‘A conceptual whirlwind.’ Reflections on teaching the teachers, as Eastern Michigan University faculty members adjust to a primarily online classroom environment

Photo illustration of a book merging into a laptop to represent online learning

YPSILANTI – Before COVID-19, a relatively small number of Eastern Michigan University faculty had sustained experience in online teaching, and even fewer had received focused professional development on empirically supported online pedagogy.

Last spring, a team of instructors (Professor Michael McVey with Lecturers Sarah DeWard and Kimberly Pavlock) began working on a professional development pilot course for faculty to teach over the summer. But once COVID-19 arrived, the abrupt shift to online instruction created a sudden demand for support.

Suddenly last spring, nearly all faculty were expected to be online teachers. Faculty members who had never taught online needed help in getting started. Most of those received remarkable and timely assistance from EMU’s Center for E-Learning. For others with limited experience teaching online or who wanted to improve and hone their skills, we were ready for them. 

Instructing the instructors

Beginning in June, we rolled out our online-only version of “Improving Online Teaching.” Many of the learning activities were taken from the Learning Technology and Design (LTEC) Master’s program in the College of Education at EMU as well as the well-respected Quality Matters Higher Education Rubric for online course design.

We focused on one instructional design approach, called backward design, and thus reviewed the process of connecting learning outcomes with appropriately selected materials and assessment strategies that had proven effective in online learning environments. In addition, we explored the use of media, how to establish connections with students online, and the accessibility and usability of course materials. 

Each course participant had their own “sandbox” in the Canvas learning management system in which they could safely practice creating a refined online lesson. This feature of the training was imperative, as technological proficiency in Canvas was important for successful online course development.

We enjoyed interacting with fellow faculty members to problem-solve ways of achieving active learning and developing assessment strategies in the online learning environment.

A delicious array of pedagogical questions

We tackled questions such as: How does a history professor engage students in gamifying the trial of Socrates in the online classroom? How does an animation and gaming professor convey the interactive aspects of the course using Canvas? There were no easy answers here, but the parsing out of possibilities was fun nonetheless.

And this area was most enlightening to us as instructors, as we were able to see the pedagogical techniques of scores of our colleagues from across many different departments and programs on campus.

During the summer, faculty were sharing lessons that covered topics ranging from life as a camp nurse to regulations in the Jim Crow era, from basic algebra to Vedic texts, from music therapy to the Middle Passage.

To put it mildly, each day we felt like we were stepping into a conceptual whirlwind. We were reminded of the essay “The Aleph” by Argentinian Jorge Luis Borges, in which a character saw from a single vantage point everything in the world. But from our perspective as instructional designers, we also needed to focus on the bigger picture.

When teaching is like Swiss Cheese

Everyone came to “Improving Online Teaching” with different skill-sets and levels of experience with online pedagogy. We came to imagine knowledge about online teaching to be much like a slice of Swiss cheese; most of us know something about online teaching, but there are often holes in everyone’s understanding.

Thus, we encouraged our colleagues to dive deeply into the modules covering the concepts that were “holes” in their pedagogical toolkit. As participants worked through the modules, we also asked them to complete a survey about their own online teaching experiences based on the Quality Matters Evaluation Rubric. The Quality Matters (QM) organization has developed a set of eight General Standards and 42 Specific Review Standards used to evaluate the design of online and blended courses.

The self-reported perception of our faculty was that they do some of the standards very well. For example, most believed they introduced learners to the purpose and structure of their course as well as the institutional policies for their learners. They also believed they set appropriate learning objectives, stated grading policies, used up-to-date learning materials and activities that promoted the achievement of learning objectives.

Stating the need for computer skills

From their perspective, however, they also fell short in a few very specific ways. Many reported that they did not clearly state the computer skills and digital information literacy skills expected. Of some concern to us, as more faculty began to focus on their online teaching skills, was that they felt the learning objectives they shared were not always measurable or consistent with the objectives of the course.

Also, many shared that they lacked confidence that their assessments measured the stated objectives or that they were clearly explaining the grading policy well. Many noted that they needed to be more explicit in making the connection between the assignments and the objectives with their students. 

As the summer ended, we continued to mold and change the course to best meet the needs of EMU faculty. We were quick to grade submissions and respond to emails, modeling the importance of instructor presence in the online classroom.

Building empathy with new experiences

One colleague stated that the course helped her feel more confident that she was “on the right track” with her online teaching.

Other faculty learners reiterated the usefulness of taking an online course themselves, an experience that helped to build empathy with our student population.

And some expressed that the course was transformative to their teaching and learning and hoped that it would continue to be offered to EMU faculty throughout the academic year. Indeed, LTEC 590 (“Improving Online Teaching”) is now a one-credit Special Topics course offered through the Teacher Education Department with the goal of making it a regular offering.

So, is online teaching working this Fall at EMU?

If our experience is any indication, EMU is full of committed faculty willing to adapt their teaching to best serve the needs of our students.

Yes, that’s working.

Note: Michael McVey is a professor of teacher education at EMU, and Sarah DeWard is a part-time lecturer in the Department of Sociology, Anthropology and Criminology.

About Eastern Michigan University

Founded in 1849, Eastern is the second oldest public university in Michigan. It currently serves more than 16,000 students pursuing undergraduate, graduate, specialist, doctoral and certificate degrees in the arts, sciences and professions. In all, more than 300 majors, minors and concentrations are delivered through the University's Colleges of Arts and Sciences; Business; Education; Engineering and Technology; Health and Human Services; and, its graduate school. EMU is regularly recognized by national publications for its excellence, diversity, and commitment to applied education. For more information about Eastern Michigan University, visit the University's website.

November 18, 2020

Written by:
Michael McVey and Sarah DeWard

Media Contact:
Geoff Larcom