By ERVIN DYER
About four weeks before the start of the fall semester, I reached out to my friend, Abdesalam Soudi, a professor in the Pitt Linguistics department. I had recently completed a series of training sessions for Canvas, the new online classroom management system the University was implementing.
I needed to learn the system because I was teaching an Africana Studies course on the African-American family.
I appreciated the training sessions. They were helpful. But I am technologically slow, and the sessions reminded me of my high school algebra classes. As long as the teacher was at the board, reviewing the formulas, I was good. Absent the teacher, I was lost. It was the same with the Canvas lessons, once the training sessions were completed, I was lost and intimidated on how to move forward.
I needed more help.
Soudi and I were in graduate school together and had stayed in touch afterward, so I knew he was gregarious and had a better sense of technology than I did.
I asked if he didn’t mind joining me in a private tutorial where we could learn Canvas together.
He agreed but took it one step further. He invited others.
Over the course of eight weeks, I gathered on Zoom with a small but diverse spectrum of the Pitt teaching universe at 7 on Saturday nights to prepare ourselves for the semester.
I’m an adjunct professor with the Department of Africana Studies. I was joined by Soudi, a professor of Linguistics; Kaniqua Robinson, a visiting professor with Africana Studies; Glenson France, an economics professor with the Greensburg campus (and an early adopter of Canvas), and Shelome Gooden, a Linguistics professor and assistant vice chancellor for Research for the humanities, arts, social sciences, and related fields. We were also briefly joined by Sylvester Carter, a professor of physical therapy at University of the Sciences in Philadelphia.
Robinson, whom I asked to join us, later told me she was “nervous” about teaching on Zoom and using Canvas. She looked forward to discussing Flex@Pitt and how to manage the multiple platforms for e-learning When the pandemic forced the spring 2020 semester online, she worried about the disruption to the rapport she had cultivated with her students. As the fall approached, she — as we all were — became concerned with how to engage students online and ensure that they were learning the content as successfully as they would in the classroom.
The invitation was welcomed, she said, as she “was eager to learn from the circle of scholars about how to better engage students using this different online format.”
So, for the next couple of months, our little group mastered the Canvas process. We built our modules, uploaded our syllabi, and built our discussion boards. We shared and practiced lecturing over Zoom, navigating technical functions of recording and sharing videos, delivering PowerPoint presentations, creating breakout rooms to allow small group discussions, and transferring content from Blackboard, an earlier classroom management system.
We also talked about discussion posts, specifically how to include them in Canvas modules and class assignments as a way to boost class participation and how to grade the posts. Soudi not only took a lead on this, but he also encouraged us to use the indentation function with our modules. He wanted us to know that the modules could be informative, but also be attractive and have appeal and functionality for when the students came to the page.
Regarding Panopto, a video recording platform, we spent time understanding how to properly upload classroom recordings and make it available to students while being sure we limited the recording to student use only. In addition, we discussed student concerns over being recorded and if this would impact their level of classroom engagement.
Robinson said she always made sure her students were aware and comfortable before she started the recording.
But we bonded over other matters, too. We learned instructors’ best practices on Zoom classroom management and engagement techniques. As we began to share the passions that brought us to our particular disciplines, our personalities came into the Zoom chat with us.
Soudi was engaging and quick with a story. We learned about his incredible journey from a village in Morocco to Pittsburgh, as well his classes about interactions between language and society and how social factors like ethnicity, race, power, gender and class influence language variation. We learned of Gooden’s roots in the Caribbean and how she infuses this into lectures on Black language varieties.
France had a sense of humor. He made us laugh with classroom stories of responding to students’ encounters with new economic concepts, and we chuckled when he shared his angst when a windstorm toppled a tree too close to his back porch. Robinson shared her thoughts on developing a new course on race and criminal justice. It was funny to hear of her navigation with monitoring who showed up in her classroom.
“This group was very important in my success this semester,” Robinson said. “Having the ability to talk about my concerns and share my ideas … helped to boost my confidence implementing the Flex@Pitt option. We were able to talk out our thoughts. Members of the group would seek outside information and bring it back to share. This group was wonderful.”
Through our sharing we found points of interconnection across the courses that we taught, which heretofore seemed like worlds apart.
The meetings gave us a chance to work out kinks in the system as well as a sense of community support and created bonds during this difficult time of social distancing.
I felt like the invitation to Soudi for help with Canvas had given me a whole circle of friendships to help center me in a semester where COVID-19 had ushered in so much uncertainty.
Ervin Dyer is an adjunct professor with the Department of Africana Studies and senior editor for Pitt Magazine. Abdesalam Soudi, Kaniqua Robinson, Glenson France and Shelome Gooden contributed to this article.