Increasing Resilience Through Modular Teaching

By Inara Scott, Assistant Dean for Teaching and Learning Excellence, College of Business

Like many of us, at the beginning of the summer I was filled with optimism about the fall and the prospect of a post-COVID school term. Vaccination rates in Oregon were going up and masks were coming off. The challenge, it felt, would be figuring out how to manage the transition back to in-person learning. Now, I’m having flashbacks to Fall 2020. Thanks to the Delta variant and continued vaccine hesitancy, COVID continues to disrupt our best plans. Some universities and K-12 districts are going back to online learning. We cannot pretend things will be “back to normal” when experts predict the pandemic will continue to burn through the fall and winter.

The problem now is that we are tired. We thought we were scaling a mountain with a peak and a downhill climb. Instead, we find we are on a meandering, hilly road. While the experience of COVID will change, there may not be an end. So just like the virus has evolved, so must our teaching. In this blog, I propose an alternative way to design your course and your lessons to account for this hilly, unpredictable road. I call it modular teaching.

The goal of modular teaching is to create flexible lesson plans that allow faculty to be resilient in the face of ongoing change. Just as Universal Design for Learning tells us to proactively design classrooms for diverse learners, in modular teaching we proactively design for COVID-related disruption. Modular teaching allows us to transition quickly from in-person to remote synchronous or hyflex teaching; it also creates pathways for addressing quarantines and family emergencies–both our own and our students. Finally, it lays the foundation for future blended learning experiences, where students might learn in a hybrid format with both in-person and remote online elements.

Here’s how it works: using a modular teaching approach, we begin by considering our learning objectives. We may not be able to do all the same activities in-person that we would online or vice versa, so our learning objectives must be our North Star. (Starting with our learning objectives is also consistent with a backward course design approach.)

Next, we look at our content for each class session and ask ourselves what the goal of each unit of activity is. For example, imagine you had planned to do the following in your in-person business law class:

  1. Introduce the concept of “torts” with a short video of a baseball fan being injured by a foul ball that slipped through a tiny hole in the netting that she expected to protect her.
  2. A lecture on what a tort is and what the elements are.
  3. A group activity in which students discuss whether certain outcomes in a series of hypotheticals are “foreseeable” and present their rationale to the class.
  4. A short, ungraded “quiz” that is reviewed in class.
  5. A graded essay to be completed and turned in at the end of class.

Each of these activities has a different purpose in addition to meeting your learning objectives. Activity 1 may be to spark curiosity; Activity 2 to deliver content; Activity 3 to build community and have students actively engage; Activity 4 to provide formative feedback; Activity 5 for assessment.

Now, consider whether you can use these activities in different modalities, or if not, how they can be modified to be modality-flexible. Activities 1 and 2 can easily take place online or in person, and in synchronous or asynchronous delivery–but what about Activity 3 and 4? What are alternative ways to achieve those goals that could be delivered in person, remotely, or to a mix of online and in person students? Could they be delivered asynchronously as well? Could you create a Canvas quiz with built-in feedback for students to take in class? Could you use Zoom breakout rooms for small group discussions?

As you plan the modules for each lesson, consciously avoid activities that are modality limited. If your course usually includes a group scavenger hunt with the goals of building community and engagement, consider alternatives that achieve those goals but can be delivered asynchronously or remotely. If you are lecturing, consider how you can break up your in-person lecture into shorter modules just as you would do if you were recording them for asynchronous delivery. Rather than planning an activity and then replanning it when conditions change, plan once in a flexible model.

You will likely find as you plan that certain technology tools can help you develop this agile form of teaching. We are all familiar with Zoom breakout rooms for small group discussions, but how about using a Google doc to have students record notes in their small group discussions and then share them with the class? What about using in-video quizzing to have students get real-time formative feedback on a lecture? Could you use Jamboard to have students brainstorm ideas together or respond to case studies? Can you ask students to respond to a post on a Canvas discussion board–and then use that tool in a face-to-face class to increase accountability?

We are on a long and winding road and running uphill is no longer an option. Rather than thinking of your fall course as an either/or, try designing for both/and. Reconsider activities and lesson plans that are modality specific. Add tech tools that can transition seamlessly from in person to online. And overall, plan with modularity in mind—for your students, and yourself.

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