When I envision teaching this fall, my highest priorities are social presence and flexibility. No matter the outcome of the fall 2020 semester, my goal is for students to leave my course feeling as if they were part of a community in which their voices mattered. I want to embrace critical thinking and rigor, which have the power to transform students. This year, I am adopting a flexible teaching model that meets my expectations, and will guide and support my students through these unchartered waters. Within my model, I have considered content delivery; collaborative, active learning; synchronous experiences; and a strong social presence. The following is my plan for the fall semester:
Content such as videos, audios, recorded presentations, articles, and other resources will be organized online and intuitively arranged in folders, so that students can easily navigate the course. Our current reality has forced me to reassess the content that I offer students. I am prioritizing my existing content and embracing a quality-over-quantity approach in which I offer a bit less content but more consistent, immediate feedback. I am also shifting to more compelling content, some being videos made by others. Yes, I enjoy narrating presentations, but I also appreciate the excitement of finding and adopting an already-created, right-on-point video. Learners appreciate a variety of content offerings. If a course has multiple sections, various instructors can share in the organization of content to lighten the load. Students can also be responsible for finding a piece of content and posting it on a discussion board with an explanation of why an article, video clip, piece of artwork, method of solving a problem, or poem is important. Students feel a sense of ownership and become more responsible for their own learning when they are required to take the lead.
Rationale: Providing all content online frees instructors’ obligations of ensuring that all students hear and view content synchronously. The online content—at the students’ fingertips—reduces questions and supports student learning. Wearing a mask while lecturing and live streaming those lectures for students who cannot be present can make content delivery cumbersome in the face-to-face environment. Posting all content online is also a proactive step in the event that multiple class sessions move completely online.
Collaborative, active learning
I have also determined that most active learning and student collaboration will happen outside of the face-to-face classroom in my own courses. Once students collaborate, they can then report back in an organized way. For example, I can ask students an essential question directly related to our weekly objectives. Students can pair up and answer this question together via FaceTime, Zoom, WebEx, or even through the good old telephone. Students can even use shared documents through Google or Microsoft. Once students finish their discussions—similar to a think-pair-share—they can post their ideas on the discussion board. This exchange of ideas initiates a conversation that begins online and then continues in a synchronous class environment.
Rationale: Active learning is an important part of the learning process. However, physical distancing while wearing masks can make face-to-face, in-class collaborations difficult. Communicating with each other in an online platform gives students the freedom and autonomy to collaborate safely and effectively, and as a bonus, they can see each other’s faces! Students can choose from a wide array of online communication tools that fit their needs for small group collaborative sessions. Instructors can also attend some small group sessions to model communication skills and to act as a catalyst for deeper inquiry.
You may be wondering, If content and student collaborations occur online, then how will I use my face-to-face class time? Some universities—like mine—have adopted a model in which most instructors will see half the students on one day and the rest of the students during the next class meeting. These smaller groups work well for Q&A sessions, town hall meetings, discussions to deepen learner understanding, opportunities to build connections with students, and even troubleshooting when students become stuck. These sessions will be valuable, and guide and support students as they navigate through the course.
Rationale: If a face-to-face meeting is not possible, this model easily allows instructors to engage the entire class synchronously online. Therefore, if a circumstance arises and the class cannot gather together, the course flow is not interrupted, and productivity and support still occur in the online synchronous environment.
Strong social presence
Besides synchronously meeting with students once a week, I want to create a strong social presence that is consistent, intentional, and predictable. Cultivating a sense of community in a learner-centered classroom is part of my teaching philosophy; I want to be present in a variety of ways. I plan to start each week with a short audio recording that sets the tone. Even if this information can be found somewhere else within the course, it is important for students to hear my voice guiding them through the expectations for the week. I also plan to be present on the discussion board, where I’ll provide feedback and ask deeper questions to encourage critical thinking. Additionally, most students appreciate individual email check ins. When students are absent or falling behind, I plan to communicate with them individually and offer support. A strong social presence also means holding office hours, which I now call “student hours.” I recently read that a professor adopted this new name for office hours, and I agree that shifting to “student hours” sends a message to students that this precious time is reserved for them.
Rationale: Besides the weekly synchronous meeting, instructors should provide several interactions each week so that students feel the instructors’ presence. Multiple modes of communication throughout the week allow instructors to create a community of learners no matter what the circumstances might be.
This flexible teaching model resonates with me because no matter the scenario, this model works. For example, if circumstances arise in which one or more students must be 100% online, they can access the content, collaborate with peers, and even tune in for synchronous meetings via an online platform. Meanwhile a strong social presence will support students as they navigate the course. If circumstances dictate that I must move my course completely online—without disruption—my only modification becomes a weekly synchronous online meeting for the entire class instead of smaller face-to-face meetings. As we plan for the fall, creating a structure that allows instructors to support students through any situation becomes vital. You can also modify this model to meet your individualized needs as you create a plan that supports a learner-centered environment for your students.
Julie Sochacki, JD, is a clinical associate professor of English and director of the English secondary education program at University of Hartford. Julie is a life-long learner and has been experimenting with active learning in the classroom for 26 years. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.