Teaching with a tech twist

Faculty and students up their game as learning continues mostly online during the fall semester.

In addition to giving weekly live virtual lectures, Christine White records 10-minute sessions using two cameras, one on her face and the other, inset on the screen, on a whiteboard where she writes out math challenges. The sessions are uploaded to YouTube for students to watch at their leisure.

Photo: Courtesy of Christine White

Cal Lutheran is a changed campus in the age of COVID-19. In the first week of fall classes, normally bustling Regals Way was empty at noon, a lone gardener clipping rose bushes. Meanwhile in hundreds of dorm rooms and thousands of home offices, the business of delivering a Cal Lutheran education was moving forward online.

Adjunct mathematics faculty member Christine White found that the basics of pedagogy still apply in Learning 2.0 — but with a tech twist. Like many professors, she took part in emergency training sessions offered by the university’s Center for Teaching and Learning after the spring shutdown and limped along with Zoom lectures from home.

By the start of the fall term she had upped her game. Students now participate in a weekly live Zoom lecture and, at their leisure, watch another one that is uploaded in 10-minute increments to YouTube. Sessions are recorded with two cameras, one on White’s face and the other, inset on the screen, on a whiteboard where she writes out math challenges.

During the Zoom sessions, students break out into groups of two or three to work out math problems. They are encouraged to continue the discussion offline. White tests knowledge with nonproctored quizzes and by requiring students to share personal videos in which they explain how they solved an assignment.

She also requires students to post a weekly “reflection” to a private Blackboard discussion board so she can monitor progress. And she tells students she is always a text or email away to answer questions — even late at night.

“It doesn’t take a lot of my time and it’s huge for them to get feedback when they need it,’’ she said.

White credits Mirwais Azizi, Cal Lutheran’s director of digital learning, and his staff at the Center for Teaching and Learning with helping her get up to speed not only on technology but also best practices for virtual instruction. Since spring, Azizi’s team has held 380 training sessions with more on tap. He says the biggest challenge for instructors is avoiding Zoom burnout.

“It’s not so much about how to use Zoom, but focusing on how to be an effective instructor utilizing technology,” he said. “How can certain technologies enhance learning?”

White said she was “nervous as all get out” over the summer. “I’d never taken an online class much less taught one,’’ she said. “But all those ideas of discussion boards, personal videos, using the live community — all of that came from Mirwais’ team.”

Joshua Finkel, senior adjunct theater arts faculty member, uses a program called VoiceThread for his Beginning Acting class. Students post short videos of themselves performing acting exercises. “While they’re in this emotion, they record and submit this video, and then I send it back with comments,’’ he said. “It’s almost like Snapchat.”

To cut down on screen time, Finkel records one lecture and uses his live Zoom class for more interactive instruction. While he says there’s no substitution for in-person classes, especially in the dramatic arts, technology is helping him reach his students in a way that is safe for everyone.

“It’s a lot of build for me, but it ultimately allows the class to be on its feet and re-create the fun of acting class in their living room or kitchen,’’ he said.

Azizi said it can be hard for some faculty members to break out of teaching methods that have worked well for decades. But creativity pays when trying to keep the attention of a generation raised on social media, he said.

While most classes started virtually, nine began the semester in open-air classrooms set up under tents on the Thousand Oaks campus. The spaces — equipped with Wi-Fi, power strips and lighting — doubled as study halls for students. Several science faculty members became the first to teach inside the new $34 million Swenson Science Center, delivering live and recorded demonstrations in anatomy, biology, chemistry and exercise science to students participating remotely. Ventura County’s move into a less restrictive tier in October prompted at least a dozen faculty members to take advantage of the opportunity to switch their remaining fall classes to meeting indoors at 25% of room capacity.

Undergrad Lindsey Weller and her roommate Lauren DeRosa, both 18, two of about 380 undergraduates in residence for the fall term, took a break from virtual classes during the first week to eat some lunch on campus. They sat six feet apart from each other and had their masks ready to wear.

Zoom classes “are not as horrible as I thought it would be,’’ said Weller, a Los Angeles theater arts and dance major who looks forward to the day she can perform with classmates. “It’s not ideal, but all of my teachers are trying to make it interactive as possible.”

Both women said they enjoyed breaking out into smaller groups during live Zoom classes and also using the chat room to get to know other students. “It’s OK,” said DeRosa, a communication major from Gilroy, California. “I’ve just got to get through this — it isn’t forever.”

Catherine “Kay” Saillant is a veteran Southern California journalist. She reported for the Los Angeles Times for more than 16 years, including the high-profile beat of Los Angeles City Hall reporter. During her years at the Times, she covered higher education in Ventura County. Before that she was the county beat reporter for the Ventura County Star. Kay is a Newbury Park resident and freelance journalist, contributing regularly to Central Coast Farm & Ranch, the publication of the Farm Bureaus of Ventura and Santa Barbara counties.

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