Pandemic Lessons for Course Design

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EDUCAUSE Exchange | Season 2, Episode 1

The lessons learned from last year’s move to remote teaching can help instructors create better engagement with students in 2021.

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Gerry Bayne: Welcome to EDUCAUSE Exchange, where we focus on a single question from the higher ed IT community and hear advice, anecdotes, best practices, and more. As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to affect higher education into 2021, institutions are relying on digital alternatives to activities and operations. During the semester that just ended, most colleges and universities transitioned rapidly to remote teaching and learning and student support. Students are working to finish their academic terms and complete their coursework, while they're adapting to new modes of learning, interacting with faculty and other students online and ensuring that they have the needed equipment, software, and network access. And as the vaccines are slowly rolled out, we really have no certainty when it will be safe to attend in-person classes. So on this episode of EDUCAUSE Exchange, we asked several higher ed IT leaders, as the spring semester begins, what advice do you have for instructors who want to improve their approach to teaching remotely?

Stephanie Moore: I think we're all sobering up to the fact that spring's going to be a hard semester. We're probably going to have to assume that most or all of it will be online.

Gerry Bayne: That's Stephanie Moore, assistant professor of organization information and learning sciences at the University of New Mexico. She says that rather than waiting on word from the administration, most instructors have decided to go ahead and design an online learning experience for the spring semester.

Stephanie Moore: I think that's a real positive because when you stop thinking about technology and online, like Zoom, as a stop gap measure, then you can start to move into really meaningful problem solving and maybe even identify some very creative solutions. Our predominant paradigm for how we are thinking and planning and designing courses should not be about technology, but really should be centered around flexibility.

At first, I think everybody just focused on, "Oh my goodness, I need to get my content out there," and Zoom was a quick and efficient way to do that. But one of the things that online learning, and especially LMS's are really good at, is automating content delivery. So that instead of us as instructors spending all of our time just delivering content, we can actually record that, let the LMS deliver that asynchronously for us, and then that frees up my time with my students, not to lecture at them, but to really spend more time working on a design project with them, brainstorming that through. When I use Zoom, my Zoom sessions are not lectures. I call them design jams.

Bryan Alexander: Time shifting video or audio files is a great resource for a lot of students, especially ones whose schedules are complex, that is if they have to deal with childcare or elder care, if they have to deal with work schedule, or so on.

Gerry Bayne: Bryan Alexander, who's the founder of Bryan Alexander Consulting, as well as senior scholar at Georgetown University, reflects more strategy, but he also says it's important to pay attention to the limitations of students.

Bryan Alexander: I mean, the one Heather's the digital divide issue, where how many of your students will actually be able to participate in this? Will they have the bandwidth? Will they have the physical environment? Will they have the hardware? Think as well about students who may have neurological issues in processing the complex challenging, very loud and noisy interface of video conferencing. And then thinking about asynchronous. Asynchronous lacks the pop and excitement of synchronous, but it fits schedules much more nicely. It tends to be a little lower in demand of bandwidth, and it can really bring out a lot of people who are normally quiet or shy or have difficulty in participating in a class for various other reasons.

Josh Eyler: Part of what stands in the way, sometimes of trying out more progressive grading models, different kinds of assignments, different kinds of assessments is tradition and just being caught up in the pace of the academic year.

Gerry Bayne: Josh Eyler is director of faculty development at the University of Mississippi. He says that if there's any silver lining to the transitions and challenges of last year, it's that the disruption we've had can actually open doors to trying new teaching strategies that you've always wanted to try, but might've been too afraid or not had enough time to try.

Josh Eyler: Let some of the pressure off of yourself to think about covering everything that you would have done in a normal circumstance, that what's much more important for, I think, both faculty and students is empathy and compassion and flexibility. What am I actually trying to achieve in this class? What do I want students to take away at the end of the semester? And how can I design things so that there's flexibility within that? Do I have to give the same exams I would have given two years ago in this class? Or can I think about other ways that students can meet that same learning goal without necessarily the added pressure and cognitive load? What can I do that's going to allow them to be more successful, but that's also going to take the pressure off of me as a faculty member?

Charles Hodges: If you're teaching online, you want to head off problems.

Gerry Bayne: Charles Hodges, professor of instructional technology at Georgia Southern University puts an emphasis on looking back at the fall semester and being honest with yourself about what worked and what did not work.

Charles Hodges: You don't want your students to have problems. You don't want to have problems. So look for policies, your own personal course policies that didn't work. If you had particular deadlines that students had trouble meeting, think about why that was and consider changing the deadline if you can. If you had assignments where students really struggled to meet the level of performance that you wanted, were they asking a lot of questions? Were they not hitting the levels of performance that you wanted them to? Then what can you do to support that not being the case the next time? Do they need extra instructions? Do they need a little bit of extra, a little mini lecture from you? Do you need to point them to some more resources? All of that's about teaching better.

Gerry Bayne: Course design and engagement during spring semester is going to be challenging, but also has the potential to open new doors into creative engagement. For another perspective on this creative engagement, check out an article entitled Play in the Time of COVID-19. It's by Lisa Forbes, assistant clinical professor at the University of Colorado Denver, and it talks about incorporating different kinds of play into your course design to help students feel more connected to their instructors and each other. You can find it at that's I'm Gerry Bayne. Thanks for listening.

This episode features:

Bryan Alexander
Bryan Alexander Consulting, LLC

Joshua Eyler
Director of Faculty Development
University of Mississippi

Charles Hodges
Professor of Instructional Technology
Georgia Southern University

Stephanie Moore
Assistant Professor of Organization, Information, and Learning Sciences
University of New Mexico

Recommended Resource

Lisa Forbes, “Play in the Time of COVID-19,” EDUCAUSE Review, November 5, 2020.