Speaker proves e-learning can be successful with a little creativity |
UVM’s Susan Whitman says instructors “need to teach differently” in the virtual space, especially when asynchronous.
In 1994, Susan Whitman received a package in the mail: it was a 12-week lecture series on VHS tapes for a college biochemistry course, her very first “asynchronous” learning experience.
That almost forgotten memory — Whitman has since been a medical assistant, certified wellness coach, and instructor — flashed before her during the COVID-19 pandemic. Among the courses she taught at the University of Vermont’s College of Nursing and Health Sciences that were delivered remotely, one was asynchronous: “Intro to Integrative Health”.
“We never met in person,” Whitman says. “At the end of last semester, I said, I think I’m horrible at everything I’m doing right now. I don’t know if anyone learns anything. But then I said, wait, maybe I’m doing something right.
Indeed, she was. Although she doesn’t have internet at home, she sometimes managed to teach this class from the community kitchen she started and later from her van after showing COVID-like symptoms. She used her phone to be more engaging, a strategy forged from her own children’s experiences with online learning. His energy and the impact the course had on students won him the university’s 2021 Prelock Award for teaching online courses.
“My kids were in the middle of online learning, and I was looking at what worked and what didn’t work with them,” Whitman says, noting the TED talks and science papers they were given. “One of the teachers was there with his cell phone, taking a video and saying, ‘I found out about the Easter Bunny. It was fun and engaging. So I start each week of this course by holding my phone and talking about what the week will be like in a five-minute video. I have been outside. I was in my car. So many students on assessments said, I felt like you were there. I felt like you were part of the class.
Despite the lack of a real-time connection, Whitman was reaching students partly because of her delivery — she didn’t just lecture them — and partly because her course encompassed and embraced self-care, something desperately needed. during this period.
“Each week, I was talking about big topics like health policy, but also nature therapy and art therapy,” she says. “For their homework, I would tell them, ‘Go outside for 20 minutes without your cell phone and experience nature. Write about it in your journal. And I would respond weekly to their entries, “Tell me what’s going on in your life, what you think about the therapies we’ve done, and what you’re doing for your own care.” The students were talking about relationship issues, eating disorders, and all kinds of things. I don’t think they would have had these conversations with me in person, but they did since it was this almost anonymous journal. I’ve had people write that it was their favorite course they ever took in college. And I was like, wow.
Toggle the switch on learning
Whitman’s journey with online teaching didn’t happen with UVM’s sudden decision to move to virtual learning. She helped develop the university’s integrative health and wellness coaching program in 2019, and UVM prophetically requested that it be accessible beyond campus. So Whitman got to work, spending each fall week learning how to teach effectively online through his Center for Teaching and Learning.
“I had no idea how much it was going to help me,” she says. “UVM is wonderfully supportive. They offer workshops all the time and self-paced modules. So when the pandemic hit, I was able to pivot virtually overnight.
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One of the lessons she learned was how to structure her classes for more effective communication and understanding. “One of the biggest things they teach is backwards course design,” she says. “What do I want people to leave with? How will I assess that they know? How can I design projects to lead to this result? I was doing a lot of things in a flipped classroom where whatever they “learned” was already presented online in some sort of format, through podcasts or lectures. Then they came to class and practiced together.
Another is that in her synchronous classes, she catches the attention of students. “We ask that students have their cameras turned on as much as possible,” she says. “But I also try to involve them as much as possible. I rarely lecture people. I always start with something engaging as an icebreaker – show me one thing that’s red in your office right now. We will get up and move. I send them to breakout rooms with three people and they train together. I literally borrow things, probably from college.
While admitting that she really likes some parts of the online environment – “People can sometimes be a little more vulnerable and comfortable in this type of situation”, she notes – she understands and has been witness firsthand all its challenges, especially for speakers. There are many of them, says Whitman, from the course format and accessibility and technology issues to the painful pivot to hybrid and trying to keep tabs on who’s virtual and who’s in-person at the same time.
“I think it’s hard to rotate a class that’s already ingrained, that’s taught in person,” she says. “You can’t just take your curriculum and put it in an online format; it will not work. It’s not going to be engaging. The energy is different in an online classroom. You must be a different type of person. You have to teach differently.
Technology can also be a struggle, as she discovered when she was off the grid. She recently had 15 electric poles installed in her home so she could access the internet. There are also barriers on many campuses.
“We have rooms that look great and rooms that don’t,” says Whitman. “One of the ones we were in had panels built into the ceiling which were microphones and speakers. When it works it’s perfect. But sometimes I’ll get into it and my laptop won’t speak at the computer.
Of course, despite all the limitations, there are some really cool elements, like chat boxes and the nature of asynchronous learning that allows great flexibility for students. Whitman also notes his own development. “I am a teacher and I am a technician. I can create websites and I can code.
She says the right balance between in-person and online learning — but not in a hybrid format — can really be a sweet spot for universities. “The more options we have for everyone to find what works for them, the better,” she says. “All I want my students to walk away saying, wow, that was really cool. I learned something about myself. I learned something about the world. And I walk away a bit more inspired to make a change somewhere.