Resilient Design for Remote Teaching and Learning

Resilient Design for Remote Teaching and Learning

Starting in March, my college, like many across the nation, had to require faculty, staff, and students to pivot to remote teaching and learning in response to the public health risks of Covid-19. We were lucky. We had two weeks of warning and some emergency training in online teaching tools and methods. As plenty of people have articulated, what we faculty across the globe were doing was not best practices for online course development, but triage. Some things we did were brilliant, and some failed miserably, as with any massive experiment. And all of us who were trying to adapt quickly struggled with being overwhelmed and exhausted. Faculty tried to reach students who were suddenly learning from a huge range of settings, with varying access to technology and infrastructure, in different time zones, and while facing myriad pressures and disparities in health care, internet access, and food security. Students tried to stay motivated in situations exacerbating the systemic problems that create inequities in accessibility, and while faced with faculty who were suddenly struggling to deliver content they knew well through unfamiliar technologies.

There were a lot of successes. But it’s also important to think about how and where we can do better, as we plan for how to move forward, given that there is no scenario in which 100% of our students and faculty will be able to teach and learn in person in the coming fall (more on that below). We are faced with this question of what “hybrid” school can look like to maximize public health, given that we have a bit more planning time ahead of us, and that we perhaps will not have as much grace afforded us to make as many missteps as we fumble through the experiment.

We must consider this in terms of the problems and demands that the current public health contexts place upon us — and in “public health,” I include both the coronavirus pandemic and the structural racism that intersects with it, both of which we must address if we are to be effective teachers come fall. But what if we also think about this as offering us opportunities for rethinking what we do and how? What if we let ourselves be creative in our solutions rather than just trying to replicate our in-person classes in some online version that cannot possibly be the same?

I’ve been reading up on different models, some of which, I frankly feel, come with an untenable workload. Hyflex teaching, for example, asks for a fully online and a fully in-person version of each class, so that no matter what happens at any moment, a course can pivot between those two modes. This may sound ideal from a preparedness-for-flexibility standpoint, but it sound like a nightmare from the perspective of having to prep two versions of every single thing we do. And if such plans are a recipe for rapid burnout for someone who is teaching five courses next year with tenure-track security, they are doubly so for someone who is teaching five courses next semester at multiple institutions for adjunct wages. And this, of course, does not even get into the complicating factors of childcare, eldercare, and personal health and safety that some faculty, staff, and students alike will face.

Thus I’ve been trying to think through what worked for me last term, talk to colleagues about what worked for them, and assemble some examples not just of assignments but of ways of thinking about course design that would enable the kind of flexibility and accessibility we need while being something that could work for an entire academic year. Casting around for how to describe what I am trying to envision as both addressing the most pressing issues above and being a sustainable model for teaching for the long haul, rather than for six panicked weeks of triage, I have landed for now on a set of principles I am adapting from the well-known architectural approach: resilient design.

In architectural terms, resilient design means designing structures that are responsive to their environments, equally attentive to withstanding obvious/immediate obstacles (e.g. hurricane season) and to helping mitigate longer-term concerns (e.g. helping offset climate change). In principle, resilient design is meant to be flexible, to anticipate disruptions, and to value social equity and community. It accomplishes these things by anticipating foreseeable problems, reducing the complexity of any given solution while also recognizing that single solutions are often less useful than multiple ones, building in redundancies, and identifying and building upon a foundation of local resources and strengths. Here’s how I see those guiding principles playing out for my classes next year.

Anticipating foreseeable problems. Despite some campuses announcing that they will be holding classes in person next year, we know that there are both faculty and students who will not be able to be in class in person — and so our classes for the coming academic year must anticipate groups of students who cannot all meet at the same time in the same room. Perhaps they will be half in person and half remote. Perhaps they will start out in person and have to move to remote if there is a further outbreak of Covid. Perhaps they will be in different time zones, have unreliable internet, or face other barriers to meeting synchronously even over zoom.

To me, this means I need to design my syllabi with a mix of synchronous and asynchronous solutions that will translate well, no matter whether some students are in person or not. In practice, we do the first part all the time: students asynchronously read, work on problem sets, do library research, write up reports, practice, write drafts, get written feedback, revise. Synchronously, they participate in discussions, labs, field trips, small group work, and come to office hours. So two key questions I am asking myself are: How can some of the synchronous things I do be moved to ones that are both interactive and asynchronous? and How can I make the asynchronous work be more engaging? In other words: How can I design a class that could function wholly online if it needed to, but that has assignments and modes that could work in person if we have the ability to meet that way? Think:

  • group google docs on which small groups of students are assigned each to make notes on one of the three readings for the day, and then to collaborate to distill key points for the rest of the class;
  • discussion boards where students rotate the responsibility of posting a thought-provoking question in place of presentations and discussion-leading in class;
  • synthesis assignments in which two students are responsible for making notes of key takeaways and questions for further thought that arise from a class — or zoom — discussion and posting them online, for the benefit of those who were not in the room;
  • “flipped” classes, where students watch a 5-7 minute video explanation of something and before they do the reading, so that class/zoom discussions can be more focused.

Reducing the complexity of any given solution while also recognizing that single solutions are often less useful than multiple ones. Reducing complexity can be as straightforward as issuing extraordinarily clear directions. One of the things my students told me they really appreciated, when we made the pivot, is that I revised the syllabus so that each day was a bulleted list of tasks, with links where relevant: read this; students A, B, C post discussion questions here by X day/time; watch this short video; everyone do this 5-7 sentence response assignment; come to synchronous discussion at this time; click here to ask follow-up questions. It was easy to tell what was required or optional, and where to find the notes and resources to guide you if you missed part of the synchronous work.

Using multiple solutions instead of single ones can be as easy as thinking about discussion time as both precious and focused. Anything “face-to-face” (whether in person or on zoom) counts as part of this coveted time, and should be used only for things that cannot happen in other forms. What could be better accomplished with a short video tutorial watched ahead of time, a set of collaboratively-produced notes, or a simple response assignment that asks students to collect their thoughts ahead of time? (e.g. “Write down one quotation/passage you want us to be sure to discuss; or one question you have about the reading; or one connection you would like to make between the two texts we read for today.” This could be an online discussion thread, which enables even those who have a harder time speaking up in class to have an equal chance to contribute to shaping the conversation.) Thinking in these terms might mean that a normal 90-minute class becomes:

  • 10-min of pre-recorded lecture to watch alongside the reading,
  • twenty minutes of discussion board posts and responses ahead of class meeting,
  • fifteen minutes of small-group work in which sets of 3-4 students prepare talking points on key issues for the day,
  • and then only 45 minutes of in-person discussion. This way, any person who cannot be in the synchronous class only misses half of that day’s interactions, not all of them. And if you have a designated note-taker for each day, to post the notes to a discussion thread, they miss even less. In addition, you mitigate the exhaustion of a 90-minute online discussion, if class becomes fully remote, and you make it possible for some students to join an in-person discussion via zoom, if they have to be remote.

This multiple set of solutions adds accessibility in terms of time, technology, and accommodating for a combination of in-person and remote learners, and it preserves what is best about deep, thoughtful discussion by relying on tried-and-true methods such as pre-writing and small-group prompts to help ensure that the more scarce in-person time can be maximally useful.

Building in redundancies. A colleague today told me of a brilliant, elegantly simple example of this: he posted the same questions to a discussion board that he was planning to use to guide synchronous discussion for the day, and students had the choice of whether to chime in on the board (which had very clear directions for participation) or come to the in-person session. These choices were available for each discussion section, so that students could do what felt most comfortable, and also could have a backup if they planned for one, and circumstances unexpectedly made that impossible. One might consider similar redundancies (the rotating note-taker for discussions; the option to lead an in-person discussion, post discussion questions, or create a short video presentation in lieu of formal presentations) for other kinds of assignments.

Identifying and building upon a foundation of local resources and strengths. For me, at a small liberal arts college, this means thinking hard about why students want to be here, and how I can offer those experiences in alternative forms. All of these examples I’ve given above take pressure off the traditional students-in-the-same-room model of seminars, while still drawing on the richness of small group work, high quantities of interaction between students and with faculty, and lots of opportunities to have conversation and get to know peers. They emphasize collaboration, synthesis, discussion, and research. They build on student eagerness to read deeply. If augmented with office hours or small-group meetings with me, short, low-stakes writing to which I can respond quickly, and projects that ask more creative research questions of students, I think they will facilitate deep engagement.

And they will do it without me having to plan two classes for every one, or panic when something that was “supposed” to be online has to be in person or the reverse, since all of these ideas easily adapt for multiple scenarios.

For me, a pedagogy of resilience feels both empowering and manageable, a way to plan for eventualities without feeling pulled in multiple directions. It is perhaps another way of moving towards Universal Design principles, and that too, feels like a proactive step. It also means I can start from the premise of remote teaching that draws on a broad array of modes of engagement that enable lots of connection between students and faculty without requiring proximity. Face-to-face activities thus become only one part of a much larger menu of options, enriching but not THE single solution, given that we know they will not work for everyone.

I don’t claim to have all the answers here, and I’m constantly looking for more examples of great assignments, ideas, and approaches — so please leave me a note in the comments if you have things to add!

UPDATE: The idea of resilient teaching seems to be proliferating in conversations right now. Since I wrote this, I’ve become aware (thanks, Twitter!) of others advocating for similar ideas, whose ways of thinking through them do much to add to the conversation. If you’re interested, they include:

Plus adjacent work that might be of interest:

8 thoughts on “Resilient Design for Remote Teaching and Learning

  1. Hi Andrea… this set of ideas is terrific. The whole notion of resilient pedagogy strikes me as exactly right and it’s akin to what I have been thinking about lately.

    I really liked the way you brokw down a potential 90 minute class period with the mix of synchronous and asynchronous approaches. Thanks again for sharing your thought in this venue.

    1. Thank you, Adrienne. I am hoping that this kind of model helps people think about these while feeling less overwhelmed. At least, *I* feel less overwhelmed when I think this way.

  2. I love how practical this is. I’m going to be sharing it with the committee I’m on and my humanities colleagues! Thanks so much for sharing!

  3. Thank you for your greate piece and list for further reading! Two things that have worked for me in my recent shift to on-line teaching: an alternative to breaking a synchronous class session into multiple blocks (which I like very
    Much) is to give students a three minute break every 40 minutes with the agreement they won’t step away from their cameras at other times.

    1. This seems like such a good idea, both to create a stretching break, which helps refocus, and to set some parameters so that everyone is part of the conversation at once. I really like it!

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