Cross-posted from the Vanderbilt Center for Teaching blog.
For some instructors, the classroom looks very different this fall. Some of their students are in the classroom, but masked and physically distanced. Some of their students are participating remotely during class via Zoom. Prior to this fall, no one had taught in these conditions. The Center for Teaching staff put together a number of resources this summer suggesting strategies for fostering active learning in this unusual teaching environment, including this widely shared blog post I wrote back in June.
Now that we’re a few weeks into the semester, I wanted to know what was working and what was a continuing challenge for instructors, so I convened a conversation on teaching earlier this week attended by 18 of my faculty colleagues representing a range of disciplines. They were excited to be back in the classroom this fall. “There’s a different energy when we’re face-to-face,” one of them said. We had a lively discussion via Zoom about hybrid teaching, including what made it exciting and what made it frustrating, and I wanted to share a few highlights here on the blog.
We started the conversation with what I’ve been calling a “ready-set-go” question, a Zoom-friendly discussion technique I learned about from my wife, who experienced it in an online course she took this summer. I posed a question to the group—“What’s working in your fall courses?”—and asked everyone to compose a reply in the text chat, but not to hit enter until I said “go.” I waited a minute or two while the participants thought and typed, and when it was clear that most of the participants were no longer typing, I said, “Ready, set, go!” Everyone hit enter, and a slew of responses appeared in the chat at the same time. At this point, we all spent a couple of minutes reading through the responses. I selected a couple that were particularly interesting and called on those participants to elaborate via video.
I’ve used these “ready-set-go” questions in a few Zoom sessions this fall, and I find it a very useful technique. Everyone has the chance to think about the question independently, before hearing their peers’ responses, and everyone is invited to share a response, so you and your students hear from more participants that you would if you used video alone for discussion. Two tips I’ve discovered, thanks to colleagues: Add a visual cue in the text chat before the question, like a series of dashes or periods, so you can easily spot the start of the responses in the chat. Also, ask participants to put their hands up when they’re done typing; when you see enough participant hands in the video boxes, you know it’s time to say “go.”
What did my colleagues say was working about hybrid teaching this fall? Several faculty mentioned how important course organization has been this fall, from having clear and engaging pre-class assignments for students, to posting materials and assignments well in advance, to using Brightspace to communicate regularly with students. Other faculty pointed to the usefulness of Zoom breakout rooms for more engaging and fluid conversations among students. One instructor noted that it’s hard to get students to move out of their regular seats in a traditional classroom to interacts with different students, but Zoom’s random breakout room assignment feature makes this easy.
A couple of instructors mentioned strategies they’ve used to help their in-person and remote students interact and feel part of a shared learning community. Anita Wager, professor of the practice of teaching and learning, described her use of Google Jamboard as a shared, virtual whiteboard for her students. She will ask her students, for instance, to respond to one of the readings during class, adding a handwritten or typed response to the Jamboard, or posting a photo or image that captures their response. This strategy doesn’t provide the kind of independent responses of a “ready-set-go” question, but it does allow for multimedia responses and for students to add to the virtual whiteboard as the class discussion continues. For another use of Jamboard in teaching, see my math colleague Matt Leingang’s tweets about his first day of class.
Another instructor, Alice Mark, senior lecturer in mathematics, shared her use of Zoom’s text chat in her hybrid classroom. She had tried using the chat as a backchannel, where her remote students could ask questions and interact with her in-person students. She asked her in-person students to play the role of “Voice of the Chat,” vocalizing to the class important questions and comments from the text chat. However, she found that some of her students were hesitant to really embrace this role, so she shifted strategies. Now she poses some questions about the day’s topic at the start of class, and invites her remote students to weigh in on those questions in the text chat. She displays the questions and the Zoom chat on the projector screen at the start of class, so that her in-person students can see. She has found this helpful in having her remote students feel more part of the class learning community.
What’s not working this fall? That is, what has this group of instructors found to be a continuing challenge in hybrid teaching? One them confirms a hypothesis I had earlier in the summer: classwide discussion is hard in this setting. The remote students can’t hear the in-person students in most instances, which limits student-to-student discussion. One instructor noted that in her large-enrollment class, with 50 students in the lecture hall and more than that participating online, she has to repeat questions asked of her into her microphone so that all students can hear. This seemed to work well enough for Q&A during class, but not for more robust discussions. Another instructor had a small enough class that she could move her laptop and external microphone to the middle of the room, which helped the remote students hear the in-person students. She also bought inexpensive megaphones—the analog kind that cheerleaders use—to help students hear each other.
This answer to “What’s not working?” summarized another theme in the responses: “The difficulty of having to pay attention to the technology of Zoom and read chats while simultaneously being present with the students in the classroom.” There’s a lot to juggle in the hybrid classroom, with two distinct groups of students and layers of technology. Another instructor who teaches large classes wrote, “My usual lecture style is very interactive—asking students lots of questions throughout my talk. It’s harder for me to adjust my lecture, checking for understanding and engagement, in Zoom.” One faculty member tried lecturing via Zoom, but described the experience as “horrible.” She has since moved her lectures to videos students can watch asynchronously, and she uses her Zoom sessions for small- and large-group discussion. Versions of this strategy, that is, using pre-class activities intentionally to simplify what needs to happen during class, were mentioned by other instructors.
On a similar note, some instructors noted the challenge of engaging their remote students during class. One faculty member found that her in-person students asked far more questions of her than her remote students. Other instructors mentioned that it can be easy to forget the remote students are there on Zoom. Hybrid classes require a new rhythm for instructors, and I think they benefit from more structure than the traditional face-to-face classroom. Many instructors are great at reading a room and adapting their teaching on the fly to their students’ needs. The hybrid classroom seems to need a different skill set, one involving planning small-group and large-group interactions that engage students and provide insight to the instructor about student thinking. Anita Wager’s Jamboard activities are an example, as is the use of Google Sheets to facilitate small-group conversations, as I described in that blog post. These activities involve both remote and in-person students in intentional ways, and I think that’s key to teaching well in the hybrid classroom.
If you’re a Vanderbilt instructor facing these or other challenges in your hybrid teaching, or if you’d just like some more tools for your teaching toolkit, you’re encouraged to reach out to the Center for Teaching for assistance (email@example.com, 615-322-7290). Our teaching consultants can help you figure out how to teach more effectively in whatever teaching contexts you find yourself. And if you find your teaching situation really challenging, please reach out to your department, program, or school leadership for help with problem solving.