Administrators, faculty assess teaching approaches and pedagogies during COVID-19

Because COVID-19 restrictions prevented many classes from being held face-to-face, FSU faculty taught using new learning modes during Academic Year (AY) 2020-21.

With many digital tools at their disposal, new technology installed in classrooms, and support from the administration, the Education Technology Office (ETO), and their departments, faculty discovered different ways to engage with their students. 

Unlike the spring 2020 semester, when in-person learning was cut short unexpectedly, professors had an opportunity to plan which modes they would use to teach and to incorporate digital tools into their lesson plans.

Ellen Zimmerman, interim provost and vice president for academic affairs, said she initially envisioned that some faculty would teach fully remotely, while others would teach “at least partially in the classroom.” 

She said faculty who chose to teach entirely remotely needed to decide whether their course materials and teaching styles worked best in a synchronous or asynchronous environment.

Asynchronous classes are conducted as “traditional” online classes, in which students learn through online activities and discussions, but do not meet at a scheduled time. Synchronous classes are held using video conferencing tools. 

Robin Robinson, director of education technology and instructional design, said ETO purchased a license for Zoom video conferencing software, which was integrated into Blackboard.

She said ETO’s role in keeping FSU running during the pandemic was to “make faculty more aware of what resources were available to them, and then have conversations around pedagogy.”

Robinson said hundreds of faculty members attended training events throughout the summer of 2020 to prepare for the upcoming academic year. “In a regular semester, if we got eight people to take time out of their day to attend a session, those would be good numbers,” she said.

Deborah Saks, director of service management and campus technology, said 34 classrooms were outfitted with “HyFlex” video conferencing technology, which gave “students the option of attending sessions in the classroom, participating online, or doing both.”

Zimmerman said Facilities measured classrooms to figure out how many people could safely occupy each space. Facilities matched classroom capacities with courses scheduled to meet face-to-face.

She said WiFi hotspots were installed in the Maple and Salem End parking lots. These hot spots provided a learning space for students “who live nearby but didn’t want to take their classes in their home.” 

She added rooms in most academic buildings were set up as study spaces for commuters who “couldn’t have physically” traveled in between face-to-face classes scheduled immediately before or after remote classes. 

Compared to the fall semester, Zimmerman said scheduling for the spring semester was easier because everyone understood the different learning experiences, and people found it “easier” to “make decisions about what they want to do.” 

According to the college deans, each department’s unique requirements impacted which learning modalities were offered for specific courses.

Marc Cote, dean of arts and humanities, said most departments in his college opted for remote instruction, with a handful of face-to-face classes. Face-to-face studio classes were offered for both studio art and fashion design students.

He added, a few of the classes that were scheduled face-to-face switched to fully remote because the majority of students “weren’t coming in for face-to-face instruction and instead logging in with the remote option.”

Cote said, “I’ve heard from many professors that they were pleased with some of the functionalities of the digital tools, many of which they had never used.”

Susan Dargan, dean of social and behavioral sciences and interim dean of education, said 20% of the faculty in her colleges initially wanted to teach face-to-face. 

She asked any faculty teaching face-to-face to provide a choice for students to attend remotely. Dargan said students seemed to prefer remote instruction, and many chose it. 

She said student teachers faced challenges securing field study placements. However, the University was able to offer alternatives, such as allowing students to intern in FSU courses or use “Mursion,” a program which can simulate teaching in a classroom.

Patricia Thomas, interim dean of business, said faculty were allowed to choose the teaching mode which worked best for them. Approximately 10 to 15 courses were offered face-to-face.

“In the business world, we expect people to do things in multiple ways,” Thomas said. “There’s a lot of virtual meetings, and that’s something that we’ve been encouraging for years.”

She said in her role as dean, she helped “alleviate any anxiety” for students and faculty, especially by ensuring students who could not attend class physically could attend remotely. 

Margaret Carroll, dean of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics, said some science labs were scheduled with face-to-face meetings every two to three weeks. In other cases, students were split between two rooms and professors switched back and forth. 

“It is very hard for students – when something is every third week – to remember to show up. She added, “Labs really require in-person” instruction because they “make things more concrete that otherwise seem very hypothetical.” She said the college also began offering courses with online labs – something they were “unwilling” to do before. 

As for other classes, Carroll said many courses went remote because there were not enough large lecture spaces on campus to accommodate 35-student classes with adequate social distancing. 

With many resources at their disposal, faculty members adapted their teaching to the COVID-19 pandemic environment. 

Education Professor Susan Donnellan chose to teach using a remote synchronous model. She said she felt somewhat disconnected from her students “because I’m not face-to-face in Dwight Hall – It’s just where our home is.”

Donnellan said ETO installed equipment in FSU’s two child education centers to allow education students in field study courses to conduct observations through Zoom. 

Education Professor Chu Ly said technological issues prevented students from conducting remote observations in the centers until late November. 

Ly said it was “a lot of fun” to try engaging students in different ways. Flipgrid, Padlet, and the whiteboard on Zoom were among the tools she used.

English Professor Kelly Matthews said she used a collaborative annotation program called Persuall. She said she missed having an in-person classroom discussion, but Persuall was a “good substitute.”

Matthews also supervises field placement for secondary-level English student teachers. During the fall, student teachers engaged remotely once a week with public school classes. For the spring semester, “We were very lucky that every one of our candidates got paired up with a teacher,” she said, “but almost none of them have been in a school building.”

Additionally, Matthews is the academic advisor for all 120 Liberal Studies majors. She increased the length of each advising session because she felt the need to “check in” with each student. “I feel like everyone is facing more challenges, and we need to talk about those,” she said.

Sociology Professor Benjamin Alberti said his department hired a designer to create a common template for their Blackboard courses, making the pages uncluttered, clear, and easy to read.

“We needed a common platform – as common as we possibly could get it – so that students could find their way around our courses easily,” he said. 

Sociology Professor Virginia Rutter said she doesn’t require students to have their cameras on during remote instruction – nor does she record her classes. “I record all my lectures separately, so that everyone has that available to them.”

Rutter said she structured her virtual space using breakout rooms and conversations through the Zoom chat to allow students to establish what feels comfortable to them.

“It’s not like you show up on day one of remote learning and know what’s comfortable or can agree on what’s comfortable,” Rutter said. “If that’s not happening, then the learning – which is at the center of what we’re doing … then that’s not going to happen.”

Sociology Professor Vincent Ferraro said, “I wrestle daily with the question about cameras.” 

He added, “I made it a point early on to tell my students that they should not feel compelled to turn it on because for me, it’s been indicated there’s privacy concerns there. There’s access concerns there.”

Lisa Eck, English Department chair, said one benefit of Zoom was the ability to mute her audio, forcing students to lead the discussion. “I probably never had discussions before where students built off each other as much as they did, sort of in the style of a Socratic seminar.”

She said students who didn’t participate as much or kept their cameras off were intimidated about joining the conversation. “It’s either really intimate, fun, and easy, or it’s a force field that makes you feel like you can’t enter.”

Eck said recording classes using Panopto lecture-capture software offered students who missed class a chance to stay engaged. “In the past, they really just would have been behind.” 

Everton Vargas da Costa, a Portuguese and Spanish professor, said he was able to teach effectively using synchronous and asynchronous modes, especially in his linguistics courses. However, in his language courses, “The lack of a face-to-face component for everyday conversation practices affected the students’ engagement.”

Rachel Trousdale, an English professor, said she taught remotely, both synchronously and asynchronously. “I would much rather be face-to-face. And failing face-to-face, I think our Zoom sessions are more productive than our asynchronous [sessions].” 

Trousdale added she “overhauled” her usually strict attendance policy to accomodate students “because it’s not an ideal situation.” 

Jeri Nelson-Peterman, a food and nutrition professor, said she also taught both synchronously and asynchronously.

For laboratory experiments, she and the other lab instructor created videos to explain the experiments. Students were given options to complete labs on campus or pick up a kit “that included all of the materials” to complete the experiments at home.

Nelson-Peterman added she used games, including Kahoot and Facitle, to keep students engaged. In a survey of her students at the end of the semester, many said they found these games “helpful and interesting.”

Susan Massad, also a food and nutrition professor, said teaching remotely gave her an impetus to post more documents on her Blackboard site. “I like having everything posted in Blackboard because it is all in one place.”

Massad said her classes usually include formal debates, role-playing activities, and other “hands-on work, which were “difficult to translate into ‘Zoom’ format.”

She also described “chaotic” problems when giving exams while using “lockdown browser,” a system which prevents students from opening other applications during an exam. Despite the issues, Massad said she would prefer to continue giving exams electronically in the future.

Sam Witt, an English Professor, said he taught hybrid-style classes during the fall semester. He said splitting his attention between a classroom and students joining over Zoom was “bizarre.” 

Witt added, “If your laptop doesn’t work, if your camera stops working, you have less of an experience of the class. If you don’t have WiFi at home, or a storm knocks it out, you can’t participate.”

Halcyon Mancuso, an English professor, said her students appreciated access to pre-recorded lectures. However, she said professors feed off energy in the classroom, and recording a “lecture to nobody feels very inauthentic.”

She added, “If I can see students on Zoom, I feel like I am actually talking to an audience. I can see their reactions. People can raise their hands and say, ‘Can you explain that a little bit more?’”

Mancuso said she plans to continue using Zoom to meet with students outside of her normal office hours for extra help.

Students considered both the positive and negative aspects of the new forms of course delivery and digital tools they used throughout the academic year.

Elizabeth Harvey, a sophomore English major, said she preferred remote classes to face-to-face ones. “It’s been really convenient to have [resources] online and just be able to access them whenever.”

Daniel Johnson-Tatelvaum, a senior business IT major, said in his remote courses, “It didn’t feel like the professors could really hold me accountable.” However, he said Zoom could be “really useful” for supplemental purposes, such as allowing students to schedule extra help with their professors.

Austin van Lingen, a junior business administration major, said his remote courses were “a lot easier than online classes for me personally, because it’s more organized and structured.”

Sylvie Ficco, a sophomore geography major, said she found it helpful when professors recorded their Zoom lectures because she could go back and find instructions for her assignments.

Frank Logan, a senior criminology major, said his courses included Zoom meetings and asynchronous online work. “It was a bit of a challenge to learn because I get a lot more when it’s face-to-face.” 

Logan said he liked his asynchronous work “because it left it up to me to figure out my own schedule.”

Milo Plass, a senior sociology major, said his face-to-face classes were “enjoyable, but it didn’t feel as engaging” because they were not always held face-to-face. Plass said he also liked his remote classes, but found them “really tricky” because the online work was self-guided. 

Chelesae Simpson, a freshman biology major, said she didn’t like her asynchronous laboratory classes. “Sometimes you put it off, and then your work starts piling up. This semester, I have in-person labs, and it’s better, because I just do everything one day.”

Emma Bernier, a junior biology major, said she could learn effectively with remote instruction, but “a lot of my friends had trouble focusing or keeping up with assignments.” She added her face-to-face biochemistry lab was split into two groups of five students. 

“It was very different,” Bernier said, “but overall, it was still pretty easy to learn and talk through the masks.”

Bernier added using a digital tool called VoiceThread was “kind of weird because it wasn’t direct. If you have questions, you have to wait and ask the questions later.” 

Mabel Grace Mathias, a junior sociology major, said having primarily remote classes made it “a lot easier to let myself disengage,” and “It wasn’t as easy to grasp the content.” She added, “For the one time I had in-person [class], it clarified a lot of things discussed over Zoom.”

Jillian Hansen, a freshman marketing major, said, “I wasn’t a big fan of [remote classes]. I found that I did better in person when I could be out of my dorm room in a different environment and I could focus more.

“I think it’ll be good if we go back to the way it was,” she added, “but I still think that teachers will use the applications that we learned how to use if they miss a day, or they have to do a lesson outside of the classroom.”

Interim Provost Zimmerman said she discovered “without question” both students and faculty would rather learn and teach face-to-face. “They missed the face-to-face experience, but also recognize that the face-to-face experience under these conditions isn’t the same.

“Both faculty and students made a heroic effort to adapt to the new course modalities and worked together to create the best learning experience possible,” she added. “Everyone deserves a huge amount of credit for persevering throughout the pandemic, despite the multiple challenges we all faced. I’m awed by the resilience of our students, faculty, and staff!”

As for the future beyond the pandemic, Zimmerman said she doesn’t think remote instruction will replace face-to-face instruction. “But I think what we might see is a blend, where those kinds of technology can be brought in for certain purposes. It won’t necessarily work in all cases, but it gives us a lot more options.”

Robinson said the technology installed and implemented during the COVID-19 pandemic is an investment that will “enhance” on-campus learning. “It’s not, ‘one and done,’ and we’re going to rip it out when everything goes back to the new normal,” she said. 

“But at the same time, we need to study it, and we need to make smart decisions,” she added. “We can’t expect everyone to continue to use the technology if they don’t want to.”

Cote said different instructional delivery methods work better for different students. “If we can have a few more – 10% more online classes – that helps with students’ flexibility and pathways to graduation.”

Dargan said she thinks more online and hybrid classes will be offered, “but I still think there’s something vital about the connection, the discussions, that you have in real-life classes.”

Thomas said, “I don’t think the old way will prevail, per se.” She hopes to see more hybrid courses and a survey asking students which modes they prefer.

Carroll said, “I don’t think we should go back to the status quo.” She said continuing to offer labs online after the pandemic “will create a little bit more flexibility for students.” 

Witt said, “I hope the heart of education at Framingham State is safe, equitable face-to-face education. But I also hope we allow for other modes, as long as it’s not degrading the educational experience.”

Trousdale said she thinks the University will “stick with” face-to-face instruction, “but we don’t want to ignore these teaching tools.”

Eck said she predicts more hybrid classes will be offered in the future, shifting between group discussions and individual work applying knowledge.

Alberti said he coordinates continuing education for the Sociology Department, which is already delivered completely online. He said once people figure out how to make remote instruction work well, it will become part of teaching online.

“I would be hesitant about teaching these kinds of ‘hybrid’ classes where you’re teaching to a live audience and to a remote audience at the same time,” he added.

Ferraro said, “There’s no way we go back to whatever ‘normal’ was before. I think we’ve successfully challenged the notion that people have to be in their particular work environment in order to work.”

Rutter said it was great to be able to invite guest speakers to her classes remotely. “Speeding up technology has given us more connection, not less connection.”

She also said the COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted inequality in education. “We can’t really tolerate having this system of inequality in terms of the conditions under which people work as teachers in our institution any more than we can have that for our students in our institution.”