by Justin Greenlee, PhD
A&S Learning Design & Technology
A few phrases have made emphatic entrances into our lexicon over the past year. “Shelter in place” sticks with me. Also profundities like “You’re on mute” and its companion “Can you hear me now?” (The last has echoes of Verizon or Sprint. Who’s to say which.) “Modes of instruction” can be broken down into synchronous and its dangerous-sounding cousin, asynchronous. There’s also “in-person” and “remote,” with the later bringing some suggestion to watch even more TV, take control of the Mars rover, or find some island in a virtual sea. “Hybrid” once induced a stress response from graduate students searching for the right postcolonial theory reference. Now it represents one of the steepest challenges of teaching in a pandemic.
I joined UVA’s Learning Design & Technology team nine months ago, in June 2020, when so many students, graduate instructors, faculty, and staff prepared for their first full semester of online learning. Over that span — and separate from my work as a Digital Pedagogy Specialist — I have also taught four art history classes with an online component at colleges and universities beyond UVA.
I started in the fall as an adjunct lecturer for a History of the Visual Arts course at Carroll University in Waukesha, WI. The mode of instruction was in person with a remote option. I had one student online on the first day of class. We tested a few options early on: webcasting in Panopto, soon discarded; and then Microsoft Teams, which became the student’s choice. When I showed images of works of art in PowerPoint I routed the presentation through Teams, which was also projected to the main board of our classroom. Audio input was a persistent issue. A mic that hung from the ceiling near my podium at the front of the room proved not up to the task of relaying classroom conversation. The positioning felt like a relic of what university teaching should be. I stayed faithfully within the halo of its audio range for the first few weeks, as I was cautious and unsure of hardware in a new space. Beyond that, I had to get used to being in an indoor space that wasn’t my living room. After some experimentation, I asked students to bring laptops to class and we all joined the Teams meeting I’d initially set up for the remote student. Students came off mute when they spoke to avoid feedback. I bought a six-foot extension cord for my headphones, eventually replaced with Bluetooth earbuds, so I could ease my always-present teaching jitters by wandering at the front of the room.
“A mic that hung from the ceiling near my podium at the front of the room was not up to the task of relaying classroom conversation. The positioning felt like a relic of what university teaching should be.”
As the weeks went by, some students had to quarantine after exposure to the coronavirus based on contact outside the classroom. Personal emergencies were made all the more difficult by surges in the pandemic, leading to extended absences. Our ratio became more and more blended, approaching half online, half in person until Thanksgiving break, when I moved the entire class online.
That sequence meant three shifts in learning for my students and three instructional shifts for me. When the semester began, my course planning had focused on the challenge of making a remote student an integral part of the learning environment. My priority was to find ways for her to participate and also be vigilant in planning and improvisation so I could gesture at moments when she might interact with her classmates. Part of the learning process also involved facilitating student engagement in Teams on the fly, correspondence with students as we worked out technical glitches, and making simple but key decisions to have students share their screens, use chat, and establish an infrastructure of shared documents and images in the cloud.
“When the semester began, my course planning focused on the challenge of making a remote student an integral part of the learning environment. My priority was to find ways for her to participate and also to be vigilant in planning and improvisation so I could gesture at moments when she might interact with her classmates.”
I felt unbalanced semester-long as we found our footing in online and physical spaces. We might have approached equilibrium, three months in, but I took permission from the chair of the art history department and my first opportunity to control the mode of instruction to switch to all-online, synchronous learning just before Thanksgiving break, when COVID numbers were at an all-time high in Wisconsin. Teams was a tool we had committed to, early on, but we now shared that virtual space for the first time.
I took experiences from the fall and some exhaustion with me into the spring, when I left Carroll to teach classes at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay. The courses on my current slate range from prehistory to the present, as I teach History of the Visual Arts, The High Renaissance in Italy, and Contemporary Art. Each course is online and asynchronous, a mode that I embraced as a structure with maximum flexibility for teaching and learning in a pandemic. It also meant an entirely new set of challenges and forays into aspects of digital pedagogy I did not experience in 2020.
Admittedly, I felt pressure all along. (The apology feels ridiculous but the inclination to offer it is important.) There is the pandemic, of course. It makes everything difficult. It was also an ambitious teaching load taken on by a recent PhD during a global health crisis as an adjunct in addition to holding a part-time job at UVA. I asked maximum productivity of myself at a time when it was difficult to focus on anything. I knew there would be a toll, physically and emotionally. But I was stuck at home and I thought to myself in broken logic: “Why not lean into work? What else am I going to do?” There was also the new title of “Digital Pedagogy Specialist,” which I leveraged into new teaching opportunities. I knew it was possible to turn those skills–as something colleges and universities craved, in this moment–into a need to be good at all the things, to adopt all the digital pedagogy tools, and to complicate a process that needed to be reduced to its simplest form. I also knew I would learn a tremendous amount about teaching. I was driven by a desire to help others–be they students, grads, instructors-of-record, faculty, postdocs, visiting professors, or preceptors–through a pandemic.
“I asked maximum productivity of myself at a time when it is difficult to focus on anything.”
My experience of teaching during COVID-19 has thus been shaped by what is referred to as “course instruction modes,” and this post is predominantly a reflection on how my teaching responded to the categories of In Person with Remote Option, Online Synchronous, and Online Asynchronous. I also realize, at this point, that I haven’t shared many stories or gone deep into the strategies I developed with students to address some of the learning design issues I mention, here. In the end this is a 1,300-word gloss, with plenty withheld, on what has been a painful and a wonderful experience.
The biggest takeaway for me… and the thing I’d most like you to read… is the absolute necessity of flexibility and compassion in online teaching. Any teaching, really. What I will take with me from this year is not some new digital tool or bit of edu tech that I had my eye on, that my colleague uses and loves, and that I think might work for me. Instead, a pandemic has taught me to think and act much more broadly as I search for connections within course content, with my students, and between students when I am not around.
“The biggest takeaway for me… and the thing I’d most like you to read…is the absolute necessity of flexibility and compassion in online teaching.”
Those connections are immensely satisfying. They are triumphant moments in teaching, in fact. I hold onto the creative “mental maps of art history” that my students created at the start of the semester. Also a “2020 Wrapped” assignment, ala Spotify, in which students created a top 10 of contemporary art, music, film, books, artists, objects, exhibitions, and social and political happenings that mattered to them in the past year.
All in all, I’d say pre-recorded lectures are going just fine. It’s students’ conversations with one another that will sustain me.