Online learning

A Summer of Training Creates a Strong Foundation for a New Way of Teaching

September 22, 2020
By: Nancy Sheehan

When Governor Charlie Baker called for closing state universities last March because of the pandemic, much consternation ensued as classes were suddenly switched to fully online. But seminars, meetings, and planning sessions done over the summer have meant a much smoother ride for students and faculty this fall.

“I cannot say enough about what the faculty did in that unforeseen situation last spring,” says Madeline Otis Campbell, Ph.D., associate dean for distance and global education. “They just really rose to the challenge and gave it their all. Still, what we were all doing was managing in an emergency.”

Since then, faculty, staff, and administrators at Worcester State have pulled together to ensure a quality educational experience for students this fall, even as the unpredictability of the pandemic continues. The University has decided upon a hybrid educational model, with some students doing classes online, some coming to classrooms, and some doing a combination of the two. Students stand to benefit from a summer-long effort to get a better handle on a difficult and ever-evolving situation.

“I have no doubt that students will walk away with a good experience,” Campbell says. “We’re all adapting and the situation is so dynamic that we can’t predict how the semester is going to unfold, but I know in terms of our faculty’s skill and resilience and dedication to students that they’re going to continue to do what they always do, which is putting students first.”

Mastering online teaching has meant pushing in a new direction for most faculty, a challenge they seem to have taken to readily.

“The faculty used their skills to try to make the most of this unprecedented situation and really find the tools that made sense for their classes, whether it was a lab class or whether it was a literature class,” Campbell says.

Assistance was offered over the spring and summer on campus by Worcester State’s Center for Teaching and Learning (CLT) as well as the IT Department, which sprang into action immediately to help faculty and students struggling with a new modality that had been suddenly thrust upon them.

“The training we had from IT and the Center for Teaching and Learning was invaluable,” says Amaryllis Siniossoglou, M.F.A., professor of visual and performing arts.  “They provided training sessions almost every day in the spring with information about how to approach technology and different options for remote teaching. They were always available to us and always responding to any questions we had, and we really appreciated that support.”

The support continued throughout the summer as well. “We had training sessions and a summer institute (through CLT) that gave us a lot of guidance that was really helpful,” Siniossoglou says. “We were able to figure out how to rebuild our classes around the technology we would be using, so that was key.”

Over the summer, training also was offered to all faculty members through an organization called Quality Matters, an industry leader in online education. Faculty took professional development workshops, including one on how to design blended classes with students participating partly in person and partly online. “That workshop looked at things like how the two components connect to each other, what part of your content do you convey in class and what part do you do online, and how to make it all work the best for students,” Campbell says.

Another workshop was an introduction to teaching online, which covered topics such as managing online discussions and how to keep students engaged. “They worked on things like how to build connections with students when you’re not seeing them in person, and how to make sure they are really learning what you want them to learn,” she says.

Additionally, the CTL put together numerous training sessions and workshops that have been extremely well-attended by faculty, Campbell says.

“In a lot of cases, it was faculty teaching other faculty, or having a brown bag lunch to discuss a certain problem,” she says. “They talked about questions like, ‘How do we do labs virtually if we have to all pivot again,’ and ‘What is the best way to have our chemistry students do some of this hands-on experiential learning in their home?’”

Faculty attendance at CTL sessions this summer was also unprecedented, says Emily Soltano, Ph.D., professor of psychology and the CTL director.  “We usually organize a summer institute at the end of the spring semester, but typically in the summer, we don’t do any programming. But this summer was different,” she says. “Throughout the entire summer—June, July and August—there was something happening, multiple sessions on either pedagogy- or technology-related training was scheduled almost every week, and the faculty always showed up. The Zoom room was never empty.”

Among topics were ways to use Blackboard, the university’s learning management system, and how to work with the Pilot3, also known as the HoverCam, that can simultaneously display documents in class and in Zoom for students working remotely, allowing faculty to work with all of their students at the same time.

Another important consideration was finding quality open educational resources (OER) students could tap into online for free. Organized by the CTL, faculty colleagues shared their knowledge and experiences incorporating OER in their classes.

“We looked to incorporate into our classes OER that would not add an additional financial burden on students especially now because we expect them to have up-to-date technology for online course work,” Soltano says. “Jamie Remillard (English), Mim Plavin-Masterman (Business Administration), and Hardeep Sidhu (English) shared their experiences and suggestions for curating materials that are out there. There are free, quality items including podcasts and videos on YouTube.”

Many of the CLT workshops were facilitated by Worcester State faculty, including one course that was called “Levelling the Playing Field,” which Assistant Professor Nicole Rosa, Ph.D., of the Psychology Department, presented. “That workshop was about providing equal access to all students and is relevant for courses delivered in any modality such as online or face to face,” Soltano says. “We want to make sure that all our students have access to all materials, so that includes things like understanding that using certain colors in a PowerPoint slide, like red and green, is difficult for students who have any kind of color blindness, or using a sans serif font.”

Giving students options on how to approach different assignments is another way to ensure equal educational access for all, Soltano says.  On a final project, for example, you might let students choose between creating a PowerPoint, a poster presentation, or a video. “It’s another way of leveling the playing field,” she says. This gives them opportunities to do the best that they possibly can in uncertain circumstances.”

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