Faculty capitalize on evolving hybrids of physical and virtual learning environments
In her Drugs and the Brain course, Ana Estevez, associate professor of biology and psychology and current holder of the Sarah Johnson ’82 Professorship in the Sciences, teaches students how to grow and maintain nematode worms. Later in the semester, they use these worms to conduct experiments and study the effects of drugs on invertebrate nervous systems.
In the age of COVID-19, hybrid and remote learning models pose a special challenge to lab-based science courses like Estevez’s class. Without her careful guidance, the proper equipment, or the hands-on experience, cultivating nematodes for experimentation from home is out of the question. The solution? Replace real nematodes with hypothetical ones.
“When students are actually carrying out the experiment, the study they propose has to be very contained because they don’t have that much time in the lab,” says Estevez. “Because of the shift to remote learning last spring, they were able to propose a lot more complex projects than they would have if they had to carry them out in person.”
Free from time constraints in the lab, students were able to explore a myriad of variables—different sets of mutant strains or concentrations of drugs not typically available to them—with more intricately designed experiments. When students sent in their proposals, Estevez made up data sets for them to analyze for their final projects.
“Coming into the lab, checking in on the worms, actually doing the experiment and collecting the data. I missed that. But there are other advantages,” she says. It is these virtual advantages that Estevez and others can now apply to complement more traditional lab work.
Estevez is a member of St. Lawrence’s Faculty Development Committee, and, along with her colleagues, used the summer months to attend virtual enrichment courses, organize opportunities for faculty, swap best practices, and test new technologies to discover more advantages of remote learning.
One of the finds that most excites her is a platform called Milanote, which helps students break down and organize complicated concepts on visual boards.
“A lot of the science that I cover can seem very complex. Now I can say ‘OK, you just learned this, shut everything down, make a concept map of how you think these things relate.’ Right away, I’m going to use this a lot in my class,” she says.
Estevez has also learned about ways to embed questions into pre-recorded lectures that require answers from students before continuing and learned how to maximize capabilities of Sakai (St. Lawrence’s chosen educational software, which helps instructors and students create websites that support teaching, research, and collaboration) to provide a more engaging student experience.
Estevez believes the disruption of the pandemic has allowed faculty to experiment with innovative new approaches to instruction and to invest in professional development that will serve them for the rest of their careers. Her fall semester courses took advantage of both in-person laboratories and virtual instruction.
“I’ve learned a lot of things that I can use face-to-face or online,” she says. “It seems daunting, but this huge leap is going to be great for my teaching moving on.”
Infrastructure Investments Sparks Innovation for Instruction
Although the COVID-19 pandemic forced faculty to quickly adapt to remote instruction in the spring, they spent their summer investing in professional development and immersing themselves in new technology that will help them deliver a rewarding classroom experience—whether virtually or in person—this year and into the future.
“That’s the challenge,” says René Thatcher, the executive director of campus outreach and services for Libraries and Information Technology at St. Lawrence. “This fall, each class must be prepared to teach students everywhere, whether they’re in the classroom, online in their dorm rooms, or thousands of miles away.”
Thatcher works closely with teams across campus to discern the University’s technology needs and design strategies to meet them. This summer, two core groups—the faculty development committee and educational technology team—focused heavily on facilitating flexible educational environments as instructors plan to teach in either virtual or hybrid formats.
“It will feel like St. Lawrence,” she says. “If our online students think this semester will be like spring, they’re in for a big surprise. Our faculty have made major changes—a lot of them.”
Many of these changes were made in direct response to feedback and requests from students and faculty. Besides the addition of new technologies, classrooms have been updated to accommodate necessary safety precautions.
“We sent out a survey to our professors and students,” Thatcher says, “to see what worked really well during the second half of the spring semester, and what didn’t. We looked at what other universities were doing, too.”
The main takeaway? The open, collaborative atmosphere and the ability to work closely with small groups of students are treasured parts of the classroom experience at St. Lawrence. Both students and professors wanted more opportunities to build and maintain connections that start in the classroom and often extend long after graduation.
As a result, St. Lawrence’s faculty development committee and members of the University’s educational technology team worked together to create a professional development path to share best practices and learn new software techniques. Professors across campus attended two or three Zoom workshops a day. They also gathered for virtual coffee hours with as many as 50 of their colleagues at a time to share techniques, ask questions, and collaborate on solutions.
Many also attended the Faculty Development Institute, a two-week online program sponsored by the New York Six Liberal Arts Consortium and designed by Union College with assistance from a faculty member at the Harvard Extension. It guided its participants through the process of redesigning their courses to support multiple modes of instruction and garnered great enthusiasm from St. Lawrence faculty, who reported the highest attendance among peer institutions in the New York Six.
Investments in professional development aim to achieve ongoing collaboration between students and instructors, and investments in technology aim to facilitate this goal. This semester, students can expect to interact with new hardware and software installations designed to simplify discussion, engagement, and assessment during both synchronous and asynchronous instruction.
“One particular program is designed to engage students through online annotation of reading and reflection assignments. This empowers students either in the room or online to ask questions, conduct peer review, and share in the discussion,” says Thatcher. “Remember when students wrote notes in the margins of their books? This new software lets the class share those ideas through online annotation. They can even use emojis.”
Thatcher also says that faculty are experimenting with more advanced techniques in familiar web conferencing tools such as Zoom. They’ve become more comfortable using virtual whiteboards that allow class-wide engagement and interaction with material, breakout rooms for students to work together in small groups, and polls to assess learning. These course transformations are intended to engage and motivate their students, no matter how they teach their classes.
This year, business as usual isn’t an option, and the positive changes made to adapt to COVID-19’s disruption won’t just go away when the pandemic does. New approaches have allowed faculty to diversify their pedagogies and have equipped them with skills they can use in a post-pandemic world. It will make them more agile and creative in the long run.
“Our professors are amazing and what they do—the way they work with each student—that’s the very core of our campus culture,” says Thatcher. “Faculty have been provided the tools and the resources to create that personal St. Lawrence experience for our students across the world.”
Disrupting an Ancient Discipline
According to Associate and Rutherford Professor of Mathematics Dan Look, the pedagogy of mathematics was due for a disruption. Now, after over two decades of teaching, the pandemic has given him an opportunity to recraft his approach.
“I’m forced to get outside that box,” Look says. “I don’t have to teach like they did in the 60s. And when I say that, I mean from the 1460s—standing up front, imparting knowledge, and giving a quiz has been around forever. There are better ways to do it.”
Look serves on the Faculty Development Committee and spent his summer reading, attending courses, and learning from his colleagues across disciplines to discover what those ways are and what they might look like in a virtual classroom. Some of these opportunities have allowed him to put himself in the shoes of his students so that he can incorporate their perspective in his instruction.
Traditionally, mathematics is an exam-heavy discipline, but written exams are difficult to proctor when one can’t be in the same room as the students. Look believes that remote learning allows for the chance to challenge this norm by introducing one-on-one oral assessments to his examination process. This approach allows him to check in with students on their mental health and well-being prior to administering a test and approach the exam as a conversation between friends.
“I’ll ask them a few broad-stroke questions,” he says. “Don’t worry about the details. Don’t worry about the notation. If you were talking to a friend who knew math and hadn’t taken this course, how would you explain this idea?”
He hopes to encourage more sustainable study habits and allow for better retention of material.
“It freaks students out at first,” Look admits, “but in the end, the way that they study changes, they’re not cramming 24 hours before the exam. They’re thinking more thoughtfully about what they need to know and how the pieces fit together.”
With his reframed curriculum, Look aims to meet students where they are while still providing a rewarding and challenging learning experience because he believes these things transcend the online learning format.
“I’m excited to figure out how to serve my students’ needs, making sure they still get access to the quality education that they want and that they need and deserve,” he says. “It’s more about the connection, the effort, and the time you put in than the modality.”
No Matter the Modality, Humanity Is In the Pedagogy
When the COVID-19 pandemic sent students home and forced an abrupt switch to remote instruction in March, Charles A. Dana Professor of History Liz Regosin was teaching a community-based learning (CBL) course at Riverview Correctional Facility in nearby Ogdensburg, New York. While it was easy enough to continue written assignments as planned remotely with her St. Lawrence students, one critical component was missing.
“We lost that aspect of being in the prison and working with our incarcerated classmates,” says Regosin.
Pre-pandemic, 10 St. Lawrence students accompanied Regosin to the prison every week to learn alongside a group of incarcerated peers. Like many of her colleagues, Regosin values opportunities to work closely with her students—weaving together the firsthand experiences and perspectives of those with differing backgrounds to help them contextualize course material.
The school at the prison was promptly closed to outside visitors as a safety precaution, meaning Regosin couldn’t contact her incarcerated students directly via email or Zoom. She was determined to work around the obstacles in front of her and worked with the prison’s school director to continue the class primarily by written correspondence.
“He would deliver all my background information and lessons,” she says. “Students would do their weekly reflections and he would send them to me through the mail. Then I would grade them and send him comments online. It was incredibly time intensive, but it was worth it.”
In addition to building a community, Regosin’s CBL course promotes humanity and empathy between two groups that share a place in the North Country but might never cross paths otherwise. It was important to Regosin that her students stay in touch despite their separation. In addition to passing along course materials, she relayed messages between the two groups. Sometimes, one group would pose specific questions about assignments to their peers. Other times, they just inquired after one another’s health and well-being.
“We’re crafting a story together. It’s a very collaborative effort,” says Regosin. “I really try to make the students engage with me and work together to tease out the story that we’re learning from our readings.”
The humanizing effect of storytelling is a powerful tool when studying the histories of people, places, and movements that may feel distant from individual lived experiences. It’s also of crucial importance during a global pandemic as many battle isolation and must rely on digital mediums to safely interact with others.
Regosin, however, believes that screens don’t have to be barriers to the close, collaborative environment she fosters in her classroom. Even if they were, she’s the kind of person who sees obstacles as chances to overcome.
“I keep saying to everybody that instead of seeing this as a burden, I see it as an opportunity to improve and to think about my teaching in new and different ways,” she says.
In fact, Regosin has found the nature of collectively navigating the trials and errors of learning and teaching from home to be quite humanizing.
“I have better conversations with students when we’re Zooming than I might in my office. It changes the dynamic,” says Regosin. “I’m sitting upstairs in my study. I have a picture of Elvis that my kids drew behind me. My dog comes in; the kids walk by. I’m almost more of a human being than I am sitting behind my desk.”
As she prepared for remote and hybrid instruction this fall, Regosin describes the process itself as both collaborative and humble, requiring not only hours of learning and sharing new techniques with colleagues over the summer, but also maintaining transparent communication with students in the spring.
“My students were so great about accepting whatever was coming their way. I would ask, ‘Does this make sense? Are you guys getting this?’ They were great about checking in with me and trying to make it work,” she says.
Regosin taught a hybrid model in the fall with some of her class periods taking place in person while others occurred remotely. Although she and her students were sometimes separated by screens and distance, her pedagogy hasn’t lost its personal touch.
“We still connect. I’m still responding to their work the way that I always did. I write students short letters to respond to their papers or even just their weekly reflections,” says Regosin. “That hasn’t changed. Even if we don’t get to have the in-person human interaction, we still have human interaction.”
Reimagining Creative Expression at the Virtual Conference Table
As faculty across the country were learning how to keep the community in their curriculum during the abrupt transition to remote learning in March, Professor of English and Department Chair Paul Graham ’99 was confronting a similar challenge. He knew he had to do everything he could to ensure that one elemental object was a presence in his virtual classroom.
“We had to find ways to recreate the conference table on Zoom,” he says.
While mundane and purely functional on its own, a conference table in a creative writing class becomes a forum for students to share their work, give and receive feedback, and hone their unique voices. During the workshop process, it enables free-flowing, open conversation and helps foster a supportive environment wherein students grow as writers.
“For the remote workshops, I assigned small groups a specific question to focus on,” says Graham. “Six students might get to speak about the strengths of the essay or story in question. Six might address some ideas for revision. Anyone else who had something to add could jump in after. Then we’d switch for the next story or essay.”
Graham’s determination to channel the spirit of the conference table in his virtual classroom demonstrates his dedication to the promise of a rich and multifaceted academic experience for his students—and he’s not alone in this endeavor. He’s in the good company of all his peers across campus.
“Great teachers are great teachers regardless of the format. And St. Lawrence is built on a foundation of great instructors,” says Graham. “We’ve had a summer to rest and recharge, but also to avail ourselves of the technology, creativity, and community-based problem solving that will allow us to carry out the virtual format even more effectively.”
The demands of the remote classroom challenged faculty to adapt new pedagogical approaches, but Graham believes that substitutions aren’t inherently worse—they’re just different and can open the door to compelling new techniques and assignments. Although the nature of Zoom necessitated some changes when it came to class-wide discussion, Graham pivoted to make the time spent in the virtual classroom meaningful in other ways.
“I made much more use of in-class writing, as well. Every class meeting, for 15 or 20 minutes, we’d ‘go dark’—turn off mics and camera—and write a generative prompt or carry out a specific revision task. Then we’d report back,” he says.
More important than his ability to adapt his pedagogy, however, was Graham’s willingness to meet students wherever they were. Last semester, he encouraged them to use free-writing and journaling exercises to reckon with the stress, anxiety, and uncertainty brought on by the global pandemic and to make sense of their dichotomous experiences and emotions.
“That’s what creative expression is: observing lightness and darkness, hope and despair, and pulling them into a moment of beauty or understanding or both, even if the moment or vision is only temporary,” he says. “It’s an important time to be in contact with your own voice, to identify your own fears and acknowledge them, and to celebrate what’s beautiful and what makes sense.”
Graham continues to work with students—helping them use their writing to make sense of the moment and consider its role in their professional development. He hosted a seminar on the ins and outs of getting completed work published as part of the English Department’s summer enrichment programming. Late in the spring, he also made a pointed effort to connect with the students who remain on campus by offering weekly writing workshops every Sunday. He was also part of the “Helping Our Students Thrive” (HOST) program that provides support to international students through the summer.
Graham’s philosophy is, at its core, very simple. When faced with an overwhelming hurdle, he finds footing in the small things that characterize everyday life—the sound of the Gunnison Memorial Chapel bells, the anticipation of seeing students on campus again, and the conversations around the conference table, both in person or virtual, about the literature they’re reading and writing. Graham has hope that, although these things look and feel different, they’re rewarding in their own way.
“I get some hope for the semester from the hard work that everyone put into safety planning and creating inspiring courses this summer,” he says. “We want so very much to have the richest experience possible, and though we know it will not be anything like normal, we’re doing the best we can.”