Lessons learned: Teaching center helps faculty focus on goals


The switch to remote teaching last spring was not just a shift in technology — it was a chance to re-think the basic learning goals and methodology of each class, said Mike Bridges and Joel Brady of the University Center for Teaching and Learning.

“In many ways, the shift has been a focusing function” for faculty to re-conceive their courses, said Bridges, director of the center’s Teaching Commons. “It has not always forced innovation and something new, but forced a re-focus on essentials, fundamentals” — what faculty members want students to know and understand, contained in course objectives.

“And why they were trying to accomplish that in the first place,” said Brady, the center’s program coordinator, as well as program supervisor for the Graduate Student Teaching Initiative.

While tech questions may have been the impetus for many initial faculty calls to the center, “almost all our conversations with faculty started out with, ‘What are you trying to accomplish and why are you trying to accomplish it?’ ” Bridges said.

“We always go to the rationale question,” Brady added. “We always want to back up and ask why they are asking these questions.”

Instructors often assume that in-person classes just naturally accomplish four basic functions, Bridges said: create communication, both verbally and nonverbally; facilitate collaborations; engage students face-to-face in active learning through discussions, question-and-answer sessions, small projects or lab work; and create a community, as students join the instructor at the same time and place each week.

“When we went to the online environment,” he said, “it’s not that this communication can’t be robust and profound … it just means that we have to be much more intentional and much more deliberate.”

Most faculty who contact the teaching center for help have been willing to adapt and try new things, Brady said. And many, understandably, had concerns and challenges.

One common concern, Brady said, has been how to run a participatory classroom.

If the initial problem seemed to be the limits of technology, “often it is more productive to think, ‘Well, I’ve got to think more creatively … what are some activities or instructional sequences” that will allow participation?

Perhaps the most common issue, Bridges said, is the realization that filling an entire online class with a lecture won’t work well in remote teaching. “This has been for us an opportunity to help faculty step out of that particular way of thinking,” he said, and think modularly, dividing a class up into more digestible chunks. Such class rearrangements also can help faculty members build in new types of assessments. Instructors may now choose to deliver four 10-minute mini-lectures and, in between, check students’ understanding via questions or exercises, building small formative assessments — as opposed to end-of-class summative assessments — into class periods.

Delivering the traditional assessment of an exam has been yet another common faculty concern. “Assessments at their best are chances for students to identify the knowledge, skills and abilities we hope they have acquired,” Bridges said. While it would be wonderful if every class could include an essay or other comprehensive project, for instance, that’s just not feasible to assign in large-enrollment courses — in person or remotely. “Are there other ways for them to demonstrate their knowledge, ability and skills?”

Overall, the switch to remote or hybrid remote/in-person teaching, Bridges said, has been “a challenge in certain disciplines that have a more codified methodology for instruction. I’m pretty excited about how it has broadened our approaches to teaching.”

From tech issues to teaching innovations

For Jonathan Rubin, chair of the Department of Mathematics in the Dietrich School of Arts & Sciences, broadening the approach to teaching has meant using the teaching center to review his class down to the syllabus level — and to bring in center expertise for the whole department.

The teaching center’s John Radzilowicz became the math department’s consultant. He listened to faculty issues and gave talks on syllabus design for the online environment and the Flex@Pitt model, Rubin said. He also has been available for consultation, particularly concerning STEM topics.

“I had heard elsewhere,” Rubin said, “that once you’re going to transform your class for online, you ought to go all out.” While tech training may be the impetus for approaching the center, he added, “This is also an opportunity to try new things.”

This fall, Rubin is teaching Honors Linear Algebra for undergrads, from first-year students to juniors, and submitted his syllabus to Radzilowicz and Tahirah Walker, the center’s teaching support manager. Walker helped him create a table so that students can now see clearly how course objectives, activities and assessments are aligned.

They also proposed an “I do, we do, you do” model for his class, in which the instructor demonstrates an idea, small groups try it out and then individual students are ready to tackle it.

This method reminded Rubin of the “think, pair, share” model, of which he had heard before and which seemed even better for his class: “It’s an honors class, so I can pose a bit of a challenging problem,” he explains. In that latter method, the instructor gives a problem, then small groups aim to puzzle out solutions that they then share with the entire class.

Rubin’s departmental colleagues spent the summer adding their own questions to a shared faculty document. “I’ve been happy about how quick they’ve been to respond,” he said of the teaching center.

Richard E. Wendell, business administration faculty in the Joseph M. Katz Graduate School of Business, is teaching a qualitative methods course this fall required for undergraduates, with two sections of 110 and 130 students each.

“Frankly, this is the toughest teaching I’ve done so far,” Wendell said. “How do you teach a large class and get class participation but not lose the continuity” of the lecture through the constant interruption of questions?

He had taken teaching center seminars and noticed the Zoom Video Webinars feature. “I liked the capabilities of it — and I spoke to Lizette about it.” Lizette Muñoz Rojas, a teaching center consultant, helped him incorporate the feature this fall. Now he starts each class by discussing the day’s objectives and goals, and then begins his lecture. “I try to use a variety of ways of changing the pace,” he said: PowerPoint slides, a document camera that shows him solving problems and Excel spreadsheets, to name three.

When the questions start popping in from students, his TAs gather and answer them immediately, allowing Wendell to continue seamlessly. “They can ask questions anonymously — this turns out to be an advantage from when I teach my class live,” he said, since students sitting in a large lecture room are hesitant to ask for individual attention. Later, he gets a screen shot of the questions and can incorporate his own answers into the next lecture, for the edification of everyone.

Muñoz Rojas, he said, “was like a professional partner in developing a lot of the aspects of the class” from the Canvas layout to designing exams. She has sat in on lectures and talked to him about devising class polls. “It permeates through the whole structure of the class,” he said. “It’s a continuing partnership.”

Where tech adds fresh capabilities

Even in the teaching center’s Open Lab — a makerspace focused on experiential, hands-on learning with the latest high-tech equipment — the focus is on pedagogy first, technology second.

Normally, Open Lab’s two sites — in Alumni Hall and Hillman Library — allow faculty and students to gain expertise with 3D printers, virtual reality software, laser cutters and engravers and other equipment. The aim is for faculty to put these emerging technologies in play in their courses, and for students to be able to gain transferrable skills on the equipment — skills they can take into their careers.

Language and history classes may employ the virtual reality of Google Earth to help bolster student experiences. Video cameras with 360-degree views can be used to simulate trips to places that are inaccessible in normal times — and doubly inaccessible during the pandemic. From geology to neurology, students may need to see, or re-create, close up views of hidden places to better understand their subjects.

In March, Open Lab began creating online learning materials to substitute for the makerspace — since the makers are barred from the space at the moment. They also loaned even more equipment than usual so that professors could continue to employ new technologies from afar.

Aaron Graham, manager of Open Lab, calls their new, digital makerspace a third, virtual location for Open Lab, Openlab@Canvas. The online training modules, which approximate face-to-face trainings, have focused first on software students can download themselves to do such things as 3D modeling and game design. The trainings also include quick quizes to test whether a concept has been learned.

Students can enroll in these trainings, and faculty members can copy each module to Canvas to make it part of a class and then track student progress.

“This project has been something that our Open Lab team talked about even before the quarantine came by,” Graham said. Open Lab is now busy formulating new modules for in-person work later, to train Pitt community members in technologies they can’t access now, such as laser cutters.

Sera Thornton, learning scientist and teaching consultant at the teaching center, has been talking to professors about using augmented reality in their classes. The concept got its widest application, perhaps, in the Pokemon Go game, which used software and smartphones to place imaginary things in real locations throughout the world.

At Pitt, the technology can be used in class to project a 3D image and pass it around among students, sharing it virtually in real environments, “which helps the brain make a little more sense of the object,” Thornton said. “It helps digital objects seem more real to the brain.”

The Open Lab has student workers developing an app for this. “The real key here is that it works on students’ devices they already have,” she said.

“We’re doing a project where we wouldn’t have done a project before,” said Thornton of these unusual times. “We are more than happy to talk to faculty about their individual classroom needs, and brainstorm with them” about the technology available to make it happen.

Graham cautions that a tech solution isn’t always the right solution to a pedagogical need: “Sometimes the technology isn’t suited for the project, or we reach a part where using this might hinder your students’ ability to learn,” he said.

But where Open Lab may be the very real answer to your virtual needs, said Michael Arenth, the center’s director of educational technologies, “We are ready for questions.”

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


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