Teaching with a learning curve

Instructor adaptability, empathy vital to online pedagogy

The Spring 2020 semester has produced significant change throughout higher education, yet despite adaptations to structure and routine, faculty members in Moody College report unsurprisingly similar daily schedules of waking early, checking in with students one-on-one through Zoom conferencing, conducting class, reviewing assignments and answering questions during office hours.

Blending work and life

Department of Communication Sciences & Disorders Assistant Professor Rosemary Lester-Smith is balancing work and family under the same roof. Her family includes husband and fellow Assistant Professor Spencer B. Smith and their baby girl, who celebrated her second birthday a couple of weeks ago.

“It’s been challenging for my husband and me to be working from home, keeping our labs running remotely, maintaining research collaborations and teaching online, all while taking care of our daughter,” Lester-Smith said. “She has been such a light to have around, keeping us distracted from reading too much news, motivating us to get outside for fresh air and exercise, and initiating sing-alongs and dance parties!”

As work and life have blended together, Lester-Smith said students also adapted resiliently. During audio and video interactions, they can ask and answer questions by raising a virtual hand or sending a chat message, in addition to utilizing Canvas discussions and Zoom breakout sessions to discuss clinical cases.

Internet connection issues compound audio and video interactions, but students are quick to resolve and find different methods to stay involved.

“The greatest challenge has been that live discussions and live activities take at least two times as long to facilitate online,” Lester-Smith said.

Clinical application and practice are central to learning for communication sciences and disorders students. Patient-care paradigms and evaluations are addressed via follow-up questions and comments on Canvas and on Zoom breakouts and full class sessions.

“Because discussions and activities are so valuable for clinical learning, I’ve adapted the amount of content I cover in lectures to allow extra time for discussions and activities both on Zoom and Canvas,” Lester-Smith said.

Acquiring contemporary instruction skills

Stan Richards School of Advertising & Public Relations Associate Professor of Practice Terry Hemeyer said the greatest challenge is for students to stay safe and continue life, including staying focused in his “Strategies in Public Relations” course.

“Some are dealing with issues at home or upcoming graduation, but there’s a strong thirst to participate in class,” Hemeyer said. “They want to go forward in life and in their careers, and we’ve discussed how to do it.

“Stay visible, keep a normal schedule, don’t disappear, keep all of your contacts active even if you've lost an internship or job offer.”

Hemeyer reported a 100 percent attendance record for the 27 students in his class but admitted that almost everyone misses the direct interaction. Hemeyer said his teaching assistant James Hollingsworth deserves amplified praise in addition to all teaching assistants.

“It’s tough for me because I have a desktop that needs a part and I’ve been working on my end from an iPad,” Hemeyer said. “In this situation, I’m not sure what I would do without his advice and hard work.”

Department of Communication Studies Professor John Daly teaches one of the most popular courses on campus titled “Interpersonal Communication Theory” with more than 300 students. Daly said he switched the class to asynchronous teaching with three or four 15-minute videos per lesson on Canvas.

“I couldn’t imagine people sitting for an hour watching just one (long lecture), and I added some more movie scenes in some lectures to make the videos more interesting,” Daly said. “But, wow, I’ve learned to make and edit video lectures, and it’s something I’ve wanted to do for a long time.”

Daly said he teaches an M.B.A. class using Zoom to compare the two teaching platforms and said he’d like to produce more professional videos with the aid of an editor, professional graphics and higher quality sound. Daly said he misses the interactivity of live classes but is excited that he can still call on students and have them vote on platforms such as Zoom.

“It’s been a difficult time for many, but I have also found that I enjoyed the need to adapt to new methods,” Daly said.

Challenges with online pedagogy

Courses taught in the Department of Radio-Television-Film have also navigated the unprecedented shift online with the closure of labs, studios and equipment checkout, which suspended operations on March 13.

Associate Professor of Instruction Ben Bays said he always divides the content of his visual effects classes into online resources and a face-to-face experience but has found the ease of transitioning to Zoom week by week fluid. He adopted how to create a wait list, vet participants, pre-record lectures and search through auto-transcripts.

“I’ve become much more comfortable with the technology — very specifically, the video meeting format,” Bays said. “Once you get there, it becomes a very natural extension of communication.”

Bays said computer hardware issues have exposed student economic inequalities that can’t easily be solved as access to computers, pen tablets, cameras and software can be limited in addition to the loss of an on-site team of technical professionals to troubleshoot IT issues, answer questions and provide support.

“It’s given me a keen sense of how valuable our staff is and how much they work behind the scenes to support us,” Bays said. “One thing I keep running into is that we can’t assume that a student has a computer. These were never requirements of being a student or being a teacher and is something to address if we are going to continue to build upon our online programs.”

School of Journalism Director Kathleen McElroy said students are facing several challenges under these trying circumstances.

“Students (are) adjusting to being away from the structure of campus, technical challenges, time zone issues, motivation,” McElroy said. “Imagine being a senior with no commencement and an adverse job market. For instructors, I think it’s making sure all the students are accounted for academically and emotionally, as best we can.”

McElroy said students are creating incredible pieces such as those in Kate West’s “Newsroom Capstone” course, which are regularly posted on Reporting Texas TV.

“The photography students have also produced amazing content,” McElroy said. “I believe Moody is leading the way in planning for a more systematic approach to the new teaching environment.”

Prepared for present and future

Stan Richards School of Advertising & Public Relations Director JoAnn Sciarrino said faculty in her school are creatively pushing the envelope with course content. Asynchronous content is interwoven with a variety of interactive content including highly engaging scavenger hunts or games. Also, an increasing number of senior industry luminaries have provided guest lectures or art critiques.

“In the past getting a CEO from Disney or a CCO from TBWA to come to UT Austin for a guest lecture or critique was a huge time commitment for the industry leader, but that barrier has been removed due to these creative new online approaches,” Sciarrino said. “In the future, the ease and experience of being able to have more senior industry professionals participate virtually will be part of the new normal.”

Sciarrino said the disruptor to higher education isn’t the technology itself but that of a new business model. She said video will have added value if a dedicated online content creation team can be formed to work with faculty to adapt content into highly produced, high-quality digital formats with post-production animation, text, bullets and illustrations.

“Now’s the time to use the core competencies we already have in film, storytelling, persuasion and production to create ‘master class’ level content,” Sciarrino said. “It’s going to be a big part of the future of higher education.”

Meme Drumwright, director of the communication and leadership undergraduate degree program and associate professor, said she’s seen several innovative practices introduced into the learning environment. Students in the program have made virtual site visits to the Ann Richards High School for Young Women Leaders to work with high school juniors and have led discussions and exercises on topics such as the Texas Civic Health Index, climate change, gentrification and civic engagement.

“COVID-19 has created a great context in which to study leadership by individuals and organizations. Students analyze current events related to good and bad leadership and comment on leadership lessons that they are learning from people in their families, communities, the nation and around the world,” Drumwright said. “I think sharing what has worked and what has not worked in online teaching will be very helpful.”

As UT Austin prepares for the fall 2020 semester and multiple scenarios for teaching and learning, faculty and staff remain focused on prioritizing the health, safety and happiness of students. No matter the classroom model, Moody College will be prepared.

“Online courses still carry an unfounded stigma of being lower quality, even though research does not support that conclusion,” said Mary Crawford, instructional designer and program manager. “Moody College has historically been a leader in offering high quality, academically rigorous online courses.”

Marc Speir

Senior Content Producer

For more information, contact:

Kathleen Mabley at 512-232-1417