Providing students with engaged and interactive instruction through the lens of a webcam, while maintaining high academic standards and achieving learning outcomes, is a challenge universities are facing across the country. Fueled by this challenge, Virginia Tech faculty and their students are finding new learning opportunities in the successes and limitations of having to navigate courses and curriculum through clicks and keystrokes.

“In a normal semester, all music students would gather together for an hour and 15 minutes each week for group sessions, masterclasses with visiting artists and to perform for each other,” said Ariana Wyatt, associate professor of voice for the School of Performing Arts. “It is an important part of their experience as it is the only time all music majors are together and it helps build community.

“Unfortunately, we cannot gather in-person and in those numbers at the moment, but the online version we’ve created does a wonderful job of maintaining the goals of the in-person class. Students have had sessions with guests (virtually) and are able to continue to perform for each other by submitting videos ahead of time and then watching together.”

As was the case at college and universities throughout the nation, Virginia Tech was forced to transition nearly all of its in-person classes and activities to online formats this spring as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. One of the most significant impacts became the ability of faculty to work closely and in-person with students, and provide them with classroom learning experiences.

“This is not what we thought we would be doing at the start of the (spring 2020) semester,” said Executive Vice President and Provost Cyril Clarke in a March letter to Virginia Tech faculty. “I recognize that you are disappointed that you will not be able to teach and mentor your students in the manner that you had planned, and I know that your students are disappointed too. However, I also know that you remain committed to their education and I am confident that these students will appreciate your efforts.”

As a result of the COVID-19 pandemic and the required shift to remote instruction that would allow students to continue their progress toward degree completion, Virginia Tech’s academic community took a highly collaborative and student-focused approach to developing faculty networks and resources that assist in transitioning courses and reengaging students in active learning.

“Through the Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning (CETL), we developed course design clinics for faculty that support the design, development, and implementation of learner-centered instruction,” said Kim Filer, associate vice provost for teaching and learning, and director of CETL. “Our clinics explore the various stages for preparing for their course while keeping student learning and success at the center. The activities and resources are designed to help guide faculty through the process of aligning course learning outcomes, assessment of student learning, and ways to stay engaged while building a strong sense of community among students.”

Led by Liesl Baum, associate director for professional development in CETL, and Tiffany Shoop, associate director for special programs in CETL, the course design clinics have helped faculty be successful in the transition of courses to online delivery by providing resources and connections to their peers and other sources of support across campus.

“This support, through our center, is available throughout the year, even beyond the course design clinics, as we offer ongoing services and can provide guidance for faculty with a broad range of questions,” Filer said.

Understanding that students want to be in the classroom and labs with the opportunity to connect in-person with their professors and peers, Virginia Tech faculty are finding creative and inspirational ways to engage with students to help them achieve their academic goals while providing the sense of community that comes with being a Hokie.

Ron Poff, assistant professor of practice in the Pamplin College of Business, typically has about 120 classroom students in his Foundations of Entrepreneurship course where the focus is on the importance of a growth mindset, innovation, the design thinking process, and how to network to start and/or grow a business.

“When I started the fall semester, I launched a survey and found that 87 percent of the students wanted to be physically in the classroom,” said Poff. "To address this, I created four different groups which includes a complete online group while the other three groups rotate instructional days in the classroom. I am a big believer that business and innovation is best optimized when we can be in person, network and share ideas. For that reason, we have tried to do this as best as we can not only in-person, but also with the use of virtual breakout rooms.”

Poff believes he has been successful in engaging and listening to students to try to understand their expectations for being in the classroom, and then seeking ways to maximize those opportunities as much as possible. He said the implementation of cameras in the classrooms over the summer has really helped him have quality classroom experiences for those in-person while also bringing those online into the classroom more effectively. A live Q&A session each week has also helped Poff’s students who are completely online have the opportunity to spend time interacting with classmates while being able to ask questions as well.

“I would encourage faculty to be flexible, be prepared to listen and be willing to experiment,” Poff said. “It may or may not work, but you don't know until you implement and evaluate.”

Although he had never taught online prior to the spring semester, Kwame Harrison, associate professor of sociology and Africana Studies in the College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences, is teaching two remote synchronous courses this fall and believes changing things up a few times during each class session has been effective in engaging students and a way to circumvent the screen fatigue that can come with online instruction.

“I have ‘sort of’ attempted that method a few times and feel pretty good about the results so far,” said Harrison. “Otherwise, I try to be animated and I think some of the asynchronous things I have introduced into my class instruction have also provided a good break from the usual.”

Harrison received some positive feedback recently from a local musician who said he overheard students in a coffee shop talking about how much they liked Harrison’s class.

“One of the asynchronous things I have done to engage students is to make podcasts that a national organization I am a part of has been kind enough to post on their website,” said Harrison. “They're not professional by any means, but I am proud of them and have received good feedback. Recording and editing sound files is a good change of pace from what I consider typical course preparation, even if it is time consuming. I can see myself doing more of this, especially if the feedback continues to be good.”

Teaching from home, Harrison said, feels like it has allowed him to bring more dimensions of his life, beyond being a teacher, into the classroom. “I do a bit of show-and-tell with random things in my world that relate to the classes I teach,” said Harrison. “I would like to think the students enjoy this.”

Filer, Baum, and Shoop believe through the development of instructional resources and support networks that include continuity of teaching and learning and communities of practice, faculty have been able to come together and share perspectives, challenges, best practices, and teaching approaches. Virginia Tech is continuing to focus on expanding and enhancing its ability to connect with students in a virtual environment, and provide a sense of community.

Recognizing the importance of building strong faculty networks and creating opportunities for faculty to learn through the lens of their peers, especially in this current environment, Virginia Tech is building strength, capacity and creativity in its teaching and learning initiatives that will endure long after the pandemic.

“I think we can continue to curate the experience, but really keep a much stronger thumb on the pulse of faculty experiences and look to our faculty to share their experiences,” said Filer. “As a result of our course design clinics this summer and the other resources we have developed, I feel strongly that many faculty now have a much broader community perspective on their teaching and teaching in general.

“I would encourage faculty to ask questions of as many people as you possibly can and reach out to offices designed to support faculty, even to just introduce yourself. It will help them feel part of the community, understand the resources available to help them in online (and in-person) instruction, and connect with some of their colleagues across the campus.”