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 are tired and stressed, and many report varying levels of dissatisfaction with the remote teaching and learning experience. Many faculty 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 wanted 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 it 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, universities have been proactive in reducing uncertainty by planning for multiple possible scenarios. Many, not wanting to play the odds are not opening at all. For example, the Cal State system made the call to have all fall classes be online. Many schools plan on opening for face to face classes with physical distancing restrictions, splitting attendance between physical classrooms and Zoom, and heightened testing and extra sanitary practices in place. The fact remains that the spread of the virus, incidence, morbidity, and mortality rates are hard to predict, and the availability of a vaccine is uncertain.
In short, it will be some time until we are out of the proverbial woods. We need to be proactive and plan as best can be. Higher education needs to capitalize on the lead time 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 provided feedback on their learning in surveys and focus groups. Individual colleges held seminars where faculty shared experiences, and what worked well for them. Student and faculty voices 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 and students who had better experiences were in classes characterized by six factors: Compassion, Clarity, Organization, Multi-facetedness, Flexibility, and Engagement – they were CCOMFE (Live links here).
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 (yes, the research and Ecampus units told us so; Richmond, Boysen, & Gurung, 2016; Riggs, 2019), but also reflecting the anomalous conditions. We can easily summarize the key prescriptions.
Get CCOMFE for the Fall.
Remote teaching calls for Compassion. Faculty sensitive to the pandemic and the stress that it is causing for all, modified courses to be careful of how much was being asked for 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 (LMS) 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 has 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, which provided students with many ways to learn (e.g., synchronous and asynchronous; breakout rooms, discussion boards, Jamboard, google slides) and to interact with the content, the instructor, and other students, tend to be easier to keep attention. Setting courses up to have different avenues for learning can be accomplished by leveraging the affordances of Zoom and LMS such as Canvas.
With the many extra challenges faced by students and faculty alike, 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, instructors need also be ready to modify their classes for easing up or tightening of restrictions. Some classes starting face to face in the fall may still go back to remote teaching if cases spike with re-openings.
Finally, instructors need to consider ways to build Engagement. Faculty who paid close attention to increasing their presence (introductory and weekly videos, frequent communique), and getting students to be engaged (Zoom polls, post lecture activities, reading reflections) had students who were more engaged in the material.
Keep Teaching 2.0
The good news is faculty and student feedback and 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.
Richmond, A., Boysen, G., & Gurung, R. A. R. (2016). An evidence-based guide to college and university teaching: Model teaching competencies. New York, NY: Routledge.
Riggs, S. (2019). Thrive online: A new approach to building confidence and expertise as an online educator. Sterling, VA: Sterling.
Author’s Note: A version of this blog post appeared in Inside Higher Education.