Through a series of recent conversations, faculty at Dartmouth College shared about teaching remotely during the pandemic and reflected on what they are taking away from the experience.
Representing more than 20 academic departments and teaching classes that ranged from large intro courses to small seminars and hands-on labs, faculty reported that the shift to teaching online was a challenge, but that things mostly went better than expected. There were many things about their courses and teaching that needed to change, they said, but a surprising number that stayed the same.
Among the elements of teaching that remained largely unchanged in the remote environment, faculty mentioned their course content, small-group discussions, group work, connection with students, and emphasis on community-building in their classes.
Faculty leaned on their creativity and flexibility, prior knowledge of Canvas and other teaching technologies, and student-centered philosophies to ease the shift to teaching and learning online. A number of faculty noted the opportunity -- and the necessity -- of getting "back to basics" with their teaching, refocusing on what they wanted students to get from each component of their course, and prioritizing the most important.
When asked what changed the most in the remote teaching experiment, faculty highlighted lectures, assessment practices, and student interactions.
There was a general consensus that pre-recording lectures is a lot of work, but probably worth it in the end, giving students more flexibility in how and when they absorb course content and preserving face time (over Zoom) for class interaction.
Faculty adjusted assignments and exams to be more modular, more collaborative, and more tech-enabled, employing tools like Hypothes.is, VoiceThread, and digital whiteboards to give students new ways of demonstrating their learning.
Many faculty noted the different feeling of interacting with students through a screen rather than in person. This took some adjusting, and while many look forward to teaching in the classroom again, some found that being on Zoom provided faculty and students easier access to one another and more built-in tools, like chat and screen-sharing, for interaction.
Some of the most challenging aspects of teaching remotely reported by faculty reflect the depth of care and concern they have for their students. Some noted the heightened difficulty of catching students who were struggling or disconnected, and helping them to re-engage. Others observed that inequities among students were exacerbated by remote learning in ways that their teaching could not address.
Most surprising was the long and enthusiastic list of things that faculty hope to preserve in their teaching, even as they wrap up the remote experiment and return to the classroom. As one person noted, we are experiencing an opportunity to transform things for the better, quoting Winston Churchill's urging to, "Never waste a good crisis." The things we're holding onto and bringing back from the remote teaching experience fall into a few categories.
Many faculty plan to continue using Zoom for office hours, Google Docs for student collaboration, Canvas for sharing pre-recorded lectures and receiving assignment submissions, Slack for communication with and among students, Mural and Miro as collaborative digital whiteboards, Hypothes.is and VoiceThread for annotating with students, Calendly for scheduling, and virtual chat for real-time feedback and discussion.
A number of people noted that they will continue recording lectures for students to watch before class, breaking lectures and other content into smaller chunks, and coordinating more purposefully between course offerings within departments.
A common plan is to continue with more frequent exams and low-stakes quizzes rather than a few high-stakes assessments. Quizzes may still take place on Canvas and be open to students for a designated 24-hour period. Many faculty will continue to throw out students' lowest grades of the term, incorporate a mix of individual and group assignments, pre-determine flexible guidelines for late assignments, and offer more opportunities for synthesis and reflection.
Faculty report valuing meeting one-on-one with their students during the term, giving students more time–and more intentional facilitation–in class to connect with one another, and bringing guest speakers and project clients from distant places to the classroom virtually. Many wish to preserve informal opportunities to connect with students as well as regular formal check-ins with project groups. Faculty also note that they will offer more evening office hours, record office hours (with student permission) for other students to learn from, and use Slack to make themselves more available in general to students.
A central theme in these conversations was the increased flexibility and intentionality that faculty brought to their teaching, and the value they felt this brought to their courses and learners. They plan to preserve flexibility in assignment structures, due dates, and participation expectations, and to continue approaching the diversity of student experiences with compassion and thoughtfulness.
As the team at the Dartmouth Center for the Advancement of Learning (DCAL) reflects on the changes that have taken place, it is clear how much time, effort, and care went into the teaching and learning experience of the last year.
Faculty have worked to preserve the best elements of in-person education, adapted to radically different contexts and constraints, and innovated out of both necessity and commitment to their craft.
As we return to campus and re-engage with one another face to face, faculty are taking with them what they’ve experienced in the last year and drawing on what they’ve learned to shape the next chapter of teaching and learning.
Elli Goudzwaard is the Associate Director of Faculty Programs & Services at the Dartmouth Center for the Advancement of Learning (DCAL).