Moving Forward: Teaching in Uncertain Times

Community Blog on online, hybrid, and F2F teaching during the pandemic

High-Impact Practices and Online Learning

As most of us moved to fully online asynchronous courses in the summer and fall, we were understandably more focused on how to deliver content than how to engage students. The experiential and active learning approaches that we had developed over time in our physical classrooms were difficult to translate to a new modality, and the tasks of recording video lectures, figuring out online quizzes and tests, and setting up iCollege took up most of our time. It looks like we might be returning to a “normal” fall, and hopefully this means reengaging students with the methods we know work in the classroom. As we see a light at the end of the tunnel, it’s worth thinking about how we might implement more active pedagogies online if we decide to teach hybrid courses or find that teaching online was something we would like to continue or, god forbid, we are forced to return to online courses because of another outbreak.

It helps to have a clear list of proven methods to start thinking about implementing them online. The Association of American Colleges & Universities’ High-Impact Practices are a great place to start. HIPs broadly defined are teaching approaches that have a track record of being effective for undergraduate students. Most faculty are likely at least somewhat familiar with all or most of the approaches on AAC&U’s list:

  • First-Year Seminars and Experiences
  • Learning Communities
  • Writing-Intensive Courses
  • Collaborative Assignments and Projects
  • Undergraduate Research
  • Diversity/Global Learning
  • ePortfolios
  • Service Learning, Community-Based Learning
  • Internships
  • Capstone Courses and Projects

Of course, these practices have to be done well to be effective. Teachers and researchers are defining and creating rubrics focused on the underlying elements of successful HIPs like high expectations, time for reflection, regular feedback, and practical application. With the growing amount of research and infrastructure around other pedagogical approaches, it’s important not to look at the AAC&U’s list as exhaustive, but rather a helpful start. If we are going to get online education right, we need to consider how we create High-Impact Practices that work online. Following are a few examples I’ve seen or participated in at GSU over the pandemic.

Writing Intensive Courses- Using writing in the classroom is nothing new, but the importance of well-designed writing assignments became abundantly clear as we moved to asynchronous online courses. Writing is a technology we are all familiar with and can easily be adapted to online discussions and assignments. Long before online learning management systems, Writing Across the Curriculum advocates were promoting small, informal, low-stakes writing assignments to engage students and keep a pulse on what they are learning throughout the semester. I briefly described several WAC writing-to-learn approaches in an earlier post. WAC is one of the largest and best-documented pedagogical movements in the country and GSU’s WAC program has been around since 1996. Faculty can apply to our WAC program for a Writing Intensive course development grant and for graduate funding to assist with student writing. The summer workshops bring together faculty from many departments to discuss disciplinary writing, small writing-to-learn assignments, scaffolding large assignments, and approaches to assessment.

Reacting to the Past- While not on the official list of HIPs, The RTTP movement has been around for a few decades and has a well-developed infrastructure for conferences, workshops, and assessment. RTTP was initially described to me as Dungeons & Dragons for History. Students are assigned roles in an historical moment and are required to research, give speeches, and convince other players of their arguments. The games can last from a class period to an entire semester, and dozens of games have been published or are under review. RTTP has also expanded beyond History to disciplines like Philosophy and Public Health. Faculty in GSU’s History Department have been using RTTP in some of their classes for the past few years, and a GSU team led by Rob Baker recently created a game set during the Atlanta Sit-Ins Movement. When Rob mentioned they were going to test the game during the pandemic I was a little surprised at first. The games I had seen before were all about students meeting in groups and giving live speeches. But after seeing some of the game in action I was amazed at how well it worked online using communication tools like Slack that allow for separate discussion channels, announcements, and sharing documents.

Project Labs- Project-Based Learning (PBL) spans several of AAC&U’s High-Impact Practices- Collaborative Assignments and Projects, Undergraduate Research, and Capstone Courses and Projects. Underlying PBL pedagogy is that students become more engaged when they can apply the material they are learning in classes to real-world problems and solutions. GSU’s Project Lab program was at the end of it’s pilot year when the pandemic hit, and those of us leading Labs were concerned that the hands on and collaborative nature of the program would be nearly impossible to replicate online. The program, modeled after Georgia Tech’s Vertically Integrated Projects, allows students to work on faculty-led, public-facing projects, earning course credit over multiple semesters. Moving the labs online certainly took some adjustments, but I’ve been genuinely surprised at how effective they’ve been. Students in this program regularly report that these Labs are where they have had their closest connections to faculty and other students in their first couple of semesters at GSU. Beyond student self reporting of their experience, Ryan Carlin’s Lab ended up publishing in the Washington Post’s political blog.

Walking Tours- Location-based education encourages active learning and places theoretical concepts in real-world contexts.  When students already have knowledge that they can build upon, they are more likely to understand and retain complex ideas. While not on the “official” list of HIPs, there is a growing body of research on this approach that Woodhouse and Knapp describe as “inherently multidisciplinary,” “inherently experiential,” and “connects place with self and community.” When the pandemic hit, I was concerned that much of the location-based learning I was increasingly using in my classes would be lost. I could still have students read about the history, culture, and infrastructure of Atlanta, look at online projects, and have online discussions about the city, but I worried that the material would not have the same impact now that students were not walking around downtown. When campus shut down last spring, I had students walk around their own neighborhoods making observations that connected to the material we had been exploring in class, and I experimented having students use google streetview to tour parts of Atlanta and other cities around the world. I wouldn’t argue that these assignments had the same impact on students as the guided walking tours we had been doing, but they did report seeing their own neighborhoods in a new light and they were able to make thoughtful comparisons between Atlanta and other cities in streetview. In the fall, my course was online asynchronous, but I included options for live walking tours to allow students who were interested in coming to campus to have a safer class experience outside. I offered parallel guided digital tours using Emory’s Open Tour Builder and google streetview “walks” for students who were not interested in coming downtown. I am currently working with a group to research the effects of these walking tours, and hope to eventually parse out the difference between live and digital tour experiences.

brennan • March 15, 2021

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