Cleveland Teaching Collaborative

Remote Learning: A Bridge to Better Teaching

Course: HIS 693: Seminar–Special Topics: History of the U.S. South

Department: History

Institution: Cleveland State University

Instructor: J. Mark Souther

Number & Level of Students Enrolled: 17 graduate students

Digital Tools/Technologies Used: Zoom

Author Bio: J. Mark Souther is a professor of history and the director of the Center for Public History + Digital Humanities at Cleveland State University. His areas of research and teaching interest include modern U.S. history, urban history, southern history, and public history. In addition to leading the Cleveland Historical and Cleveland Voices projects, he has co-directed two NEH digital humanities grants that involved digital platform development, collaborative teaching, and digital storytelling with a partner university in Kenya.

Remote Learning: A Bridge to Better Teaching

In early January, when COVID-19 had no name and seemed a world away, I thought my biggest challenge in my history graduate reading seminar on the U.S. South would be how to squeeze 17 students and myself around a conference table intended for no more than 16 people. Our class bonded quickly, but as the virus morphed into a pandemic, the advisability of sitting almost shoulder to shoulder in a windowless room for nearly three hours was on our minds.

Like most history graduate reading seminars, mine followed a common format. Students read one book each week, and then we met to discuss the reading. Students wrote a short response essay for each book and also submitted a prospectus for a historiographical essay, due at the end of the semester, that would situate several books in relation to each other and to a broad theme. Also, each week one student was assigned to lead the discussion of one book chapter. When CSU made the decision during our spring break to move to remote learning, we were given one extra week to prepare for the transition. For anyone who had no online teaching experience, this was just enough time to make a quick plan for keeping things going. For me, it meant becoming acquainted with Zoom, but I worried that an 18-person video conference would be unwieldy if not disastrous. What if the feed lagged or audio feedback made our class a true echo chamber? Fearing that this mode of meeting could fall flat, I developed contingency plans such as using Zoom breakout rooms and began preparing Blackboard threads as my “Plan B.”

To my surprise, we continued on Zoom almost without a hitch. It helped that we had developed rapport with each other. Most of us used at least earbuds and kept ourselves muted when not speaking, which may have saved us from some audio issues. I also initially required students to use the “raise hand” function and wait to be called to speak. We were prepared to go into four breakout rooms of about four people each, but we found that the discussion flowed surprisingly well in the full group. I polled everyone on whether they wanted to go to breakout rooms. The choice to stay where we were was unanimous. Apart from the occasional audio “hiccups” or frozen screens that signaled an unstable internet connection, we were fortunate that we could hear each other well.

A person sitting at a desk looking at a computer

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Mark Souther moderates the first HIS 693 reading discussion after moving to remote learning. March 23, 2020. Photo by Stacey Souther and modified using Oil Paint My Photo app to respect student privacy

The one dubious effect that we observed in Zoom-based discussions was the depressive effect that relying on the “raise hand” feature had on sharing ideas. After a couple of class meetings, we agreed to do without “raising” hands and instead to unmute and chime in. Even so, in an effort to avoid the chaos of possibly speaking over each other, the students tended to hold back on interjecting thoughts until finding an unmistakable pause. While it was perhaps a useful lesson in patience and politeness, it did create a somewhat stilted discussion experience. I could tell that this dynamic exerted the greatest impact on more introverted students, but even so, it did not shut them down.

The experience of holding our seminar meetings on Zoom also prompts some other reflections. One is that the novelty of it for most of us was a plus. For example, for me there was something calming amid the unwelcome novelty of facing the prospect of living through a pandemic that came just from being able to create my own virtual background. It enabled me to set aside the fact that I was sitting on my living room sofa instead in the seminar room on campus. In part, I also wanted to set an example that my students need not show everyone the inside of their homes. I chose a subtropical courtyard in Savannah, Georgia, which seemed fitting for a southern history class!

As time went on, I selected various historical images for my background that matched our reading. One week, for instance, I made my background a 1920s photo of a stretch of the Dixie Highway in Florida[SR1]  when we were discussing Tammy Ingram’s book Dixie Highway: Road Building and the Making of the Modern South. When one of my students was scheduled to lead discussion of one chapter in Kari Frederickson’s Cold War Dixie: Militarization and Modernization in the American South, I emailed him a pertinent photo I found online of a protest sign tacked on top of a highway marker to decry the federal government’s plan in the early 1950s to condemn an entire South Carolina town to build the massive Savannah River Plant, a U.S. Department of Energy/Du Pont nuclear material production facility. He asked if I’d mind using it as my Zoom background because he thought it would enhance discussion. It’s worth pointing out that the use of the virtual background was not something that worked for some of our readings. It would have been inappropriate and wrong, especially as a white male, to sit in front of an image of African American women enduring the brutality of the chain gang or convict leasing when we discussed Talitha LeFlouria’s Chained in Silence: Black Women and Convict Labor in the New South.

In all, I can hardly complain about challenges in moving to remote learning because my particular situation was more conducive to a quick shift than that of many courses. Our last evening brought claps and exclamations that “We did it!” But that begs the question, “Just what did we do? A second, more serious reflection is that the synchronous imperative of our use of Zoom literally gave me a window into the challenges my students were facing in keeping up with school and personal lives. Although students were assured that they were not required to use video and that the virtual background was an option, few elected not to appear “on location.” Most of these challenges were relatively invisible—an occasional auditory reminder that children were nearby and in some cases being entertained by a spouse. However, one student in particular was juggling graduate studies, a full-time job, childcare responsibilities and, within days after our last meeting, a COVID-19 case in her immediate family—a somber coda.

Reshaping Remote Instruction through Reflective Practice

I may “Zoom” again, but other courses will demand at least a significant asynchronous component, not least because it is a challenge for most students to control the conduciveness to effective learning of the setting where they go online. In the space between pandemic semesters, I find myself exploring anew what it means to learn together as a community. I was thankful that the university’s Center for eLearning offered an intensive two-week Faculty Online Teaching and Design course. I jumped at the opportunity out of an assumption that we would likely be asked to teach remotely again in the fall. As I began to work through the course, whose focus was on developing a module in Blackboard Learn, I was soon struck by my realization that one of the most fundamental needs in online teaching is a more emphatic attention to alignment of all activities to module objectives and in turn of those to course objectives. Without the opportunity for regular face-to-face engagement, much in my teaching that could happen in less thoroughly mapped-out fashion needed to be rethought and made more explicit. I was surprised to discover how even the exercise of creating a course map for a single module (in my case equivalent to one week’s material) exposed unnecessary repetition in assigned readings as well as gaps between my objectives and my materials.

An instructor can and should build an effective, engaging course regardless of whether it happens face-to-face, remotely and synchronously, or fully online. Although “presence” is critical no matter the mode of teaching, careful, robust course design is more important than physical presence in the classroom. This may come as no surprise to those who are versed in online teaching, but for me it upended my suspicions and assumptions. It also showed me how I can improve my preparation, which gives me confidence that my teaching will be better regardless of the form it takes. Given that some students who are accustomed to in-person learning have already enrolled in my fall upper-level/graduate course Introduction to Public History, I am weighing whether to include an optional live class meeting on Zoom each Monday at the previously set time. Doing so might deliver some of what some students expect. If I take this route, I would record and post the Zoom on Blackboard and emphasize to my students that they should not feel compelled to take part in real time. Alternatively, I am also giving serious thought to pre-recording mini-lectures of approximately eight minutes using Panopto. Either platform can support a split screen showing me speaking and any additional media, such as a PowerPoint or Keynote  presentation. The main question revolves around whether to have an optional synchronous component.

I went into “remote learning” with the belief that I needed to match as closely as possible the feel of my classroom. In truth, I also needed to see my students because of the sudden shock of feeling isolated at home. But now, reflecting after three months that included both Zoom-based teaching and an online design course where I got to be a student again, I see the benefits of reflective practice in conversation with other instructors who are doing the same. Our remote interlude need not be an exile on a pedagogical “island” but rather an opportunity to help each other design our own bridges to more effective teaching when our “mainland” (the university campus) is deemed safe again.

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