Moving Online: Learning to Teach in a New Way

Female student working on her laptop outside on the UWM campus.

In March 2020, the School of Education faced one of the most difficult challenges in its 125-year+ history.

Suddenly, because of the exploding COVID-19 pandemic, SOE faculty and teaching academic staff, like others all over campus, were faced with the need to move classes online in just a few weeks. As the pandemic lingered on, the need for online instruction continued into the fall, even as the campus re-opened in a limited way — offering a few in-person classes or hybrids — blends of in-person and online instruction.

“Approximately 70 percent of our classes are online,” said Kristin Gaura, education technology consultant for the School of Education. Even those classes that are face-to-face may have a blended format, meaning instructors are teaching part of the classes online. And, Gaura adds, “we have to have all of our classes capable of being online in case students become ill. If they have children or family members, they may not want to risk bringing the virus home to them.”

The transition has sometimes been bumpy. Students indicated in surveys that many found the online format challenging, and enrollment declined as the fall semester started.

However, Gaura says, instructors have stepped up their abilities as they adapted to the new environment. “In the spring when we went online remote, it was an emergency, but over the summer the teachers really blossomed into it,” she says. Instructors took classes in online teaching, learned the technology and adapted their courses to best meet the needs of their students.

Gaura herself had only been in her position a few weeks when the pandemic hit and ended up working from home while helping her own three children continue their education virtually.

“Once people knew this was going to be here for awhile, they put themselves front and center in learning how to do it successfully. I’m just more surprised day by day at their willingness to put in the work,” she says. “It’s been a wild, crazy ride for sure, but I really think that people have stepped up.”

“They have everything they need to do it successfully. They know how to teach; they know how to get the information content to the learners. What they’re missing is just the technology…learning the technology has been the most difficult part,” she adds.

Instructors credit Gaura, CETL (the Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning) workshops and help from colleagues like Simone Conceicao, professor of administrative leadership and an expert in online learning, with helping them make the transition. CETL also gave faculty like SOE Associate Professor Marie Sandy a forum to share successful ideas on Canvas.

How They Did It

Here are some stories on how some instructors did it.

The American Sign Language Studies program faced some specific challenges.

“Because ASL is a visual language, we require human contact and interaction with our students,” says Marika Kovacs-Houlihan, clinical associate professor in the American Sign Language program. “It’s a 3-D language, not a linear language like a spoken language. So trying to interact with students in a 3-D environment, but having to do this in a 2-D platform, that made it challenging.”

One key effort was trying to make an immediate connection with students as classes started. One of the first efforts, involving the whole ASL team, was creating a “percussion song,” using the Panther Fight Song. “Even though we can’t hear, ASL literature has a specific device we call percussion,” said Kovacs-Houlihan”.  By creating this percussion song, we share a bit of our culture while making something engaging for the students.

“It gave us an opportunity to connect with our students,” said Erin Wiggins, another clinical associate professor in the program. “That connection is so hard to do in an online platform. “

Now the teachers regularly open classes with something fun, says Kovacs-Houlihan, “a fun fact about American Sign Language or something about the culture, the humor, the history.”

Another element that was critical to enhancing student engagement was more synchronous classes, according to Wiggins and Kovacs-Houlihan.  ASL requires a high level of eye contact which is something students find challenging even in a face-to-face environment.

Marika Kovacs-Houlihan

Marika Kovacs-Houlihan

“Hearing people don’t need eye contact because they depend on their auditory ability,” Kovacs-Houlihan said. “They can go ahead and look at something other than the person that’s speaking, and they can still be engaged. You cannot do that in ASL.”  For that reason, instructors expect students to keep their cameras engaged to practice this important skill.  Even with this expectation, it is still a challenge.

The ASL instructors worked together to build online blueprints that could be adapted for all classes.

Teaching and Learning

Barb Kilp, an adjunct instructor in teaching and learning also found that a consistent approach helped her students adapt to the online environment. When she moved from a hybrid course to all online, she condensed 15 weeks into six modules.

“I started from nothing, developing outcome goals for the course, then each module and started looking for the most interesting articles, research and videos. Active engagement with the material was my primary goal, with class community building as my secondary goal,” she says.

Taking what she learned through a CETL course, she built a Canvas course online, putting modules, activities and discussion assignments on one page.

“This saved students from needing to navigate to different Canvas areas to complete coursework,” she said. “Putting everything on one page helped me develop a visually simple template for students to follow and work independently.”

Kilp also used narrated PowerPoints to help present material for a number of reasons:

  • “Some information could be explained quickly and easily in a slide/narration format;
  • Changing the slide every 20 seconds or so to another supporting visual helped keep the audience engaged with the material.
  • I felt listening to my voice narrate in a conversational style helped students feel more connected with the course and me.”

Students were offered the choice of narrated PowerPoints or PowerPoints with notes. Most – 26 out of 32 — chose the narrated version.

The preparation was time consuming – one of the biggest challenges of moving online, Kilp says, but she adds, “the time I spent finding engaging content and making PowerPoints seems to have paid off. Student writing reflected not only knowledge of the content, but deep insight, enthusiasm and passion for the subject matter.”

Feedback Is Vital

Leanne M. Evans

Leanne Evans

Feedback from students has been important in continuously improving courses, according to those teaching online. The Early Childhood Education (ECE) program, for example, started the fall with a survey on how students felt they have been supported, according to Leanne Evans, program chair. “As an outcome of the survey, we are increasing opportunities to connect with faculty/instructors and we are developing ways to communicate university resources that focus on students’ well-being.” The department is also committed to creating spaces where students can connect with each other to share their experiences and offer support. Enrollment has held steady in the program, and ECE plans to check in with the students through the survey each semester,” Evans says.

Kilp offered students bonus points for suggestions for improving the content and presentation.

Erin Wiggins

Erin Wiggins

The ASL team relied on continued feedback and worked with the entire team to keep making improvements. “It’s not just Marika and I that make these decisions, we really work together,” said Wiggins. “It can be very challenging, but we do what we can to see what’s working and what’s not working. Then we regroup; that’s how we have to do it. I’m so impressed with our team because they are so engaged with this and so committed to making this a good online class for our students.”

Online teachers need to hear from students and want to improve, said Gaura. “That’s what online learning is. Even the most seasoned online teacher has to make changes to accommodate their learners. Every time you teach a class, whether you taught it online last time or not, you should look at what was successful and what was not.”

And the challenges of 2020 may have some benefits for teachers and students when classrooms return to whatever “normal” is, says Gaura. As classrooms incorporate more technology in the future, being comfortable with it will become increasingly important for teachers at all levels, she adds.

“It is changing our programs most definitely, but it’s something we’re picking up and putting into our skill set to use again.”