Josh Eyler is Director of Faculty Development and Director of the Thinkforward Quality Enhancement Plan at the University of Mississippi, where he is also a faculty member in the Department of Writing and Rhetoric. He previously worked on teaching and learning initiatives at Columbus State University, George Mason University, and Rice University. His research interests include the biological basis of learning, evidence-based pedagogy, and disability studies, and he is the author of How Humans Learn: The Science and Stories behind Effective College Teaching (WVU, 2018).
Resilient pedagogy is starting to capture the attention of educators preparing courses for the coming semester. Planning lessons for different learning environments—and the possibility of more disruption to come—is definitely adding to the workload. But what if you could design your course once, and avoid the extra work involved in creating and implementing contingency plans?
Josh Eyler, Director of Faculty Development and Director of the Thinkforward Quality Enhancement Plan at the University of Mississippi, believes building resilience into course design from the get-go may just hold the answer. We sat down with Josh to discuss motivations for creating resilient pedagogy, the drawbacks of HyFlex and course design strategies for the fall semester and beyond.
This may seem intuitive, but how do you define ‘Resilient Pedagogy’?
In a nutshell, resilient pedagogy is a course design strategy that helps make your classes, assignments, and assessments as resistant to disruption as possible. The way to think about this is regardless of which modality you’re teaching in—online, in-person, or blended—you’re designing one time and one time only.
For example, if I am teaching a hybrid course, all my students are doing the one activity I designed. I may ask discussion questions in class, but I’d ask those same discussion questions again if I’m teaching synchronously on Zoom, and I’d ask those same questions but in a different environment if I’m using asynchronous methods. That way, if the campus closes in October, I have designed my course so it’s a much easier shift compared to the emergency remote teaching work we did when the pandemic hit.
You wrote recently that resilient pedagogy is more engaging for students and more efficient for faculty. What do you mean by this?
A lot is being asked of faculty in preparing for whatever approach their campus is taking. On top of this, many instructors are also thinking, “okay, if a shift happens, how do I take what I’m doing face-to-face and move it into an online forum?” Or “how do I take what I’m doing synchronously online and move it to something different?” This can be at least two or three times the amount of work, especially if you have to actually implement a contingency plan.
With the resilient pedagogy model, you’re designing once. The heavy lifting is on the front end. Yes, there is some reconceptualization required as you consider what will work for students no matter where they are. And yes, the initial design phase is a little more intensive. But it ultimately minimizes the different types of design you’re doing.
With resilient pedagogy, we’re focusing our efforts on identifying the activities and interactions that support meaningful learning and finding ways to make these work regardless of where the learning takes place
One of the biggest issues with the emergency remote teaching we saw in the spring was the lack of student engagement. Faculty were doing the best they could, but students still felt like there wasn’t as much engagement and interaction as they’re accustomed to. With resilient pedagogy, we’re focusing our efforts on identifying the activities and interactions that support meaningful learning and finding ways to make these work regardless of where the learning takes place. So we are laser-focused on student engagement from the very beginning.
Another wave of COVID-19 cases is a big motivator for embracing resilient pedagogy. But you suggest there are less dramatic scenarios that should encourage instructors to go down this path.
There are many situations that don’t necessarily involve a campus-wide closure. Individual students and faculty may get the virus and have to self-quarantine. They may suffer a major illness in the middle of a semester and can’t attend class anymore. Then there are conferences and snow days. So the disruption that resilient pedagogy is designed to solve for is not limited to COVID.
HyFlex courses are getting a lot of attention. Wouldn’t focusing on HyFlex course design eliminate the need to develop resilient pedagogies?
The definition of HyFlex as I understand it is that faculty members teaching in a face-to-face environment are also simultaneously video streaming that class to students who are attending remotely. The idea is that all parties are able to interact and participate from wherever they are. At the same time, there are also students learning and completing coursework asynchronously.
There’s a lot of flexibility here which is great. But the way HyFlex is talked about is along the lines of designing for each of these scenarios. What are the face-to-face students doing? What are the synchronous remote students doing? And what are the asynchronous students doing? That gets us right back into the trap of having to design for all these different modalities. Of course, you can design a HyFlex course so that all students are doing the same thing. So there are ways to think about HyFlex as resilient, but it’s often not talked about.
The pandemic has heightened concerns about student inclusivity and accessibility. How can building resilience into your course design address the needs of the most vulnerable?
It’s helpful to think about resilient pedagogy as part of a larger equation, one that infuses inclusive pedagogies with a focus on student and faculty resilience. If we’re only focused on the course design aspect, then we’re glossing over all those inequities that have been magnified by the recent crisis.
Of course, there’s a lot that needs to be done at an institutional level. We have to provide programming to help students learn more efficiently across these different environments. We talk a lot about teaching students how to read closely, how to problem solve, but we need to do better at practicing what we preach.
We have to help students adapt and shouldn’t assume that just because they are Gen Z that they will understand things automatically
At the faculty level, we have been encouraging people to do small things. For example, if you are using a particular tool on which the success of your students rests, dedicate time to helping them learn how to use that technology. We have to help students adapt and shouldn’t assume that just because they are Gen Z that they will understand things automatically. This is one thing I know that wasn’t really addressed in the spring. Focusing on orientation in the early days can really prepare students to succeed.
To a certain extent, resilient pedagogy is about anticipating and designing for interactions that drive learning. How does this thought process help instructors move forward?
Part of this resilient design is thinking through what makes the teaching and learning interaction valuable. If we start at that place, it’s easier to think about how we can do that when students are in person. How do we do it when we’re on Zoom? How do we do it if we can’t be with them?
If we start with the principle of interaction and engagement, and that shapes the way we’re designing the course, then a lot of things naturally fall into place. Identifying these elements allows you to use them as a framework to build the assignments and activities and go from there.
What are the steps instructors should take in making their existing courses more impervious to disruption? Is there a recipe you follow?
Not exactly. Right now it feels like we’re chefs in the kitchen. We’ve got the ingredients but we’re trying to find the perfect recipe.
Regardless, beyond considering the student interactions that fuel learning, it’s also important to think about the learning goals for your course. How can you achieve those goals no matter where students are? Then you can say “okay, here is an assignment or an assessment that students can do whatever the modality to help them meet that goal.” So the idea is to backward design resiliency from your goals onward.
How do you know when you’ve met the bar for resilient course design?
I would say that if you have aligned activities that are advancing the learning goals, but are modality agnostic, then you are moving in the right direction. When you take that basic model and you add a good dose of flexibility, such as alternative grading models and more flexible approaches to feedback and deadlines, then you are increasing resilience, not just for your course but for students as well.
At a more tactical level, you might consider having shorter, more frequent assignments or evaluations that don’t necessarily have to be completed in a linear sequence. Or collaborative assignments that embrace tools that allow students to meet that learning goal regardless of which environment they are in. Structure can also help with resilience. Having a consistent rhythm around communications, and when assignments and tests are due can go a long way if a disruption occurs.
What are some practical steps instructors can take to build more resilience into their courses?
If collaboration or group problem solving is important to your course, a simple thing like organizing students into stable, semester-long groups can build in some resiliency from the get-go. One thing I’d encourage instructors to do right now is to find a way students can communicate with you and each other that won’t change no matter what happens. I’ve used Twitter a lot in my classes for this reason.
Instructors should also think about the activities they’re asking students to do. How can you frame those activities in such a way that they’re able to take advantage of tools that are available to them regardless of the learning environment or where they are?
Last, it’s worthwhile taking time to reconceptualize your approach. If you typically lecture for an hour, making a video recording of that lecture for asynchronous learners will not be that engaging. On one level, this is about considering what’s effective in the first place. How can you take the lecture and build an engagement aspect to break things up? How are you going to stimulate discussion, or get them to apply the information? That’s an important thing for all students, whatever way we happen to be teaching.
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