We are living in the midst of what Priscilla Wald calls “the outbreak narrative” in her book Contagious: Cultures, Carriers, and the Outbreak Narrative. In the “evolving story of disease emergence,” as more campuses are closing and requiring that classes be taught online, it is important to remember also to contain the spread of prejudice, judgment, isolation, alienation and hatred.
Wald writes that “the circulation of microbes materializes the transmission of ideas,” and she calls for more “effective, just, and compassionate responses both to a changing world and to the problems of global health and human welfare.” Following Wald, we want to emphasize that, in higher education, the human interactions that potentially can make us sick are also what give us a sense of community. Human interactions -- our communities and networks -- are also our sources of comfort, support and, of course, learning. By thinking of a pandemic as a chance for sharing compassionately as well as being fearful, we can gain something invaluable that will help us survive not only this crisis but all crises.
This is what we mean by “engaged” learning: understanding the condition of our students’ lives and finding the best ways of teaching within (rather than in spite of) those conditions. In the current crisis, it is important to remember that “going online” is not the same as teaching or learning. We must eschew the technocratic utopianism that implies that, simply by teaching remotely, professors are doing their jobs. We need to learn -- quickly -- from the extensive research and experience of professors all over who have done the teaching, research and publishing in this area, and who can advise us on what is most effective.
(Read more about effective teaching online, hybrid pedagogy and teaching in the context of COVID-19. Other resources include: An "Active Learning" Kit: Rationale, Methods, Models, Research, Bibliography, Sharing, Collecting, Discussing -- All Possible With Padlet and "Considerations for Instructional Continuity.")
The biggest takeaway from the research on effective teaching online is that we cannot teach the same way online that we would in person: we need to innovate and use the tools available to us to build our class periods differently. If you do need to post a lecture, consider posting a few shorter videos in modules, each no more than 10 minutes long, and engaging students in active learning for the time in between lectures. Instead of or in addition to posting a lecture video, consider using online discussion forums and incorporating hands-on exercises with whatever tools are available to you and your students. For some, this will be a content management system to which your institution subscribes; for others, it may be proprietary but “free” social media and tools.
In addition, we have to be mindful that not every student has bandwidth at home. At a number of public institutions, for example, students primarily use cellphones to connect to the internet. And for many part-time adjunct professors, that is also the case. They depend on resources such as libraries for computer terminals and for bandwidth. Some colleges and universities have pledged to keep computer labs and libraries open to help students who do not have access at home. Certainly, colleges and universities that have experienced recent disasters -- such as hurricanes or fires -- have had to learn these emergency methods.
All of us are facing many and various contingencies right now. As Jacqueline Wernimont shared in a post on HASTAC, “For the time being, I sincerely think it is worth treating this as unusual -- an emergency response, rather than expecting yourself to spin up a well-developed online course.”
To that end, we offer one very useful, basic exercise for anyone suddenly teaching online for the first time, without any preparation. Any instructor can adapt this method to either a large lecture course or a small seminar, and in virtually any field. It can be customized with the tools available at one’s institution. Through it, you can take a static, asynchronous format (such as a video lecture) and turn it into a synchronous community learning experience, and it can be modified class after class, in any way you or your students might imagine.
A Simple Way to Create an Engaged Learning Experience Online
This method is often referred to as “entry” or “exit” tickets. Such a ticket is basically a question or prompt that you ask all your students to respond to quickly on a flashcard, piece of paper or digital discussion forum during the first or last five minutes of a class.
Depending on the CMS or online technology available at your institution, you can solicit tens or hundreds of these responses in real time. Entry and exit tickets allow you not only to make a class interactive but also to offer a simple and participatory way of taking attendance and making sure students know that online doesn’t mean “not there.”
Entry tickets work especially well for synchronous experiences. Students might do the readings, watch the lectures and do the homework any time (asynchronously) but could occasionally be engaged in an online forum together. One simple entry ticket technique is to have students write out, in a way that is public to the entire class, one question they think will engage their classmates. You could do this in a Blackboard (or other CMS) discussion forum, in a Slack channel, in a shared Google Doc or even on Twitter, using a hashtag unique to your class. Whichever tool you use, the question students ask should not be a yes or no question, nor one with a simple answer, but one designed to provoke deep and diverse responses.
As a next step, students can be invited to choose a few of the questions (say, three or four) posted by their peers and offer short-answer responses that they then share with the class. You could ask students to get creative and draw or photograph their responses or otherwise “show” their work, which takes full advantage of using technology.
As an “exit ticket,” the instructor can, before the end of the synchronous class session, ask every student to write out one new complex question that they still have after the day’s on-site session.
And as a final follow-up, the instructor might use the most fruitful of these exit questions as the basis for another video lecture, a blog post for the students or another form of follow-up. Next class: rinse and repeat! Or, even better, ask the students to come up with a variation of their own.
By design, we have offered here just one simple, low-preparation, low-risk method for turning a potentially alienated space during a time of crisis into one that prioritizes learning in a vibrant, engaged community. It is based on perhaps the most fundamental principle of transformative learning: finding out what your students do and do not know, engaging all students in a conversation about what they have read or watched, and developing knowledge by having students contribute to a meaningful dialogue on the topic.
This is also an ideal way of creating a learning community even when we are separated by distance and by different levels of mastery of the material. It fosters engagement with the content of a course at a far deeper level than is often the case in a one-way lecture model or the more selective discussion method, including on-site. With the important caveat (always), that any online method requires bandwidth and some basic CMS supported by the institution, this one inventory technique can work in virtually any situation to enhance learning and engagement. Done well, it can even help disrupt some of the most alienating and isolating aspects of an outbreak narrative.