Lessons learned: Some adaptations for online teaching will continue


School of Pharmacy faculty member Victoria Grieve had two very different classes to adapt to online this spring: A large drug-discovery simulation for pharmacy students and a small class on health care for the LGBT community.

Each one gained very different things from the move, she says, which will live on in future versions, whether they’re remote or in person.

Grieve’s specialty is “gameful” instruction. Her pharmacy class, “Drug Discovery & Development,” was in the middle of a large-scale multiplayer game, Rxpedition, for which the course’s 115 students are broken into small groups as mock biotech startup companies competing to bring drugs to market. They have to manage everything from their public images to their budgets, while instructors and coordinators roam the room, assessing their progress.

When COVID-19 hit, the teams had yet to reach the game’s final phase, which includes presentations to their own boards and to representatives of the FDA (normally played by faculty, of course), which would determine whether students had properly gauged their drug’s efficacy and readiness for sale.

“A big part of (adapting) was letting go of the rigid scheduling,” says Grieve, who moved the class to four-hour sessions on Zoom, where she says at any one time, half the students were working online in breakout rooms, with instructors available to chat.

The new attitude among the instructors — Grieve, faculty members Colleen Culley and Sravan Patel and doctoral student Keith Long — was: “‘We’re going to provide you means to work through (your presentations), we’re going to be here to help you, but we don’t care how you do it.’ It seemed to work very well … providing milestones they needed to accomplish, providing a space where they would work. It was up to them to accomplish this — and every single group did, with pretty exceptional work at the end.”

Instead of creating presentations, each group wrote up their findings. And instructors split the final exam into two parts — a didactic test and what Grieve calls the “grand finale.”

“We created an experience that was high-stakes and required students to apply the design concepts of the class,” she says, by giving each group a new design scenario to work through, including 10 Excel spreadsheets of data, to produce a recommendation letter to their mock company’s CEO: Is this new drug worth making?

The instructors assessed the results of the grand finale not by a rubric, but by pinpointing 25 elements students would have to include in their letter — and whether students did something unexpected and valuable.

The idea was to give students the opportunity to use their so-called soft skills, such as communication, critical thinking and collaboration — which the class was teaching anyway.

“We are absolutely going to do the ‘grand finale’ again,” whether the class is in-person or remote, Grieve says.

She also is going to continue the new online feature of her other class this spring, “Healthcare for the LGBTQIA+ Community”: an extra hour scheduled at the end of class to practice what the class preaches — empathy-first teaching — and simply to find reassurance in how fellow classmates are currently coping.

For the class time itself, Grieve turned its nine students into teachers, assigning them to create presentations on topics they had researched. But it was the after-class, informal session that Grieve is most eager to duplicate in the future.

“We dedicated the time to checking in with them,” seeing how social isolation was affecting students. “I stuck around, and a lot of the students stuck around (after class), just to talk about things, show each other their cats and that sort of thing. We shared baking recipes — wherever the conversation would flow.”

When she left, students were still hanging out, she reports. Not only was this a humane addition to class time, it certainly helped them practice their empathy-first principles, she believes.

“I’m already blocking out an extra hour” for the fall class sessions on Zoom, she says, although she admits, “there’s something lost from being in person,” not least of which is creating a safe space in which students can speak frankly, outside of their homes.

Another Grieve class that can only gain from time online is “Game Design,” offered through the School of Computing and Information. There, the software in use, such as Discord and Twitch, creates communities for students to talk outside of class. Students design and play games together.

This fall “we’re going to double down on that,” Grieve says. Each week she and her co-instructor will be playing a game together with students, doing live critiquing, talking about design choices and other considerations.

“We have a lot more work to do, but we had a lot of excitement around how this class could go,” she says.

Marty Levine is a staff writer for the University Times. Reach him at martyl@pitt.edu or 412-758-4859.


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