The upside of remote teaching

Lessons learned in remote instruction — more flexibility, clearer directions and better use of together time — will also improve teaching in traditional settings.

Viji Sathy screenshot against backdrop of University of Kansas building
During the pandemic, Viji Sathy has been leading webinars on inclusive teaching, like this one hosted by the University of Kansas.

Twice in this pandemic year, Carolina faculty have made an abrupt switch to remote-only instruction for undergraduates. They have had to adapt not only to using technology like Zoom, but also to giving their classes more structure than they would need in a traditional classroom.

Fortunately, creating a more structured class is a change that not only improves online teaching but also makes learning more inclusive — a worthy goal, no matter what the setting. More structure works for most undergraduates, without harming those who don’t need it, said Viji Sathy, a national expert on inclusive teaching. Sathy is a teaching professor in the psychology and neuroscience department of the College of Arts & Sciences and special projects assistant in the Office of Undergraduate Education.

“Some of those structures that faculty will put into place, I suspect they’ll stay. They’ll find them helpful to students. And that’s a good thing,” said Sathy, who co-wrote “8 Ways to Be More Inclusive in Your Zoom Teaching” with fellow faculty member Kelly Hogan for the Chronicle of Higher Education.

“We have to be able to do something differently to be able to engage our students equitably in the classroom and now in this digital format,” Sathy said.

Remote instruction often reveals inequities — poor internet connections, cramped living conditions, competing family and/or work responsibilities — that might be overlooked in a traditional classroom, Sathy said. Going remote can also create inequities for some students, who may no longer have access to resources they would have had on campus, like libraries, quiet spaces, study groups, free Wi-Fi and other technology.

“With the uncertainty that we’re all going to be facing, there has to be some flexibility built into the system to accommodate that,” Sathy said.

Rethinking gathering

Flexibility can include anything from giving students more time to complete assignments to not requiring them to be on camera during the class. “A lot of faculty feel very uncomfortable when they can’t see their students’ faces,” Sathy said. But equity issues often outweigh the need for online face-time. The student may not be in a private place or may not have the bandwidth for video and audio, for example. Instead of setting a firm top-down rule, the instructor may want to make the pros and cons of being on camera part of a class discussion.

When going remote, one of the first questions instructors face is which part of their classes should be live (synchronous) and which pre-recorded (asynchronous). This is just another way of asking when it is important for the class to gather together, a key consideration in creating the “flipped classroom” that is so important in active and inclusive learning.

“We are beginning to interrogate the point of gathering. If the point of gathering is to allow for ideas to be interchanged in real time, then how do we encourage that in the platforms that we’re using?” Sathy said.

Instead of using live Zoom time to give a lecture, for example, the instructor may want to restructure the course so students can watch a recorded lecture before class and use the online time for discussion.

Structured discussion

The discussion, in turn, may require more structure than usual. Online meeting tools don’t make it easy to have a freewheeling discussion in a large class. The instructor will need to divide students into smaller groups, set up breakout rooms and give time limits and clear guidance for the discussion.

“There’s just a bit more forethought that needs to happen with any kind of engagement in an online platform because it’s not a native platform to any of us. The ‘turn and talk to your neighbor’ idea needs more choreography in the Zoom environment,” Sathy said.

Breakout groups, discussion boards, real-time polling and helping a classmate work through a difficult problem are all important in building community and keeping students engaged instead of isolated. Engagement also improves learning.

“Just consuming information is not how you learn,” Sathy said. “When you learn to drive a car, no one just tells you how to drive a car and then you immediately know how to do it. There’s a lot of scaffolding involved. There’s some instruction, some time behind the wheel and working your way up to more challenging things.”

More than a MOOC

This scaffolding is also what makes individual classes at Carolina different from any number of Massive Open Online Courses and other self-paced learning modules.

“That’s a stereotype people have, that ‘I’m teaching myself.’ But I want to challenge that idea because somebody designed that learning experience; someone is providing those resources,” Sathy said.

And while providing those resources — gathering links to videos and articles, recording lectures, structuring discussions — takes time up front, “there are lots of efficiencies,” Sathy said. Instructors will be able to use the recordings, study guides and discussion outlines created for online courses again and again — even when they return to a traditional classroom.