My calendar has a note on March 19, 2020, which says “CUNY Online Model”. That day, the City University of New York, the nation’s largest urban university with more than 250,000 students and 50,000 faculty, canceled all in-person classes and instituted remote learning.
Now we enter the 2022-23 academic year and an apparent return to normal. Yet we are not the same who return – there are students who had to complete their university studies online, those who had to start their studies online and those who experienced university only online. . If last year’s kindergartners remember their year long ago, those memories will be part of the class of 2039. The faculty members aren’t the same either, even those of us who teach in the arts and media. The “online model” may have changed our teaching forever and for the better.
Why keep e-learning tools?
Digital and online tools have saved our semesters, allowing us to continue teaching, but with negative social, institutional and individual effects and traumatic associations. And now we have a chance to develop the distance learning tools that we used online for the learning environment in place.
Going back to class gave me a feeling of renewed motivation and also of improvisation. We could find opportunities to combine our recent hard-earned teaching experiences with the computer-assisted tools we already have and enhance what visionary educators Cathy N. Davidson and Shelly Eversley call “active, engaged, and student centered. During the Fall 2021 semester, I participated in their Andrew W. Mellon Foundation-funded initiative, “Transformative Learning in the Humanities,” at CUNY. The group discussions showed how creative, personal and practical online teaching solutions need to be for every teacher and every discipline. This started my thinking about how, in the coming semesters, we can continue to integrate our online methods to improve in-person classes.
Discussion forums, polls and chats have been available since the 1980s, but they can now become our best allies. These different tools help me teach different learners in ways that I may not have reached all of them before. For example, discussion forums are asynchronous, so they are suitable for students who prefer to respond at their own pace. In contrast, chat, which is real-time, allows students to express instant reactions to class activities and ask questions before they forget them. Surveys are useful because they can be set up to collect individual, anonymous or collective opinions.
Together, these three tools give teachers new flexibility. Online tools can help validate students’ knowledge and effort, encourage engagement, and help them develop skills to collaborate effectively. However, they will not serve all situations. It is up to each teacher to find their own balance of available tools so that it works for them.
Class Discussion Forums are online forums, open to registrants only, that allow for questions, comments, and responses. Students and teachers can interact without all being online at the same time. These forums provide another way for the teacher to engage and prepare students for classroom participation.
The time spent in person often seems short. It flies. The discussion forum can host conversations not limited by class hours. To start the semester, in my digital art class, I ask students to write two or three sentences about themselves and add links to digital artworks and artists they admire. Student responses are often so varied that we can discuss how different artists, styles and ideas intersect. Some students share local artists they grew up with or cultural and historical figures they learned from family, often from many different countries.
I’ve also used a discussion forum to create a bank of ideas about the connotations of a basic term, so that students realize that definitions that we often think are “common knowledge” aren’t actually not shared by everyone. For example, during an exercise to generate ideas for our first motion graphics animations, I asked for connotations and analogies to ‘house’. Student responses included many conflicting ideas – a place of rest or no rest, a place where you can be yourself or not be yourself. We used these responses as the basis for class discussions and project ideas.
But message boards aren’t just useful for art and media lessons. In a history lesson, for example, students might be asked to display their connotations of terms such as ‘exploration’ or ‘discovery’; in a language or literature class, they might show examples of words and phrases that don’t have a direct translation, like the English word “change of sceneryand discuss what this might reveal about the difference between Francophones and Anglophones.
Creating online surveys has taught me and my students how to ask the right questions to get useful answers. Before each lesson, I give students a short online survey. While teaching online, it was essential for me to have an idea of their technical setup, such as access to a computer, Wi-Fi and software. Now, in-person surveys are still useful because they give me an idea of each student’s technical knowledge and experience, and they could be used in any discipline to gauge students’ background knowledge and interests.
Also, quick classroom polls can spark ideas. For a “Day in the Life” end-of-semester project in my 2D animation class, I asked students what would help them tell a story about the change in their daily lives since the pandemic began. A college student told her story from the perspective of her dog, who was thrilled to have her favorite human home all day, even though she spent her nights sitting alone on the couch. She said she got the idea from the survey responses we discussed in class. In other subjects, a science teacher might pause and ask the class about their predictions about the outcome of a problem or experiment. Or, in a literature class, the teacher might survey students’ opinions of a character’s point of view or motivations.
For my design-based infographics course, I walk students through the steps of creating an online survey to help them get started collecting their own data. I introduce conditional or branching logic, where the survey changes depending on how the questions are answered (example, Cognito Forms). I then ask them to develop a survey with other students in small groups in class. Finally, each student creates their own poll, shares it, collects responses, and interprets the results. This assignment ends up being a valuable collaborative experience and could be adapted to other topics, to generate project materials or create shared study guides.
In the early days of online education, real-time chat features built into software, such as Blackboard, Google Meet Where Zoom– seemed to be useful only online, for students with technology or microphone issues. To my surprise, however, the chat was also helpful during in-person classes.
Even when we are together in class, during discussions or presentations, I create a Blackboard Collaborate Ultra session and keep the chat function open. Students can text from classroom computers or their own devices. It gives them a way to express themselves and gives the teacher a bank of questions without interrupting the class.
The open chat changes the rhythm of a course, making it more elastic. The students dialogue with me and with each other, adding cross-currents and enriching. After a student’s presentation and the ensuing class discussion, when the class needs to move on to the next presentation, they write in the chat a cascade of praise, feedback, and suggestions. Students also request and post support links to extend the conversation. When possible, teachers can scroll through messages, reply to them all at once, and make sure they don’t miss any comments. When I call groups of names from the list, students can all respond in chat, which would be a slow process if they had to respond verbally one by one. Chat messages are usually short, so more people can join in, add their thoughts or reactions without slowing down the flow of the class.
In summary, we are still living in exceptional times and we will probably have to face other challenges to come. But teachers and students now have new ways to combine online and in-person communication methods. Online assets such as discussion forums, polls and chat were part of what sustained us during the initial crisis. Depending on our personal preferences and circumstances, we can now bring what we have learned back into the classroom using online tools. These tools can show us a new path in our coming semesters as we return to in-person learning and add to the joy and scope of our teaching.