Maya, my sweet companion while I teach online, is all set for a rainy day.
I also retooled my teaching methods. This has caused me to devote nearly twice as much time as normal to teach one course. I have done my best to be resilient, and my students have joined me. Fortunately, we have found unexpected silver linings within online teaching and learning. This essay describes some of them.
Varying group sizes and individual contact.
Online teaching affords me the opportunity to divide the class into groups of varying sizes. Alternating on various days, I lead the entire class in session, convene teams of ten in “breakout groups” in the midst of a session with everyone, or split the class into two groups, each meeting for half of our regularly scheduled time. Online teaching makes it easy to communicate with individuals informally. Here are details:
The entire class.
A significant benefit of being online with the entire class is that I can bring in guest speakers who would not otherwise be able to join us. For example, Dr. Cynthia Balthazar and Mr. Pierre Balthazar, founders and leaders of the group Return2Haiti (https://www.return2haiti.org/) They joined our class to explore sustainable development in the context of a severely underdeveloped country. Imam Kamau Ayubi joined us during our unit on comparative law, helping my students learn about shari’a and shari’a law as well as Islam.
Groups of Ten.
Our class meets for 80 minutes twice each week. When I teach in person, I break things up by having students turn to one or two classmates to discuss a question. Discussion between or among only two or three people would be unmanageable online, but my substitute works well. I assign students to teams of ten that remain constant throughout the semester. This has several advantages:
- There is continuity in discussion because students get to know each other’s background and perspectives. In contrast, in the classroom, seating is random each day, and, therefore, small breakout groups differ from one class session to the next.
- Within the group of ten, students who are reticent about using video when the entire class meets are often willing to be “seen” on video.
- I assign questions over outside assignments to be answered before class. In class, students use their notes to process the responses with their teammates. This is more intense and more productive with four groups engaged in discussion simultaneously instead of one person out a group of forty speaking. Another benefit is that I can join one of the four breakout groups. This gives me an opportunity to get to know the individuals better and ask questions or add comments to deepen discussion. During the breakout session, one person takes notes for the team and posts them in the “chat” feature of Zoom. Then we regroup and hear the highlights from each team’s note-taker. Additionally, this provides a study tool when my Teaching Assistant (TA) posts the comments on our D2L site.
Larger classes make it difficult to keep everyone engaged in a lengthy disscussion. In the past, I have had about 23-30 students in my class. This semester enrollment went up to 40. With the added challenge of discussion online, I decided not to try to engage all actively for eighty minutes. That’s difficult for the professor and students! Instead, for in-depth discussion such as to process a book, I schedule a “split class.” Teams 1 and 2 meet for the first 40 minutes of our assigned class time, and teams 3 and 4 meet for the second forty minutes. Students prepare outside assignments in lieu of attending for the entire 80 minutes. As compared to working with a group of 40, discussion is more focused, and there is time for each student to speak one or more times.
The “chat” feature on Zoom allows students to ask questions during class. Sometimes my Teaching Assistant (TA) can answer them. If appropriate, my TA can bring a question to me at any point. Moreover, a student can convey a message to me privately. Meanwhile, if I need to speak with a student privately after class, I can send him or her a note.
Additionally, I invite students to stay after class to chat. Sometimes students pose questions. Others stay to hear what others have to say and socialize. I appreciate getting to know my students that way.
Would I prefer to be face-to-face with my students? Yes, of course. But, there have been some silver linings being online. Here are a few examples:
- I have a name for the student online at all times. I don’t have to stumble as I try to learn names.
- Within a large college such as ours, students seldom know more than a few others at the start of the semester. Online, students can see each other’s name, and this speeds up introductions. In some ways, while online, students get to know others on their team better than would be the case in an in-person class.
- Students attend class when they might otherwise not be able to do so. This semester I have seen my students “attend” class from cars, airports, and even outdoors. Attendance levels, overall, have been high.
- My students and I enjoy saving the time it would take to commute to campus, find a parking space, and walk to class.
- I smiled when I saw two of my students who live across the street from each other joined class sitting outside together. Of course, I hope they are being careful to limit contacts with others during this pandemic.
- Sometimes we see each other’s pets; they have been dogs and cats so far. I am waiting for snakes, gerbils, or other visitors. Seeing my students’ pets online provides a welcome touch of humanity (or, I should say, puppydom or kittydom) during these unusual times. When I introduced my puppy, Maya, at the end of a couple of sessions, there were lots of smiles.
November 30, 2020
*Note: I wrote this blog post before holding an end-of-semester discussion with my students in which we reflected on our progress as a learning community. My students contributed thoughtful comments about their experiences with online learning in our class. Many of their comments echo my words, and they added some new observations. Therefore, I will post another essay soon in which I summarize their comments.
Copyright © 2020 by Paulette L. Stenzel, Professor Emeritus of International Business Law and Sustainability, Michigan State University