‘Compelling Courses’

Professors Join Forces to Teach Better Online

By Jill Graziano Laiacona ’04

Professors often spend their breaks on scholarly research, but last summer dozens of UMW faculty members went back to school instead. Through a faculty learning community called Compelling Courses, representatives from nearly every academic department taught one another how to deliver dynamic virtual lessons and incorporate the best of the UMW experience into distance learning.

When the pandemic hit last March, UMW professors – many of whom had never taught online – abruptly had to shift to a new method of teaching. The succeeding months gave instructors time to tinker with tools so that they were fully prepared to teach fall courses virtually or in combination with in-person meetings.

“We believe teaching can be excellent regardless of medium,” said Professor of Economics Steve Greenlaw, who launched the group with Professor of Communication Anand Rao. “It all depends on how you design the course.”

The community was an offshoot of the ongoing ReFocus Online, a four-week course-design camp that launched in June. UMW’s Center for Teaching paired with Digital Learning Support to create the university-wide professional development initiative, with assistance from the Office of Disability Resources and UMW Libraries.

It sponsored weekly workshops, Q&A sessions, and a comprehensive website that houses resources and models that are being used by instructors at other schools throughout the commonwealth.

“Approximately 200 individual faculty attended at least one ReFocus Online event this summer, and many more accessed our online materials,” said Center for Teaching Director Victoria Russell. “Faculty and staff openly shared teaching challenges and worked together to offer each other ideas. Our goal this fall [was] to keep these connections strong by offering spaces for continued conversations and support.”

Greenlaw and Rao, who both have considerable online teaching experience, invited their colleagues to participate in the Compelling Courses community to build on what they learned in ReFocus Online. Meeting weekly on Zoom, the faculty began by brainstorming the unique characteristics of a UMW course – such as small discussion groups and hands-on learning opportunities – and identifying the classes they wanted to reimagine.

They delved into topics like tech tools, flipped classrooms, and virtual guest speakers; discussed academic integrity; and weighed the benefits of synchronous and asynchronous learning. Most importantly, they discovered how to foster online the collaboration and engagement that Mary Washington is known for.

Building connections between students and faculty was critical to Assistant Professor of Biology April Wynn. As faculty director of the UMW First-Year Experience, she was inspired to help first-year seminar (FSEM) instructors create “blockbuster movie-style trailers” to introduce freshmen to their classes and professors.

“The more humanized we can make this experience, the better,” Wynn said, adding that these creative videos also showcase professors’ passions and interests. Seeing faculty in this light helps first-year students form the types of relationships that define a Mary Washington education, she said.

The group’s “we’re-all-in-this-together” approach appealed to Psychology Professor Mindy Erchull. Though she felt she had much to learn, she unexpectedly found herself demonstrating a Zoom screen-sharing feature to a colleague.

“That’s what this community is all about,” Erchull said. “Supporting each other so we can do the same for our students.”

After participating in the learning community, Alexandra Dunn planned to communicate with her students more frequently. “I need to explain not only what they’ll learn, but why they’ll be doing it,” said Dunn, an assistant professor of management in UMW’s College of Business.

Compelling Courses helped Cate Brewer, a senior theater lecturer, consider the ways acting in a virtual space can strengthen her students’ skill sets. Last spring, her classes collaborated on original pieces; students wrote and performed monologues based on family members they had observed during the quarantine. They discussed how to convey emotions when you can’t see a fellow actor’s face and how to make clear acting choices despite social distancing.

“We certainly missed elements of live theater,” she said, “but the deep level of engagement and connection we have in our face-to-face classes translated well to the online environment.”

And with the tips and tools she picked up last summer, Brewer expected the fall to be even better.

“I want my students to know that I’ve been working diligently to create great courses for them,” she said. “This might not have been what they had in mind, but I promise we’ll still have so much to experience and learn together.”

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