Pivots, Pirouettes, and Piqués: Gracefully Managing the Anxieties of Remote Teaching and Learning


Rajiv Jhangiani, Associate Vice Provost, Open Education at Kwantlen Polytechnic University in British Columbia

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This is the third post in a short series focused on topics addressing key issues for transitioning from emergency remote teaching to continuing to respond to the COVID-19 crisis while providing high-quality online learning. There are many challenges – and opportunities – that have resulted from the events of recent weeks. We’ll be covering a few of those here, and invite you to join in the conversation. In case you missed them, read the previous posts.

Reblogged from the KPU Teaching & Learning Commons blog.

As we should all know by now, pivoting rapidly to remote delivery of teaching and learning over the course of a few days to is not the same thing as designing an effective online course. However, as many of you will also now experience, designing an online course with a few weeks notice (perhaps also while you are pivoting for your Spring semester’s final weeks and final assessments) is not quite the same thing as having four months to plan for teaching online in the Fall.

Before you read any further, I will plead mitigating circumstances for my terminology. I spent nine years of my life in a professional dance company and so the language associated with this unplanned pedagogical shift (PIVOT!) is oddly comforting to me. Of course, this also leads me to stretch the metaphor too far. I apologize.

Spring Pivot

With little time and no choice, you moved your teaching and learning to remote delivery. Our brief instructional pause may have felt like the gasp you draw before the currents drag you under. You kept what you needed, trimmed what you didn’t, changed what you had to, and survived the remaining weeks of instruction. It may not always have been graceful, but you kept afloat (and, importantly, kept your students afloat). Many of you reached out to grab the branches the Teaching & Learning Commons extended into the water and held on. Some twigs unfortunately snapped, but we tried to follow you with stronger supports (moving to a cloud-based server for BigBlueButton sure helped!). If you were already using Moodle you at least had a life vest, which allowed you to share resources, communicate with your students, and conduct some activities (e.g., discussions) and assessments (e.g., quizzes). But we were under no illusions about the size of the task that you (and we, collectively) were undertaking. Anxiety was high. And we’re not quite on dry land yet.

Summer Pirouette

Those of you teaching this summer will experience a much greater transition. Planning for a entire semester of remote instruction is qualitatively different from planning for 3 weeks of remote instruction, so anxiety levels are still moderately high. There are many questions that you will need to address. Some concern the extent to which you should teach synchronously, or how you might redesign specific activities and assessments in order to ensure your students will still meet the necessary learning outcomes. Others concern the broader question of what you can do to better support your students’ remote learning. For those of you who are not teaching during the current semester, you will have had a bit more time to prepare for the shift, but this is still very quick and not an optimal lead in to teaching online for the first time, a situation which can leave you feeling vulnerable and exposed. The Commons is once again here to provide resources (e.g., our summer Moodle online course template), strategies, and consultations, but if you are busy closing out the spring semester you may still feel overwhelmed. We understand and are here to offer help as often as you need.

Fall Piqué

If you are teaching this spring you will no doubt want to take some time to decompress before you begin planning for the fall semester (which, unless things change, may also need to take place remotely). But the good news is that you have a reasonable amount of time to prepare for this (or, if you are teaching this summer, you will at least have the benefit of that first pirouette’s experience). The Commons will be your support through the summer. Our guide to designing online courses will give you both the theoretical understanding and a set of practical strategies to help you design a much more effective, and even enjoyable, online course. This will certainly take time and effort (mostly front-loaded), but our goal is to help you to do this in a way that will pay dividends in a post-COVID world. For example, the micro-lectures you create for the Fall will allow you to flip your classroom next year. It may feel daunting right now, but we will be with you every step of the way.

Let’s Talk About Faculty Anxiety

Let’s be clear. No one signed up for this situation. Not the faculty, not the staff, and certainly not our students. Aside from our concerns about teaching and learning, all of us are also grappling with personal challenges and fears. For example, I am juggling supporting my team and the KPU community with making sure I am not neglecting my two young children at home (while frankly ignoring some high expectations around home schooling). I also have a family member in a long-term care facility in North Vancouver whose health is never far from my mind. The anxiety we feel is entirely understandable, which is why the Commons has been consistently advocating for compassion and urging self-care.

Having said this, there are several factors related to teaching and learning that can raise or lower our anxiety levels. For example, having more time and support to prepare to teach remotely will help. So too does not having to suddenly learn how to use all kinds of new technologies and tools. But from what we have seen in the Commons, a common strategy to reduce anxiety is to simply transfer your current approach to teaching to remote delivery. For example, by moving the same kinds of activities and assessments online (e.g., discussions and final exams in Moodle) or by moving your weekly 90 minute face-to-face lecture to a weekly 90 minute synchronous video lecture. The latter strategy is entirely understandable, especially when you are doing an emergency pivot and not planning a piqué. As my friend Rolin Moe wrote recently, “you can’t teach someone to swim while they’re drowning.”

Let’s Not Forget About Student Anxiety

However, as you plan for the future, we urge you to simultaneously consider the instructional strategies that raise or lower student anxiety. For example, having low-stakes assessments, feeling like they are part of a learning community, experiencing instructor immediacy and presence, and being given more flexibility all lower student anxiety. On the other hand, requiring students to be available for a synchronous 3 hour window each week increases student anxiety, especially for students with children or other responsibilities at home, international students stuck in different time zones, and those who do not enjoy reliable access to technology or the internet at home.

Anxiolytic Instructional Design

Putting these two dimensions together doesn’t yield a universal scatter plot of strategies, as familiarity with technology, existing (pre-COVID) teaching and learning practices, and other factors vary widely. Yet, given enough time, resources and supports, we hope to help you select from a range of instructional strategies that lower student anxiety while also lowering your own–anxiolytic instructional design, if you will.

We will do this by giving you both the theoretical and practical training you need to know how you can design an effective online course. We will show you how you can build an online community, share resources, create content, design learning activities, and plan for assessments and feedback, all in a way that is optimized for an online environment.

In dance, when you make a turn you try to keep your focus on a single point in front of you. You do this to maintain control and reduce your dizziness. This technique is known as spotting.

As you move from your spring pivot to your summer pirouette or fall piqué, please allow the Teaching & Learning Commons be your point of orientation. We will be here for you as long as you are able to engage with us. And when you turn back around, we will still be here. With our help, along with the advice and feedback of your peers, the generosity of your students, and the slack that you hopefully give yourself you will have the best chance of delivering a graceful performance.

Rajiv Jhangiani

Rajiv Jhangiani, Associate Vice Provost, Open Education at Kwantlen Polytechnic University in British Columbia

Dr. Rajiv Jhangiani is the Associate Vice Provost, Open Education at Kwantlen Polytechnic University in British Columbia. The architect of Canada’s first zero textbook cost degree programs, Rajiv is an internationally known advocate for open education whose research and practice focuses on open educational resources, student-centered pedagogies, and the scholarship of teaching and learning. Rajiv is a recipient of the Robert E. Knox Master Teacher Award from the University of British Columbia, the Dean of Arts Teaching Excellence award at KPU, and the award for Excellence in Open Education from BCcampus. Rajiv is a co-founder of the Open Pedagogy Notebook, serves on the BC Open Education Advisory Committee, and on the boards of Virtually Connecting, Ubiquity Proceedings, and KDocs Film Festival. A co-author of three open textbooks in Psychology, his most recent book is Open: The Philosophy and Practices that are Revolutionizing Education and Science (2017). You can find him online @thatpsychprof or thatpsychprof.com



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