Maya - My sweet and (almost always) quiet companion
while I am teaching online. She is all set for a rainy day.
*When I planned for my retirement to begin at the end of spring semester 2020, I expected to continue to teach my International Business Law and Sustainability class “as usual.” I had no idea that our academic world would shift drastically with the Covid-19 pandemic, compelling me to learn significant new skills. I have learned to use many tools on Zoom and our Michigan State University (MSU) learning platform called “D2L” (Desire to Learn). That learning took dozens of hours.
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:
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:
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
Paulette L. Stenzel
I am Professor Emeritus of International Business Law and Sustainability at Michigan State University (MSU). I am also a mom, learner, writer, violinist, environmentalist -in -process, traveler, and avid reader. I continue to teach part time at MSU and coordinate the Broad College Ethical Leadership program Additionally, I advise Spartan Global Development Fund - a student-driven microfinance organization.