Sitting in front of two computer screens while typing notes, Joseph Chlebecek made multitasking look easy.
In addition, the Rainy River Community College political science and history instructor, divides eye contact with the three students in front of him and the other 17 students on Zoom.
The scene was among many included in the new normal at the local community college.
Last week, Chlebecek was giving a lecture on the U.S. Attorney General, typing out highlights and making sure everyone was engaged. The style was different from the chalk and blackboard style of teaching he started with more than 20 years ago, but now he said he considers two computer screens in his office an essential part of the job.
“Change is the only constant in higher education these days,” Chlebecek said. “To remain current as a college instructor, we need to take advantage of the training sessions at our fingertips... Things change, and we need to change with them.”
And there has been a lot of changes made in educational settings – and in nearly every industry – over the past seven months.
When the COVID-19 pandemic shuttered college campuses across the nation last March, officials and instructors were forced to make quick decisions about delivering instruction to students.
“Since March, everything has changed so fast,” said Andrea Gohl, RRCC art instructor. “We need to be adaptable and flexible in order to assist in student learning. Having the summer to brainstorm with colleagues and prepare for classes this semester was very helpful as opposed to having two weeks to adapt classes last spring.”
Students returned to the RRCC campus in late August, and since then, instructors continue to develop creative ways on how to deliver instruction safely and effectively during the COVID-19 pandemic. While different kinds of technology is a natural component of today’s higher education, the pandemic has resulted in additional technology tools in each instructor’s wheelhouse.
When contacted by The Journal, four different RRCC instructors each had different responses to how they were teaching this semester. Chlebecek said only one of his classes is 100 percent online, while the other four classes meet in person a minimum of one day per week.
“Beyond the face-to-face instruction, all of my students have the option of using Zoom to access classes live. And each class is recorded and posted online for students to access,” he said.
Brooke Boulton, RRCC English teacher, said she and other faculty members chose instructional delivery that best fits their teaching styles, while also considering student safety and learning needs.
“With many options for delivery during the pandemic, faculty could exercise flexibility in the decision making process,” she said. “We began planning for fall during the Spring 2020 semester, so everyone was prepared for the many shapes fall could potentially take.”
The entire process has come with challenges.
For Boulton, it’s the constant switching between screens, managing breakout rooms, and fielding questions. She referred to the process as a multidimensional experience that has tested her abilities as an educator.
“Once I fell into a rhythm of developing course work and became fluent with Zoom instruction, my confidence increased,” she said. “Establishing this rhythm happened faster than I expected, so the ease for me was making the transition quickly so I could best serve students. “
RRCC science and math teacher Kelly Sjerven agreed.
“Teaching with Zoom is not as bad as I thought it would be, it works well for smaller classes,” she said. “I’m experienced with online teaching and have gotten good feedback from students in previous online classes, so I’m comfortable designing courses in that format.”
But there is still some disconnect.
“It is more difficult to reach students who are missing work or not participating in online discussions, since I don’t see them on campus,” Sjerven said.
Boulton agreed, noting there is a level of human connection missing.
“It is difficult to manage a Zoom session of (more than) 20 students, and impossible to see everyone’s faces while screen sharing and teaching,” she said. “At times, I feel as if I am teaching to my computer screen and nothing else. The human connection is definitely missing, as Zoom does not afford the same spontaneous learning opportunities as a face-to-face classroom because time is so structured. Not seeing students faces while teaching is difficult, but students also have new opportunities to build relationships among each other and with their professors, thanks to breakout rooms and individual Zoom conferences. Also, students can schedule on-campus meetings. The connection isn’t lost—it is just different—and we must adapt to developing relationships with students in environments beyond the comfort of traditional classroom learning.”
Taking online classes may come as a challenge for some, but opens opportunities for others.
RRCC serves a diverse student population, and Boulton said the increased flexibility allows instructors to accommodate more adult or distance learners. For many of those students, online learning is a better fit.
“As a writing professor, I teach students to communicate in writing, which is a personal act,” she said. “Through student writing, I get to know them, and through feedback, I communicate with them. As a writing professor, this has always been my most intimate method of relationship development. Who students are in writing is sometimes very different from the student we see – or don’t see – in the classroom; thus, I see little difference, in this regard, as to how I cultivate relationships with students.”
Gohl said smaller class sizes have allowed her more interaction with students.
“In these smaller, intimate classes, I have the occasion to connect with students differently,” she said. “In my online class, we have numerous discussion posts for students to build a relationship with myself and each other. We have an upcoming self-portrait photo project coming up where students will be able to express themselves and get to know one another. I am looking forward to seeing what they come up with.”
While they are learning new techniques to deliver instruction, the teachers are also learning about themselves. Sjerven said she has realized what is truly important to include in each course.
“ I want to make sure each assignment is meaningful and worth the students’ time,” she said. “Since information is so widely available, I think it is more important to teach students how to use information rather than memorize it, so I shifted from tests to application projects for two of my classes.”
Boulton said the 2020 environment has brought to light the skills she has to adapt to a variety of teaching platforms
“This experience will improve my instructional abilities moving forward,” she said. “Online learning requires different skill sets than face-to-face learning, but many of the core elements remain intact: instructors and students must be responsible, manage time, participate fully—but we engage with these foundations of teaching and learning in new ways. Our responsibility as educators is to provide and teach students the skills they need to be successful online learners. This requires additional effort and planning. The pandemic offers an opportunity for all of us to grow as educators and as learners which, ultimately, will better prepare us for 21st century expectations.”