By Rebecca Cooney, Director of Murrow Online Programs, Justin Barnes, Scholarly Assistant Professor, Chelsea Newman, Scholarly Assistant Professor, and Ben Pingel, Scholarly Assistant Professor
In its second year of virtual instruction, it’s important for higher education to rethink the learning environment and innovate within it, to better engage students and prevent as many technological hiccups as possible.
Before 2020, education adorned itself predominantly with brick-and-mortar buildings and bound hardback books, bridled by some skepticism of technological advancement that might render these institutional pillars futile. Then in 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic broke down these pillars, requiring education to uncomfortably abandon 17th-century nostalgia—and perhaps the brick-and-mortar barriers as well—for the new pillars of 21st-century technological innovation. As educators navigating this innovative new frontier and striving after educational nourishment for our students, we’ve been challenged to embrace an infrastructure that heavily leverages technology and asks us to meet students here, now, and right where they are (and perhaps have been for some time): in the virtual realm. A year later, digital learning has been almost fully embraced, and a suggestive set of new course design and delivery pillars—preparedness , empowerment, intentionality, responsiveness and student agency—may indeed be a roadmap to navigate the virtual world appropriately and perhaps more effectively.
Virtual Education Asks Us to be Prepared, Intentional and Responsive
Success through virtual instruction begins with the careful selection of a digital platform that meets the goals and key curriculum components of the course in-play and relays a structure of accessible course design and delivery. On the platform, the content should communicate clear course expectations, a vision for the program and a roadmap for students to follow. A syllabus, course schedule, weekly announcements, links to readings, pre-recorded lectures and assignments should be visible and easily accessible in advance. An organized digital platform permits an instructor to drive efficiency and cultivate active learning before, during and after virtual sessions through student-centered discussions, breakout room collaborations and hands-on exercises that focus on application. Segmenting the aforementioned class activities during a virtual session creates a robust, efficient and effective learning and teaching experience.
Virtual Education Asks Us to Elevate Empowerment and Agency
It is time to re-think the traditional Monday/Wednesday/Friday or Tuesday/Thursday schedule, scrutinize classrooms cluttered with bulky, archaic computer stations, and eliminate siloed teaching environments. Through technological advancement, knowledge has increased and collaboration has expanded. The hybrid teaching and learning model embodies a new set of norms. Students are expected to attend online sessions properly prepared, so class time is efficient and used not for the instructor’s one-way communication but dynamic interaction, peer-to-peer collaboration, demonstrations and student-led discussions. Students should now walk away from each live session with action items and tasks that build on their experience, with future plans to meet with peers and take ownership of learning growth and field advancement. In working from home, partnerships and collaboration among faculty are paramount to sharing information and knowledge, piloting new concepts and approaches, and learning from each other. Pandemic pedagogy begs each of us to take a domineering amount of responsibility for our own learning, growth and advancement. Where in-person interaction has decreased, online accessibility and opportunity have increased exponentially—and we’re all capable of taking hold of it—teachers and students alike.
Keeping the five pillars of virtual education in-mind, here’s a checklist of both strategic and tactical suggestions that will support your online journey:
1) Have clear expectations
Virtual learning is novel to most students. Be organized and transparent with your schedule, assignments, feedback, expectations and grades. Communicate regularly and anticipate regular questions on your virtual teaching platform; answer promptly.
2) Be prepared
Plan, rehearse and master your virtual content. Mastering your virtual medium provides freedom and flexibility for fun and improvisation during your session.
3) Own the virtual classroom stage
Excite your audience with gestures and enunciate verbiage and tones. Voice inflection, face and hand motions, and raw emotion are needed for your authenticity to come through.
4) Familiarize yourself with online technology
Learn it, know it and teach it to your audience. Moreover, images, lighting, sound, video and network capability need to be heightened and able to process the technology bandwidth that is appealing to the student’s eye.
5) Hold students accountable
Establish course norms early for video and audio etiquette, speak directly to those who are tuning out and incorporate interactive activities that engage students.
6) Build a virtual teaching brand, and elevate that brand through engaging online mediums
Maintain regular contact with students through announcements, emails, blogs and vlogs, which will keep them connected and reassured. Conduct regular feedback checks; try to understand what can be done better or what has been misinterpreted. Intermix short videos with email and blog posts to communicate. Have fun: Use GIFs, emojis, etc. Build your online profile with professional skills and personal qualities. Personalization and informality are key; your students need to understand you and know who you are.
7) Expect the unexpected and remain flexible
Have a backup plan for all assignments and assessments. Be transparent and have policies in case students are unable to submit assignments due to technical issues. Don’t be afraid to solve technical course challenges in real time, like during synchronous discussions or collaborative activities, to save time
8) Use the resources
Use resources that promote student agency and ownership in the virtual realm, such as breakout rooms, live chats and polls. The students need to be active participants before, during and after the session. In addition, have students ask questions of one another that generate discussion, reflection and build community in- and outside the virtual classroom.
9) Balance your roles as a leader and a participant
Start as the leader, but allow others to take the mantle throughout the session.
10) Don’t be too critical of yourself
Take your time and understand the virtual learning curve is a continual process. Extra prep and practice go a long way as you build your skills.
Continually gauge student satisfaction; institute regular polls to find out what is and is not well-received in the online classroom. In addition, inquire about what’s working and what’s not in other virtual classrooms—again, we need to learn from each other. Regularly check all links, resources, modules and activities to ensure they are active and working as intended.
Virtual Education on the Horizon
In 2020, educators worldwide were asked to quickly transition to the virtual classroom while simultaneously achieving unprecedented success. Throughout the past year, developing both strategic and practical methods to adapt to this post-pandemic environment has been a challenge—but there has been much growth. As we enter our second year of virtual education, we carry with us new understanding and experience to help us rethink, restructure and innovate our courses as enhanced (rather than lacking) virtual classrooms. As we examine both what has been effective and challenging, we find a rich opportunity for post-COVID-19 education to build on the strengths of virtual instruction. The discussed educational pillars of preparedness, empowerment, intentionality, responsiveness and student agency can both inspire and guide educators to explore innovative methods of instruction and enhance the new learning environment as we emerge on the other side of COVID-19.
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