Engagement in Flexible Teaching

Woman waves at her computer screen holding coffee.

Any course this fall may have elements of in-person and online instruction. Students in a hybrid course may not be able to attend online synchronous sessions because they are in a different time zone or have connectivity issues. Classrooms on campus may include remote students or instructors joining from home. In-person courses may need to become hybrid because students or faculty must quarantine. Though these variations make it difficult to plan, it is possible to create opportunities for students to engage equitably with each other, the instructor, and the materials.

The best we can do to prepare is to emphasize resilience and flexibility in how classroom and online activities are designed, and to reconceive courses as a continuum of learning that happens online and in person. Flexible teaching means planning for student engagement that cuts across teaching modalities. Let’s look at two scenarios for Fall 2020: 

Scenario 1: Teaching on campus with both remote and in-person students

Instructors may need to interact with two audiences, one in the space where they are teaching and one remote. This challenge can be mitigated by determining the most effective ways to connect the two audiences.

Decide how to organize video sessions

In a smaller discussion classroom, it might be more appropriate to have your students in the physical classroom start separate Zoom calls with individual remote students on their laptops. Instead of being in a communal Zoom that is projected onto a screen and competing for attention, students are folded into the conversation and group work.

In a larger lecture class, it is more appropriate to put all remote students into their own Zoom. This way they can work together on group work and activities instead of trying to integrate them directly into the course.

Depending on the classroom equipment, the location of the camera and the controls for the Zoom sessions may vary. In some classrooms, remote students will see your face, as well as hear the conversations of students in the room. In other classrooms that won’t be an option. In that case, be sure remote students can hear you clearly and can access any slides or materials you are using. Audio is the most important part of remote students’ experience so wear a lapel mic if you move around the classroom.

Audio is the most important part of remote students’ experience.

Work with classroom IT to learn the room’s controls and understand its limitations and capabilities ahead of the first class. Ideally, a TA would be the technical point person, answering questions that come up in chat, forwarding slides, and starting the meeting. If you are teaching alone, you will need to control slides and the Zoom meeting from your laptop or other device. You might appoint a rotating student to help manage the chat and highlight questions from remote students. 

Create opportunities to engage with all students

When some students are physically present and some are remote, there is a natural tendency to favor students who are present in front of the instructor, which can unintentionally result in remote students engaging less. There are a number of ways to use technologies in the classroom to counter this bias and connect all students. Instead of asking a question verbally and waiting for students in the physical or virtual classroom to speak up, use online polls to prompt all students to answer. That way, you can get a quick sense of what concepts need to be addressed immediately. It is also an opportunity for students to discuss in groups why they chose their answers. A Google Doc or an online whiteboard is a spatially agnostic way for students to brainstorm ideas, write responses, and solve problems in small groups. There are also low-tech ways to increase engagement in class, like asking students to think about a question for a few minutes and then call on students to answer them both online and in person.

There is a natural tendency to favor students who are present in front of the instructor, which can unintentionally result in remote students engaging less.

Conversations can start before a class session begins. Students can suggest and vote on questions that they would like to discuss in class as part of a forum discussion in the days leading up to class. Piazza is a question and answer tool commonly used in large classes or a forum in Sakai would allow students to suggest questions. 

In preparation for the topic of the day, students could record a short video reaction to readings or concepts that you will be covering in the next class using VoiceThread or Flipgrid. Students who are solving problems or completing online labs should have a space to ask questions or share answers ahead of live sessions using a Q&A tool like Piazza. Think of live conversations as part of a longer, sustained discussion happening online.

Think of live conversations as part of a longer, sustained discussion happening online.

You can also give students the opportunity to engage with you directly about course content. You can use minute papers (students write anonymously on physical or virtual notecards) to ask what they understood to be the main takeaway for the day or what concept they would like to understand in more detail. Surveys showed office hours were particularly successful in the spring emergency remote teaching effort, and as physical distance became less of an issue, many more students came to office hours. We can build on that lesson by encouraging students to come to office hours or use chat to ask live questions monitored by a TA. You will get a sense of their comprehension of the content and allow quieter students to contribute to the conversation.

Drop the flexible classroom when needed

There may be activities that cannot be organized effectively with a split audience in one classroom. You are teaching under extraordinary circumstances. If it doesn’t make sense or is too difficult to teach in a split classroom, don’t push it. In those cases, ask on-campus students to join online for those sessions. Conversely, you can instruct remote students to watch the recording instead of participating in the live conversation. In some instances, it could be easier (and less time consuming) to have tutorials with remote students to discuss materials in a condensed format than solving pedagogical or technical issues.

If it doesn’t make sense or is too difficult to teach in a split classroom, don’t push it.

Scenario 2: Teaching hybrid courses with synchronous and asynchronous students

In a hybrid course in which students need to watch live sessions on their own time (either always or occasionally), the greatest challenge is providing an equitable experience. This can be addressed by thinking creatively about how to assess if students have viewed the materials and made connections to the content.

Be sure all materials are online

It is essential that asynchronous students are able to access recordings of the sessions, any presentation or materials you used during the class, and that you capture student products if at all possible. This allows students to still engage with content even though the class recordings may have failed that day or didn’t capture all conversations.

It is essential that asynchronous students are able to access course materials.

Plan alternatives to engage students intellectually

Instructors are often concerned that students may not be viewing recorded lectures. To solve this issue, the first impulse is to track who has accessed the recording. This does little to gauge if the students actually understood the materials or watched more than a minute. To replicate in-class activities, consider requiring asynchronous students to take a low-stakes quiz or solve a problem that was not used in the class session. Students could be asked to create an audio or video recording of themselves summarizing the lesson or posing questions about content they aren’t sure they understand. If there was group work that day in class, asynchronous students could talk with each other instead of the larger group. Warpwire can be set up as a private space for students to record in Sakai, and VoiceThread allows for video, text, and audio conversations between the remote students. These activities should not be an extra burden on students but should replicate the in-class experience in some way. 

Create follow-up conversations and activities that happen online

Don’t let a live Zoom session be the last time students think about a topic. You can plan continued intellectual engagement that asynchronous and synchronous students compete on the same playing field. For example, ask students to apply the content to a new scenario as a short writing prompt (either to share with colleagues or submitted to you). If you use group assignments, the content discussed in live sessions should be blended into the work students are required to complete. Engagement requires instructors to create a cycle of learning that involves all students and is structured to reinforce the course materials. 

Don’t let a live Zoom session be the last time students think about a topic.

Help to Meet the Challenges of Flexible Teaching

It takes effort to promote engagement when faced with the barriers this crisis presents. We understand the pressures faculty are facing. We invite you to visit our new Flexible Teaching site and participate in our office hours to talk with an expert about how to apply the techniques above or solve other teaching issues. 

Elise Mueller, Ph.D.

Author: Elise Mueller, Ph.D.

Elise Mueller is the consultant for the language departments at Duke. Her goal is to support their teaching through sound pedagogy and educational technologies. She leads fellowships and workshops on blended teaching, student reflection, portfolios and course design. She is currently grappling with the meaning of a liberal arts education in the 21st century.