While St. Lawrence University faculty members spent their summers adapting their curriculum to a new classroom dynamic, investments in cutting-edge education technology allowed them to explore solutions to remote and hybrid learning for the upcoming semester.
When St. Lawrence University faculty look back on the summer of 2020, they will remember it as the summer they stepped beyond the familiarity of the conventional classroom to reimagine their curriculum in just a few short months.
Though 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—for all students in the fall.
“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 will teach students everywhere, whether they’re in the classroom, online in their dorm rooms, or thousands of miles away.”
"It will feel like St. Lawrence... 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." —René Thatcher
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 the 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.
“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.”
"Our professors are amazing and what they do, the way they work with each student—that’s the very core of our campus culture... Faculty have been provided the tools and the resources to create that personal St. Lawrence experience for our students across the world." —René Thatcher
Thatcher also says that faculty are looking forward to using more advanced techniques in familiar web conferencing tools such as Zoom. They’ve been practicing with 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 class.
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. The new approaches will allow faculty to diversify their pedagogies and will equip 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.”
Look for more information on St. Lawrence’s remote-learning technology in the upcoming Campaign Impact Report, due to arrive in Laurentian mailboxes in September.