As school closings related to COVID-19 expand at all levels of education, those who teach are grappling with moving courses online midway through a semester.
In 2017, the Burroughs Wellcome Fund’s Career Guidance for Trainees program supported Thomas Jefferson University, a private research university in Philadelphia with a focus on experiential professional education, to do pilot work on preparing postdocs to become online educators. We asked the grant’s co-director, Mary Gozza-Cohen, PhD, Director of Academic Programs at The Marcus Institute of Integrative Health, and Julie Phillips, PhD, Assistant Provost for Faculty Development: Curricular and Instructional Design, what thoughts they have for those now hurrying to move their courses online. Every institution is different, but their advice will ring true at most places.
“Institutions want to make this work,” says Gozza-Cohen. “They want you to be successful, along with your students. Most, if not all, institutions are providing faculty with technical, design, and emotional support during this transition.” “The anxiety some faculty are feeling is also an anxiety that their learners are feeling,” Phillips emphasizes. “Students are just as confused and nervous about finishing the term, and perhaps about graduation requirements.”
Your unexpected migration online does not have to be perfect to accomplish your course’s goals. “We advise people to do a little bit at a time,” Phillips says. ”It’s okay to go week by week. Look at the overall arc of what you were doing in your course, and why you were doing it. You want to maintain as much of that course integrity and the overall course plan as you can, because to change direction this far into the semester is just going to amp up the learners’ anxiety.”
You don’t have to solve the problem of getting the remaining weeks of your course into an online format all at once. Jefferson’s group advises faculty to do a little bit at a time: try an approach that fits your established teaching style, see what works, and adjust your strategy as you go.
“We know that there are going to be mistakes,” says Phillips. “People are being pushed into this without a lot of preparation. Faculty are modeling the growth mindset for learners. It’s ok to try something and fail.”
Gozza-Cohen offers a strategy: “If faculty need to buy themselves some time, they can change next week’s group activity into an assignment the students need to submit. That buys another week to work with someone from the teaching and learning center of their college or university. Seek help from colleagues who already teach online. Folks who teach online are often empathetic toward those who are new to online teaching and very helpful. So phone a friend.”
Your institution’s curriculum and instruction experts are your most important resource. But for those who are searching the web or their institution’s learning management system for ideas, one good source of insight isn’t aimed at faculty. “I have an online orientation module in every one of my courses,” Gozza-Cohen says. “There are how-to videos for everything the students need to know how to do to be successful in the course, and opportunities in that module for students to practice. They practice uploading an assignment, sending an email through the learning management system, using a discussion board feature or a virtual live discussion tool. Faculty can learn a lot by reviewing some of those materials. That said, immediate and targeted training is what is called for during this rush to go online – seek out your teaching and learning center.”
The unprecedented COVID-19 crisis presents real and unpredictable illustrations of principles and questions at the heart of many fields. “I suspect that any academic can’t help but look at this through a disciplinary lens,” Phillips affirms. Without completely disrupting the course plan, bringing the current situation into the classrooms can provide students with a searing realization of how and why the things they are learning in your course matter. Incorporating COVID-19 and its fallout into class discussion is a singular educational opportunity.
Small group discussions on the questions that have the whole world’s attention can be put together fairly easily using multiple online tools and formats. “If you are in a public health class,” Phillips suggests, “they can craft some public health messages one can share to alleviate concerns. If it's in education, maybe have the students come up with age-appropriate descriptions for what’s going on. If you're a geographer or in urban studies, you can talk about transmission of diseases, how rapidly they spread, or what you do when you have urban populations compared to more rural populations. There are so many questions that will allow your class an entry to the discussion.”