Newswise — While the COVID-19 pandemic drove the CSU online this spring, that didn't stop faculty and staff from digging in to connect with students and offer the quality education on which the CSU prides itself. As spring terms ended, the CSU wisely made an early decision to plan for online courses in the fall. That decision​ gave faculty the time and opportunity to expand their skills and prepare for a productive ​virtual experience, armed with the latest technology and best practices for online teaching.

“When you consider the difference between teaching in a 300-person lecture hall and a seminar with 25 students, the virtual format is in many ways just a different setting for delivering the same instruction and quality of education," says Alison M. Wrynn, Ph.D., associate vice chancellor of Academic Programs, Innovations and Faculty Development at the CSU Chancellor's Office. “Our campuses continue to meet the learning outcomes established by the faculty and, as applicable, the standards from our accrediting bodies. Students still get the same outcomes and still earn grades."

In addition, the switch has allowed many professors to try new teaching tactics even as it offers students more flexibility. “Some students will now speak up in a virtual class when they normally wouldn't. Additionally, they can set aside their own time to read and learn in an asynchronous format and can engage more with their family or work responsibilities when they need to," Dr. Wrynn continues.

Here are some ways the CSU community has embraced the online space, ensuring students are still receiving the instruction and classroom support they need.

Broader Training

“While we were able to successfully transition to virtual instruction this spring, faculty had much more time this summer to prepare for their fall classes," Wrynn says. “So, we've enhanced our opportunities for faculty professional development this summer to ensure we're continuing to provide the highest quality instruction while at the same time increasing faculty members' comfort and familiarity with the technology and tactics that strengthen the online experience."

To this end, the CSU—at both the university and campus levels—expanded faculty training options that focused on online instruction, ranging from technology workshops to lessons in personalizing the online learning experience.

“We are shifting toward making sure we have quality assurance, the learning is engaged and we're providing both faculty and students with the tools to be engaged in the virtual environment so they can be successful," says Mary Oling-Sisay, Ph.D., Humboldt State University vice provost of Academic Programs. “We're being very intentional with our approach and with the workshops and modules that are available."

Learn more about the CSU’s professional development programs aimed at providing high-quality virtual learning experiences.

Higher Tech

Virtual instruction would not be possible without technology—and the fact is, the latest advancements in technology have transformed the way virtual instruction is offered. The first step for instructors transitioning this spring then was employing the technological tools available, like Zoom video conferencing and Canvas, an online learning platform.

“First we had to figure out how we were going to make a smooth transition mid-semester and try to replicate the in-person environment as much as possible," says Kenneth Luna, Ph.D., professor and chair of California State University, Northridge Department of Linguistics/TESL and quality assurance faculty lead for blended and online courses.

“The first advice we gave everybody was, 'You have a date and time, try to keep that,'" he explains. “You can just do exactly what you're doing right now with your PowerPoints, lectures, documents and class activities—just do it via Zoom."

Through the professional development programs, faculty were able to work with course designers this summer to better integrate technology into their fall classes.

“There's a long-standing emphasis on if we're going to do online or virtual instruction, we're going to do it in a high-quality way," says Mary Beth Walker, Ph.D., CSUN provost and vice president for Academic Affairs. “We tried to provide a full portfolio of different opportunities for faculty. Some faculty needed more familiarity with the technology. They weren't taking a full dive into teaching online forever, but they needed an expanded facility with the technology tools we use."

The key learning then for faculty is how to “integrate pedagogical principles with the technology tool sets we have and incorporate them into courses to further enhance student engagement and outcomes," says Ranjit Philip, CSUN interim vice president for Information Technology and chief information officer.

Greater Flexibility

The range of technology tools also allows faculty more flexibility when choosing between maintaining their usual class time (synchronous) or switching to recorded lectures (asynchronous).

“A best practice … is to have parts of the class be asynchronous, so students can access material and engage at the time that suits them, as opposed to a mandated meeting time," Dr. Walker says. “Using a combination of that with some [time when] we're all together and we can look at each other, you usually get the best outcomes in terms of persistence and performance in the class."

This blend is especially beneficial for students who may have to share their internet bandwidth, space and computer with other family members who are also working or learning. Recorded video lectures in particular prove helpful because they allow students to watch them when it's convenient and review them again as needed.

“Now when you have a whole family at home, students may not have space [to join class at the scheduled time]," Dr. Luna says. “You have three children going to school, maybe a computer or two or unreliable internet access. Everybody's taking class at the same time live. So, then we can switch to some face-to-face and some asynchronous to accommodate the students with their life situation."

Deeper Engagement

When a class moves from in-person to online, the greatest fear is the loss of meaningful connections between the students, professors and content. But by implementing best practices for virtual instruction, this is an issue professors can and have overcome.

It is important “to move away from this mentality that online is bad, not interactive and not as good as in-person," Luna explains. “I would argue that a well-made online class is probably more challenging and higher quality. A genuine online class doesn't allow for instructor-centered teaching approaches, just uploading PowerPoints slides or simply lecturing while students take notes. It needs to be so much more, and it needs to be student-centered."

To ensure a high level of interaction, Luna emphasizes the need to set up online spaces where students can share, such as group discussions where they can post comments or photos, optional meeting times when they can talk with the professor or each other or periodic video check-ins.

“What's made [virtual instruction] particularly fulfilling for me is when you do those activities … students suddenly share all sorts of things about their lives that they would not normally do in the in-person setting," he says. “They start posting pictures of themselves with their children or their babies or their pets, and sharing things about their lives or their family."

An important factor in driving this interaction is personalizing, or humanizing, the virtual experience—a major objective of the virtual instruction professional development program from the Humboldt State Center for Teaching & Learning, explains Center Director Enoch Hale.

“How can we authentically connect with students in ways that motivate and further their learning? How can we design the learning environment where students connect with each other in authentic ways?" he considers. “We know students are much more apt to do well in a class if they have a connection with the faculty member and have a strong peer support system. Intrinsic interest in the subject tends not to be enough."

Humboldt State is also introducing a program for students on how to be a digital scholar to further prepare them for online learning. The goal is to cover how to intellectually engage with class content in a virtual format, as well as “how to articulate your voice to the instructor so your instructor can hear you, can hear your unique learning needs and be able to respond authentically," Dr. Oling-Sisay says.

While these best practices will ultimately help enhance the virtual teaching and learning experience, many professors plan to take them beyond the virtual sphere and incorporate them into their future in-person classes.

Hear from faculty and students on their experiences going virtual.