How the Abrupt Shift Online Led to a Permanent Shift in Course Design

Image Credit: Newswise | Multimedia | Image 43233 

Zhongzhou Chen, University of Central Florida, Physics Department (IUSE Award #1845436)

COVID disrupted and, in some cases, devastated students’ ability to learn from traditional courses that are designed for synchronous classroom instruction. With a diverse student body facing many different challenges ranging from work conflicts, technology access to family needs, Dr. Chen recognized the need to re-design and think creatively to support students in his 260-person physics course.

Overcoming Challenges to Support Students and Learning

Changing the course design to emphasize flexibility and supporting students by breaking through traditional communication barriers helped address challenges in student engagement. Specifically, Dr. Chen implemented:

  • Asynchronous instruction using pre-recorded and transcribed lecture videos between 10-20 minutes.
  • Instant messaging and threaded discussions through Microsoft Teams allowed for more frequent and informal interaction with students, and in turn, created a more welcoming and inclusive learning environment.
  • Replacing both textbook and homework with self-paced online learning modules developed with the support by NSF and University of Central Florida Center for Distributed learning.
  • Soft due dates with a daily penalty instead of hard due dates for assignments.
  • Extra credit activities to encourage early completion of homework assignments and participate in classroom discussion. They also provide students with the opportunity to make up for late submission penalties or occasional low performance on quizzes.
  • Reducing the weight of infrequent, summative, high-stakes exams and replacing them with frequent, lower stakes formative quizzes.
Microsoft Teams message between a student and Dr. Chen

Microsoft Teams message between a student and Dr. Chen

Despite all the flexible policies and online exams, Dr. Chen observed no clear evidence of wide-spread cheating on homework, quizzes or exams. Possible reasons include frequent low stake assessments, clear communication providing students with a clear path towards success, availability of extra credit opportunities, and a class discussion about academic integrity at the beginning of the semester.

Student Testimonies:

” …this class did not have the traditional ‘professor vs. student’ feel to it, more like professor AND student vs. physics. Once again THANK YOU!!”

Screen shot of a Reddit post celebrating Dr. Chen after he extended the deadline of an exam due to an internet outage on campus.

Screen shot of a Reddit post celebrating Dr. Chen after he extended the deadline of an exam due to an internet outage on campus.

“Although sometimes cringy, I really do enjoy and appreciate the personality Dr. Chen puts in his various lecture videos and conversations in Teams. It helps engage me and sometimes facilitate learning the material.”

Implications Beyond the Pandemic

The challenges faced by students such as work conflicts, caring for family, or access to technology were challenges before the pandemic, and are likely to remain beyond the pandemic as we expand higher education to include a larger and more diverse student body. So, what can we learn from Dr. Chen?

  1. Instead of removing the human factor from education, technology can and should be used in a way that allows the instructor to be more human.
  2. Instant messaging and threaded discussion can drastically lower communication barriers and psychological distance between instructor and students, especially for the new generation of students who grew up with the internet and social media.
  3. Self-paced online learning modules and pre-recorded lecture videos are useful resources that are more effective and engaging than traditional textbook/homework and lecturing.
  4. Extra credit for early completion not only motivates students to start assignments early but leads to students spending more time on the assignment.
  5. Today’s university students are far more diverse and “non-traditional”, so a little more flexibility, understanding and encouragement can go a long way!

Learn more about Dr. Chen’s course adaptions and results.