest observation that I made, or a difference that I’ve seen this academic year in comparison to even the first full year of the pandemic, is a lot more variance in the quality of student work, not engagement in class, but the quality of student work submitted. So having a lot of really strong pieces of work, and then really weak pieces of work, and not a lot in the middle. And what’s interesting is that it’s the same assignments and things that existed the first year of the pandemic and that was not the case.

John: I’ve seen something very similar, not just with the quality work but also the quantity of work. Most of those grades below a C are because of students just simply not doing the work. And for me that’s been fairly persistent last year and this year, although it does seem to be better this semester. And I think some of it may be just that students have adjusted, some of it is because I’m teaching upper-level students who are majors either in economics or applied mathematical economics, and so they’re just more intrinsically motivated in the subject. So that’s been a pretty significant factor.

Rebecca: I feel like sometimes I’m noticing, or I’m hearing folks say that they’re finding their students to be less motivated. And I have really been thinking hard on that. I’m not sure that they’re less motivated, I’m not sure that’s the right word. I’m certainly finding in class, and in student work submitted, that students are engaged. They’re doing interesting things, having interesting things to say. They’re contributing to class, but aren’t necessarily doing work outside of class, unless that time is really structured. And even then when I hear students report what they’ve done outside of class, it often sounds like they’ve chased themselves in a circle and haven’t really accomplished anything. And so that time outside of class wasn’t necessarily super useful. And I think that has a lot to do with the cognitive load of everything else that’s going on, and not really being able to manage the world-things going on on top of four other classes, and all the things going on in all of those spaces as well.

John: With all the challenges we’ve been having, I think we all have a bit more trouble maintaining our focus and concentration, and I think that’s part of the issue for students. I’ve certainly heard that from students, that they really have trouble concentrating on the work because they have other distractions. And I’m hearing much more of that than I ever have in the past.

Rebecca: And I don’t feel like lack of concentration on something is the same thing as lack of motivation.

John: Yeah, and I certainly suspect that’s probably a major part of the issue. This is really a challenging time to be alive for so many reasons right now.

Rebecca: And to really be a young person in our world.

John: And to be going through a college experience which is very different than the expectations you had just a couple of years ago.

Rebecca: Yeah, I think that’s an important thing to always keep in balance when we’re thinking about how students are responding to things. They’ve really been incredibly adaptive, especially considering how drastic their actual experience has been compared to what they imagined a college experience might be like.

John: Since the start of the pandemic, there’s been a lot of discussion about how remote instruction, or online instruction, hasn’t worked. One qualification is, what we experienced during the pandemic was a lot of emergency remote instruction done by people who were not trained in the modalities that they were using, and in particular using modalities that virtually no one had used before. So I think we should be a little bit careful in interpreting some of those claims.

Rebecca: Yeah, and even having the time and space and mental capacity to fully redesign something for a different delivery wasn’t something that we had the luxury of having. We were trying to pull these things out. I know that for me, because I was on sabbatical when the pandemic started, I actually had some time, not a lot, but I had some time, to do more of a development for the online synchronous modality that I’ve been teaching in over the last couple of years. And I think that gave me a little bit of an advantage because I was able to really consider the space and the way that I was going to be teaching and be reflective upon it, when I didn’t have to worry about the emergency things going on in the spring, or having to learn a lot of new technology because I already had some of those skill sets in place.

John: There have been some studies where there’s at least some attempt at natural experiments or random assignment of students. There was one that was done at West Point, and we can share a link to that in the show notes, which essentially randomly divided a class where half the class were face-to-face, half were attending class remotely on Zoom. But one thing I think to keep in mind with studies of that sort is that, essentially, they were comparing face-to-face instruction with students participating remotely in face-to-face instruction. One of the things that I think always happens when people try moving to a new instructional method or a new technique is people try to replicate what they were doing before. And there’s still really a lot that we haven’t learned about what will work best. So I think we should be a little bit careful about ruling out the possibility of synchronous remote or making global claims that it’s not going to work because, as you said, you spent a lot of time reflecting about it and thinking about how you needed to modify your approach to deal with this new modality. I think we should at least keep an open mind going forward about this, and do some research on what works better when we’re not in the midst of a global pandemic where the students who are there don’t want to be in that modality, and where many of the faculty using that modality are only there because they had no other choice.

Rebecca: Yeah, the ability to collaborate and work together synchronously using digital tools is really powerful, and is something we shouldn’t lose sight of using in the future. I found it really promising even though there were challenges, and continue to be challenges during this time. It’s really easy to bring in a guest using Zoom. Certainly you can use a classroom space and Zoom or Skype somebody in, but if the classroom isn’t set up for that kind of interaction it doesn’t work well. Typically, I find in my experience, it’s been really great when everybody’s in the same modality. So just watching recordings of something that’s happening live, or joining in on a live session but you’re remote… you’re not fully integrated into the situation often. But if you’re in the same platform and everybody’s in Zoom, then the chat becomes something that works a lot better, or breakout rooms become something that works quite well if you want to have some kinds of interaction. And if you’re taking advantage of the platform, and what the platform offers, and then extending with some additional tools. For example, I was using Zoom and extended with Google Chat so that I could chat with people in breakouts. And I extended with a tool called Miro, which is a digital-whiteboarding tool that’s far more developed than what’s available in Zoom. We could do all kinds of really great interactions that I couldn’t necessarily do in the same way in person, it was completely adapted to that particular situation and the context we were working in. So I can imagine this being a really important modality for working professionals, for example, who might be going back to school, who really wants to have some interaction with real humans in real time [LAUGHTER] but can’t necessarily get somewhere by a particular time.

John: I think something very similar happened when we first started to teach online in an asynchronous manner. People were trying to duplicate the same classroom environment in an online environment. And a lot of the early results suggested it didn’t work that well until people started studying it and working through what worked best. And now we have whole new ways of teaching, many of which have made it back into the classroom because they have been successful online. So recent studies find that asynchronous and face-to-face instruction are essentially equivalent. Sometimes one does a little bit better than the other, but that varies by instructor, and the instructor’s knowledge of techniques and personality and so forth. But in general, there really doesn’t seem to make much of a difference in learning outcomes between those two modalities. And with some work and development, the same may very well be true for remote synchronous. But picking up on that issue of bringing in guests and so forth with video, I think many campuses, including our own, have to do a lot to upgrade their facilities. And one of the things that faculty have learned is how easy it is to bring people in remotely, either students who are sick who are out with COVID or something else, are able to attend remotely and actively participate using Zoom or other tools, as long as we have adequate video and audio capabilities in the classroom. And I think on our campus, and probably on most campuses, we haven’t quite reached a level of video and audio that really works that well for students participating remotely.

Rebecca: Even before COVID faculty might have done lecture capture or something like that. But the expectations around that is that it’s something you’ve already experienced, and you’re going back to review it. So the expectation of really high quality wasn’t necessarily there like it is now. Now everyone’s experienced the ability to lecture capture in something like Zoom and get some really high quality recording when we’re all in that same space. Have high quality transcripts, be able to see what’s on the screen. And so, as we move forward, these are new expectations. These are not just expectations of the students who had been in school the last couple of years during the pandemic and have experienced some of the synchronous remote things. But K-12 has done the same thing, we’ve got a good 13, 14 more years of students who have already had these expectations. This is where it’s going to be at. And professionals have this now too because they also have been working remotely, and have a lot more collaboration happening in this way as well.

John: And many faculty used to bring in guest speakers, but it used to require someone to physically be there and sometimes people would travel to do that. But now you can reach anyone pretty much anywhere in the world and bring them into your classroom, if you have adequate capabilities to do that. So I think all campuses need to work on upgrading both their microphone systems so that you can hear everyone in the room, not just the sage on the stage, especially since we don’t have stages in most of our rooms. And also better video so that people presenting remotely can see their class and see the people they’re engaging with.

Rebecca: Yeah, definitely. I think one thing we should think about, John, is, I don’t know about you, but during this time I’ve used some pieces of technology differently or some new technologies that I haven’t used in the past—new to me, not necessarily new to the universe—that I don’t want to let go. [LAUGHTER] Like I want to keep going there. Or I want to find some sort of equivalent for the physical classroom, but I don’t know what that is yet. I’ve adopted some new practices, and I haven’t been back in the classroom, I know it’s different for you because you’ve been back in the classroom, but I see my teaching changing. How do you see your teaching changing?

John: Some of it was technology. When I moved home, all of a sudden I had faster computers, I had a nice big second monitor. And now coming back it’s really hard to adjust to the computers we have in classrooms, a single monitor which is really hard to do when you’re working with some students coming in on Zoom. Having a second monitor, and there were times when I really wish I had a third one, where you could keep the chat open on one, you could see the list of participants on it, and you could have other materials staged to bring onto the screen that you’re sharing with people participating remotely. It’s been a big adjustment. I had also had a video camera and microphone in my classroom for at least a decade, and I assumed all of our classrooms did, but this time I was assigned to a classroom that had neither of them and that required a little bit of adjustment. So I think we do need to upgrade these things so that all of our classrooms are able to adapt to the technology that’s become kind of the norm.

Rebecca: Yeah, prior to the pandemic I routinely used Slack for some kind of back-channel conversation, or to have some text conversation. But what I’ve realized now is I’ve adopted many practices teaching synchronously online that allow people to participate, who maybe don’t want to speak up for whatever reason. And I desperately don’t want to lose some of those ways of participating. And for me that includes the ability to answer questions using some sort of chat feature, the ability to use things like Miro, and so this whiteboard application has become so central to some of the things that I do, I’m now having a really hard time envisioning what that would be like if I was teaching in any kind of classroom that wasn’t a lab space where everybody had a computer. [LAUGHTER] Because these are places where we can brainstorm together, share ideas together, and have them all collate into a single location and not be lost in the time/space in a conversation. And these are ways that students have reflected in various reflection assignments that are really important to them. They found these opportunities to share their ideas, without having to speak up, to be really valuable. And it’s not just the camera thing. I think some people will jump to the conclusion that, “Oh, you’re teaching synchronously online, people are using these chat things because they don’t want to turn their camera on.” It’s true that students don’t want to turn their camera on for a wide variety of reasons which I fully support and respect. I don’t require that, we participate in other ways. But there’s also this deep insecurity that students have communicated about being afraid of being wrong, or just not wanting to voice their opinion, or needing time to think before presenting something. And these other platforms, or this other way of doing things, really supports this group of students in a way that I don’t want to stop supporting.

John: One of the things I did in my large class last fall is I had Zoom open, and I encouraged students who were present in person to use it if they wanted to participate using chat. That worked really nicely in a classroom where I had two monitors, so I could keep the chat open on one screen. And sometimes the students who are way in the back, when you have a few 100 students in the classroom they’re often really reluctant to raise their hand or to say something, but they’re much more comfortable participating in a chat discussion. And so that has helped. Another thing I’ve done is I’ve cut back on the number of exams. In my econometrics class this semester, normally, I had three exams where I used a two-stage exam which worked beautifully. And I was originally planning to do that again, until the first week of class when a third of my students were out with COVID. And we’re not quite past this yet. And I just noticed in the last week, our infection rate in this county has doubled. So I think we might still not be past it by the end of the semester, even though we’re…

Rebecca: It’s more than doubled. [LAUGHTER]

John: So I decided to drop all those exams, and I’m just doing a lot more lower stakes assessment. And much more of the work that students are doing that is assessed is done as group work where they’re working with each other every day in class on some assignments. And I more fully flipped the class where instead of giving them written assignments that they worked on individually, and then submitted, and I graded. A lot of that is done in small groups in class, but some of the basics and some of the retrieval practice and other things are done with videos I created during the pandemic with embedded questions. And that’s where they get some of the basic concepts, and they get to review it at their own pace. And they can take the embedded questions over and over again, after watching the appropriate parts of the video, as many times as they need to master the concepts. And it seems to be working much more effectively than it did when I was using a more interactive lecture approach in class.

Rebecca: That sounds really exciting, and I would think those things are things that you certainly don’t want to lose, those are things to keep and continue finding ways to engage students with each other. I heard you just say something that sounded like persistent teams, John. And so I know that that’s something I have definitely adopted over the course of the pandemic. It’s something that I definitely used in a slightly smaller context prior to the pandemic, I had persistent teams for a particular project. But I’ve moved to having persistent teams for the entire semester as a way to connect students with each other, to work through problems, or to troubleshoot with one another, and just have a group of students within the classroom that they get to know each other better, it facilitates some of that relationship building. How about you, John?

John: Well, in one of my classes, in a seminar class, I have persistent teams that are working through the whole semester where they’re writing a book again. But they’re working in small groups, and they work every week on some projects. Each week they present some journal articles or working papers, and they also work on their semester-long project and that, again, has helped develop connections among students really effectively, and it’s created a really positive environment. In my econometrics class I haven’t been able to create the same sort of persistent groups simply because I’ve had students who were ill at various times in the semester. And I’ve also had a student who had a car breakdown, I had a student who was stuck in another country where their travel arrangements broke down after spring break, and I’ve had people who were hospitalized. And nearly all of them have been attending every class, but today, for example, I had all the students in class except for two. And those students were a group in the breakout room while they were working through the same sort of problems, and the others were meeting in person. So there’s some degree of consistency in the teams based on where they sit with each other, but it also shifts a little bit depending on who is there in person, who is there remotely.

Rebecca: Yeah, it’s a lot easier to collaborate when you’re in the same modality. And so I think that’s an interesting challenge for HyFlex, which is showing good promise, but also definitely has its challenges. When we’re using some of these active learning techniques, or we want this community building, there can be some challenges when people aren’t there, all in the same modality.

John: And one of our earlier podcasts was on the topic of HyFlex. And in that one of the things that Judie Littlejohn suggested was exactly that: that one of the challenges with teaching in a HyFlex environment where some students will be in person, some remote, and some working entirely asynchronously, is you never know who’s going to be in class on any given day, which makes it really hard to have those persistent teams, and also to plan for in-person and synchronous remote, as well as what’s going to happen asynchronously. Because potentially, you have a constantly shifting pattern of in-person attendees, remote attendees, and students who are not engaged in any way synchronously on any given class day. And that could be a real challenge. The other challenge with HyFlex is it requires a lot more work on the part of faculty to develop the courses, and this also was discussed in that earlier podcast, and a lot more work on the part of faculty to manage it in terms of preparing things for all possible eventualities of different attendance patterns. And the development work essentially means that someone has to develop a fully asynchronous plan for each of the course modules or for each class meeting. They have to develop other activities that will work synchronously in person as well as remotely. At the very least, it’s like building two entirely separate courses. And that’s a lot more work than we typically have to do on either an asynchronous or a synchronous class, whatever the version of the synchronous class is.

Rebecca: I think what these conversations always reveal, or remind us, is that we really have to take in mind what the course objectives are, the kinds of activities that might help students best meet those course objectives, and then what modalities might best match that. [LAUGHTER] Some things are going to work really well synchronously online, and some things just aren’t. And I think some things will work really well in HyFlex, and other things will just be incredibly challenging to do there and maybe don’t make sense in that kind of a format. So I think that as we move forward and we’ve got more choice, we should really reflect upon what we’re trying to achieve, and then making good choices to help us achieve those things

John: And become more proficient using whatever we’ve learned about each modality to make our courses better. Which is why we have all these professional development activities, which have certainly become much more popular in the last few years than they ever had been before.

Rebecca: You know we’re going to be looking at professional development through these lenses too. Do we need more asynchronous professional development? Do we need more synchronous online, more in person, more HyFlex? What that mix is going to be. And it really is those same kinds of factors that we need to think about for our students. Like, who’s our audience? What are their limitations and barriers? And what modalities and things are going to help us overcome some of those barriers to participation the easiest? So, John and I have talked before about timing always being an issue for professional development, and that’s how this podcast got started. Thinking about… How do we address some of the professional development needs of our community when finding a common time was impossible to meet in person, or even to meet remotely synchronously online, especially when we have a lot of commuters and things.

John: It’s even tough for us to find time to meet to record these podcasts often. So we always end with the question, What’s next?

Rebecca: Good question, John. I’m not sure. I’m looking to the fall and thinking about teaching in person again, the first time in two years, and really just not knowing where to start. There’s a lot of things that I’ve gotten really accustomed to, and comfortable with teaching synchronously online, and things that I don’t want to let go of. Some emotional attachment to things, and I really need to rethink what things look like coming back in the fall because I cannot go back to the way I was teaching before. I’m a changed teacher, I can’t go back. How about you, John?

John: I think that’s true for all of us. For me, in my long-term horizon I’m going to hold office hours online in about five minutes, [LAUGHTER] and in the longer-term horizon I’ll be back with you to record a podcast in about an hour or so. And I suppose in terms of longer term planning, I’m looking forward to learning more about Desire to Learn’s Brightspace platform, which we’re moving to in SUNY very shortly.

Rebecca: Yeah, exciting new things happening, for sure. And I’m so glad that I’m part of your future, John.

John: The long-term horizon!

Rebecca: Yeah, I know, this is exciting stuff.

John: We’ll be back with another podcast next week.


John: If you’ve enjoyed this podcast, please subscribe and leave a review on iTunes or your favorite podcast service. To continue the conversation, join us on our Tea for Teaching Facebook page.

Rebecca: You can find show notes, transcripts and other materials on teaforteaching.com. Music by Michael Gary Brewer.

John: Editing assistance provided by Anna Croyle, Annalyn Smith, and Joshua Vega.