Viji Sathy is a professor in the Department of Psychology and Neuroscience at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and an administrator in the Office of Undergraduate Education.

The spring 2020 semester was unlike any other in history. Having access to quiet spaces, reliable Wi-Fi and balancing the demands of family and work life are just a few of the challenges college students faced in the switch to remote learning.

Before the COVID-19 pandemic’s rippling effects, Viji Sathy, a professor in the Department of Psychology and Neuroscience at the University of North Carolina (UNC) at Chapel Hill, led innovative classroom and diversity initiatives and offered workshops on inclusive teaching.

While COVID is disrupting higher ed, Sathy believes it’s even more important for instructors to acknowledge what’s happening with their students in ways that feel comfortable and safe. She sat down with us to share strategies for inclusive teaching based on her own experience—and the feedback she’s receiving firsthand from students and faculty.

1. Classes during COVID aren’t ‘business as usual’

What were your main takeaways from UNC Chapel Hill’s sudden shift to remote teaching in the spring semester?

Everything turned upside down very quickly. One thing that I did early on that students really responded well to was contacting them. Rather than push out an announcement through my LMS with the generic, ‘Hello, I hope you’re okay,’ I actually took the time to figure out how to use mail merge and personalize each email with students’ preferred names. It was just a message to say that we were going to be okay. I was going to make adjustments to the course and we’d figure it out.

My M.O. throughout this whole thing was ‘first, let’s deal with the fact that this is happening and it’s weird and awkward and uncomfortable, and then we’ll get back to the course.’

From the student feedback, that acknowledgement of things being unsettled was really helpful. They saw that as a sign of care for their wellbeing. They needed to hear that and they needed the reassurance. And they didn’t really like it when people just plowed ahead like it was business as usual.

2. A mix of synchronous and asynchronous classwork is necessary

What are your thoughts on the synchronous versus asynchronous debate? How should faculty think about this split?

It’s actually a really timely conversation. The distinction of asynchronous or synchronous isn’t enough—we have to qualify how much of a course is synchronous so that students can make the best choices in terms of their work schedules and other commitments.

What we’re realizing is that a lot of the courses are using a mix of asynchronous and synchronous activities. But there’s great variation in how much of it is synchronous and how much of it is asynchronous. We need to communicate which parts are optional and which are required.

So if you have an instructor who’s saying, ‘I want to host my lectures synchronously with students because I want them to have time to reflect, answer and discuss in real time,’ we need to communicate that to our students. That way, they have the expectation if they sign up for a course, they’re going to have to be at their computer ‘x’ days a week for a certain amount of time.

3. Students want to see you and your take on things—they don’t want to see you reading slides

How can professors make recorded lectures more engaging?

It’s better to aim for shorter videos. Instead of putting up a 50-minute lecture, consider posting multiple five-minute lectures with questions you want students to respond to placed in between.

This modularity is beneficial for both the instructor and the student. It’s helpful from the instructor side, because if I mess up something in minute two of a three-minute video, it’s not a big deal to re-record. But if I mess up something in minute 15 of a 27 minute video, it just seems like a nightmare to go in and do the editing work.

And then from the student side, this modularity is helpful because they might not have a single 50-minute session to sit down and listen to you. But they could have a few minutes in between making lunch or taking care of a younger sibling where they can watch a short video. Plus, if they want to go back and review something, it’s super easy to pick it out from the list of recordings.

4. It is a privilege for students to have their cameras on

Some instructors who are holding synchronous sessions are saying it’s difficult to teach when student cameras are off. What do you recommend these instructors do?

First of all, ask yourself: ‘Why do I want their cameras on?’ If you feel uncomfortable talking to a black box, that is the wrong reason. My students shouldn’t have to support my comfort in teaching. And they shouldn’t have to feel like they need to show me where they live. That is a privilege.

First of all, ask yourself: ‘Why do I want their cameras on?’ If you feel uncomfortable talking to a black box, that is the wrong reason.

If, however, I need them on screen because we’re having a dialogue, it’s helpful to have the visual cues that somebody is about to speak and share their expression, gestures, etc. Work with your students to come up with the norms around when videos are on, what the expectations are, and that it’s not required but encouraged.

5. Rethink the value of being a hard-ass

Students are telling professors that they’re more stressed out than ever before. What are some suggestions for instructors looking to help?

Good instructors are asking themselves: ‘What is essential in order for students to learn the skills and content in my course, while allowing for flexibility as much as possible and keeping a standard of quality to the course?’

You can still have standards about what’s reasonable to accomplish with students, but try to be creative in giving them opportunities to take that pressure off. If you have to take away content or modify projects or assignments, that could be a bit harder because you might feel like you’re losing something that you got to do with previous groups of students. But previous groups of students didn’t have to live during a pandemic, so I think it’s okay for you to change your mind mid-course and make adjustments.

6. Digital tools allow for community building

Can you provide tips on how to build a sense of community in an online classroom?

When you do have opportunities to meet synchronously, make sure you’re building that connection. Me talking at you for 50 minutes doesn’t allow for that connection to occur, but me saying, ‘I’m going to do five minutes of this, I’m going to pose a question, I’m putting you in a breakout room, please discuss, and then let’s come back together again’ gives students a chance to meet their classmates.

And why does entering a synchronous session have to be this awkward thing where numbers of participants are coming in and everyone’s on mute? Why not just have a prompt up on your screen that says ‘Tell me something you’re grateful for today,’ and then you could see the responses rolling in as they’re putting their answers into a poll question. Try to think of ways in which you’re getting them to connect with each other and with you very mindfully.

7. Acknowledge student obligations outside of school

What practices should faculty new to online teaching prioritize in order to guarantee equitable access for the most marginalized students?

Remember that there are some students for whom being at home is not a supportive learning environment. For one, they may not feel comfortable speaking out loud in a class. There might be topics they don’t want their family to hear discussed that are related to the course. So that’s why it’s good to have options where students are able to type their response to a prompt and be able to share that way.

Another group I often think about are first-generation college students. Their families may not understand what college involves and what is expected. These students may have pressure to do things for their family—to not be as engaged in their schoolwork because of X, Y and Z. When first-generation students came to campus, lived in a dorm and came to classes, their parents weren’t all up in their business. They left them alone to do schoolwork. And we have students now who can’t be left alone to do schoolwork so we need to be mindful of that and make adjustments as needed.

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