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Professors become students to prepare dynamic remote instruction

Nearly every professor and instructor in Emory College of Arts and Sciences and Oxford College became a student this summer.

Since June, more than 800 faculty have completed intensive training in online course design and teaching, focused on developing new and creative ways to teach in a remote format so that every class includes the highly engaged, student-focused experience expected with an Emory education.

With the continued spread of COVID-19 limiting how many students returned to campus this fall, the faculty’s preparation and planning are giving students access to the same exceptional scholars and liberal arts education that remain at the core of Emory’s values and mission.

“We all know we are in a unique situation, so we had to be focused and think as a community,” says Douglas Mulford, a senior lecturer in Emory College’s chemistry department. “We have spent, and are spending, incredible amounts of time thinking about how to do this and do this well because we are fully invested in our students.”

Creativity, flexibility and innovation have been top-of-mind for Emory faculty, from finding new ways to leverage Emory Libraries’ exceptional archives to providing students with digital versions of primary documents to figuring out how to bring a hands-on lab experience to students’ homes.

“The dedication and work of our faculty for our students throughout this past summer was truly remarkable, and I am proud of them,” says Michael A. Elliott, dean of Emory College and Candler Professor of English. “I am confident we will deliver on our educational promise and more. With ingenuity and compassion, we are creating the personal connections that our students want and need to keep our community together.”

Since undergraduate classes began Aug. 19, students have experienced innovations including small tutorial-style sessions that rely on collaboration with professors and peers alike, as well as courses that examine current events through specific disciplines.

"I am proud of our faculty's commitment to honing their teaching skills to meet the demands of online instruction," says Doug Hicks, dean of Oxford College and William R. Kenan Jr. Professor of Religion. "We are already receiving positive feedback from faculty and students alike about the online-learning experience.” 

Creative approaches to coping with change

As professors have adapted their courses to remote formats, many have taken steps to help students cope with not only the change in learning environments, but also the vast changes and challenges in the broader world.

Judith Miller, associate professor of history in Emory College, recently received a grateful note from an alumnus who is now a second-year law student, thanking her for helping develop his research and critical thinking skills with her favorite active learning assignment: a library scavenger hunt.

She expects her digital version will work just as well this semester, in part because of the stellar librarians and information experts in Emory’s libraries. And her own active learning – reading up on best practices for remote instruction, connecting with other professors and creating a shared tip sheet – helped her revamp her course on the French Revolution.

Building from current headlines with Black Lives Matters protests, she is focusing on the trigger points of protests with a look at the factors that turn some into enduring movements.

“I hope our students know that faculty will have their backs as they are building a lot of skills on coping with change,” Miller says. “We’re developing ours, too.”

Eric Solomon, visiting assistant professor of English and American studies at Oxford College, is using instructional design techniques inspired by his summer training to invigorate his American Studies course.

“Our course explores 10 social movements, with the Black Freedom Struggle and the #BLM movement at the centerpiece of our online semester’s intersectional journey,” Solomon says. “A few sessions in, I know students are eager to have the difficult conversations and ready to meet this moment.” 

Using tools like Canvas Studio, Final Cut and other platforms, Soloman has filmed and edited brief “movie trailers” to help connect disparate ideas as the class progresses through the course’s 10 movements, as well as digital collages as visual guides for each movement.

“In an interdisciplinary course rooted in critical thinking, it can be hard to replicate the exchange of ideas and ‘connect all the dots’ in an online forum,” he says. “My hope is that my use of image/video serves both as a visual complement to our semester reading and an entertaining reflective resource to help students engage with course themes and connect with one another.” 

Building on the foundation of online course development

Emory College first developed its online learning program in 2015, offering select summer courses remotely so that students did not have to be in the Atlanta area. Even back then, the goal was to offer more depth and interaction than simply impersonal, self-paced offerings.

The solution was to cap course size and require online discussions among professors and students. The summer Global Internships program, for instance, requires weekly 90-minute synchronous sessions.

That careful crafting proved especially important after the disruption of spring semester, when in-person learning was abruptly moved online, says Sara Jackson Wade, director of Emory College Online, which provides faculty with intensive instruction to purposefully build online courses.

“So much of an Emory education is our all-encompassing academic environment,” she says. “Stepping off campus for that is stressful and difficult. You can’t automatically count on that community online, so you have to intentionally build it.”

Oxford collaborated with Wade and others in fashioning Oxford College Online Teaching (OCOT) after Emory College’s longstanding online teaching program, aligning with shared goals of creating community and providing world-class education.

The program has drawn “unprecedented enthusiasm” from faculty who “have reimagined the entire delivery of our curriculum,” says Scott Foster, director of academic technology, who led the effort with Molly McGehee, associate dean for faculty development. “The faculty also viewed the OCOT series as a community event that brought them closer with their colleagues and opened the doors for mindful discussion around pedagogical practices.”

What about labs and performances?

Being intentional in the creation of online courses also reveals new possibilities. They are especially noticeable in lab-based science courses and in performance and studio classes, such as music and dance — which would seem especially difficult to teach from a distance.

Spring showed one way the science keeps going, when undergraduates in biology labs logged into online portals and created their own projects to continue their work. A large part of the lab environment is working alongside fellow researchers, and building the community found in research labs across Emory’s campuses.

Oxford College’s Emily McLean, assistant professor of biology, injected that aspect of lab life into her Advanced Topics in Molecular Biology course this semester with the help of a program called FlipGrid. This video platform allowed her students to immediately begin getting to know one another through self-recorded videos. Because the platform allows for asynchronous video communication, international students worked virtually alongside other students in developing that sense of community they normally find in a physical laboratory. 

Three years ago, Emory overhauled its undergraduate chemistry curriculum for both campuses, offering a more holistic, hands-on approach aimed at giving even introductory students an understanding of the chemistry of how the world works, rather than just drilling facts and formulas.

To continue that approach, students in 100-level courses this fall are receiving home lab kits to keep them on pace with the needed learning, says Mulford, who utilized the kits in a lab course he taught this summer.

Meanwhile, the more than 400 students enrolled in Mulford’s advanced reactivity lab course sections this fall will work in teams in a virtual lab (work usually performed solo) to encourage more connections. First, they’ll watch and answer questions during short videos of Mulford conducting experiments in his typical theatrical style.

“Too much of what we think of as online education is dull videos. Mine aren’t so dull,” Mulford says.

Such personalization is possible because faculty teach courses of their own design, giving them wide latitude in how they, as topic experts, work.

Last spring, concerned about technology issues and other challenges, Lydia Fort — assistant professor in theater studies and resident director of Theater Emory — allowed some students to create radio plays for an assignment to shoot a three-person scene. Students responded by being less competitive and more supportive of each other’s work, including creating networks outside of class.

That prompted Fort to plan for cohorts in courses this fall, when assignments include creating a set design for a short play. Learning how to work together via virtual tools now will help students even after the pandemic, she believes.

“Film and television were already moving in that direction, being released directly at home,” she says. “I do believe learning these tools now — tools that even when we go back to normal allow them to provide content virtually — gives them an edge. Because of this time we are in, they learn not just the systems we have in place but get the opportunity to create new systems.”

Ongoing support and innovation

In addition to working through course design in the accelerated training this summer, many professors have sought additional opportunities to improve their technical skills and teaching techniques. They continue to have support this fall.

The Center for Faculty Development and Excellence, for example, has provided webinars focused on how faculty can bring interpersonal connections and active learning into the online environment through tools such as Google documents and private chat rooms, says Liesl Wuest, the center’s associate director for learning design and technology.

This fall, Oxford’s Academic Technology Department and the Oxford Center for Teaching and Scholarship are hosting “Show and Tell” events where faculty members can discuss what they have applied from OCOT to their teaching, showcase what is working well in their classes, and get feedback on things they wish to improve.

“Helping faculty see the variety of ways they can teach is essential,” Wuest says. 

Matthew Payne, an Emory College associate history professor and director of undergraduate studies for the department, utilized different technologies and techniques for an independent reading course in Russian sources that he taught last semester. Incorporating the technology allowed him to continue working through texts line-by-line with students via Zoom, just as he would during an in-person class.

“I think faculty obviously prefer teaching with their students right with them,” Payne says. “But the essence of that connection — that sense that the professor is teaching you directly, even in a large lecture class — can happen over Zoom and Canvas just as easily as in post-class chats and office hours.”

The lessons will continue beyond this semester, notes Ken Carter, Oxford’s Charles Howard Candler Professor of Psychology, reflecting on his experience in OCOT and the Adult Psychopathology course he is currently teaching.

The training he received this summer “transformed the way I think about the tools and resources for helping my students succeed,” Carter says. “It was exactly what I needed to start to prepare for remote teaching, but I am certain I’ll use what I learned for years.”

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