Pulling Distance Learning Tools Into In-Person Classes

Anita Cheng describes some specific ways college instructors can use online methods developed during the pandemic to enhance classroom teaching and learning.

September 21, 2022
An illustration of an open book with its spine against an open laptop, in front of a blackboard.
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My calendar has a note on March 19, 2020, that says, “CUNY online model.” On that day, the City University of New York, the largest urban university in the country, with over 250,000 students and 50,000 teachers, canceled all in-person classes and instituted remote learning.

Now, we embark on academic year 2022–23 and a seeming return to normal. Yet we are not the same coming back—there are students who had to finish college online, those who had to start college online and those who have experienced college only online. If last year’s kindergarteners remember their remote year, those memories will be part of the graduating Class of 2039. Faculty members also are not the same, even those of us who teach in art and media fields. The “online model” may have changed our teaching forever—and for the better.

Why Hold On to Online Learning Tools?

Digital and online tools saved our semesters, giving us a way to continue teaching, albeit with some negative social, institutional and individual effects and traumatic associations. And we now have a chance to develop the remote learning tools we used online for the in-seat learning environment.

Returning to the classroom gave me a feeling of renewed purpose and also improvisation. We may find opportunities to put together our recent, hard-won teaching experiences with the computer-assisted tools we already have and improve upon what visionary educators Cathy N. Davidson and Shelly Eversley call “active, engaged, student-centered learning.” During the fall 2021 semester, I participated in their Andrew W. Mellon Foundation–funded initiative, “Transformative Learning in the Humanities,” at CUNY. The group discussions showed how creative, personal and practical the solutions for online teaching had to be for each professor and discipline. That started my thinking about how in the semesters ahead we can continue to incorporate our online methods to improve in-person classes.

Discussion boards, surveys and chats have been available since the 1980s, but they can now become our best in-class allies. Those different tools help me teach different learners in ways I may not have reached them all before. For example, discussion boards are asynchronous, so they are good for students who prefer to answer in their own time. In contrast, chat, which is in real time, is better for students to express instant reactions to class activities and to ask questions before they forget them. Surveys are useful because they can be set up to collect individual, anonymous or group opinions.

Together, these three tools give teachers a new flexibility. The online tools can make it easier to offer validation for students’ knowledge and efforts, encourage their engagement, and help them develop skills to collaborate effectively. However, they will not serve every situation. It is up to each teacher to find their own balance of available tools so that it works for them.

Discussion Boards

Class discussion boards are online forums, open only to the registered roster, which allow questions, comments and responses. Students and teachers are able to interact without all being online at the same time. These forums provide the teacher another way to engage and prepare the students for in-class participation.

In-person time often feels short. It flies by. The discussion board can host conversations not limited by class hours. To begin the semester, in my Digital Art class, I assign the students to write two or three sentences about themselves and add links to digital artworks and artists they admire. The student responses are often so varied that we can discuss how different artists, styles and ideas cross-pollinate. Some students share local artists that they grew up with or cultural and historical figures they learned about from their families, often from many different countries.

I have also used a discussion board to create a bank of ideas about the connotations of a basic term, so students realize that definitions we often think are “common knowledge” are in fact not shared by everyone. For example, in an exercise to generate ideas for our first motion graphics animations, I asked for connotations and analogies of “home.” The student responses included many contradictory ideas—a place of rest or of no rest, a place where you can be yourself or can’t be yourself. We used these responses as a basis for class discussions and project ideas.

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But message boards aren’t solely useful for art and media classes. In a history course, for example, students could be asked to post their connotations of terms such as “exploration” or “discovery”; in a language or literature course, they could post examples of words and phrases that have no direct translation, such as the French word “dépaysement,” and discuss what this might reveal about difference between French and English speakers.

Online Surveys

Creating online surveys has taught me and my students how to ask the right questions to get useful answers. Before each course, I give the students a short online survey. While teaching online, this was essential for me to get an idea of their technical setup, such as access to a computer, Wi-Fi and software. Now, in-person surveys remain helpful because they give me a sense of each student’s knowledge and technical experience, and they could be used in any discipline to assess students’ background knowledge and interests.

Additionally, quick surveys in class can spark ideas. For an end-of-the-semester “Day in the Life” project in my 2-D Animation class, I asked students what would help them tell a story about the change in their daily lives since the beginning of the pandemic. One student told her story from the point of view of her dog, who was thrilled to have his favorite human home all day, even though she spent her nights sitting on the couch alone. She said she got the idea from the survey responses we discussed in class. In other subjects, a science teacher could pause and poll the class on their predictions for the outcome of a problem or experiment. Or, in a literature class, the teacher could survey students’ opinions of a character’s point of view or motivations.

For my design-based Information Graphics class, I walk students through the steps of creating an online survey to help them begin collecting their own data. I introduce conditional or branching logic, where the survey changes according to how the questions are answered (example, Cognito Forms). I then assign them to develop a survey with other students in small in-class groups. Finally, each student creates their own survey, shares it, collects responses and interprets the results. This assignment ends up being a valuable collaborative experience and could be adapted to other subjects, to generate project material or create shared study guides.

Class Chat

At the beginning of online instruction, real-time chat functions that were built into software—such as Blackboard, Google Meet or Zoom—seemed as if they would be helpful only online, for students with tech or microphone issues. To my surprise, however, chat has been helpful during in-person classes as well.

Even when we’re in the classroom together, during discussions or presentations, I create a Blackboard Collaborate Ultra session and keep the chat function open. Students can text from class computers or their own devices. That gives them a medium to express themselves and gives the teacher a bank of questions without interrupting the class.

The open chat changes the rhythm of a course, making it feel more elastic. The students converse with me and with each other, adding crosscurrents and enrichment. After a student’s presentation and subsequent class discussion, when the class has to move on to the next presentation, they write in the chat a cascade of praise, reactions and suggestions. Students also request and post supporting links to extend the conversation. When possible, teachers can scroll through the messages, answer them all at once and make sure they don’t miss any comments. When I call out groups of names from the roster, students can all respond in the chat, which would be a slow process if they had to respond verbally one by one. Chat messages are usually short, so more people can participate, adding their thoughts or reactions without slowing down the flow of class.

To sum up, we are still in an exceptional time and will likely confront more challenges ahead. But teachers and students now have new ways to combine methods of online and in-person communication. Online assets such as discussion boards, surveys and chat were part of what sustained us during the initial crisis. Depending on personal preference and situation, we can now bring what we have learned from using online tools back into classroom. These tools can show us a new path through our next semesters as we return to in-person learning and add to the joy and reach of our teaching.

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Anita Cheng is adjunct associate professor in the film and media studies department at Hunter College and in the art department at Brooklyn College, City University of New York.


Anita Cheng

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