A bike ride can be a very pleasurable experience if you are well prepared for the weather and terrain. I remember a time when I set out on a gloriously sunny day. All of a sudden, a squall blew in and rain pelted down. I could still get to my destination, but it was not the same. I was taken by surprise. I was not prepared. It was a very uncomfortable trip. Remote teaching reminds me of that ride.
Although spring semesters have ended, terms still have a week or so to go, and the final verdict on how well higher education kept teaching is some time away. Public opinion, and early returns on both faculty and student surveys across universities nationwide, paint a bleak picture. Students and faculty members are tired and stressed, and many report varying levels of dissatisfaction with the remote teaching and learning experience.
Many faculty members had to change how they taught quickly and with little to no compensation. Students who thrived in face-to-face settings and online classes (too often mistakenly conflated with remote learning) and some with no other experiences floundered learning remotely.
My rain-sodden bike ride taught me many things. I know I never want to be caught by surprise like that, but I also know that the weather, just like the future of higher education, is difficult to predict. Looking ahead, short-term predictions are for rain. We can idealistically hope skies will clear, but given current information, to believe that would be unwise. It is prudent to pay attention to the science of the pandemic and face the reality: no one knows how life will be in the fall. Epidemiological data suggests we will not be back to normal.
As higher education looks to the summer and fall terms, colleges and universities have been actively working to reduce uncertainty by planning for multiple possible scenarios. Many, not wanting to play the odds, are not opening at all. For example, the California State system made the call to have all fall classes be online. Many other institutions plan to open for face-to-face classes with physical distancing restrictions, courses split between physical classrooms and Zoom, and heightened testing and extra sanitary practices in place. The fact remains that the spread of the virus and incidence, morbidity and mortality rates are hard to predict, and the availability of a vaccine is uncertain.
In short, it will be some time before we are out of the proverbial woods. We need to be proactive and plan as best we can. Higher education needs to capitalize on the lead time this summer and provide strong guidance for course design and delivery. We need to face the admittedly unappealing prospect that class formats cannot be taken for granted. We cannot avoid the uncertainty. Once we accept that we are probably in for a long ride, we can prepare more effectively.
We all want to avoid another uncomfortable term. Thankfully, we have a wealth of information to capitalize on. At Oregon State University, like many other colleges nationwide, students and faculty members have provided feedback on their learning in surveys and focus groups. Individual colleges have held seminars where faculty members have shared experiences and what worked well for them. Those student and faculty voices can help us triangulate on some key issues. In fact, the consistency and overlap in experiences are uncanny, heartwarming and sometimes unsettling.
When the diverse voices are amalgamated, the feedback allows us to structure recommendations for future terms. The message seems to be clear. Faculty members and students who had better experiences were in classes characterized by six factors: compassion, clarity, organization, multifacetedness, flexibility and engagement — in short, they were CCOMFE.
What made for CCOMFE classes? These six factors provide a prescription for teaching and learning during the pandemic, nicely echoing evidence-based practices for good face-to-face and online teaching in general yet also reflecting the anomalous conditions. We can easily summarize the key prescriptions.
Getting CCOMFE for the Fall
Remote teaching calls for compassion. Faculty sensitive to the pandemic and the stress that it is causing for all modified their courses to be mindful of how much they were asking of students every week. They also communicated their care and concern for their students. They were kind, thoughtful and, even in the face of their own personal turbulences, cared for their students’ well-being.
Faculty need to be clear. We all get more stressed when we do not know what is expected of us and when. Courses with clear expectations and detailed, well-structured learning management system content were easier to learn in. Students knowing exactly what was needed, whether for group discussions or class projects, reported better experiences.
Organization is more important now that ever. A well-organized instructor and class have always facilitated better learning. Paying close attention to the alignment of student learning outcomes to class activities and assessments stands to increase student motivation as their efforts are better justified.
Multifaceted courses that provide students with many ways to learn and to interact with the content, the instructor and other students — such as synchronous and asynchronous classes; breakout rooms, discussion boards, Jamboards, Google slides — tend to keep students’ attention more effectively. Setting courses up to have different avenues for learning can be accomplished by leveraging the affordances of Zoom and learning management systems such as Canvas.
Given the many extra challenges that both students and faculty members face, remote teaching benefits from instructor flexibility. Successful instructors found themselves being more flexible on due dates, attendance and how learning was demonstrated. Given the uncertain nature of the pandemic, faculty members also need to be ready to modify their classes for any easing up or tightening of restrictions. Some classes starting face-to-face in the fall may have to switch back to remote teaching if coronavirus cases spike with college reopenings.
Finally, instructors need to consider ways to build engagement. Faculty members who paid close attention to increasing their presence through introductory and weekly videos, frequent emails, and the like, while involving more students in activities such as Zoom polls, postlecture activities and reading reflections, had students who were more engaged in the material.
Keep Teaching 2.0
The good news is faculty and student feedback, along with a large base of scholarship of teaching and learning, provide pragmatic tips for each component of getting CCOMFE. At Oregon State University, our Center for Teaching and Learning, Academic Technology, and Ecampus have collaborated to create crisp, concise, practical ways to modify courses to get CCOMFE. Because the average instructor does not have time for literature reviews and even an abundance of tips, clear one-page guides to get one started are available for all.
Teaching, like a bike ride, can be immensely satisfying. While we cannot predict the weather far into the fall, we can certainly take the steps to get CCOMFE in preparation.