In the pandemic classroom, less proved more — except when it didn’t.
Dr. Joel Stake, senior lecturer in Louisiana Tech’s School of Biological Sciences, shared early in winter quarter his experience concerning the challenges and successes of teaching in a virtual classroom during the pandemic.
A takeoff on a song by The Offspring, his webinar was titled “The Kids Are Not Alright: Applying Lessons Learned from Fall 2020.” His goal in the presentation was a challenging one: how faculty can convey a Virtual Presence—or how to effectively engage and influence students in an online course.
He presented through Top Hat at the invitation of Kelly Cronin, Manager of Faculty Engagement Programs for the student engagement platform professors use both inside and outside the classroom. Top Hat provides a lecture tool that tracks attendance, asks questions, features interactive slides, and manages classroom discussions. Outside the classroom the platform features an interactive Text platform where professors can adapt, customize, or create content for their courses.
More than 300 education faculty and administration attended the webinar, which can be accessed here.
Stake uses Top Hat for creating weekly content—both written and embedded videos—assignments, quizzes, and exams, as well as an open source textbook from OpenStax that’s housed within Top Hat.
Stake discovered early in virtual learning a couple of preconceived errors in reasoning and strategy.
One, because the learning environment wasn’t in the classroom, faculty felt they needed to give students additional “things to do and add more content,” he said, to make up for the missed time.
Also, faculty were given so many new online tools at one time that the initial impulse was to try to incorporate all of them into classes.
“Both these things are overwhelming for faculty and students,” Stake said. “The first is more work, and the second meant learning multiple new programs and tools and software, either for implementation and creation of assignments from faculty or for students completing assignments.
“I would add,” he said, “the students had to do it without any training.”
More effective strategies proved to be simplification and centralization. Stake found trying learn to navigate all of the new software tools a daunting task, so he made an effort to put as much as possible in one place.
“My thought was, if it took more than three clicks of a mouse to get there,” he said, “it was probably too much.”
Less was more.
The second thing he found effective was over-communication.
“The clearer the instructions and the more students hear those same instructions in various forms,” he said, “the more likely they are to accomplish the task.”
In that case, more was more.
“In line with communication, I want students to see me even though we aren’t in class,” Stake said, “so I created video introductions for each week that outlined the weekly learning outcomes and the assignments for that week.”
Additionally, he began using Top Hat Community, a messaging app with course-specific channels that allows students to create their own channels for study groups or just to stay in touch.
“Last thing, I made sure that all of my assignments were aligned to the weekly learning outcomes and that the weekly learning outcomes were aligned to my overall course learning outcomes,” Stake said. “I want students to understand why I am asking them to watch a particular video or do a certain assignment.
“The hope,” he said, “was to help them stay motivated by being clear about why, so that they don’t think I’m just giving them busy work. The goal was alignment to help motivate.”
An extra challenge for Stake in engaging students during the earlier stages of the pandemic was the number of students in his virtual classrooms. For even average efficiency, confusion had to be held to a minimum.
“Joel teaches some of the largest enrollments we offer through the School of Biological Sciences,” said Dr. Bill Campbell, the School’s director. “He regularly teaches classes of approximately 175 students each quarter. The courses he teaches include Fundamentals of Biology I and Fundamentals of Biology II, courses aimed at majors other than those offered by the School of Biological Sciences.”
Although Stake teaches introductory Biology to a broad range of students, he is “able to present the course material in a way that non-Biology majors are able to appreciate and enjoy,” Campbell said. “I should also point out that he routinely receives very high student evaluations.”
After completing his PhD and serving in research and teaching roles at the University of the Virgin Islands and then Rivier University in New Hampshire, Stake and his family moved back home to Louisiana in 2015 when he accepted a position at Tech. He was the University Advisor Award nominee from the University’s College of Applied and Natural Sciences in 2019-20.