Prof. Bill JuMoving from virtual classes from in-person has presented unique challenges, especially since the transition needed to be swift and flexible. As we tackle a new academic year with these new challenges, students and instructors can both benefit from the lessons that have been learned over the past months. Human Biology’s William Ju (Associate Professor, Teaching Stream) taught in both summer semesters, and we’ve asked him to draw on his experiences to offer advice for both students and faculty in the months ahead.

Forming A Community

Dr. Ju and other educators have spoken to many students about how they can feel engaged and connected to their courses, instructors, and peers while learning remotely. What has become clear is that not every student needs to be a part of a community–some are happy to attend classes and work independently. Likewise, there is a population of students who need to feel engaged and connected to succeed, without which their learning experience will suffer. This can take many shapes, from peer to peer, one-on-one time with instructors, or even a small tutorial group lead by a TA. As long as this ‘course community’ connection is there, these students feel like they have the ability to succeed.

It has also become clear that developing this sense of community by yourself is difficult–and while it’s important for instructors to encourage students to form study groups and get to know people in the class, it’s clear that students need to find ways to create that community themselves.

Student Proactivity

Over the summer months, the issue of student motivation–both how to get and stay motivated–was one of the main struggles’ students encountered, much more than during traditional learning.

Ju noted over the summer semesters that many of his students were very proactive in reaching out in order to understand how much coursework there will be in their classes, in order to make decisions on how they will manage their workload. While aiming for a balanced course schedule and planning your time management are not new expectations for students, Ju notes that in an online format it is even more important for students. He recommends they look ahead and ask themselves: what happens if my plan falls apart? What do I do if I’m falling behind, or my schedule is falling apart? Students need to be aware of how to approach their professors to let them know they are struggling, and to find out if there is flexibility around assignments. He encourages students to be up front if they are not feeling as confident as usual, and to not be afraid to ask for help.

Photo by Soundtrap on Unsplash

Transitioning Course Formats

Obviously, these changes to learning formats effect not only students, but instructors as well. There is a definite need for instructors to be more creative with class formats. Some instructors have taught through the summer, some finished the spring term and haven’t taught since, and others have spent the past months taking courses about teaching courses. This transition is a big shift for faculty, and it is important that they realize that they cannot approach a remote classroom the same way as a traditional classroom. They need to move beyond the model of just lecturing to a group of students for the duration of class time– they will need to find ways to engage students, to get creative in their teaching methods, and to be more aware of the pressures on students. One big change is that many instructors are moving toward more scaffolded assignments rather than one or two large assignments. While these may be better suited to virtual learning, it also means the volume of coursework and assignments will significantly increase for students across all their classes.

Instructors want to do their best and they want to interact with students. They share the anxiety of how this semester will work. One way that Ju suggests this can best work is by taking advantage of the part of population who have spent the most time participating in online learning–the students themselves.

Learn from the Learners

For this large-scale transition to be successful, Ju feels that input from students is key. Students will have much more experience will online learning than most instructors, and are going to have very different experience about what works and what doesn’t. In Ju’s experience, students both want and need to share that information. He encourages instructors to take the time to ask their students about what has worked for them in other classes and how that might be incorporated into their own. Students have been online for a long time–some instructors finished the winter term under difficult circumstances and are just now coming back to teach, while many students have several online courses under their belts. As a community, Ju feels we need to take this opportunity to learn from the learners.

The Rise of Student Communicators

While our current circumstances present many challenges, there are positives that shouldn’t be overlooked. Ju predicts that over the coming months we will see a rise in creative, inspired student communicators, and for both instructors and students, remote learnings has a space for increased creativity. Digital assignments leave a lot of room for inspiration and inventiveness, and he looks forward to seeing a wide variety of creative outputs from students–things like vlogs, podcasts, virtual communications, digital white boards, and recordings. In the coming months, we look forward to our community continuing to promote outside the box thinking, invite students to embrace innovative ideas, and welcome the many opportunities that virtual classrooms can provide.

Dr. Ju will be teaching his classes this semester through the dual delivery model. He is excited to see how both he and his students find ways to work and grow together in our new reality.