Virtual Teaching’s Unique Opportunity

Image by Public Co from Pixabay

The move to online teaching stemming from COVID-19 campus closures has been jarring to speak mildly. The unforeseen steps that we take for granted in a traditional classroom suddenly become visible and troublesome, obstacles that require multiple platforms not always compatible. Yet, in spite of the hurdles, faculty have risen courageously to the moment, and I frequently find faculty coming up with innovative ways to teach. To this end, I believe that virtual teaching offers an opportunity to become better teachers precisely because it forces us to re-consider classroom dynamics. What do I mean? Let me break it down into different types of grading.

Participation. For far too long, participation has been some combination of attendance and professorial estimation. This grade category typically looks like a number between 1 and 10 weighted about 5% of the final grade. The problem with this type of “measurement” is that it carelessly equates presence with participation. Virtual teaching shows its weakness. Take a Zoom session in which students can legally turn off their video to protect their privacy rights. They can do whatever-the-heck they wish undetected unless the instructor has them creating a knowledge deliverable that requires attendance and participation to complete. Weight this kind of participation in the gradebook at 15% so that they must attend and participate to earn a B. Though these products can usually be graded as completed/not completed, they should not be confused with busy work but inextricably linked to reaching course objectives or the completion of larger assignments.

Quizzes/Tests. Quizzes by and large measure students’ knowledge of small sections of material; tests, of large sections. Virtual teaching presses us to shift our vocabulary from “giving” quizzes or tests to “quizzing” or “testing.” The difference is an emphasis on process in which we’re incorporating low-stakes testing directed at learning instead of measuring. If it helps, think of testing in terms of gaming. Gamers aim at mastery, which requires them to try over and over and over until they can beat the level. They call it “leveling up.” As an analogy, this looks like

Leveling up: gaming;testing: academics.

The way you accomplish testing is by creating question pools whereby our LMS—i.e., OAKS—creates unique tests that students can take over and over again to master information. It’s low-stakes because each individual grade is not worth much in terms of final grade percentage, but the payoff is massive: students level up on material that is vital for performing higher order thinking. There’s little incentive to cheat because cheating earns little in terms of grades but benefits in spades by creating a knowledge foundation essential for the rest of the class. Thus, learning is the incentive.

Major Assignments. Major assignments, like participation grades, are best as products—viz., unique contributions created by students. Please let the multiple-choice final exam receive a round of applause and sit down. It rarely ever tests anything beyond students’ memorization of facts anyways. If it must persist, make sure to create questions that require higher order thinking. But if possible, assign projects that require students to synthesize, apply, analyze, and create.

Academic dishonesty has little opportunity here, and students feel the satisfaction of creativity.

Put their learning to use so that whatever it is they create can outlast the course of a semester as a knowledgeable contribution to the academic or local community (Cf. History in the Holy City sample podcast assignment). If the final project is an essay, teach the writing process so that you get final drafts instead of first drafts that Turnitin can check for plagiarism.

Discussions. Make them actual discussions. What do I mean? Choose a tool like Flipgrid or Zoom where students can record themselves talking. Literally. My experience has found students much more willing to talk than type their ideas. In other words, if you’re going to have students writing, make it a writing assignment, but if you want them to “discuss,” use a tool whereby they can record audible discussions.

In conclusion, the virtual classroom can be a scary leap. Many of the securities we enjoy in the traditional classroom don’t exist, and this awareness is disconcerting. How do we engage with students when we aren’t physically with them? How well are they hearing us? Do they understand the information we are delivering? All of the answers to these questions rely on technology, which too often shows itself fickle and beyond our control. Nevertheless, the virtual classroom is an opportunity to tighten our teaching practices by pushing us to rethink classroom dynamics. And that analytical process, which plays to professors’ strengths, is precisely where we as faculty can embrace the challenge and “level up” in our teaching.

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