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  • Writer's pictureBrooke McCormick

Pandemic Pedagogy

Updated: Mar 3, 2021

Jennifer Rosales on pedagogy for the Zoom era.

By Brooke McCormick

Jennifer Rosales is the Executive Director of the Barnard Center for Engaged Pedagogy, which, along with the Columbia Center for Teaching and Learning, explores and helps to implement the vast array of possibilities for effective instruction. Senior Editor Brooke McCormick spoke to Jennifer to get a sense of what another semester of remote learning will look like at Barnard and Columbia, and the challenges and opportunities this format poses.


The Blue & White: What has the transition been like for distance learning from the spring semester to the fall? What changes should students expect?

Jennifer Rosales: Well, we were in crisis mode in the spring. Although there is a great deal of literature behind what good online learning looks like and how to construct it, these were classes meant to be in-person that abruptly switched. We hosted workshops that tackled questions such as: how do you facilitate discussion online? How do you rethink your assignments? But we were careful not to overwhelm students and faculty members during this transition.

B&W: I can imagine how stressful that must have been.

JR: Absolutely. Next, our center sent a form to all the faculty at Barnard asking them to share some of their challenges and some of the successes they saw a month in. After compiling this feedback and integrating it with existing pedagogical research, we had a structured summer of workshops, including a symposium on remote learning with a diverse set of faculty members. Ironically, this allowed the professors to be students, experiencing Zoom and Canvas firsthand. We came up with innovative solutions to prepare for the fall in a way that would be more useful to faculty and students alike.

B&W: That’s great. Now I want to ask about the national conversation concerning the value of distance education, compared to its in-person counterpart. Some are skeptical that learning on Zoom can be priced the same way as in the classroom. However, it strikes me from our conversation so far that it’s especially challenging to design an effective, engaging remote curriculum. When you don’t have the usual in-person tools to fall back on, like having students speak to their neighbor, what do you do?

JR: Right, I’ve had these conversations even with my dad [laughs]. I would say that distanced learning is simply different. When we think about teaching and learning, we have to deeply consider the mode they come in. Some things work better in certain modes, without question. But what I’ve appreciated about this shift is the “hands-on” [laughs] approach to generating creative solutions. For instance, architecture faculty members are in the midst of conversations with chemistry faculty members about how to remove the barrier of a 2D format. And online learning can disrupt the age-old traditions surrounding undergraduate teaching. For so long, student learning at Barnard and Columbia has been done in person and you get used to things. We have to actually pay attention to how we learn and take information in. How do we build community? Those conversations are great and help us grow as learners.

B&W: Would you say Zoom is the standard mode of teaching, or are there other digital tools cropping up for the fall that students have never used?

JR: Yes, Zoom will be the central mode, and Canvas will be expanded as students learn in an asynchronous manner. We shared so many new tools at the symposium, like Padlet, which is a digital whiteboard, and social annotation tools like Hypothesis and Perusal, which make it easy to annotate documents virtually. We’ve also seen Jamboards on Google, allowing students to draw circles and concept maps. But intentionality is key: we cannot overuse these tools.

B&W: Do you have any anecdotes on how experience-driven classes like architecture, dance, visual arts, or science labs are adapting for the fall semester?

JR: Yes, here’s an amazing story from the spring. Rachel Austin, in the Barnard chemistry department, turned her lab into a consulting firm for producing shampoo! The idea struck Austin on a trip to the barbershop, where a barber recounted how they had a neighbor with trees that would be just great to turn into a shampoo. She quickly understood the need for chemistry–you can’t just magically create a shampoo from raw materials–and this was a worthy cause, being a small business affected by Covid-19. Subsequently, her class produced a report for a shampoo and conditioner with this tree’s oil, guided by interdisciplinary virtual guest lecturers.

B&W: How are Barnard and Columbia addressing inequities posed by distance learning? Whether in regard to access to resources, or challenges posed by learning disabilities, how are you preparing?

JR: In the spring, everyone jumped in to address this. It quickly dawned on me, two days away from going remote, what about students who don’t have laptops? The next thing I know, I was creating a loan program. Since then, it’s been clear that equity is a huge challenge, gathered from surveys, classes, and first-hand experiences with certain students.

Inequity happens in three ways. We immediately think about access to resources: if you don’t have the hardware or software or internet access, how are you supposed to engage? Barnard has approached this by creating Access Barnard, a one-stop-shop for students to get the support they need, whether it be a laptop, WiFi, or a gift card for groceries.

Inequity is also related to the less tangible ability to learn online. Our office CARDS has been exceptional working with Beyond Barnard and Furman Counselling to put on useful workshops like improving your time management during distance learning. Learning online is isolating, and we recognize the need to make resources clear and easy to access.

Thirdly, inequity goes hand-in-hand with new modes of behavior online. Zoom is very formal. You unmute, you talk, you mute again. How do we set up new community agreements? What if you have terrible WiFi and that won’t change for you? Maybe you extensively use the chat to engage, like one of my colleagues did when her internet connection wasn’t strong enough to handle video.

Additionally, Zoom can prevent us from having control over our living situations. One of my graduate students has been doing research on how Zoom is a new channel for identity; in the classroom, we have a lot more control of what we share and what we don’t share about our lives outside of Barnard and Columbia. We also spent a lot of time on inclusive pedagogy, such as…what are activities students can do with low bandwidth? How do you use tools to create engagement across time zones? For instance, one Barnard professor used the tool VoiceThread to allow a student from Hawaii to submit her feedback and questions engaging with the recorded powerpoint presentation.

B&W: Would you mind speaking to the A/B modules that will be predominately used at Barnard, concentrating the time of a particular course to half of the semester?

JR: I’m really excited about this. The thought process stemmed from that in an immersive class, you can truly focus. One of the trends in the student surveys was a desire for more engagement. Depth is more important than breadth. We’re going to try it out!

B&W: I was perusing your catalogue of resources for online learning. Any top tips on combating ‘Zoom fatigue?’

JR: Well one way that our center has been working on this problem is to encourage faculty members to mix up their class sessions. Can you integrate projects and activities to break up a long session of staring at a lecture? This can include independent writing and low-tech activities. And we’re concerned with: How do you make sure you get up and move around, whether it be doing the laundry or taking a walk?

B&W: I would also like to know how you are tailoring learning to various time zones and international living situations.

JR: One of the three or five big questions of the day! Faculty members are so concerned with this. I had a professor email me asking about the best time for students to learn, especially while bridging various time zones. I encourage professors to send surveys inquiring about students’ situations (which can be anonymous and opt-in). The best type of class is designed for the specific students in it.

We also must connect asynchronous and synchronous learners. One idea that’s been circulated is to include asynchronous learners’ thoughts in the class discussion, which could take the form of a recording or a written post. Maybe this intentional connection takes the form of hosting a discussion section at a well-represented time zone.

B&W: Looking forward to the spring semester, can you speak to what hybrid learning might look like, in a concrete sense? How will professors be able to bridge distanced and in-person learners? JR: Faculty want to engage all students and allow diverse types of learners to take their class. Safety and health are the utmost priority but I think you’ll see two main things: first, everyone has to engage and take on the responsibility of making Hi-Flex learning work. That’s the meaning of engaged pedagogy; rather than learning just being a transfer of knowledge from professor to student, it’s shared by everyone. We also will see creative tools to make hybrid learning successful. One department was buying Go-Pros so the in-person students would have the Go-Pro to connect with their remote peers in a more natural way. It’s not just about working together, but also communicating correctly, with mutual trust and respect.


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