Stephanie Miodus, MA (firstname.lastname@example.org); Stephanie Joseph, MA (email@example.com); Frank Farley, PhD (firstname.lastname@example.org); Ishwar Bridgelal, MA (email@example.com); & Catherine Duffield, MA (firstname.lastname@example.org)
As the professor and graduate teaching assistants (TAs) for a large undergraduate course on the Meaning of Madness, the COVID-19 pandemic has brought widespread changes and uncertainty to teaching and instruction. The experience has also provided valuable lessons for adapting a course and transitioning to virtual teaching. For this course, in particular, there was a focus on how society defines madness versus normalcy, as well as examining the changes in conceptualizations of madness from biological, social, and cultural perspectives. The subject matter was notably relevant to the current pandemic and provided ample opportunities to reinvent course content to incorporate concerns that are most pertinent. While the lasting implications of the shift to online teaching are unknown, the transition provides the opportunity to consider how technology can be better leveraged when teaching. The recommendations outlined below aim to provide some tips on the transition to online learning through the lens of teaching a course on madness, and to provide reflections on the psychology of “pandemic pedagogy.”
Course Format. One major consideration when offering a course online is how it should be formatted. Synchronous courses, where students attend a live class offered over an online platform, such as Zoom, offer students and instructors the opportunity to interact in real time, more closely simulating in-person interactions. On the other hand, asynchronous courses, utilizing recordings of lectures and virtual assignments, such as discussion boards, in place of live virtual interactions, provide more flexibility to students who may have technological issues or difficulty arranging schedules when working from their homes. In our course, a combination of synchronous and asynchronous classes was optimal as this format provided flexibility without losing the human element of live interactions.
Accessibility. Ensuring that all students have access to the course is another essential element of the transition to online learning. As soon as possible, it is important to reach out to students in a course to specify what the technological requirements of the course will be (e.g., microphone, webcam) and to have resources prepared for students who may not have access to this technology. This was particularly important during the current transition given that students did not sign up for an online course but were suddenly enrolled in one. Utilizing university resources to provide technology access to all students is key for a successful transition. Even with this assistance, there are other barriers, such as Internet connectivity and computer literacy, which require flexibility on the part of the instructors. We would also be remiss to exclude the accessibility issues beyond technology, such as students who are caregivers, who have health concerns, or who have taken on additional employment due to a loss of income. Additionally, the discussion of accessibility is incomplete without also considering the specific needs of students with disabilities and making sure that necessary accommodations are met and adapted for the online format.
Restructuring the Curriculum. Once a format is chosen and accessibility issues are addressed, the curriculum originally designed for in-person teaching needed to be restructured to meet the needs of students learning on an online format. Planned activities were adapted, such as an originally planned in-person debate activity reformatted into a lively discussion board debate. In the synchronous sessions, it became more difficult to ensure participation from all students, so the curriculum also had to be designed with this in mind. For example, having students prepare at least one point to contribute ahead of class aided in facilitating discussions and helped increase student interactions.
The Digital Socrates. The amount of time to prepare and especially to deliver an engaging lecture was greatly increased in pandemic pedagogy. No longer could one literally walk into a lecture hall and deliver an often seemingly informal, conversational presentation with gestures and movement through the room, an engaging thespian teaching style if you will, with ongoing Q & A, with perhaps some PowerPoint or video as adjunctive, and with Socratic dialogue/interaction, sociability, and free-flowing open all-in discussion as a desired hallmark. But many instructors are not particularly good at a large group Socratic style so its difficulty online may not be an issue for all instructors.
Course Content. It would have been a disservice to students to leave this most relevant topic of the COVID-19 pandemic out of course discussions, whenever applicable. For our course on the meaning of madness, incorporating this topic into discussion posts and class lectures was critical for students to engage in dialogues about the lasting impact of the pandemic. From trauma to the pandemic’s effect on immigrant communities, integrating discussions on COVID-19 into the course content allowed for fruitful contemplation and gave students the ability to engage with the course material in a way that was current and relevant. Along those same lines, the course content was also tailored specifically to the needs of students, while still in line with course objectives, such as a recorded lecture on mindfulness practices when managing stress and anxiety.
Combining Compassion and Rigor. Another key element of our online learning experience was learning the balance between maintaining academic rigor and displaying compassion to students during this difficult transition. This was a challenging, yet essential, task with no clear-cut answers. This meant taking each student’s unique situations into account and making sure that deadlines and assignments matched their needs, while at the same time ensuring that students were successfully engaging with the course content. Overall, prioritizing student well-being first, while also maintaining and meeting the essential learning objectives of the course, provided us with a meaningful experience as we ventured into the world of online teaching.
Discussion Groups as Classroom Communities. We all recognized the risk that the abrupt shift to online learning could alienate students, so the TAs worked at curating safe spaces and projecting a calm normalcy in their discussion groups. In sections of 20 to 30 students, TAs choreographed interactions like group projects to recapture the camaraderie that had eroded after classes could no longer convene in person. TAs guarded their students’ psychological safety, inviting them to express their anxieties in forums free of censure. When TAs observed discomfort during synchronous discussions–cognizant that many students now living with their families had lost privacy–they recalibrated their approaches. Eventually, previously reserved students began to communicate their vulnerabilities in asynchronous forums. It would have been futile, after all, to divorce the world “out there” from the tasks “here.” Compartmentalization was not expected. Accordingly, TAs designed reflective opportunities by which students could learn from themselves and their classmates.
Leveraging Technology. Having the tools of the digital age available to us during this time has also allowed us to consider how technology can be leveraged to best benefit our students. One benefit is the ability to record lessons. This provides the opportunity for students who may miss a class session to still access the information. The chat feature is another aspect of the online learning environment that can be utilized to benefit students, as students who may not want to speak or have Internet connectivity issues, can use the chat to ask questions and engage in class discussions. Another feature to highlight in Zoom specifically is the breakout rooms. These provide an opportunity for students to engage with one another and help add human connection back into lessons.
Keep in Mind, It Could Have Been Worse. The motivation of the instructors and students is a key element in achieving success in a sudden unexpected tectonic shift in the bedrock behaviors of traditional teaching. Staying motivated on both sides of the screen while scrambling to quickly adjust to this pandemic pedagogy is not easy, particularly against the backdrop of extreme societal and cultural fears and uncertainties and the sudden ascendancy of existential anxieties, and it was hard for some students to stay focused on demanding studies in the middle of such lethal uncertainties, as relentlessly reported in all media. BUT it could have been worse, we feel, in any comparable pandemic before the digital age and our comprehensive technologies to digitize and readily transmit all forms of knowledge. Also, the advent of social media has allowed for a certain social life in any location, including alone in one’s room. All the tools of the digital age allow us to “safely” socialize, study, and shop in constrained quarters providing the conditions for focus and academic success as we have found in this short exploration of pandemic pedagogy.
As our semester comes to a close, we hope the lessons we learned can be utilized by others when making considerations for future online courses.
We wish the best for the 95 students in our class; they will have many memories academic and beyond of this amazing period, as will we!