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Transitioning from the Face-to-Face (F2F) Environment to Remote Learning and Forward Again: Tips from an Instructional Designer

Curriculum Innovation for Transformative Learning
A National Symposium
November 19-20, 2020
Virtual National Symposium 2020

Rhonda N. McCoy, Paine College

In a recent poll of faculty from around the world, faculty stated that they wanted to learn more about strategies, technology and teaching practices, approaches to transition, and new methods for digital instruction and innovation. One thing that all of these techniques had in common, besides being needed at the last minute during the pandemic, is that they require time, patience, and flexibility.

The unofficial word of the year 2020 was flexibility. Functioning during a pandemic caused many schools to transition to the online learning environment in a hurry. The hurriedness left little to no time to consult with instructional designers unless they were already on the payroll.  Many faculty and administrators who had been reluctant to embrace the online environment now found themselves in the middle of unchartered territory with rough terrain and uncertain roads ahead. For a lot of faculty who were not used to the online environment, the transition proved to be a challenging task. The journey proved to be odd, and at times awkward, but it was doable.  Often when a task is uncomfortable, we work at it briefly before declaring it broken, not feasible for success, and then abandon ship to return what is comfortable for us. However, during the pandemic we were not allowed to make this declaration, but rather were pushed outside of our comfort zones until we achieved success. We had to transition to the online environment quickly and, while it was uncomfortable for many faculty, it had to be done. Having the support of administration made achieving the goal possible at a much faster pace.

Administrative support
Who is there to support the administration? At a time when information about a deadly virus is coming through so quickly but so inconsistently, many leaders are left to contemplate the seriousness of the virus. What are the politics involved? Can we continue to operate safely while social distancing and washing our hands? Administrators found themselves asking these questions all while being themselves in high-risk categories or caring for those in high-risk categories. Many were scared but could not openly admit this as they had to put on a brave face for the institutional community for which they were responsible.

The administration was quickly given the challenge to create a blueprint for the entire institution to operate at a moment’s notice during a pandemic. Not fully aware of where all the dangers lay, of who to listen to about the virus, or of how to proceed, those in administration faced an arduous task. Task forces were created, and decisions were made to send students, faculty, and staff home to keep them safe. However, learning had to continue. For many institutions new to the online learning environment, this also meant that these groups were sent home to figure it out for themselves. At some institutions low on funds, this burden has remained on the shoulders of faculty and students, since they were able to make it through the initial emergency transition seemingly unscathed. But what are the long-term implications for the mental health and morale of all parties involved? Administration should continue self-care practices as well as seek ways to release steam and find support for themselves. In addition, administration should find ways to support and reassure the faculty by continuing to be flexible, providing clear expectations, and maintaining effective communication. Providing a daily open space where faculty can feel comfortable and free to check in, support each other, and share helpful resources for the virtual environment is vital for success during the pandemic both on and off campus.

Faculty support
Many faculty felt like they lacked support from their administrations. Faculty workloads became heavier as professors had to teach through the deaths of loved ones without taking the time to grieve because there weren’t enough faculty, social distancing was enforced, and gatherings were restricted. Many faculty members were subjected to wearing even more hats, when they had already been wearing all the hats available in their department. Some were already wearing hats in multiple departments due to budget cuts.

Home environments, too, could be less than ideal. Many faculty were dealing with isolation, depression, reduced salaries, furloughs, and more. Not only were immediate decisions thrust on the administration, but stress was also placed squarely on the shoulders of faculty. The stress was felt from the top down to everyone else; everyone was trying to figure out how to best navigate this challenging time.

And guess what: The students felt the same way, too, and they continue to need the same support as faculty and administration. Having a clear system in place to support students is helpful in reducing your own stress and workload. It’s good to reach out. With so much going on it may seem hard, but it’s helpful to do a few extra steps in the beginning of the semester to make things easier in the long run. Deciding to reach out to a set number of students a day to let them know that you are there to teach them, support them and guide their academic transformation in your class is a game changer. Students will perform better knowing that they aren’t just left to handle it on their own.

A lot of students ended up feeling like they were teaching themselves this past year. Some professors were indeed fully committed to the process of teaching under these new and challenging conditions, but others were clearly lost and could have benefited from more support from instructional designers, vision strategists/coaches, and other professionals. Unfortunately, some professors neglected their teaching by ending class early or leaving students to work too much on their own. As a faculty member who may have more support, resilience, or experience in online learning, you can reach out to struggling colleagues and offer your support through resource sharing or mentoring.

Student support
As I mentioned earlier, students found themselves in need of more support than normal, but not knowing who to turn to. I encourage you to record live classes and make them available to view later for students who couldn’t attend. Some students may have technology issues, such as decreased or throttled speed after using a certain amount of data. Some may be working or distracted from helping very young children learn from home. Remember that, for some students, being on campus in the dorm might have been a safe haven to escape a turbulent home life, distractions, gangs, domestic violence, lack of wifi access, and so much more. Some students may have to share devices between multiple siblings who are home for public school or college, and some households may not have any devices at all. With the loss of jobs during COVID-19, some households may be facing other issues such as no electricity. Some students were experiencing such issues before the pandemic, which is why they wanted to learn in the face-to-face environment. But now that many institutions offer only remote learning, such students had to make the hard decision to sit out until face-to-face learning resumes. This has caused decreased enrollment for many institutions that prioritized safety during a pandemic, but that were already teetering on low enrollments and struggling to survive. Can incorporating instructional design strategies in your class structure help?

Instructional design strategies
It is important to humanize your course when it’s being delivered online, because of all of these issues related to the pandemic. You want your students to know that you understand their plight. So even if you generally operate more rigidly in a face-to-face class, flexibility is key during this pandemic.

These are unprecedented times. I use our enrollment certification assignment to find out students’ personal journeys to college and figure out their pain points so that I can adjust my learning strategy accordingly. This also allows me, from the beginning, to build trust between us and establish authority. When you’re setting up your course, make sure you approach it with the ending in mind, as you will want to build in interactive and engaging strategies along the way.  Your classrooms should be set up to capture their attention. For instance, you should have engaging titles to your lessons, a great storyline, appropriate pacing (as in your transitions), computer graphic effects that are actionable, and appropriate music when necessary to gain attention or evoke emotion and increase retention.

Make sure that the items you’re using for visualization engage and capture student attention, which is important. But also make sure that you keep in mind the data that needs to be shown and kept at the forefront, and be careful of giving too much stimulation. Be mindful of how colors may stimulate or depress students. Which colors are best for your subject? Incorporate audio in your lectures and presentations and in conjunction with your polls. Present your comments and your polls in a way that’s entertaining. Think of ways to make whatever you’re presenting look appealing, and then turn and shift that information in a way that catches your students’ attention and makes them want to keep coming back to the topic.

Generally, courses start on an announcement page with many other things to distract them. Instead, with your course learning management software, you can create a designated welcome space for your students on a landing page that you select as a course entry point. You can have your course entry point be on the faculty page with an introduction video that explains the course and its expectations. That makes the course less isolating and lets students really see their instructor on a more personal level, which is helpful in situations like this.

When you’re creating your course, remember this: When you hear something, you’ll remember about 10% of it three days later. But if you add a picture to it, three days later you’ll remember 65% of it. So keep that in mind as you create course content. Our brain sees words as pictures. So when we have a lot of words in our lectures or presentations, our brain has to do a lot of decoding and the student will remember little of it later. Only listening to a lecture and reading plain text is ineffective. Add images to your text and stimulate multiple senses, and remember that the pictures you use need to be in line with your content. But, again, be careful to not overwhelm your students.

You want to reduce cognitive load by reducing the information that’s not critical to the learning process. Keep your lectures and videos short. It’s better to have multiple small videos with the information chunked into bite-sized learning bits, of maybe no more than five minutes each. Some great software options for creating content include Canva, KineMaster, and InShot for video, infographics, posters, presentations, announcements, and so much more.

Effective implementation of instructional design strategies and tips
Flexibility and support were not the only words crucial for 2020. Simple was another word that ranked just as high as flexibility and support. Many great strategies were presented in the previous paragraph, but you also must remember to keep it simple. Pace yourself. Try not to implement everything at once. Be strategic in your implementation so that it’s effective. Simple strategies, such as seeing which students are in need and reaching out to them to help them and answer their questions, are essential. Immediate feedback through audio or video is helpful as well as written feedback. Learn the review feature of Microsoft Word or use Microsoft Teams and Google Meet to provide feedback or have ongoing dialogue. Some students weren’t getting any feedback until the very end of the semester because professors were overwhelmed or didn’t know how to give feedback online. Encourage your students not to procrastinate. Remember that the library and the tutoring centers are open even if only virtually and are ready to serve students.

Although students may be social-distancing and learning remotely, they are not alone. They are still in a class with a group of other students. Encourage activities that allow them to partner with each other for studying and support. Creating online study groups to watch lecture videos, or read homework, can combat the feeling of isolation. You can also design lectures with a video component and encourage videos to be watched on a large screen to mimic the classroom environment. Encourage students not to watch the videos from their phone. The larger screen makes the experience more lifelike and allows for less distraction (i.e. scrolling through social media, phone calls/texts, notifications and more).

Highlights from the conversation
Faculty members from across the globe gathered in forums such as the Faculty Resource Network’s first Virtual National Symposium, titled Curriculum Innovation for Transformative Learning and hosted by New York University, to express their needs and share resources relating to transformative learning and curriculum innovation. During the session at which I presented, faculty member Grisel Melendez Ramos stated that she had started adding graphics to her presentations. I encouraged attendees to use YouTube to also learn techniques like inserting videos in learning management systems such as Moodle. Another question raised by faculty was about students dodging live classes that incorporate a Socratic questioning method in favor of a passive experience of watching the recording later. In order to keep up attendance of live classes, it’s best to build attendance into the course. There is the step-forward-step-back method, which requires students to track their participation from the beginning. If a student notices that they haven’t participated at least three times in a session, whether in the chat or by raising a hand and answering a question, they need to step up and participate at least three times before that class period ends. If a student finds that they’re speaking too much and not giving someone else a chance to speak, they may want to step back. Make it a requirement that your students must attend so many times or administer a poll that counts as part of their credit for class participation.

During the session, there was also a robust discussion regarding whether cameras should be required to be on during class. Participant Dr. Sheila asked about how to motivate students to turn on their cameras, especially when the institution does not support this as a requirement.   Cameras are great at creating a classroom environment in the virtual space. However, many in our student population have disabilities that are either undiagnosed or concealed. They may not understand why they don’t want the camera to be on the entire time class is in session. Some students with autism or ADHD have stated that having the camera on feels like the entire class is looking directly at you through the duration of class which hinders their performance and ability to learn. They feel they may forget the camera is on and do something embarrassing that they won’t be able to recover from. Also, keeping the camera on can make things move slower if there are problems with wifi bandwidth. Look into the legalities and consider building alternatives into the syllabus for course participation.

Wandaliz Torres-García mentioned that, in her experience, students tended to be more comfortable with their being cameras on when in smaller groups. Grisel Melendez Ramos stated that her classes turned on their cameras for Halloween because they wanted to show their costumes. Other than that, they prefer to stay incognito. Faculty were advised to take advantage of this information, offer an incentive to the person who shows up in a brown hat, or who keeps their camera on for more than 30 minutes of class. Experiment to see what works best for your class.

Faculty stated that they felt alone when there were no faces in front of them in class. Therefore, they spent more time calling on students in the chat and taking attendance to see who was still there and listening. One faculty member even stated that he felt like a stand-up comedian whose jokes have fallen upon deaf ears. There is a disconnect that adds to the stress and despair during this process. Vilma R. Rivera of UPRC said that looking out at the faces in her class has been a motivator during this time when the element of human contact is so vital. Christina Mar said she never imagined that she would ever teach without showing her face, and questioned why people feel it is acceptable that students can learn without showing theirs. As interaction is fundamental to instruction, those students not required to show their cameras are missing a lot of the instructional process. While flexibility is important, it cannot take precedence over making the educational process more effective. Dr. Mar wondered how experimental learning, as well as real interaction, could be facilitated in the digital space. She continued on to say that she has had to stop certain projects because she could not see how to sustain them in the digital environment.

Faculty are encouraged, in the absence of instructional designers, to use YouTube and Google to find resources and ideas to allow them to think outside of the box. There are over 31 million channels on YouTube with a vast number of topics that would amaze and inspire you. You can look to see how others are incorporating things like labs and gardening into the virtual environment. Inspiration during a pandemic is imperative. As we all pivot during this season, it seems that we are all on a similar quest to provide the same quality of engaging and transformative learning that we have provided to our students year after year. Our search for continued learning has not stopped but rather has intensified during this journey and shifted to the online learning environment. Many faculty have enjoyed what they have learned and will keep a lot of this information when we return to the new normal, whenever that may be.