Learning in a Pandemic – 2

poster saying keep calm and keep teachingOPEN LETTER: Planning to Make “the Switch”

This is part two of my posts about teaching in the COVID19 pandemic amidst the possibility that we (faculty)  may have to switch on short notice to teaching at a distance what were originally face-to-face classes.  If you haven’t already, please start by reading my first post about getting in the right frame of mind about making “the switch”.

In my first post, I emphasized that making switch isn’t the same as “teaching online”.  Teaching online implies a much bigger, more complex undertaking that involves a designing and conceiving an entire course differently.  You aren’t doing that. Your goal now is to take finish the course as best you can without doing face-to-face meetings because those now endanger people’s health in the community.  You’re trying to improvise and fill-in a very specific gap in a very specific course in a very specific course.  I’m going to write this as if I’m speaking to professors preparing for their own individual classes and as they make contingency plans as a group for their program/department. I’m trying to consider both full-time and part-time.

Mind the Gap

I really mean “analyze the gap” but this sounds better. The key to preparing to make the switch is going to be understanding that gap – the gap in your course.  There is no magic formula. There is no universal rubric. Each class-instructor combination is likely unique.  Depending on circumstances, you might want to consider thinking in terms of 2-3 scenarios instead of phrasing it all as “going to online for the remainder”.  For example, scenario 1 might be “we are told to make the switch a week before final exams”.  That’s going to be different thing than “we are told around mid-semester to make the switch” or being told at the 3/4 mark. I’m going to ignore here the possibility you are told to “convert an entire summer session class to online with only 2 weeks notice in advance”.  That last scenario is a lot more complex and really does resemble trying to design/create a whole online class. I’m going to focus on finishing a f2f without actually meeting.

I would start with your existing syllabus and plans for the remainder of your course. In your own words, what’s the gap between what the students have already learned and what they need for the final exam or capstone assignment or just what’s remaining to be covered. In other words, what’s missing?

  • What assignments & topics haven’t been started and will need to be done entirely in the revised approach?
  • What types of work do students need to do to learn that material/concepts/skills and what is the critical aspects of how they can effectively learn it?  For example, suppose I were teaching my f2f macro econ course. If the gap contains the stuff about how Keynesian theory vs Classical theory works, that can be handled fairly well through readings and lectures. New, additional reading can substitute for some lecture fairly well in my experience. But on the other hand, if money  & banking is what’s missing and in the gap, then there’s really no good substitute for doing some problem sets related to it.
  • What assignments are have been started and now need to be redefined or altered? I expect this would include most kinds of project work. Students have already started it with a vision of the goal or output.  If that output/result is a paper to be turned in, then all’s good. You can do that easily via the LMS.  But if it involves in-class presentation, then you need to focus on alternatives.
    • Flexibility works wonders. Consider giving students options for completion or presentation: perhaps a selfie-video, perhaps a written paper instead, a small video conference, etc.
  • Is there group work planned or in progress?  Your challenge here is help them find a mode of communicating and working together remotely.
  • Assessments:  how many and what type of assessments/graded stuff is in the gap?  Final exams come to mind.

Once you focus on your gap, you’ll start having a good idea of what your needs are. In general,in my opinion, courses that are the closest to traditional lecture-and-test or lecture-and-write paper are likely to have the clearest gap. There’s specific topics to be covered and it’s mostly an “information provision” problem.  In my opinion, the project stuff, assignments already underway, group work, and classes that are heavy on in-class seminar/active synchronous discussion  work are the most challenging and will require the most creativity.

What’s In Your ToolBox Now

Next, consider what specific resources or preparation you already have.  I’d start with your faculty and any existing online classes you have. Then I would consider what tools/technology/materials you already have available. Finally, consider what people you can contact to fill in your toolbox if needed, such as faculty you could consult in another program/college, or your Center for Teaching Excellence, or your LMS management department.

For example, in my program we’ve discussed this and largely done our contingency planning. We’re fortunate. The gap is largely about several topics, some problem sets, and the final exam mode (we have proctored exams of a departmental final). But, every faculty member in our program has taught or is teaching their courses in both online and f2f formats.  So we each have both the experience in online, in using the LMS, and we have alternative approaches and materials already ready and available.  Our school has a robust LMS and we don’t need the video options much.  Our toolbox suits our gap pretty well.

In another program I’m familiar with, they’re close to the same situation, but they have experienced online+f2f full-time faculty but some part-time faculty don’t have the online experience and would lack some materials.  Their tentative plan would be for the experienced full-time online profs to share what’s needed from their existing resources and assignments.

In our case, it’s the final exam that’s the issue. It’s proctored in person on paper for both online and f2f classes. We decided that our contingency plan would be to go to an all online delivery of the final exam using the LMS without proctoring but with a time limit. Not wanting to risk the exam contents “getting out” (it changes each semester, but not dramatically), we decided that if “the switch” were necessary, we would collectively, the five full-timers, write new questions for this semester, hoping to return to the old format later. We discussed and recognized that this will make semester-to-semester course assessment analytics impossible this time. (we actually do those analyses!) but this would be an emergency exception. That’s key. Be flexible and adaptable.

BTW: For those concerned about cheating in online exams, especially at the community college level. I am intimately familiar with a faculty member who has taught the same course online at two different schools for many, many years. The same final exam (or virtually the same) has been used at both schools. One school requires in-person proctoring of the final exam, the other allowed unproctored online exam taking in the LMS anytime during finals week.  This professor’s experience is that there is no significant difference in scores, distribution, or changes in median scores over time between the two schools and two methods of administering the tests.

This is consistent with research about cheating that identifies it as more pronounced risk in situations that are higher-reward/higher-stakes such as in gatekeeper courses at elite universities.

There was one major difference experienced between the two schools/methods.  In the school where students could do the final online unproctored – and they knew that when the course started – there was a tendency for some (a minority) of students to fall into a dependence on open book for answering quiz questions and then the test, with result that learning become more short-term oriented and not as deep.  This was addressed over time by limiting formative assessments/quizzes to two attempts with unlimited time, but then narrowing midterms to a timed period so they began to realize they couldn’t look everything up, and then having the final be timed and questions carefully written to not be “simple look up stuff”.  Time limits were set so that 98-99% of students can complete the test, but there’s not enough time to look up a lot stuff.

I’ve got some more thoughts and some ideas from my colleagues, but this is enough for now. I’m tired tonight. I guess there will be another post soon.

One thought on “Learning in a Pandemic – 2

  1. One little tip: If you have the resources, make some SHORT video lessons. Don’t worry about polish or your appearance. I read an account of an instructor who was making a video and then their child interrupted it. At first they were annoyed, but the students liked it. Made it more human.
    (This is from Small Teaching On-line by Flower Darby and James Lang. Strongly recommended (It also mentions that giving students some say in how they complete their lessons is worthwhile. So now you have that from another source.

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