FIU Online’s Instructor Webinar series explores instructional strategies and effective uses of technology in distance learning environments. Lessons Learned – A FIU Panel on Teaching During a Global Pandemic discusses FIU’s initiative for academic continuity during the COVID-19 pandemic and lessons learned during remote learning.
Instant Replay: Lessons Learned – Teaching During a Global Pandemic
In the instructor webinar for December 2020, Maikel Alendy and Christina Schettini sat down with fellow FIU instructors, Dr. Martha Meyer Barantovich, Dr. José Rodríguez, and Dr. Uma Swamy. The professors discussed the challenges they faced after FIU’s transition to remote learning, as well as the solutions that led to a meaningful semester. Three major themes echoed throughout the panel: self-care, flexibility, and progress.
Transition to remote life came with a steep learning curve, from figuring out Zoom to understanding that it’s good to get out of your pajamas. Professors recognized that getting dressed was helpful to their own mental health during the global pandemic. Dr. Rodríguez was one of many who fell victim to comfy clothes at the beginning of the pandemic. He quickly learned it was not conducive to a healthy teaching and learning environment.
“I started actually [putting] pants on and I would put shoes on,” began Rodríguez. “Then at the end of the day, when I was done with my class, it was both figurative and literal that I’m changing into the next phase of myself.”
Self-care was a major theme throughout the panel. Mental health issues have increased since the COVID-19 pandemic began, including in people quarantining alone. For students who live alone, Zoom lectures may be the only time they interact with people on any given day.
Dr. Barantovich discussed how she didn’t know what her students were going through. She expressed how remote learning was a chance to be fully present and fully human in a way that she hadn’t before. The instructors pointed out the importance of bringing check-ins, breaks, and even meditation into the virtual classroom. FIU Libraries provide a LibGuide on Meditation for students. Dr. Rodríguez incorporated breaks into each Zoom lecture, some including Calm breathing sessions.
“I think now more than ever, even after the pandemic is over, it makes the whole world of difference just that [my students] know that I care,” said Dr. Rodríguez.
There is no way to transition from in-person to remote learning without flexibility. The instructors all learned that planned in-person activities don’t have the same effect virtually.
Dr. Swamy’s biggest challenge was trying to emulate active learning in breakout rooms. In a normal in-person environment, Dr. Swamy likes to walk around the room and peer into students’ notebooks. While technology has been difficult for Dr. Swamy, she admitted that she had never been more comfortable incorporating tech into her teaching.
“This semester, I have used so many different kinds of technology and thankfully they all worked,” said Dr. Swamy. “I think it’s perhaps one of the biggest takeaways is that I can use technology for engagement.”
Zoom Pros & Cons
Even though there were difficulties, Dr. Swamy agreed the Zoom platform was pivotal in remote teaching. It was the only way that she could seamlessly teach 200 students amid a global pandemic. Fellow instructors noticed that their shy students felt more inclined to participate virtually than in a traditional face-to-face classroom.
At the center of the virtual world, Zoom had around 10 million daily meeting participants in December 2019, drastically rising to over 300 million in April 2020. Despite being essential to remote teaching, Zoom has its downsides. One instructor in the Zoom chat noticed that he had a difficult time getting to know his students remotely.
“The biggest drawback for me personally was trying to get a sense of the students in my class, especially since so many appeared as black backgrounds and disembodied voices,” admitted the participant.
The panel agreed that Zoom lacked a means of apprehending non-verbal communication. Instructors mentioned a tell-tale sign of understanding was seeing it in their students’ eyes. With no requirement to have cameras on, Dr. Barantovich, Dr. Swamy, and Dr. Rodríguez were relying on verbal student affirmations during the lessons.
“It’s all the non-verbal aspects of the way that we communicate and Zoom misses out, especially when [students] don’t have their camera on,” said Dr. Rodríguez. “I’m speaking into the void and it makes it very disengaged.”
Instructors learned from having to teach remotely and were forced to adapt their plans into online-friendly standards. The panel admitted that there are some new techniques that they intend on continuing during their in-person sessions.
Dr. Swamy incorporated a new project into her chemistry course that gave students the chance to interact with the subject in the outside world. The project was a great opportunity for students to change their daily routines, and they responded positively to the experience.
Learning from students can be rewarding and help shape the overall curriculum. Dr. Barantovich has always been a proponent of giving students a voice in their course experience. She believes that when they have a voice, they are able to excel to their fullest potential. While having a voice in-person is important, Dr. Barantovich found this even more critical in a virtual environment. She realized that each student is going through something different in their personal lives, so allowing them to have alternate paths to success was meaningful.
“Say yes and let them be the best student that they can be,” advised Dr. Barantovich. “I will fully 100% use that until the day I die. I think if a student comes to me and they’re like, ‘Don’t want to do that,’ then okay, let’s figure something else out.”
While Dr. Barantovich found common ground with student voices in her in-person and remote courses, Dr. Rodríguez pointed out the differences. Replicating in-person courses remotely isn’t feasible, but he warned that remote courses also don’t equate to online courses. Engagement levels differ between the two because online is intentional, whereas remote is a solution to a global pandemic.
“There is a magic that happens when humans get together since the moment that we became the species that we are,” said Dr. Rodríguez. “We like being around each other and this just proves it.”
More on Remote Teaching
These are just a few of the perceived realities and solutions to remote teaching. The FIU Instructor Webinar series provides many tools to make the most from the remote experience.
Stay up to date on past and future Instructor Webinars to gather more insight from fellow FIU instructors. In the meantime, check out the following Instructor Webinar recaps from FIU Insider’s archive: