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Remote Teaching Workshops Prep Faculty for Fall’s Virtual Reality

UML Helps Faculty Develop Technical Skills, Practical Strategies for Remote Learning

University administrators tour a new classroom Photo by Ed Brennen
With classrooms like this new one at the Graduate and Professional Studies Center not being used because of the coronavirus pandemic, Provost Joseph Hartman and Chancellor Jacquie Moloney, center, have led the university's efforts to prepare faculty members for remote instruction this fall.

By Ed Brennen

Given the uncertainty of the coronavirus pandemic, Assoc. Prof. of Spanish Studies Daniel Arroyo-Rodriguez prepared for every possible teaching scenario this fall: in-person courses on campus, virtual classes online, or a hybrid of the two.

“If we have learned anything during this pandemic, it’s how to be flexible and resilient — and to be ready for anything that we need to do,” says Arroyo-Rodriguez, who joined the Department of World Languages and Cultures this fall from Colorado College.

To be ready for what ultimately came to pass — a full semester of remote courses — Arroyo-Rodriguez joined hundreds of fellow UML faculty members over the summer for the Provost’s Excellence in Learning and Teaching (PELT) workshop series.

Coordinated by Vice Provost for Academic Affairs Julie Nash, Senior Director of Curriculum Assessment and Accreditation Paula Haines and Assoc. Director of Academic Technology Donna Mellen, the workshop series was designed to help faculty deliver the best possible remote learning experience for students.

In all, 390 faculty members participated in the 35 virtual workshop sessions, which averaged around 50 attendees each. Sessions were led by UML faculty and Information Technology staff members, as well as representatives from technology vendors.  

While many of the workshop sessions focused on getting the most out of academic technologies such as Blackboard, Gradescope and Zoom, others covered approaches and strategies for teaching virtually, such as “Humanizing Online Teaching” (led by English Prof. Marlowe Miller) and “Creative Ways to Engage Your Students” (led by Asst. Teaching Prof. of Marketing, Entrepreneurship and Innovation Deborah Casey).

“We wanted to help faculty think first about their goals for student learning, and then help them figure out how to select the applications and tools that would work best to achieve those goals,” Haines says.
Daniel Arroyo-Rodriguez
“The PELT workshops were very effective in building that network of support. I know there are people I can rely on, so that gives me peace of mind.” -Assoc. Prof. Daniel Arroyo-Rodriguez

Cathy Levey, an associate teaching professor of criminal justice, attended almost all of the PELT sessions. While she has taught online courses before for the Division of Graduate, Online and Professional Studies (GPS), those were asynchronous, meaning that students could log on any time to watch a lecture. This is Levey’s first full semester teaching virtual classes in real time.

“Our IT staff and faculty colleagues did an excellent job throughout the training series and often surpassed the offerings by some of these outside vendors,” says Levey, who picked up a few new techniques for the Blackboard learning management system and discovered how to use polling and breakout rooms on Zoom.

Unlike in March, when the university had just 10 days to move 2,700 courses online, administrators had several months to plan for the possibility of remote courses this fall. In May, Chancellor Jacquie Moloney formed six fall planning committees, including one chaired by Provost Joseph Hartman on academic programs that led to the PELT workshops.

Haines and her team also surveyed more than 2,800 students in the spring about their experience with the move to remote learning. The survey results helped inform which topics to cover in the PELT summer series.

“Students told us that they craved interaction and that they wanted some sense of consistency in the presentation of course materials,” says Haines, who notes that 48 percent of respondents had never taken an online course before and that another 27 percent had only taken one or two. “So we knew that faculty would need to be ready to support them through strong planning and clear communication around how to complete their coursework.”

In addition to PELT workshops, faculty were encouraged to join the university’s Teaching Excellence listserv (a group email discussion list) to ask questions and share ideas about distance learning.

“The listserv has been a boon for faculty and staff,” Nash says. “We can provide all the resources in the world, but at the end of the day, it is the faculty who are in the trenches teaching during a pandemic for the first time. They are really their own best resources.”

Nash adds that UML Library staff have helped faculty collect Open Educational Resources and developed a system for online course reserves. “Their research expertise has really helped the faculty prepare for fall with all the materials they need,” she says. 

To ensure that faculty were equipped with the tools they need to teach from home, the university distributed 174 iPads, 91 webcams and 89 document cameras along with laptops, headsets and stylus pens over the summer. Mellen collaborated with Senior Director of Instructional Technology Support Mike Lucas and Assoc. Chief Information Officer for System Architecture Steve Athanas on the distribution efforts.

If faculty need pointers on how to use the devices, Senior Instructional Technologists Randy Tyndall and Mac Wishart are holding open forum academic technology meetings on Zoom every Friday through September.

And for UML’s 39 new faculty members this fall such as Arroyo-Rodriguez, the university offered a new faculty technology toolkit and teaching orientation on Zoom. Nash also created a Microsoft Teams site for newcomers.
Cathy Levey
“Our IT staff and faculty colleagues did an excellent job throughout the training series and often surpassed the offerings by some of these outside vendors.” -Assoc. Teaching Prof. Cathy Levey

“It's hard enough for any new faculty to build a community of support while teaching in a new place,” Nash says. “I can't imagine doing it when you can't even meet your colleagues face to face. The Teams site has really helped with that.”

Arroyo-Rodriguez agrees. He’s only been to campus twice — first for his interview and then to pick up his office key — and says that, “in the times we’re living in,” the listserv, Teams site and PELT workshops have helped him meet colleagues and learn about the university.

“The summer workshops were such a wonderful idea. I’m very happy I could take them,” says Arroyo-Rodriguez, who had never taught online in his 10 years at Colorado College — until this spring, when the school shifted to remote learning. 

He says the 14 PELT workshops he attended were “a perfect model of how to conduct a virtual session.”

“Some had close to 100 people participating, and I got a lot of ideas on how to hold group discussions, share documents and use breakout rooms just from seeing how the facilitators do it,” says Arroyo-Rodriguez, who is teaching two courses this semester: “Spanish Composition” and “Introduction to Spanish Literature Studies.”

“I still have a lot to learn, but it gives you a lot of confidence to know that there are so many colleagues working on similar things,” he says. “The PELT workshops were very effective in building that network of support. I know there are people I can rely on, so that gives me peace of mind.”

Haines looks forward to continuing the PELT collaboration as a way to engage the campus community and support best practices and innovation in the classroom.

“Perhaps the most important goal of the PELT series was to create a sense of community around teaching, especially at this time when it’s easy to feel isolated from our colleagues,” Haines says. “Judging by the great conversations we had during these faculty-led sessions and the discussions that ensued on the Teaching Excellence listserv, we succeeded.”