Halfway through the spring 2020 semester, academia was uprooted when COVID-19 swept the nation. Left with no choice but to transition to digital delivery, faculty were faced with unforeseen challenges. How would active learning platforms replicate an in-person feel? How would a sense of community be sustained in online teaching?

Frank Spors, Associate Professor of Optometry at Western University of Health Sciences, recently hosted a Quora Q&A Session to share tips and lessons learned from his pivot to online teaching. Educators worldwide got a glimpse of how he adapted his course delivery accordingly—maintaining active learning, student engagement, and a sense of community in the process. Professor Spors reflected on his unprecedented transition to remote teaching and offered his top tips for faculty entering the fall 2020 term. We’ve provided his insightful responses below.

How can instructors use technology to close achievement gaps and increase participation?

Students have diverse socio-economic, cultural, and educational backgrounds. When these factors create a disadvantage for students with respect to their academic performance, it is called an achievement gap.

To close achievement gaps, it’s important to turn passive students into active learners by enabling them to engage with their classes and course materials. Courses need to use techniques or technologies that allow students to engage and not “hide” in the online environment. For example, research shows that there are several factors that can contribute to students being “shy” in class, such as their cultural background, a fear of embarrassment, or perceived failure. Using an audience response tool with an option to anonymize participation during lectures facilitates the participation of otherwise reluctant students.

During the last academic term, it was also important to recognize that some students were in a general state of anxiety and worry. They didn’t know what to expect with the sudden shift to online learning and they weren’t sure whether they would be able to perform as well online compared to in-person classes. With this in mind, my focus was making sure they felt supported and empowered to succeed—and that meant ensuring they could easily and actively participate with their education before, during, and after class.

My focus was making sure they felt supported and empowered to succeed—and that meant ensuring they could easily and actively participate with their education before, during, and after class

I combined Top Hat with Zoom to replicate the intimacy of in-class lectures and labs. Before each class, students logged in to Top Hat and completed a 10-minute pre-lecture assignment and assessment I prepared to highlight the essential concepts of each upcoming lecture topic. The assessment identified content areas that required more clarification during class, and I adjusted my planned lecture accordingly to focus on areas where students needed the most help. I asked questions during the lecture to understand which concepts were proving the most difficult and focused my time on helping them through that. After class, I assigned interactive content for them to review and work through on their own.

The takeaway: Educators can leverage ed tech to help turn passive learners into active participants. Instructors can also consolidate pre- and post-lecture homework onto one platform for easy access.

How do I keep students interested and engaged with me and their education?

During this crisis, I was able to raise student engagement in my class to a 100% participation rate and a big part of that was because I created opportunities for students to stay engaged with their learning before, during, and after class.

Before class:

1. Pre-lecture content: I created short interactive pre-lecture videos that piqued student interest and made it easy for them to get actively involved with their learning. This content highlighted essential concepts for the upcoming lecture topic, and incorporated assessments and discussion questions focused on identifying the content areas that required more clarification. This was very well-received by the students.

2. Lecture prep: I looked at students’ responses to the assessments just before the lecture to gauge their level of understanding. Depending on how well concepts are understood, I either slowed down, continued as planned, or accelerated my lecture materials.

During class:

1. Lecture: My advice here is to be live and accessible during the lecture. Set some ground rules for the live chat, monitor the conversation, and respond to questions during the live lecture.

2. In-class participation: Use the polling or quiz function provided by your educational software (like Top Hat) or streaming service (like Zoom) during class. As a general rule, one assessment question every 15–20 minutes is a good balance.

3. Breakout rooms: Use the breakout room function to facilitate group discussions. For example, assign questions that stimulate critical thinking and let students discuss in small groups before sharing with the larger class when the breakout session closes. Alternatively, let students work on group assignments together and contribute to a document in real-time. When the breakout room closes, a speaker from each group can present their contributions to the class.

After class:

1. Assigned readings and other assignments: Engaging with lecture materials outside of class time requires student commitment and time, so make these assignments meaningful. Keep them short, relevant, and interactive, and consider allowing for an incentive, such as allocating a small percentage of the overall course grade to these activities.

2. Just-in-time interventions: Track student progress and performance throughout your course, and follow up with those who struggle along the way. Provide dedicated individual office hours for students to request help and clarification.

The takeaway: Pre-lecture assessments can spike student interest, while polls interspersed throughout the lecture allow students to apply their understanding of course content. Encourage students to continue learning after class with homework assignments complemented by comprehension checks—and use the generated insights to offer help to those who might need it.

How do you create a community environment in your classroom and why is this beneficial?

Establishing a sense of community or belonging in the classroom is important when developing trust amongst students and with their instructors. This goes a long way when fostering student engagement and learning success. In a face-to-face in-class environment, several factors affect the sense of community and impact student morale and learning:

  • Institutional values: For instance, at our university, “we value a rich humanistic tradition, and are committed to professional collaboration, community involvement, accountability, integrity, and respect.” These are the guiding principles for how we approach teaching and learning.
  • The personality and approachability of the instructor: I value student opinions and aim to be as responsive as possible to their requests and feedback.
  • The structure of the classroom: In an online environment, instructors need to pay close attention to ensure accessibility and the effective organization of lectures.
  • Common goals in the classroom: Establishing common goals at the outset ensures that everyone in the class is working towards achieving the same outcome. In our university, all students chose to become healthcare providers, and the educational environment is structured to support this goal.

In an online environment, you’re dealing with a number of challenges to community-building. For example, students may not be able to fully immerse themselves in the learner community while trying to navigate COVID-19–induced challenges to their living situations. Add to that the mental stress of being unsure whether they would be able to perform as well online compared to in-person classes, and it’s easy to see why building community in a virtual environment requires a unique approach.

For me, enabling students to get involved in the process of creating that online learning environment enhanced their motivation, engagement, and sense of belonging. For example, peer instruction is a great way to establish a sense of belonging. During online lectures, I created opportunities for teamwork by enabling small group discussions in virtual breakout sessions for students to solve formative assessment questions together.

I also encouraged my students to participate in weekly study groups outside of class. These study groups typically establish a team structure by selecting topics for review and specific roles for participants (such as discussion leader, scribe, etc.). In addition, they prepare for, keep track of, and try to ensure that there is approximately equal participation by each member throughout the meetings. During the sessions, the students discussed practice problems and concepts, and I made myself available on-demand to provide support wherever they needed it.

The students discussed practice problems and concepts, and I made myself available on-demand to provide support wherever they needed it

Instructors must also remain available and approachable. I take students’ requests and opinions very seriously, and try to incorporate their feedback wherever I can. For example, when we abruptly switched from in-person classes to online education due to the COVID-19 pandemic, my students requested to change upcoming examinations into low-stakes quizzes, spread out over several weeks. I have frequent communication with the curriculum representatives of each class to solicit ongoing feedback.

The takeaway: Ensure you provide opportunities for students to learn from and interact with one another in small groups. Instructors can act as a support system by being available through accessible virtual channels.

Do you have any tips on how to efficiently plan an online course?

Once I decided on my course structure, I designed the course with a focus on incorporating institutional learning outcome domains (for my courses, these domains are critical thinking, clinical competence, and interpersonal communication skills), program learning outcomes, and target level of proficiency at the end of the course (introductory, developed, or mastery).

Then I looked at the topics that needed to be covered and the number of lecture hours available in the semester, and developed a week-by-week calendar with topics organized into 30-minute increments. I’ve found that frequent low-stakes assessments work well in an online environment, so I built in time for weekly quizzes as well as examinations. I also planned time for weekly virtual office hours and weekly study groups.

To ensure that students fully understood expectations, I discussed the course structure with them and ensured constant communication with student representatives to get ongoing feedback on how the students perceived the course delivery. I incorporated this feedback wherever possible and realistic, and I found that this was instrumental in keeping them engaged and committed to their learning.

In terms of learning materials, I used Top Hat to develop assignments, such as interactive reading assignments, practice problems, pre-lecture videos, formative assessment questions and discussion forums. Following summative assessments, students received individual strength and opportunity reports that identified areas for continued development and learning. By developing and housing all my lecture content on Top Hat, the platform serves as a one-stop-shop for my students who can directly access all the learning materials from their laptops and mobile devices. On top of that, when we eventually incorporate some on-campus instruction back into the curriculum, my online courses can easily transition to face-to-face instruction as we can continue to use all that content on Top Hat.

The takeaway: Consider different learning styles and proficiency levels when designing your course. Student representatives can additionally voice concerns of the larger group via online communication channels.

What have you learned from transitioning to online teaching?

When we abruptly switched from in-person classes to online education in March 2020, what struck me most was how much students wanted to stay in touch with me and with each other. The human element was very important to them. I think the key to helping them navigate through those few months really rested with communicating clearly and helping them understand that I was walking this journey with them. For me, a few of the most important tasks included:

  • Setting clear expectations for online classes, like active participation in live lectures and labs
  • Communicating any course adjustments, like changed lab assignments and quiz dates
  • Seeking input from student representatives about the class and assignments
  • Opening extra office hours and review sessions to create more opportunities for interaction
  • Encouraging student study groups to continue in an online format to facilitate student-student support

The takeaway: Provide students with regular opportunities for feedback to infuse the human element into your course. Feedback forums also allow learners to periodically voice concerns over course design.

Read more of Professor Spors’s answers to a variety of questions on how ed tech, active learning and community-building opportunities will set students up for success in the new semester.

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