Weber State University’s Teaching and Learning Forum held a virtual conference Nov. 13 aptly titled “What the Hell Just Happened?” to offer the university community, especially faculty and staff, a place to share experiences, ideas and support in response to a whirlwind period of adjusting to virtual instruction methods.
A main goal of the meeting was for all instructors to leave with at least one new strategy to improve the virtual classroom experience for the coming semester, which is expected to continue the current plan of remote-when-possible course delivery.
The conference, led by Colleen Packer of the communication department at WSU, divided attendees into breakout rooms to discuss different issues related to the sudden shift away from face-to-face learning, including video and web conference issues, the problem of keeping students engaged in virtual classes and a discussion of feedback from students about the semester so far.
A large part of the discussions were centered on options in Canvas, WSU’s online interface, that offer opportunities for more interpersonal connection, a vital factor that may have eroded during the shift to virtual learning.
One method is peer-reviewed assignments — a way to promote help and feedback between students who may not interact otherwise.
“One primary purpose of meeting face-to-face was to review student papers and give quality feedback, in an interpersonal way,” said Blair Newbold, an instructor of the automotive technical education program.
Another way of cultivating interpersonal connection in the virtual environment is for instructors to create assigned breakout rooms for students, an option possible through Zoom.
This could allow them time to discuss or review class material and hopefully become more comfortable with each other and the virtual environment.
Pre-made groups also save time in classes that use groups frequently, rather than the instructor having to assign students into groups each time — one small step instructors may take in streamlining a virtual class.
“A lot of time is wasted online,” said Francois Giraud-Carrier of the Goddard School of Business and Economics. “You want to be as efficient as possible.”
Anonymous student feedback about the virtual synchronous delivery method was divided. Some students appreciated the fact that arranging childcare or commuting to campus were no longer necessary, while others expressed frustrations.
“There is going to be a very tough road ahead, because you just can’t make everybody happy,” said Alexander Lancaster, of the communication department.
In surveys, a resounding sentiment was praise for WSU’s instructors for being accommodating and understanding with students during this difficult time.
“One of the things that really showed up was students acknowledging the fact that their faculty were trying very hard, and they appreciated that the faculty were really trying to make it the best experience, even in this situation,” said Shandel Hadlock, an instructional designer of WSU Online.
The attitude of gratitude may go a long way in getting the university community through this era of social distancing. Whether it is frustrating, convenient or a mix of both, students and instructors will likely have to continue to overcome virtual difficulties for at least another semester or two.