Remote Control

This summer, Emory faculty members found themselves students once again while learning how to make online teaching more dynamic.

Nearly every professor and instructor in Emory College of Arts and Sciences and Oxford College became a student this summer. Since June, more than eight-hundred faculty members have completed intensive training in online course design and teaching, focused on developing new and creative ways to teach in a remote format so that every class includes the highly engaged, student-focused experience expected with an Emory education.

With the continued spread of COVID-19 limiting how many students returned to campus this fall, the faculty’s preparation and planning are giving students access to the same exceptional scholars and liberal arts education that remain at the core of Emory’s values and mission.

“We all know we are in a unique situation, so we had to be focused and think as a community,” says Douglas Mulford, a senior lecturer in Emory College’s Department of Chemistry. “We have spent, and are spending, incredible amounts of time thinking about how to do this and do this well because we are fully invested in our students.”

Creativity, flexibility, and innovation have been top-of-mind for Emory faculty, from finding new ways to leverage Emory Libraries’ exceptional archives to providing students with digital versions of primary documents to figuring out how to bring a hands-on lab experience to students’ homes.

Using Creativity to Cope with Change

As professors have adapted their courses to remote formats, many have taken steps to help students cope with not only the change in learning environments, but also the vast changes and challenges in the broader world.

Judith Miller, associate professor of history in Emory College, has helped many students over the years develop their thinking skills with her favorite active learning assignment: a library scavenger hunt. She expects her digital version will work just as well this semester, in part because of the stellar librarians and information experts in Emory’s libraries.

And her own active learning—reading up on best practices for remote instruction, connecting with other professors and creating a shared tip sheet—helped her revamp her course on the French Revolution. Building from current headlines with Black Lives Matters protests, Miller is focusing on the trigger points of protests with a look at the factors that turn some into enduring movements. “I hope our students know that faculty will have their backs as they are building a lot of skills on coping with change,” she says. “We’re developing ours, too.”

Eric Solomon, visiting assistant professor of English and American studies at Oxford College, is using instructional design techniques inspired by his summer training to invigorate his American Studies course. “Our course explores ten social movements, with the Black Freedom Struggle and the #BLM movement at the centerpiece of our online semester’s intersectional journey,” Solomon says. “A few sessions in, I know students are eager to have the difficult conversations and ready to meet this moment.” 

Using tools like Canvas Studio, Final Cut, and other platforms, Solomon has filmed and edited brief “movie trailers” to help connect disparate ideas as the class progresses through the course’s ten movements, as well as digital collages as visual guides for each movement. “In an interdisciplinary course rooted in critical thinking, it can be hard to replicate the exchange of ideas and ‘connect all the dots’ in an online forum,” he says. “My hope is that my use of images and video serves both as a visual complement to our semester reading and an entertaining reflective resource to help students engage with course themes and connect with one another.”

Lab Experiments go Online

Being intentional in the creation of online courses also reveals new possibilities. They are especially noticeable in lab-based science courses and in performance and studio classes, such as music and dance—which would seem especially difficult to teach from a distance.

The spring semester showed one way the science keeps going, when undergraduates in biology labs logged into online portals and created their own projects to continue their work. A large part of the lab environment is working alongside fellow researchers, and building the community found in research labs across Emory’s campuses.

Oxford College’s Emily McLean, assistant professor of biology, injected that aspect of lab life into her Advanced Topics in Molecular Biology course this semester with the help of a program called FlipGrid. This video platform allowed her students to immediately begin ge…ing to know one another through self-recorded videos. Because the platform allows for asynchronous video communication, international students worked virtually alongside other students in developing that sense of community they normally find in a physical laboratory.

Three years ago, Emory overhauled its undergraduate chemistry curriculum for both campuses, offering a more holistic, hands-on approach aimed at giving even introductory students an understanding of the chemistry of how the world works, rather than just drilling facts and formulas.

To continue that approach, students in 100-level courses this fall are receiving home lab kits to keep them on pace with the needed learning, says Mulford, who utilized the kits in a lab course he taught this summer. Meanwhile, the more than four-hundred students enrolled in Mulford’s Advanced Reactivity Lab course sections this fall will work in teams in a virtual lab (work usually performed solo) to encourage more connections. First, they’ll watch and answer questions during short videos of Mulford conducting experiments in his typical theatrical style.

“Too much of what we think of as online education is dull videos. Mine aren’t so dull,” Mulford says.

Such personalization is possible because faculty teach courses of their own design, giving them wide latitude in how they, as topic experts, work.

Whether teaching traditional courses, labs, or even artistic performances, Emory faculty are committed to continuing their lessons on remote learning beyond this semester, says Ken Carter, Oxford’s Charles Howard Candler Professor of Psychology. Carter used the relatively new Oxford College Online Teaching (OCOT) program to help reformat the Adult Psychopathology course he is currently teaching.

The training he received “transformed the way I think about the tools and resources for helping my students succeed,” Carter says. “It was exactly what I needed to start to prepare for remote teaching, but I am certain I’ll use what I learned for years.”

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