As an educator for almost 20 years, I have taught in a variety of modalities from face-to-face in-person (F2F) to hybrid to fully online asynchronous. Like most professors, I had to make changes, adjustments, and modifications to my teaching style and strategies in response to COVID-19.
The methods for education in the pre-pandemic world didn’t necessarily work during the pandemic. Strategies and tactics that “worked” during the height of the pandemic didn’t necessarily translate in our current environment. Education in the post-COVID landscape will need to be flexible to the ever-changing needs of the students and the educational environment. The following is a reflection on the lessons learned from 2020 to 2022 on teaching through and beyond the pandemic.
In the Beginning
I was teaching mainly F2F courses for the traditional undergraduate population (Trad) in the Spring of 2020. When in-person instruction shut down in mid-March due to COVID-19, university administration pivoted Trad courses to a distance education modality for the remainder of the Spring semester.
In the beginning of the pandemic, it wasn’t about students attending classes, learning the material, completing assignments, writing papers, and performing well on tests. The priority for students was survival.
Students had base-level concerns for food and shelter. They had immediate financial worries because someone in their family was laid-off of work. Some were socially isolated and dealing with depression or other mental health issues. There were some students who were paralyzed by fear and others shut out the worries of the world, put their heads down, and threw themselves into their studies. While students’ needs and responses were different, for many, the focus was on survival, not education.
From an educational perspective, though, most students and faculty were not prepared to shift to distance learning let alone online education. Many were simply trying is survive the overwhelming academic changes and challenges of the Spring 2020 semester.
Students had to shift their perspective. Trad faculty also had to make the shift. Everyone had to interact in an online environment, which they hadn’t planned on doing. Because most Trad professors didn’t utilize the full potential of our learning management system, Blackboard, students were not very familiar with it. Navigating and utilizing the Blackboard system was very foreign and often frustrating.
Having taught online courses, I had all of the course materials already available and ready for my F2F students in Blackboard. All they had to do was access it. It sounded simple enough. I instructed students to go to the Blackboard material including lecture notes, prerecorded instructional videos, and a variety of other online resources that were ready and available to them.
While it was simple, it wasn’t easy. Students were scared. They were experiencing extreme stress and trauma. They were extremely distracted and overwhelmed. Students were in information overload and were having difficulty functioning. I recognized this and quickly went into action. I employed five themes for outreach and strategic intervention: 1) extra communication, 2) virtual meetings, 3) personal emails and phone calls, 4) grace and patience, and 5) understanding and empathy (Browning, 2020). These intervention techniques were helpful, and many students succeeded in passing my course despite the unprecedented circumstances.
In the Midst
While the university planned on returning to F2F instruction in Fall 2020, local public health authorities required campuses to remain closed. In response, the University implemented a synchronous remote instructional modality which was defined by the university as, “. . . [T]he faculty member is streaming live to students for the lecture and class discussions. Classes will occur during the regularly scheduled class times. All students will be online at the same time with the professor” (California Baptist University, 2020).
This was the best solution available at the time. While there were numerous challenges, we often found solutions to overcome them.
Challenge: Students preferred to be detached spectators. They did not want to engage in the course during class live class sessions. Instead, they preferred to passively watch the class.
Solution: In smaller classes, this was relatively simple to remedy by asking questions to specific students. In larger classes, engagement was more difficult to track and manage in real time. A common solution employed was to use a polling tool or website.
Challenge: Students were often multitasking or otherwise distracted. While they “attended” the class session by logging into the meeting, they would turn their cameras off. Then, they would do other activities such as check email, complete other assignments, engage in social media, lay in their bed and sleep, or even leave the room.
Solution: It can be challenging to deter multitasking, despite how ineffective it is (Rosen, 2008; Tugtekin, 2020). One way to combat it was to require engagement through graded activities such as quizzes, assignments, or polls which were completed live and in real-time at various points during the class session.
Students were dealing with a lot of stress. One type of stressor was brought about by personal or family financial concerns. For many students, their families endured a significant economic shock from the shutdowns one or more family member was working reduced hours, laid off, or furloughed. With reduced incomes, they had to figure out how to pay their bills and put food on the table.
Students came down with COVID themselves, had to care for family members who were sick with COVID, or lost family members to COVID. Many students were physically and emotionally exhausted and grief-stricken.
Solution: Students had a lot more on their minds and on their plates than simply going to class and earning good grades. As cliché as it is to say: These were unprecedented times. The key to helping students with these types of challenges was to be not only reasonable and flexible with requirements and expectations but also to show understanding and empathy. In reflecting on how I changed and evolved my teaching practices and how I interacted with students, I affectionately refer to it as “the year of abundant grace.”
Despite the challenges, there were significant benefits to synchronous remote instruction:
Students had more than a month to mentally prepare themselves for the synchronous remote learning environment. Having experienced distance education the previous Spring, students had a better idea of what was going to happen and what to expect. For example, they knew there would be a heavy reliance on technology, so they were flexible with learning new applications such as WebEx, Zoom, and Microsoft Teams.
The faculty was more prepared as well. We had the summer months to prepare materials which were more appropriate to the teaching modality. I personally enhanced my interactive handouts to provide more detailed information to students in an easier to use format. In addition to improving content and content delivery, faculty also had additional training with technology.
In the synchronous remote environment, we had scheduled live online class sessions. Although it was not the same as F2F, it gave me the opportunity to engage and interact with students. I was able to lecture, have discussions, and answer questions in real-time and provide an atmosphere that was as open and inviting as possible.
I continued to use the five intervention techniques (Browning, 2020). For example, I sent personalized emails to check in on students and discuss their progress in the course. When I personally reached out to students, I received a good response. Not only was I able to help them in the course, but I was able to support and encourage them in other aspects of their academic, professional, and personal lives.
While it wasn’t perfect, my students and I met and overcame many challenges and saw numerous benefits of synchronous remote classes. That experience helped me remain flexible when we returned to F2F instruction.
Turning the Corner
For the 2021-2022 academic year, the public health status improved such that the university transitioned back to offering F2F classes. Some students were ecstatic to be back on campus in the classroom environment. Others were not enthusiastic and, instead, wanted to remain in a fully synchronous remote modality.
Due to different student preferences and circumstances as well as concerns over close contact in classrooms in Fall 2021, I received approval to modify three of my Trad courses to be “hybridized.” We met F2F on Mondays and Wednesdays. Then on Fridays, we met virtually through synchronous remote class sessions. These hybridized courses seemed to be a reasonable and appropriate compromise to provide an in-person experience and yet be mindful of an uncertain public health environment.
Based on observation and anecdotal feedback from the students, they enjoyed the hybridized modality model and appreciated the flexibility of synchronous remote classes on Fridays. They could be anywhere in the world and still attend class. It was especially beneficial for specific students. For example, students with compromised immune systems could learn from home. Another example is student-athletes. Once athletic events resumed and student-athletes were traveling again, they didn’t necessarily have to miss class if they were traveling on Fridays. They had the opportunity to attend every Friday class session because they could log in from their busses, planes, or hotels.
Even though the course was taught in the classroom environment for two of the three class sessions each week, I noticed that students exhibited similar propensities for detached and multitasking behaviors in the physical classroom and was comparable to those displayed in the synchronous remote environment. For example, students would sit in class but would work on homework assignments.
Aside from typical classroom management techniques of speaking to the class and then to individual students, I interwove more small group discussion and hands-on problem-solving activities during class sessions to take them away from their computers and bring them into the moment. Connecting students in small groups was an effective strategy to engage detached and multitasking students. It was easy for students to multitask and detach in a large class environment where the professor was lecturing. It was much more difficult to ignore or disregard their peers in small groups.
In the classroom and beyond, I was very attentive to students. Not only did I continue with the five intervention strategies (Browning, 2020), but I also purposefully worked to build a strong rapport with them. I offered office hours at different times of the day, in different formats, and in different locations on campus. If students weren’t comfortable talking to me in my office, I reserved classroom space each week for a less formal and more familiar setting.
I intentionally engaged students in casual conversations before and after class. Knowing that I couldn’t talk with each student every week, I sent personalized emails to each student periodically. In those emails, I encouraged them in the course. I specifically asked them to respond about how their semester was going, asked if they needed help or support to be successful, and solicited feedback on the course.
Creating emails and corresponding with each student was labor intensive and time consuming, but this investment was invaluable. Students were responsive. Once students understood that I truly cared for them not only as students but also as people, the door opened to additional conversations. It allowed students to view me as someone who was on their side, was there to help, and cared about their overall success and well-being.
Because of the flexibility and benefits, our administration decided to maintain some level of synchronous remote course offerings for the 2022-2023 academic year. As this is currently based on observation and anecdotal feedback, further research is needed to study student preferences for F2F, synchronous remote, and “hybridized” (F2F and synchronous remote) learning environments.
There were many lessons learned through the pandemic. As a result, I was able to improve the educational experience for my students.
One thing is clear: We aren’t going back. We need to continue evaluating our teaching strategies while being flexible to change, update, and modify our techniques to meet the changing needs of our students and the environment in which we work.
- Browning, J. (2020). The best laid plans: One professor’s response to the COVID-19 global crisis. Transnational Journal of Business, Special Edition, 16-19.
- California Baptist University. (2020). Providing Live Synchronous Instruction. Riverside, CA: Author.
- Rosen, C. (2008). The myth of multitasking. The New Atlantis, 20, 105–110.
- Tugtekin, U. (2020). The myth of multitasking: How “Doing it all” gets nothing done. Contemporary Educational Technology, 12(2), 1–3. https://doi-org.libproxy.calbaptist.edu/10.30935/cedtech/8330