Parsing the Pandemic: Part 4

How We Teach and Learn

The Education Outlook

By Abigail Pickus

Long before COVID-19 shut down in-person learning, DePaul’s College of Communication (CMN) offered a robust array of online learning options.

“We’ve been really good at teaching online. That’s something that DePaul does exceptionally well,” says Joann Martyn, CMN’s director of online learning.

But even the faculty wasn’t prepared to transition from a fraction of their classes being taught online to offering 100% of their classes remotely—and in only 10 days’ time.

“The week before we made the switch, we had a full college meeting, including all staff and adjunct faculty. And the very first slide that I presented had nothing to do with technology. It was actually the definition of the word grace: the exercise of love, kindness, mercy, favor; the disposition to benefit or serve another.

“That is what we were going to need to get through the pandemic, and we were going to use online tools to do so, because first and foremost, we are instructors. The modality just happened to be online this year,” says Martyn.

Education during the pandemic

The COVID-19 pandemic has dramatically altered teaching and learning in the United States.

In a matter of only a few weeks, schools teaching everyone from preschoolers to graduate students had to abruptly close their physical doors, leaving individual schools, districts and institutions of higher learning to come up with remote options.

In fact, nearly 93% of people in households with school-age children reported their children engaged in some form of distance learning, according to the Household Pulse Survey of the U.S. Census Bureau, in collaboration with multiple federal agencies. The quality of that distance learning varied dramatically according to economics and race, with students in more privileged communities having greater access to broadband internet, digital tools and the support necessary for a high-quality education than those in more socioeconomically challenged areas.

At DePaul, a solid online presence combined with an array of support from the Center for Teaching and Learning (CTL), including access to dedicated instructional designers, enabled the entire university to start strong, even during the height of the pandemic.

“Most universities have maybe one or two [instructional designers] for the whole university. We have one or two per college,” says Martyn, about the professionals trained to work with faculty to create online courses. For the College of Education (COE), the pivot to a remote format was challenging.

Barbara Rieckhoff

“We’re preparing teachers and counselors to work in a variety of settings, so everybody really had to learn how to change what they were doing and deliver it differently. We had faculty who had to become familiar with teaching online, and we had student teachers who were supposed to go into classrooms learn to work on Zoom. And we had to figure out how to support them in this uncharted territory,” says Barbara Rieckhoff, COE’s associate dean for curriculum and programs.

Among other resources, COE provided students and faculty with a dedicated chat line offering general support and connections to outside resources.

While challenging, the experience brought the college community closer. “We all kind of learned together, and that was unique because everybody was being affected at the same time,” says Rieckhoff.

Online technology

The pandemic has turned many new technologies into lifelines.

“I’ve seen how technologies like Zoom, Slack and Google Meet have helped students learn the necessary information in a brand-new format, especially during stressful times. There are all of these new technologies to help students learn more efficiently,” says Sandra Virtue, director of online learning for the College of Science and Health (CSH).

A good example is how CSH had to transition to online lab simulations.

“This turned out to be so effective that even after we return to face-to-face labs on campus, we are considering expanding the use of online lab simulations in CSH. Online labs often create a less stressful environment, and it is helpful for students to try some online simulations before they actually go into the lab,” adds Virtue, who is also a professor in the psychology department and the associate director of the neuroscience program.

The online lab isn’t the only digital success story. There are advantages to not being confined to a physical space. For example, Google Jamboard allows users to access a suite of rich editing tools to collaborate with students or educators remotely. Even something as seemingly mundane as closed-captioning is invaluable, and not just for language learners or those with hearing impairments. “I’m a really fast talker, so I’m sure many of my students appreciate the closed captions,” Virtue says with a laugh.

For Martyn, “the question becomes, where can we make the magic happen to leverage the technologies and the resources that we have to do things that you wouldn’t be able to do if you were sitting for 90 minutes in a classroom?”

Whether online learning is better than in-person learning may not be the right question. “When it comes to online learning, I always tell people that it’s not better or worse, it’s just different,” Martyn says.

Joann Martyn

The trick, however, is to leverage technology, not lead with it. “We never start with the technology first. Never. We always talk about the objectives. What are you trying to get out of this topic you’re teaching? Start there, and then figure out how to make that happen and how to make it engaging. Only then choose the tools and technologies,” says Martyn. Technology should also be unobtrusive. “The best classes are where you don’t think about the technology. You can use it, and it’s delightful and engaging, but it’s also easy. You focus on the content and the work, not about how to log on. It’s not about the fancy bells and whistles,” says Martyn.

The future

Educators seem to agree on one thing: remote learning isn’t going away after the pandemic ends.

“I definitely see in the future a mixture of synchronous and asynchronous activity, of things that are done collaboratively and things that are done individually. We will mix it all together to create the best learning experience for what that particular class is and how that particular instructor teaches,” says Martyn.

Virtual reality classroom (photo courtesy of the VARC Lab)

Virtue even sees something positive coming from all the Zoom burnout during the pandemic, including more responsive online learning modalities. “With online learning and new technology, we can shift from an emphasis on memorization and lecture formats to creative thinking, which will benefit students in any career they choose. Students don’t need to be lectured at anymore. We can use online technology to create a more interactive format. As a teacher, I need to expose them to new information and new ways of thinking, and I think that innovative technology can help with that,” she says.

One whimsical example of what the future in education will look like comes from a science fiction novel by Ernest Cline called “Ready Player One,” which envisions a future where the virtual beats reality every time, and where online learning means an individualized program for each student via their avatar, including regular field trips to Jupiter.

“This might not occur in the near future, but you never know. “Maybe in 10 years, we will reach something like this scenario. It is an exciting opportunity to think about how we teach.” says Virtue. “For the long term there is the ultimate potential to have huge changes in the delivery of online education at DePaul.”

Whether this means more hybrid classes with some synchronous and asynchronous components, or students creating their own blended programs, remains to be seen.

“The pandemic and shift to remote teaching have really redefined what online learning is,” says Martyn. “Previous to March 2020, online learning was predominantly asynchronous, and we were really good at it. Now we have a lot of new online modalities, such as online hybrid, which is part synchronous online (Zoom) and part asynchronous, as well as flex rooms where the students can choose the modality they want to attend class. I think that in the next year or so, we will see where online learning settles for students and faculty. It will inform and clarify online learning at DePaul.”

As for the field of education, where educators went from face-to-face to remote teaching overnight, it seems that COVID-19 has only deepened their commitment.

“In spite of this difficult year, [COE students’] resolve has never been stronger. Through their dedication, their message is loud and clear that they still want to be teachers and to make a difference in the lives of others,” says Rieckhoff.

See also:

Part 1: How We Move
Part 2: How We Dine and Lodge
Part 3: How We Play

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