We have witnessed an unprecedented scale and intensity of disruptions to teaching practices in the last five months. Many teachers who had limited opportunities for training and guidance had to bring their classes online almost overnight. As a teacher, you may now feel ready to shut down your laptop and walk away from your desk with a sigh of relief. Do that for a few weeks. But when you come back, consider how technology can continue to serve as an aid rather than a hindrance to help you better meet your teaching goals and encourage student learning.
Here are tips to continue reaping the benefits of virtual classroom technology:
Preserve your lessons and share them with colleagues
Technology is an excellent tool to help us preserve and improve what we do in the classroom. Save electronic copies of your online resources, your instructions to students, and the asynchronous assignments, then repurpose them for future use.
For example, if you developed a series of activities that worked well in your live virtual class meetings, make them into templates. You can use any word processing tool and design a few lesson plans with brief activity descriptions. Leave the content of the activities blank, then fill them in as you prepare to teach.
Over the summer, after you recharge, organize a virtual working group. On brick and mortar campuses, we teach in separate classrooms, and our colleagues rarely visit. Conversations about teaching are often intermittent and inconsistent. Now is the time to share best practices in your departments or with your teaching and learning center using collaborative platforms, web-based applications, and discussion boards. Students will benefit from your collective wisdom.
Track student engagement and then improve it
In brick and mortar classrooms, students come and go, and it can be difficult to document their contributions. We might have a sign-in sheet to record attendance, and when we have time, we might make notes about what students said in class before rushing off to our next meeting. But the virtual classroom offers powerful opportunities to track student engagement, particularly when sessions get recorded.
Technology allows for instructors to review the frequency of student contributions and watch videos that preserve their exact statements rather than relying on memory. This helps mitigate bias. Chat comments, short polls, or online quizzes can quickly and efficiently surface common confusions.
Technology also provides us with opportunities to accurately identify whether students have completed their work, how well they comprehend it, and whether they can apply it. If we use this knowledge to inform our teaching practices, student engagement and student learning can both improve.
Establish clear outcomes and measure student progress
Many instructors provide students with a list of learning outcomes and goals on syllabi at the beginning of a semester. But we tend not to think systematically about how we integrate them into our class meetings. We also don’t often evaluate outcomes using consistent, transparent criteria.
For example, in a writing-intensive seminar, we might ask students to “use concrete evidence to support written arguments.” But in which lessons do we teach that outcome? What activities do we use to teach it, and how do we evaluate students’ participation in those activities? How do they demonstrate knowledge of that outcome in assignments? And do we always use the same criteria when we evaluate that outcome?
When we provide only verbal and handwritten comments, it is difficult to apply consistent metrics and give targeted feedback. Technology can help us write and preserve a rubric that uses a point-based evaluative scale; duplicate that rubric on every assessment of the outcome (e.g., in a class poll and in an assignment); record the numerical score; and aggregate those scores to determine a final grade (see Building the Intentional University, chapter 17).
Consistently tracking student outcomes takes logistical planning. But if you devise a simple system for assessing outcomes by choosing a manageable number of outcomes, writing a rubric for each one, and using a spreadsheet or a gradebook to track the scores, you could gauge student progress. This will guide you in making informed decisions about how to create meaningful assignments and in-class activities that can help students learn.
Right now, many teachers probably feel a profound desire for things to return to the way they were before COVID-19. And yet over the last few months, educational innovations have arisen out of necessity. Teachers have devised inspiring ways of engaging their students in virtual spaces, even for activities that typically require physical interaction, such as dance or occupational therapy. One occupational therapist even argues that the rapid changes required by the circumstances are “actually changing a field to create access for kids with disabilities far beyond what anybody could imagine.” With a bit of time, planning, and flexibility, the most effective practices may take hold in brick and mortar classrooms too.
Reform has a better chance of success if teachers band together across disciplines and institutions to share the best of what they have learned during this time of crisis. If we make the most of the opportunity for change, we will find new ways to help students thrive.
Kara Gardner is the Associate Dean of Partnership Teaching and Learning at Minerva Project