Pandemic Pedagogy: Some Questions About Being “Successful” and Getting it “Right”

Introduction

With the midpoint of the summer and the July 4th Holiday weekend in the rear view, and states (like our own home of Michigan) now releasing plans for a “safe return to school” in August, we feel it is worth taking time to pause.  

As parents and teacher educators, as well as long-time colleagues and friends, the two of us have had many conversations in the past month as educators in the state of Michigan and around the world have moved to “remote learning” in K-12 and higher education.

In thinking about ways we can productively talk about complicated issues, we have been informed by our experiences in the National Writing Project, and the use of protocols, or guided discussion models, for moving forward through difficult conversations. 

In a recent chat, we used the “What? So What? Now What?” protocol to share our thoughts and feelings related to “pandemic pedagogy,” “getting remote learning ‘right,’” and other phrases that capture the COVID-19 zeitgeist. 

This blog post summarizes our current thinking and, we hope, will serve as a time capsule for questions we need to ask in the weeks, months, and years ahead. 

What? 

Humans, by nature, want to help others. Our willingness to do so is, most often, well-intentioned. Since the outbreak of COVID-19 and both higher education and K-12 schools moving to “remote” instruction, there have been a number of companies that have offered their products for free (or at reduced cost) so that teachers and students can use them.  Moreover, professional organizations have shared K-12 resources through blogs, podcasts, webinars, lesson plans, and countless social media posts. We believe teachers and their students are doing the best they can, given the circumstances. We also trust that parents and guardians are doing the best they can. Humans are navigating uncertain futures and as we do so, we must help ourselves and our children navigate what is, indeed, a brave new world.

That said, in the past few months — and even more so in as we reflect on “remote learning” successes and failures from the end of the 2019-20 academic year — there have been hundreds, if not thousands, of such resources that have been distributed to support a “continuity of learning.” Again, all well-intentioned, and many useful. 

However, when we see headlines like “getting remote learning right” or “successful strategies for online teaching,” we wonder what “right” or “successful” (or, for that matter, “teaching”) even means. While we do have empirical evidence about “what works” for nearly all students in typical school settings (e.g., IES What Works Clearinghouse), which are still in and of themselves contextual, we don’t yet know what works for all teachers and students when teaching and learning remotely. We also don’t yet know the full impact of social distancing on teachers’ and students’ learning and emotional well-being.

We are left with many questions, few answers, and a great deal of uncertainty. 

So What?

Despite the terrible, tragic circumstances in which we find ourselves, one of the silver linings, perhaps even a gift, of this pandemic for educators —  if we dare call it a gift — is the opportunity to re-think what has been considered the standard parts of teaching and learning for decades, if not centuries. As educational professionals, if we want to take advantage of what we’re learning and experiencing in this COVID-19 era, we must be willing to ask (and, eventually, answer) some important questions.  So, as we consider the days, months, and years ahead, we believe that it will be imperative to create time and space for conversations about what we’ve experienced and learned. 

In other words, as the world is experiencing a pandemic,  what is “right” or “successful” for one remote school or class may not actually be “right” or “successful” for another. And, we believe that part of getting it “right” — or achieving “success” —  extends well beyond the immediate needs and outcomes of the upcoming 2020-21 academic year. 

Indeed, the ways we prepare ourselves for 2020-21 matters in many, many ways. Thus,  framing questions for the conversations we have now — both about what we’re experiencing and learning as well as  how we can use what we learn to help us move forward in the future — is critical. 

Now What?

As noted above, there are already countless resources available for remote teaching and learning. 

We are not dispensing more advice or resources in this post. There are so many of us — individual teachers, entire school faculties, district administrators, teacher educators, policy makers, the business community, and, of course parents and caregivers of our youth — all of whom have questions. And, we’re all trying to figure things out. 

Instead, we want to pivot and pose some questions that, right now, can’t be fully answered here as we are still trying to plan for August. Whatever happens in a few weeks, when schools “re-open” for the fall, we know that it will still be an era of pandemic pedagogy. 

In fact, we consider this a “time capsule” of sorts, and these questions, we hope, can guide our own thinking as well as our PK-12 and higher education colleagues as we transition into a post-COVID, socially un-distanced world. Whether we are face-to-face, online, or both — and whether we are talking about one day of instruction, one week, one month, or a whole year — we wonder…

For educators:

  • What is essential for your students to learn, in terms of content and skills? 
  • What is essential for your students to do as they learn to communicate with one another? 
  • What were the “rhythms” of the school week for each of you? What was the workflow? When did you meet with students? How did you support students’ emotional and academic needs?
  • What communication media (text, image, video, audio), methods (through an LMS, via text message, via email), audiences (one student, small group, whole class), and frequency (hourly, daily, weekly) are effective? 
  • What content needs to be “delivered,” asynchronously, and what, instead, might need to be “modeled” and “coached,” synchronously? 
  • What should be the [new] norms of online meetings with students? 
  • In this time of remote learning, what practices have you developed that could be carried forward, in hybrid or fully online courses?
  • What have you learned about yourself, your teaching style, and what you really value as an educator?
  • How might this entire experience frame your pedagogy and practice moving forward? 
  • How much synchronicity is necessary? For full classes? For small groups? For individual tutorials? 
  • What ways did you see students be creative as they developed their thinking and expressed what they learned? How might they have used “old” and “new” technologies to meet these goals? 

For administrators:

  • What worked best for communicating with your staff? For providing feedback and direction? For maintaining relationships and supporting one another?
  • What might have worked well in the past for organizing faculty meetings, curriculum, assessments, PLCs, etc.? How did these change and, perhaps, become more [or less] efficient? 
  • For online meetings with other adults/colleagues, what norms did you establish and how did these facilitate communication and teamwork? 
  • Based on your experiences supporting teachers during remote teaching and learning, what changes do you hope/expect to make when you return to brick and mortar buildings and classrooms?
  • How did you partner with and/or support students and their families?
  • What success(es) should be celebrated?

For business and community members:

  • In our efforts to create a 21st-century workforce — and with the changes that have been made in your places of work over the past two months — what should educators know about what it means to prepare their students for the workforce in months and years ahead? Given potential past efforts connected to volunteerism and mentorship opportunities for employees to work with K-12 students, what might you need to reconsider when planning for future opportunities?
  • Even in light of the economic impact that all businesses are sure to face, what role do we all play in providing equitable access to broadband or mobile internet, as well as low-cost laptops or devices for family use, both for K-12 students as well as their caregivers who may be reskilling for a new job? 
  • What new partnerships could be developed with local K-12 schools to support students’ learning and connect their learning to the community? 

For higher education faculty, administrators, and teacher educators: 

  • How do we effectively prepare preservice teachers for all the realities of teaching and learning, including future remote teaching and learning?
  • How can teacher educators clearly model high-leverage teaching and learning practices for preservice teachers?
  • How can colleges/schools and departments of education more directly support our communities’ schools, including their teachers and students as well as parents and caregivers?
  • How can we better advocate for and partner with local K-12 districts and schools when integrating technology?
  • What new partnerships, programs, and models could be forged to partner universities and K-12 schools (e.g., traditional models of student teaching and field placements, dictating required observation/teaching hours, etc.)?

For parents, guardians, and caregivers: 

  • What are your children passionate about? How did you help them follow those passions in this time of staying home and staying safe?
  • On the flip side, what led our kids to distraction (and/or ourselves)? What did we do to help them learn and/or practice self-regulation and to follow their interests?
  • What kinds of topics, subject areas, and questions did they follow?
  • What did you notice about their use of various learning technologies and modalities such as video, audio, and text, as well as virtual interactions with others?
  • How did you and/or your child[ren] process the “loss” of the remainder of the school year?
  • What do your children need as they head back to a regular school building and schedule, whenever that might be? 
  • What do you, as a parent/guardian, need as you send your child[ren] back to a regular school building and schedule, whenever that might be? 
  • What was most helpful, in terms of the way(s) your school/district responded to the COVID-19 pandemic?
  • What was least helpful, in terms of the way(s) your school/district responded to the COVID-19 pandemic?

For legislators: 

  • What laws perpetuate inequality for public education and how can we change these to ensure all students have access, no matter the location of learning and/or the modes/methods?
  • What needs to change, at the state and/or national levels, so that K-12 administrators and educators can quickly and effectively respond to current needs and environments, including the need for remote teaching and learning?
  • What role does technology play in providing “equal access for all” K-12 students?
  • What do you need/want to learn from K-12 teachers as well as their students and families about their experiences with remote teaching/learning during this crisis? 
  • Beyond increasing teachers’ pay, how might we recognize the contributions that educators and schools/districts made to students’ learning, both intellectual and socio-emotional, during this difficult time?
  • What can we do to recruit new teachers to join/stay in the profession, and prepare them for new modes of instruction?
  • What can we do to keep current teachers in the profession and how can we prepare and support them for new modes of instruction?

(A Few) Essential Questions as We Move Forward

These are a lot of questions and necessitate conversations over time. As we conclude, we close with a few questions for us all:

  • What might a typical school day (week) look like in the years ahead? 
  • How might we build remote/online learning into our normal patterns of work?
  • How will we maximize synchronous learning times, whether face-to-face or remote? 
  • What content can be “delivered” asynchronously and what platforms/delivery works best for asynchronous delivery?
  • How will we engage all students in substantive learning, inviting them to create — and not just consume — content?

These are more questions, we know, than can be answered right now.  However, in addition to responding and reacting to immediate needs and contents, we must also deliberately think about what we’re doing, why we’re doing it, and its impact on students’ learning and development. 

We are, indeed, in the midst of a pandemic pedagogy and while we’re all hard at work, our success and ability to “get it right” depends not only on what we do right now but also what we do moving forward.

We hope you’ll consider joining the conversation that these questions invite.


Erica R. HamiltonDr. Erica R. Hamilton, Grand Valley State University, Grand Rapids, MI

Erica R. Hamilton works with pre-service and in-service teachers and serves as a K-12 teacher coach and professional development provider. Erica’s teaching focuses on helping teachers support and extend K-12 students’ literacy and learning. Committed to professional service, Erica currently serves on GVSU’s Online Education Council and GVSU’s IRB committee. She is a peer reviewer for various journals and organizations and is active in West Michigan schools. Her research interests focus on teacher learning and professional development, place-based education, literacy, and educational technology. Connect with her on Twitter @ericarhamilton.

Troy Hicks Portrait

Dr. Troy Hicks, Central Michigan University, Mt. Pleasant, MI

Dr. Troy Hicks is Professor of English and Education at Central Michigan University (CMU). He directs the Chippewa River Writing Project and, previously, the Master of Arts in Learning, Design & Technology program. A former middle school teacher, he collaborates with K–12 colleagues and explores how they implement newer literacies in their classrooms. Since beginning work at CMU in 2007, he has earned numerous distinctions including the Michigan Council of Teachers of English Charles Carpenter Fries Award (2008), CMU’s Provost’s Award for junior faculty who demonstrate outstanding achievement in research and creative activity (2011), the Richard A. Meade Award for scholarship in English Education (2014), the Michigan Reading Association’s Teacher Educator Award (2018), CMU’s Excellence in Teaching Award (2020), and the Initiative for 21st Century Literacies Research’s Divergent Award for Excellence (2020). An ISTE Certified Educator, Dr. Hicks has authored numerous books, articles, chapters, blog posts, and other resources broadly related to the teaching of literacy in our digital age. Follow him on Twitter: @hickstro


Photo by Charles Deluvio on Unsplash

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Wrapping Up a Semester of Digital Badging

Digital Badges... Still Under ConstructionThis past fall semester provided me with an opportunity to teach an undergraduate honors seminar, focused broadly on the role of technology in our personal and professional lives.

Entitled “Our Digital Selves,” I was able to work with 22 students over the 16 week semester as we engaged in some shared inquiry, some small group inquiry pathways, and a number of writing-to-learn activities that helped them engage with and understand a variety of digital tools ranging from browser extensions to the Zotero bibliographic management system.

Moreover (and more to the point for purposes of this post), we utilized digital badging as a tool for documenting performance, eschewing grades and, instead, relying on lots of formative assessment, peer review, and self-evaluation. Since the National Writing Project first became connected with the MacArthur Foundation’s Digital Learning Initiative, I have been interested in badges, and will likely be pursuing the use of badges in teacher professional development this spring.

For HON 206, the purpose of the badging system was, as I documented earlier, meant to be an opportunity for students to reconsider the role of traditional grade-driven assessment practices in their learning, providing them with more flexibility and opportunities for them to work creatively with one another. As with all teaching experiences, this one had some ups and some downs.

On the positive side:

  • Badges held a novelty factor that — combined with the overall topic of digital ethnography that permeated the course — did remain relevant in our discussions and activities.
  • In pursuing the goal of digital authorship across multiple platforms and with various activities, students began to see how multimodal texts (including badges) could expand their thinking well beyond the traditional academic essay.
  • Coupled with the inquiry-based, experiential nature of the pathways, students did begin to identify themselves with the badging pathways. They called themselves “Makers,” “Adventurers,” “Hackers,” and “Writers.”
  • In the end, having some freedom and flexibility was a powerful motivation for learning. While it really wouldn’t have mattered if we had badges or not, talking about the idea of “earning a badge” is more concrete than times in the past where I have used contract grading, which feels much more amorphous.

And, on the negative side:

  • No matter how much you try to dress it up, even with lipstick, a pig is still a pig. Though the ultimate goal was not to gain a set number of points in order to earn an “A,” this still was a class, with homework and expectations for participation. Try as I might, badges didn’t change that fundamental equation. Some students completed their work on time and with a high degree of quality. Some did not. And, for all those who are worried about grade inflation, well, I am part of the problem, since they all ended up with the same grade at the end.
  • Interoperability. Even though I was using the open badge standard with the Badgr platform (read more about how Badgr evolved from the Mozilla Open Backpack, and where it is going next), I thought that it would be easy for students to share their badges on LinkedIn (not at all easy, and only as a “certification”) or WordPress (no embedding of iFrames on the free accounts). They could download the image, make a link, and share it that way, but the ease of a “point and click” transfer of the badge from being issued in Badgr to making it into a more viable, professional space simply didn’t happen.
  • Though there were some other minor concerns, the final major problem is that, even after a semester of talking about badges, showing them how their “evidence” of earning the badge is “baked in,” and that they could easily demonstrate to another instructor or employer, I don’t think that any of them (save for one) really felt like these digital credentials would help them later on.

As with all teaching innovations, I sometimes fear that the more things change, the more they stay the same. I should have opportunity to teach HON 206 again in the future, and I am already thinking about some ways in which I might adapt; I think that there might be some specific ways that I can make things more compelling while also not losing my mind from issuing badges.

  • First, the badges need to be earned for (some) smaller tasks, not just the final projects. In order to earn a badge for say, “Level I” work in a pathway, you need to have the item turned in on time and to a high degree of quality. If not, no badge. You can still turn in the work and get credit for the assignment, but I need to issue smaller badges, faster.
  • Second, in a similar vein, I did about eight in-class, intensive “writing-to-learn” activities that were highly scaffolded as Hyperdoc-like activities. I think that I would have at least five of those (of the students’ choosing) become longer assignments that would include the in-class work as well as an out-of-class extension, probably a brief essay (500 words or so). Those, too, would accumulate into a bigger badge, but would be issued more frequently.
  • Finally, I need a system for them to share the badges. Perhaps, as part of the course, I have them subscribe to WordPress for four months, dropping the text book and paying for that instead. Then, I could build blogging (and reading one another’s blogs) more diligently into the course process, and I could expect them to share their badges more publicly.

So, my first go at badging was compelling and not a complete failure. My hope is that I have opportunity to try this again with undergraduates and — if I get really motivated — with my ed tech doctoral students, too.

For now, I wish that I could give all of my students a digital backpack (ala Mozilla’s original vision) for a Christmas present, so it was easier for them to share their badges and, more importantly, be able to reflect on their learning for the semester. But, that’s on my wish list for next year and, for now, I am satisfied with the gift of a wonderful teaching experience this fall.

I have more to learn about badging, and will continue to reflect on my HON 206 experience, too.


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Badging and Blending, Writing and Learning

HON 206 Member Badge
Badges. Writing-intensive. Active learning. Blended learning.

Oh, my.

These have been the buzzwords that have permeated professional conversations over the past few years, and have guided my path in developing the seminar course for Honors students that I am currently teaching, “Our Digital Selves.”

Offered as a course for a group of 22 freshmen while they are concurrently enrolled in a larger course that orients over 100 students to life in CMU’s Honors Program, my course meets twice a week, Mondays and Wednesdays, for an hour and fifteen minutes.

In describing the course, I begin with the following:

Without question, we live, work, and play in a digital world.

Though a divide still exists in terms of skills and access across demographics, it is reasonable to argue that the increasing ubiquity of mobile devices connected to the Internet as well as broadband in our homes, schools, libraries, and workplaces means that all of us – especially young people coming of age in the present moment – are now blending our personal, professional, and practical digital identities across multiple networks and with a variety of tools.

However, the ability to upload a picture or post on one’s timeline does not, in and of itself, assure us each a place in digital segments of academia, the workplace, or civic life. In fact, a recent Rasmussen College survey showed that 37% of millennial students see the internet as “scary” and are not confident in their digital literacy skills.

This first year seminar will challenge students to critically examine what it means to lead a digital life – personally and academically – and to rethink our understanding of what it means to be mindful, productive, and responsible users of technology.

And, as I have shared with students, those are a precious few minutes together each week in which we are trying to accomplish many goals.

As part of their undergraduate program, the course is helping them think about the social structures that undergird the Internet. What does it mean for us to lead a digital life? What spaces do we interact in, what tools do we use, and how do we represent ourselves with a variety of identities? How can we interrogate our own digital living and learning practices, discover new strategies and tools, and emerge with a better sense of our personal and professional goals as they relate to using technology? In conjunction with their Honors orientation course, my course, too, is aimed at helping them become better readers, writers, and thinkers. We are looking closely at the ACRL Framework for Information Literacy as part of this process.

As a writing intensive course, our goal is to use writing in a variety of ways, for different purposes, and to expand to new audiences. This includes writing-to-learn activities in class (polls, quick writes, guided writing in lessons, exit slips) and they are writing about their research in many informal ways (“writing to explore” essay, “immerse yourself in research” essay). It also includes some atypical forms of academic writing. Rather that producing “typical” final essays for their projects, I am asking them to engage in digital writing or — as Renee Hobbs, author of the textbook we are using, Create to Learn, would say — digital authorship. Engaged in a recursive process of reading, writing, researching, revising, and collaboration, students are producing videos, podcasts, interactive maps, and other forms of multimedia in an effort to think about the affordances and constraints of text, images, video, and other forms of media. I am asking them to move beyond words on the page, and they generally seem to be enjoying that process, though it has not been without some technical frustrations.

We are also exploring the use of microcredentialling in lieu of traditional grading practices. have adapted a “badging pathway” system from a Dr. Stephanie West-Puckett at the University of Rhode Island. We completed our first pathway, the Digital ID Narrative, together in the month of September. In October, they have been working in small groups on their own choice of pathways. I provide them feedback on their writing and work at each “level” of learning, and finally decided on using Badgr (the new for issuing badges using Mozilla’s Open Badge framework). That, too, has been a learning process for the students and for me. As we close in on our first “Teach In,” scheduled to happen next week, and I am looking forward to seeing what they produce and, subsequently, issuing the next round of badges to them.

Lastly, our class meets in one of CMU’s active learning classrooms. Each day, I aim to do something that gets them moving and talking with others outside of their “normal” groups (there is no seating chart). This has been a mix of things as simple as “stand up and find someone from another table to discuss X” to using playing cards to randomize the groups. I’ve been trying to encourage them to use the active learning stations and display their own computer screens while working on projects, but not too many of them are doing that on a regular, non-prompted basis. It is a large space, suited for about 80 students. I am fortunate to teach a small group of 22, but that presents some challenges, too, as the space seems quite spread out and distant for a group that size. Having smaller, more intimate conversations, then, sometimes feels awkward, though having plenty of room to move around and interact is certainly a blessing (compared to other classrooms I have been in on campus).

All of this has led, as with most teaching innovations and changes, to some success and some frustration. On the positive side of the ledger, I have been impressed with the ways that most students oriented their mindset to the pathways and the non-graded aspects of the course. Though I have tried, over the years, a number of different forms of contract grading and self-evaluation, I have not ever thrown grades out completely. And, yes, at the end of the semester will require some accountability, as their work from the many pathways and class activities will accumulate and (through reflection and dialogue with each student), a final grade will emerge. That said, many of them seem interested in the idea of microcredentialling and having the badge as a way to document their learning.

Also, on the positive side, most groups and individual students seem highly engaged with their work right now. Two groups are on the “Maker” pathway and are exploring the relatively inexpensive craft of making tie blankets. This has led them, however, into a much deeper exploration of the textile industry and the ways in which that global marketplace has significant consequences on the lives of millions, especially in third world countries. Another group is exploring their “writing lives,” and have been engaged in a conversations with other faculty about what it means to be a college-level writer. Another Adventurer group is exploring the role of campus myths and legends, creating an interactive story map of CMU’s campus. Other groups are still puzzling through their topics, and we are working to narrow their focus, which (of course) is all part of the process I hope that they would go through.

The blended learning piece will come soon, as the month of November will bring at least one, if not two or maybe even three virtual course sessions. I will have them meet using Zoom video conferencing software, which I imagine will be a new experience for most. During those sessions, I will ask them to engage in small group conversation and use tools for synchronous collaboration, probably starting with something straight-forward like Google Docs. I’m still thinking through exactly what that might look like in the weeks to come.

So, at this midpoint of the semester, how would I evaluate my own performance as a teacher? Probably an A for effort, but a B for execution. I’ve put in the time before and after class to create engaging activities, online and off, and I feel that I have established pretty good relationships with individual students. Also, the activities in class — and the individual learning pathways — have been moving forward in a progressive, scaffolded manner… for most students. And, that’s where the B comes in. I need to figure out a way to make things more focused. Obviously, my approach here is not working for everyone and while I can’t expect that any teaching method will be perfect for every student, I don’t want three or four students to leave the course with a very negative experience, even if the rest of it is positive.

To that end, I am trying to think through what I might do in the month of November to be more focused, as an instructor, and to help my students be more focused, too. Next week, I will have teaching and learning consultants from CMU’s Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning come to observe me teach and, at the end of class, talk with my students and provide a survey for feedback (without me in the room). I am very curious to hear what they are thinking, objectively, about the course and to make appropriate adjustments in the month of November.


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