In 2002, Laura Gibbs joined a forward-thinking movement in OU’s College of Arts and Sciences: fully online classes.
At the time, Gibbs said it was “unusual” to find traditional academic administrators invested in the vision of online instruction. But nearly two decades later, as universities nationwide are looking to online classes as a solution in a pandemic, Gibbs’ years of online experience are coming in handy.
As OU plans a return to campus this fall, COVID-19 precautions will force some changes to the academic side of university life. OU will be moving its largest classes online, though the university does plan to split some into smaller in-person sections.
While other instructors also have online teaching experience, others are moving their traditionally in-person classes online for the first time. Having released multiple online teaching resources like Teach Anywhere, the university is encouraging instructors to make class formats flexible.
Regardless of experience, online teaching can represent a new challenge. But online learning doesn’t have to mean long, tedious video lectures or a confinement to Canvas, OU’s learning management system.
As OU migrates to online and hybrid teaching structures, The Transcript spoke with four OU instructors to find out how they use technology and online resources to support their hybrid classrooms or online courses. Here are their strategies.
In the transition from in-person to online classes, some instructors struggle with the departure from a traditional, synchronous class.
In the academic world, synchronous instruction happens when an instructor is teaching in real time and operating on set meeting times. Synchronous instruction happens daily in in-person classes, but also can happen online if instructors lecture via live videoconference or schedule times for online student engagement.
But online instruction also offers an option that in-person classes can’t: Asynchronous instruction. Classes don’t have to meet at set times, lectures don’t have to happen live and learning resources can be permanently available for students anytime within a set deadline.
When Gibbs started teaching fully online courses at OU in the early 2000s, the idea of asynchronous online instruction made sense, she said. Students didn’t have to be any less involved at OU if they took online classes, but they could have much more flexible schedules.
“It's not that the students are distant students — they're right there in Norman, they're involved in student activities, they’re working on campus," Gibbs said. “They’re regular students, but they're taking this class online because it's convenient for them. That's usually the main reason students end up in my classes, is it fits their schedule … the whole idea of doing stuff online was to make things easier for the students.”
OU expository writing lecturer Robert Scafe, who teaches summer online courses, said his online classes must be asynchronous to be successful. Effective asynchronous online teaching can require instructors to think outside the traditional box, Scafe said — classes may be a little more complex than a lecture delivered over Zoom or a lengthy video recording.
“I think everyone is learning that lengthy lectures do not transfer well to online — I never liked them very much anyway,” Scafe said. “Even if I am teaching a lecture class in front of 50 students, I usually try to break it up in some ways … but especially so for online, you’ve got to break things down by week and offer a lot of variety on a day-by-day basis.”
Just because a class is asynchronous doesn’t mean an instructor must completely lose face time or connection with students.
Jenel Cavazos, an associate professor of psychology, said it’s important to keep checking in with students and make answers available. While she doesn’t record lectures, she might record a specific explanation for a student who has a question about her written material.
“The research shows that students don’t really listen to recorded lectures, but they think they want those,” Cavazos said. “... They’re still getting that piece of me talking and explaining things, but they’re not listening to three hours a week of me just talking.”
While Canvas offers a number of interaction tools — like online discussion boards where students and instructors can engage — some instructors look beyond that platform to supplement classes and help students connect online.
Meta Carstarphen, a professor in OU’s Gaylord College of Journalism and Mass Communication, uses the platform to push students and ideas into a public forum.
While not all of Carstarphen’s courses are online, the professor said she discovered that supplementing her courses with Twitter gives her students a unique, non-classroom opportunity. Carstarphen assigns a minimum number of tweets to her students, who have Twitter dialogues with one another using class-specific hashtags.
“While we spend much more time in our Canvas environment with more developed discussions and with quizzes and written assignments that grapple with these topics, I wanted the students also to begin to have confidence in exchanging ideas in a public forum,” Carstarphen said. “The purpose is to know how to comment on issues related to identity and the media in a way that is not aggressive, that is not baiting someone else, that is not negative. … It has to be content-based and relevant to our class activities.”
While students’ tweets are just a small part of Carstarphen’s grading system, she said the platform can help students connect and realize commonalities in ways they never would have in the physical classroom.
Utilizing online tools, even in in-person or hybrid classes, also has unexpected benefits. Carstarphen said that Twitter conversations mean that all students, whether naturally shy or more outspoken, have an equal opportunity to be heard.
Scafe teaches both online and in-person expository writing classes, but thanks to the online annotation tool Hypothesis, he’s found a way to get his students talking about their readings outside of a physical class. Hypothesis allows Scafe’s students to take notes in the margins of online readings that are visible to classmates.
“Our classes are discussion-based, and sometimes … discussion can be inequitable — there are some students who are less prone to raise their hands, some students might dominate the conversation,” Scafe said. “One thing that I’ve noticed is that when you hold discussions online, some of those students that you can tell they’ve done the reading but they’re very quiet … those students will shine — they’re writing these paragraphs in the margins of the text, and they’re finally getting to have their say.”
Gibbs has built her own platforms for online engagement and connection by using blogs in her classes. While Gibbs maintains her own blogs with resources and instruction plans for her students, her courses also allow each of her students to set up their own blogs, where they share their assignments and interact with one another.
Gibbs’ students can record their assignments and see their grades in Canvas, but blogs can offer a more flexible platform for disseminating information and encouraging students to learn more about one another in their personalized blog spaces.
“Making those connections, it's hard, because the thing I've worked on the most of my classes for the past few years is, 'how can we do a better job with that?'” Gibbs said. “It's not easy, but think about — it's not easy in a classroom. You take a class, and let's say there's 30 or 40 people in the room and you're looking around in the room like, ‘how am I even going to learn these people's names?’ And so it's hard to make community in the classroom, and it's hard to make community online, but the tools available to do it online I think are good.”
Making the right choice
For some instructors, teaching online in the fall won’t be a choice. But others may get to pick the degree to which they put their courses online, and have space to create a hybridized and flexible learning environment that can easily switch between the physical and digital realms.
With a fully online class, Scafe said consistency is key. Students should know what kinds of assignments they should be working on at a certain time every week; deadlines on specific assignments should be the same week to week, he said.
For instructors considering how to best use tools outside of Canvas to make their classes stronger, Carstarphen said it’s important for instructors to keep things straightforward and pick options that they’re comfortable with.
Cavazos also recommended that instructors seek student feedback and find out what works best for them. Communicating with other instructors and finding out what tools they use can also help create continuity and reduce confusion for students, Cavazos said.
For Gibbs, the key to thoughtful online instruction is continuing education, she said. Over the last few years, Gibbs built up a vibrant community on Twitter, engaging with other academics and learning new things about teaching.
The current moment is ripe for academics to start learning online themselves, discovering what tools work for them and transferring that knowledge to their students, Gibbs said.
“It's really a time where academics not so much can start thinking about teaching online, but sort of rediscover how to learn online, just for their own sanity,” Gibbs said. “Academics, we're always asking questions and learning — that's our job, that's why it's such a cool job, you get to learn new stuff all the time. So if you're going to learn things online now, how are you going to do that? Where are you going to go? What are you going to do? What are you going to use, who are you going to talk to online? And if you figure out how that works in your discipline, then you can turn around and show your students how that's done.”
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