Transitioning into the Fall: An interview (part 1)

Transitioning into the Fall: An interview (part 1)

The long-awaited and much-discussed Fall 2020 semester got underway last week. Just before the start of classes, I was contacted by our university student newspaper with some questions about how we are conducting classes this fall, and especially how we faculty are making the transition to mostly online or hybrid classes. I was asked some great questions, and I responded at length, knowing full well that the final article wouldn't contain everything I said. Instead, I'm posting the full response, spread over a couple of blog posts. This may give you some insight on my thought processes heading into the fall, and how we faculty have been managing some difficult choices leading up to the start of classes.

Q: How have faculty been deciding whether to run a class in an in-person, hybrid, or online format? What choices have you had to make for this decision?

The decision process for this is complex and involves making sure that not only the faculty member but their department, the university, and especially GVSU students are all getting what they need. For example, President Mantella very early on in this crisis stated that we would offer a significant portion of our lower-level courses with face-to-face options. This places a constraint on what faculty can ask for -- for example, we can't offer every section of MTH 110 online, or even a majority or half of those sections.

Individual departments (at least in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences) are responsible for constructing their own course schedules, so with that knowledge, the department chairs and assistant chairs would need to set aside a certain portion of class sections that are online, or hybrid, or in rare cases fully face-to-face. At the same time this is happening, faculty make known to their departments what they need --- some faculty members requested all-online schedules because they are in high-risk health categories (e.g. recent cancer patients or over a certain age) while others requested online schedules for pedagogical reasons, while others wanted face-to-face classes because they didn't want to teach online. Departments take the needs of the college and university on the one hand, and the needs of the faculty on the other, and decide who teaches what.

Ideally, somewhere in there, students' interests are taken into account as well.

As for me, I have three kids in the public schools, and I had open-heart surgery in February 2019. So I had to talk to my cardiologist about whether I was considered high-risk; and since my wife works full-time, she and I had to work out a plan for managing the kids' schooling in case they end up doing school remotely when neither she nor I can be at home. It turns out I am not high-risk health-wise, and my wife and I worked out a plan for the kids, so I just went to my department and said I can teach in whatever modality is needed to make things work. Although I'm a little worried about the public health situation in the Fall and would prefer to teach online, I'm willing to take the risk of teaching in person if that's what my department needs.

Q: What experience have you had with online classes in the past? How does your past experience or lack of experience influence your decisions?

I've taught online and hybrid courses in the Math Department since 2016 -- MTH 201 (Calculus) I've taught online twice and hybrid once, and MTH 124 (Functions and Models) I've taught online once and hybrid once. I also recently completed about 30 hours of training to become a reviewer for the Quality Matters organization, which reviews and certifies online courses for quality. So with my background and skillset, I feel like I can teach effectively no matter the modality. The idea of teaching online didn't affect my decisions one way or the other (except I like teaching online and I was tempted to ask for online courses even though I had no compelling reason to). It's really more about what my students need, and what the department and university need.

Q: What is the process of adapting classes to hybrid or online formats? What are the most important things professors and faculty must keep in mind about retaining learning and growth for students?

Profs have to keep in mind that from the student's perspective, taking an online course is a fundamentally different experience than taking one fully face-to-face. So it won't work to simply take what you do in a face-to-face setting and put it on Blackboard. In particular I think there are two especially important categories that demand much more attention for online/hybrid than face-to-face.

One of those is structure. Research on online learning shows that having a coherent, strong structure for an online course is one of the main things that makes it effective or not, especially for the most vulnerable students such as those with ADHD or other learning disabilities. Mainly "structure" refers to the concept that the course is designed around clear, measurable learning objectives for all the content in the course -- and then the learning activities for the course, the assessments, the grading system, even the materials and technology for the course are all aligned with those learning objectives. Nothing is done, assigned, or adopted in the class unless it serves to enable student interaction with those learning objectives, and there is always a direct line of sight from whatever a student is doing at the time to one or more of the learning objectives. Of course structure also means that the Blackboard site needs to be easy to navigate, it should be easy to locate stuff and information, the calendar needs to be up to date, and so on.

The other category is social presence. In a face-to-face course we see each other 3-4 times a week. In an online or hybrid course, social interaction is radically different, and it can feel extremely dehumanizing. So profs have to take the initiative to always put a human face on things --- for example by using quick videos to respond to emails or introduce topics, by emphasizing discussion board activity, etc. -- to make students feel more welcome and safe.

Q: How would you best explain the “hy-flex” class model? Are there benefits that you believe students will be able to gain through this class structure?

The word "hyflex" is a combination of two words: Hybrid, and flexible. A hyflex course is a hybrid course first of all, with face-to-face and online components. But in a hyflex course, the F2F and online components are running simultaneously, and the "flex" part of the word refers to the idea that students can choose the modality they want, at any moment, and get equivalent experiences.

So for example, a hyflex course might run F2F classes on MWF; and during those times there is also a live stream in which students can participate in the class remotely and synchronously; and at the same time there are versions of the class activities that don't require synchronous or F2F participation but can be done asynchronously. And students just choose from one day to the next how they will participate. One student might want to be F2F every day. Another might come F2F on Monday but participate remotely on Wednesday because they're not feeling well, then participate asynchronously on Friday.

There are a lot of benefits for students in this structure. Obviously the big one is that it gives students complete freedom to be physically present or not, depending on their needs, rather than on a fixed schedule. It also lets students choose how to learn material based on the content rather than the schedule -- for example a student might normally choose online participation but encounters a lot of difficulty with some topic, which might lead them to choose F2F attendance on one day to get personal support from the prof.

I'll conclude this with Part 2 next Tuesday, in which I'll get into the biggest challenges and most unexpected positive outcomes of our transition to Fall semester.

Robert Talbert

Robert Talbert

Mathematics professor who writes and speaks about math, research and practice on teaching and learning, technology, productivity, and higher education.