Faculty offer innovative ideas for teaching hybrid classes


Shortly before Pitt’s Oakland campus moved from the Elevated to Guarded risk posture in October, Provost Ann Cudd hosted a town hall featuring faculty who have been using innovative ideas to teach students who are in the classroom or attending remotely.

Since Flex@Pitt — which allows both students and faculty to choose whether they want to be in the classroom — will continue into the spring semester, the ideas and best practices presented at the town hall might be a good starting place as professors, lecturers and instructors prepare their upcoming classes.

Doing clinical labs remotely

Joanne Baird from the Department of Occupational Therapy in the School of Health and Rehabilitation Sciences said one of the challenges the department had was trying to teach clinical skills remotely and effectively.

“We are not just trying to modify what we’re doing, but also improve our teaching,” she said.

They created live, instructor-led videos that students viewed in real time and then, if they were able, demonstrated the procedures back to the instructor. Those students who didn’t have someone readily available to demonstrate on could upload a video later for the instructor to review. For some high-priority labs, students were asked to return to campus to do the work in person.

In addition, they created mock telehealth treatments, using clients from the community who have volunteered to help in training students. Instructors did video interviews with the clients that students would then watch and develop their own questions for the patients.

“We vetted those questions and worked with the students, and then we brought the clients back for a live session with us,” Baird said. “And the students really, really like this. They help direct the session and it worked wonderfully well.”

Baird said Canvas has been very useful in several different ways, in addition to letting students upload videos. “We were able to embed YouTube videos that also help support our teaching. We use the quiz section for pre- and post-assessments. We use the people section to help group students. And … Canvas allowed us to really use the Google Docs feature. That was not something that we were able to leverage quite as well before and the students really appreciate it that.”

The other issue they dealt with was trying to find ways for students to connect with each other and with instructors outside classroom time.

“We needed to find equivalent ingredients for things like conversations that occur before and after class, or information that students might exchange with you in the hallway, or the ability of students to ask questions of more than just their best friends or inner circle in the class,” she said.

They are still trying out different approaches, including scheduling informal office hours right before class or making sure the instructor is the last one on the Zoom call in case anyone has a question after class.

To help students connect, she had them each create a PowerPoint presentation on “something that was really important to them that they wanted other students to know about.” She posted them on Canvas for students to explore and “they absolutely loved it and were making connections even without me facilitating that.”

Rotating cohorts

Kristen Butela, a lecturer in Biological Sciences and course coordinator on the Foundations of Biology lab team, admits labs are really difficult to teach online, particularly when students are involved in real research — in this case affiliated with Graham Hatfull’s work on phages.

Normally, students come into the lab with a soil sample, from which they isolate, purify and characterize a novel bacteria phage or virus infecting a common soil bacteria.

“I think we found a way to reach the students who want to come in and get that hands-on experience as well as keeping the remote students engaged and involved with just as much of the scientific discovery as what the in-person students are having,” she said.

In the “before times,” Butela said, the students worked independently at their own pace, then everyone’s research would be presented in a poster session.

With Flex@Pitt, they decided to use the rotating cohort option with the course broken down into modules, because it wasn’t practical with social distancing “to do some of the techniques that we had before because it requires such close contact between instructors and students.”

Students were put in groups of four, with each having a distinct role. Only one — the experiment manager, who physically conducted the experiments— was in the lab. The other three were: protocol manager, who tells the experiment manager what to do and gives them feedback on their experimental technique; data manager, who takes the data that the experiment manager gathers and analyzes and organizes it; and communications manager, who summarizes the team’s findings and then reports that back to the class. At the end of each three-week module, students can rotate jobs.

For those students not in the classroom, Butela created videos on Panopto that showed how to do that procedure, the theory behind the procedure and how to interpret the data behind the experiments. Staff from the University Center for Teaching and Learning helped them set up the custom technology to help students see what was happening during an experiment.

“We would have students watch these videos before coming back to lab — in essence a flipped lab setup,” she said. “We would give them some low stakes repeatable quizzes on Canvas that we would use to assess their understanding of the background material before coming into lab.”

To emphasize the importance of scientific communication and record keeping, the team was responsible for the lab notebook. “Each manager had a different role to play in the notebook, making sure it was well curated,” she said. And the teams each selected the names for their bacterial phages.

Butela gave rave reviews to Perusal, one of technological solution they used. “Typically, we would have class journal discussions and break the students up into teams and have a question-and-answer session for scientific journal articles,” she said. “We weren’t able to do that this semester in the same way. We decided to do that asynchronously using Perusal, where students enter comments and questions on the paper, and they interact with each other.”

Managing students online and in-person

Dave Sanchez, an assistant professor in Civil and Environmental Engineering in the Swanson School of Engineering, said the biggest challenge for him once he went back to the classroom was engaging with the students who were in-person and online.

Part of his solution was using a Surface Pro tablet as a whiteboard.

“When I first thought about transitioning to online, a lot of my content was going to be curated digital content,” he said. “And what I started to remember was how just writing and organically letting your lecture evolve really allowed you to have a natural pace to the class, and students really appreciated that.”

The other issue was how to get feedback from the students. He found that the online polls and chat functions were still useful with the hybrid class. “Using those polls was a chance to allow each person, even in the class, to articulate what they were experiencing or what they thought.” It also helped spur discussion between students in class and at home.

He also took one of the larger exams and broke it up into regular quizzes, which helps give students structure and keep on task. Sanchez said he used a mental health break in the middle of his two-hour class with first-year students to get them up from staring at screens for a few minutes.

His advice was to “Let Canvas allow you to simplify your course design,” and then think about adding bells and whistles after you’re more comfortable with it.

“One way I’ve tried to keep it simple was every Friday, I send an email to each of my sections, and it really just summarizes where we’re at — here are the tasks that you completed for this week and here’s what we’re looking to next.”

In a survey of his students, he found that “they want engage with their peers in the class. If the class is too passive, they’re losing energy. They told us that it was easier to be distracted when they’re in their rooms. … They’re feeling a little isolated but they’re really eager to experience things.”

Trying to maintain normalcy

Gabby Yearwood, a lecturer and director of undergraduate studies in the Department of Anthropology in the Deitrich School of Arts & Sciences, was faced with teaching one 200-person class and one small seminar this semester.

“Overall, for both of those courses, my use of technology was to try to keep my courses as normal as possible without trying to be super innovative and making too many drastic changes, but to give students an opportunity to feel like they’re still having a regular course when we had the opportunity to meet in person,” Yearwood said, admitting his proclivity was for teaching in person.

He split the larger class, with half coming on Tuesday and half on Thursday. He expected maybe half of each cohort would come in person, but the numbers have been closer to 30 or 40 people per session.

The lectures have been recorded and uploaded into Canvas. The teaching assistants are staying mostly virtual, and in that environment, students can do polling within the recitations and use discussion boards prior to recitations. TAs also have been using breakout rooms in Zoom, “to give students as much opportunity to engage directly with one another.”

Since they knew monitoring students during testing would be difficult, they made the tests open book and students could access them at any point during the test day.

“There’s no way to monitor whether students are going to use the texts or the readings to answer the question, so we might as well build that in and take advantage of it,” Yearwood said. “And we’ve actually seen really great responses. We’ve seen a wide range of scores — not that all of a sudden everyone’s getting perfect on these tests.”

He did admit that it takes a little extra time, maybe 10 minutes, to get set up before class. It’s time he uses to make sure that “everything is set up right through Zoom, and that everything’s going to work.”

Canvas has allowed Yearwood and his TAs to read, grade and make comments on papers and exams very seamlessly through the program, including sharing the papers with each other electronically. “That’s something that I think that I may continue to do later on, so (the TAs) don’t have to go up to campus and get something out of their mailbox, and they both equally have access to all of what I graded.”

Through Canvas, he also can adjust the amount of time each student gets to take the test, depending on what accommodations they have in place. For a definitions test, he could put in all the terms from several chapters and the program would randomly select 12 for each student.

During tests, they did need to keep an eye out for panicked emails from students who had wifi or internet issues, so they could reset the test if needed.

He also found that students were using the chat function in Zoom almost like social media — sharing ideas, answering questions and even commenting when they thought he was late for class. He had to remind them that it is a recorded public forum.

Susan Jones is editor of the University Times. Reach her at suejones@pitt.edu or 724-244-4042.


Have a story idea or news to share? Share it with the University Times.

Follow the University Times on Twitter and Facebook.