Managing Teaching and Learning in a Time of Disruption

To: Faculty

From: Vincent J. Del Casino, Jr., Provost and Senior VP of Academic Affairs

Dear Colleagues,

As we finish the first week of classes after our short suspension of course instruction, I want to stop and recognize all the effort and energy that is going into supporting our students. I can relate to the challenge, having built and delivered my first online course almost six years ago. Although I didn’t have to do what you are being asked to do with such speed and scale, I get that there is nothing easy with rethinking one’s teaching across modalities.

Messages are coming back that many students are doing okay with the change, while others are, not surprisingly, feeling overwhelmed. Similar messages are coming in from faculty. As we now know this is the “new normal” for the remainder of the semester, I thought it valuable to reflect a bit on what might be some reasonable expectations over the course of the next eight weeks or so.

If faculty are using technologies to remotely engage students synchronously (e.g., in the same lecture format they use in-person), there may be little change in course goals or expectations. For others, though, the shift in modality has demanded a pretty sharp shift in teaching practice. Those teaching multiple sections right now may begin to be concerned about the rigor of their courses - can we meet the learning outcomes of the class in such a different environment on such short notice? Given this, and many other questions, there is value in taking a step back and re-assessing our expectations.

I believe everyone can still produce really solid learning experiences, even while managing your own intensive expectations. I learned this the hard way during my first online teaching experience, when I tried to embed so much material that it simply overwhelmed my students. I had to rethink the course on the fly and adjust. Since then, I have learned a few tricks that I want to pass on:

Less is more

Less is more and reminding ourselves  of the course “learning outcomes” can help manage expectations (reducing the amount of reading but increasing the depth of analysis about a smaller reading sample can give students some breathing room, for example).

Student-centered online education

As fully-online education can be more “student-centered,” with assignments and work projects completed individually, think about that shift for students who might not be expecting such heavy individual workloads.

Creating an "equivalent" experience

We all panic about creating an “equivalent” experience, with similar sorts of contact hours, etc. – various online resources can help, short videos that describe processes or documentary snippets that help explain, visually, what is going on can help augment your own lecture material (these can be linked to, often, via the library).

Resources to help augment remote instruction

We may be very concerned about replicating in person, hands-on experiences, often thought of as hallmarks of an SJSU education, and again various online resources can help to augment remote instruction, although we know it can’t replace it (it’s a compromise position we have to face this year).

Reducing the value assigned to “high stakes” exams and assignments

Sometimes there is benefit in reducing the value assigned to “high stakes” exams and assignments, taking the pressure off students – creating shorter assessments with less weight might actually help students be successful in your course (a short 5-question quiz every other class could add up to the one “big exam”).

Create opportunities for “competency-based” strategies

Create opportunities for “competency-based” strategies – taking small tasks and showing students what they did wrong and allowing them to re-assess helps take some of the pressure off of the one “big exam”.

Value peer-to-peer work and assessment

Value peer-to-peer work and assessment, creating opportunities for peer (and self) assessment takes some of the pressure off of an instructor and gives students a chance to learn from each other and themselves.

Allow students to take the lead

Allow students to take the lead and explain how a problem is solved and share those solutions with others in the course (reward that leadership with credit); let students upload videos that explain something instead of traditional writing assignments (a short smart phone explanation can be fun and perhaps easier for many students than a paper assignment)

Integrate materials from partners

Integrate materials from partners – like LinkedIn Learning – where appropriate to augment student learning and link your course content to their longer-term professional lives (at a time like this a bit of self-reflection can go a long way); JSTOR just created free access to thousands of titles as well that could be integrated into classes.

Create options for students to meet course expectations

Where possible, create options for students to meet course expectations (many students are struggling with the online tools, just as faculty are; creating options, when possible, to demonstrate competency, can alleviate some of that stress).

Carve out space and time to create community

Carve out space and time to create community - remote educational practices can produce obviously negative senses of social distance; take a moment to ask students how are they doing, to talk about their biggest challenges in their communities, or what activities are helping them relax during this crazy time (you may not believe it but I once had an online student come up to me in a store and tell me he really felt he “got to know me” in the class - our authentic selves can shine through if we let it).

There are no easy solutions to managing a shift of this magnitude on a campus of this size. There is only the best we can do given what we are facing. Simple is often better in this environment. Success is measured by our ability to reduce the stress and anxiety for ourselves and our students. 

As always, please reach out with questions and comments. I so much appreciate the engagement and respect the work that is being put in.

All the best,