Fall 2020: How to Achieve Continuity in Teaching and Learning
There’s no getting away from the fact that online learning and classroom learning are essentially different experiences, says Rick Broene. But, he adds, “what makes for effective online learning is exactly the same thing that makes for good in-classroom learning.”
Broene is a professor of chemistry and chair of the Continuity in Teaching and Learning Group (CTLG), a collection of twenty-three faculty, students, and staff charged by President Clayton Rose with developing an online teaching and learning model that will approach the challenge from a fresh perspective while building on the lessons learned during the spring 2020 semester. The group spent the better part of ten weeks coming up with a comprehensive plan for Bowdoin College in the fall—a plan that guides faculty in creating an online learning environment that delivers the defining aspects of a Bowdoin education.
About half of the group was made up of faculty members, the rest being technology, education, and communications specialists from the Bowdoin staff, as well as several students. Extensive surveys were conducted to assess what worked and what didn’t in the second half of the 2020 spring semester, when the COVID-19 pandemic forced the College to pivot quickly to remote teaching. In issuing its findings and recommendations, the group also drew on the latest pedagogical research regarding online instruction and interviews with external consultants in the field.
What will next year look like?
After consulting with experts in the fields of science, medicine, and public health, President Rose recently unveiled Bowdoin’s plan for the upcoming academic year. It’s designed to ensure the health and safety of the College community amid the uncertainty of the ongoing pandemic, while providing an excellent Bowdoin education to all students.
According to the plan, all first-year students will be on campus for the fall semester, along with transfer students, student residential life staff, students who for personal reasons are unable to pursue an online education at home, and a small number of senior honors students who require access to physical spaces on campus for their projects and can do so under health and safety protocols. All classes will be taught online, with the exception of most first-year seminars. As for the spring 2021 semester, Rose says: “Assuming we are able to make it through the fall successfully in protecting the health and safety of our community, it is my intention and expectation to have sophomores, juniors, and seniors back on campus in the spring—with priority given to seniors.”
The CTLG report offers the acronym, SUCCEED, to summarize its aims.
- Student-Centered Learning: Content and assessments reflect consideration of students’ needs, ideas, and aspirations.
- Universal Design: Course materials and resources are accessible to all students.
- Connectivity: Students have access to a stable learning environment.
- Community: Courses build in opportunities for student collaboration and connection.
- Equity: All students are provided the resources and instruction needed to achieve the course goals.
- Engagement: Students are actively involved in their learning.
- Diversity: Students are challenged with voices and viewpoints other than their own.
Different classes, different needs
In planning for the fall, Broene says the group gave a lot of thought to the kinds of classes faculty have to deliver online. “We have discussion-based classes; we have lecture-based classes.” And then, he adds, there are lab-based classes, as well as performance, arts, and language-based learning. “We asked faculty who taught in all of these modes to talk about what went well, what didn’t, and what ideas they had.”
Lecture- and discussion-based classes
The group has developed recommendations for all types of courses, suggesting what can best make them “Bowdoin” courses. One of the biggest takeaways from the spring experience concerned content delivery and the need for clear separation of synchronous learning, which is live and collaborative, involving all the students, and asynchronous content, which is prerecorded and on-demand. “In a normal face-to-face classroom, we can improvise,” says Crystal Hall. “Students can ask questions of faculty right in the moment. It's harder to do that in an online setting.”
Hall is associate professor of digital humanities and director of the digital and computational studies program. The recommendation, she says, is to break up larger classes into small groups (around twelve or fewer) for the discussion portion of the lesson. “The feedback we had said that smaller groups are more enjoyable: there's more contact, there’s time for everyone to participate, for people to ask questions and to really get their hands on the material.” While professors continue to teach the class, they will benefit from an expanded use of student teaching assistants (TAs) to help with larger classes, as TAs are employed to facilitate and organize these smaller discussion groups.
The lectures, meanwhile, are to be delivered asynchronously and distilled into digestible chunks of fifteen or twenty minutes each that can be easily downloaded and listened to on-demand. This actually has some advantages over a classroom situation, says Broene. “In a classroom you're watching somebody lecture while writing something. You're listening and you're trying to think about it all at the same time.” Whereas online, he explains, you can review the content until you understand it.
Professor of Neuroscience and Biology Manuel Díaz-Ríos chaired the subcommittee that studied the issue of laboratory-based learning and how that will work. In their search for creative solutions, he and his colleagues have recommended a number of initiatives. Díaz-Ríos cited one example from his own work: “We’re going to ship equipment to students so they can conduct experiments on their own.” That equipment includes an outreach effort called “Backyard Brains,” designed to introduce students to neuroscience. Among the pieces of the kit coming their way are headbands made to amplify, measure, and record brain activity. “It’s quite exciting,” he says. “Students can perform experiments on themselves!”
“There are many portions of our lab work that we can do well in an online environment,” says Broene. For example, he points out, students can do fieldwork, collect data and interpret it, learning on the way how to use new types of instrumentation.
Some lab work, though, cannot be done remotely, he continues. “I can’t, for example, send a bottle of ether to my organic chemistry students. That would be dangerous and probably illegal.”
This is where flexibility is required. “Flexibility is key,” he stresses, and that might include the flexibility to postpone a lab-based course that has to be done on campus until the spring semester—when a more regular routine will have hopefully returned—and use the fall semester to pursue labs that lend themselves more to online learning.
Carrie Scanga, associate professor of art, chair of the department of art, and director of the visual arts division, worked on performance-based classes—theater and dance, music, language, visual arts—to figure out best practices for online learning. Performance-based classes in general, says Scanga, will be influenced by what is going on in the outside world and the highly unusual circumstances under which students are learning. “We know from our spring experience that the most impactful courses for students are ones that address contemporary issues. These classes give students a chance to interact with their feelings about these times,” she adds.
As the report states, performance-based courses have the opportunity to directly address how the arts function to heal, maintain community, or disrupt societal systems in this era. Examples cited include courses on film acting, “Dance in the TikTok Era,” and improvised musical communities (balcony singing) as ways of interacting with the wider world. All of these courses, says Scanga, are reliant on creating a space where students can feel comfortable, whether they are singing, dancing, acting, or practicing a foreign language.
As with all classes, there is a heavy reliance on technology to achieve these goals and a great deal of the CTLG report is dedicated to this issue.
Connectivity and consistency
A number of lessons were learned in the spring about what technology best suits an online learning model, says Senior Vice President and Chief Information Officer Michael Cato. “We were reacting to an emergency so we encouraged faculty to work with the tools they knew, and they used a lot of approaches and platforms. Now, as we plan for the fall,” he says, “we will emphasize consistency.”
Decreasing the cognitive load for students is key, says Cato, so that the way in which they are learning does not distract from the learning itself. The new experience will be centered around two or three learning platforms with everything going through Blackboard. Classes may employ technologies like Zoom and Microsoft Teams, but the gateway to them, the starting point, will be the familiar Blackboard platform, he explains, where all student assignments and material for the week will be posted.
Then there’s the issue of connectivity and how to ensure that all students, off campus and on, will be technically able to have the same learning experience. In addition to shipping equipment like tablets and laptops to students who need them, the College is also partnering with institutions that might be local to off-campus students and able to provide them with wireless internet connections. There’s also the eduroam initiative, says Cato. It’s a global partnership of higher education institutions—including Bowdoin—that offers shared free access to high-speed wireless networks. If a student lives near a college or a university, they may be able to access the institution’s WiFi network using eduroam.
There is, explains Kathyrn Byrnes, an inherent paradox in the new teaching model, and it’s a welcome one. She’s director of the Baldwin Center for Learning and Teaching. “As a student, while you’re doing more on your own and working independently, there are also many opportunities to build community through one-on-one connections with your professors and fellow students.”
Associate Dean for Academic Affairs Elizabeth Pritchard says it was also really important to involve students in the process and to learn from them. “One of the things students are really good at is creating community online,” she says. Five students served on the CTLG and helped address a number of issues, including that of time zones. “We decided to change the time-block format,” says Caroline Poole ’22, “to accommodate students across all time zones.” To solve this problem, courses are being offered at different times for different days of the week.
Gavin Shilling ’21 worked on a subcommittee looking at lecture-based classes. “Our balance was trying to create a structure that everyone could work within but also allow for some flexibility for the professors to improvise and be creative in the moment.”
Peyton Tran ’23 says she’s “really optimistic going into the next semester because I know that Bowdoin professors are going to still be high-quality professors—just through a different medium.”
“The terms ‘remote instruction’ and ‘online instruction’ are often used interchangeably. The difference is that the first entails temporarily transitioning content designed for face-to-face instruction to the internet, whereas the second is the purposeful design and implementation of a course for delivery online. Thus, Bowdoin’s spring semester was an instance of remote instruction, whereas planning for the fall entails the development of online teaching and learning.”
Page 5, CTLG final report.
The CTLG report lays out a detailed timeline for faculty, to help them prepare all the components and materials they need for the upcoming semester. Putting together an online course requires a lot of support from academic technology staff, and after extensive discussions with several companies, Bowdoin has hired a firm of outside experts to complement the internal team, selected because of their deep understanding of online education and that they get what is special about a liberal arts education.
With classes due to start on September 2, 2020, work is underway in earnest to ensure students this fall will experience the full benefits of a Bowdoin education, even if it is one that will look different from anything that’s gone before.
“While we don’t have all the answers yet,” says Broene, “I learned enough in this work to be sure of two things: that the Bowdoin faculty is fully committed to their students’ education and that they are determined to get this right.”