Empathy, community, engagement: Lessons in remote teaching from award-winning MIT SHASS faculty

MIT Open Learning
Dec 2, 2020 · 8 min read

“​What we do matters; our attitude matters; our enthusiasm and care matters. As teachers and parents, we should realize that despite the many constraints that are imposed by the virtual classroom setting, we can foster the sense of community and shared learning. My main advice is to show empathy and support, while also keeping the learning process exciting — to maintain a sense of wonder about things we teach and learn.” — Maria Khotimsky

When schools across the US rapidly shifted to remote learning at the outset of the Covid-19 pandemic this spring, teachers at all levels did their best to provide students with support, resources, and education — with very limited time, training, or planning to help their efforts. Now, well into the fall semester, educators have had more time to plan, learn, reflect, and adapt their teaching styles to the virtual classroom. Here, four professors from MIT’s School of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences (SHASS), all recipients of the 2020 Teaching With Digital Technology Awards, offer their insights and advice on teaching online.

Marah Gubar, associate professor of Literature
My goal was to try to preserve and potentially even deepen the sense of intellectual community that we had already begun to establish in the classroom, by continuing to lead lively discussions about course material in the Zoomroom. I also wanted to adapt the course material we were discussing to our new circumstances, with input from the students. Since we had to cut a week of material, my students and I discussed in our last in-person class what material they really wanted to cover, and what they wouldn’t mind missing. I got rid of a really long children’s novel we were going to read in my children’s literature class and replaced it with a selection of shorter texts more geared to their interests and the current sociopolitical moment (e.g. adding an excerpt from a children’s story by an indigenous author). One lovely thing that happened was that some students in my Children’s Literature class really wanted to read the long novel that we had collectively decided we needed to cut. So they asked me if I would run some extra optional Zoom class meetings on that novel after term ended, in the summer. I was so delighted they wanted to keep reading and discussing literature in their free time that of course I said yes! We had a blast.

Maria Khotimsky, senior lecturer in Global Languages
The spring semester showed us that some activities that we are so used to doing in the classroom just simply do not work in the online format due to technical constraints and the nature of the medium. It also taught us the importance of fostering the sense of community among students, and maintaining connection between our classes and what is going on in the world. A list of lessons from the spring:

  • Asking for students’ advice on the class pace and activity types, both through surveys and informal in-class reflections
  • Planning each lesson carefully, acknowledging time and technology constraints, selecting essential materials and exercises
  • Keeping a predictable class rhythm, but also adding variety through games and interactive tasks, and maintaining a balance between large group and small group activities during Zoom class sessions
  • Allowing more opportunities for individual connections through one-on-one meetings with the students, peer-to-peer conversations, and video discussions that foster questions and responses
  • Creating opportunities to connect what we learn in class to our daily lives; encouraging students to reflect and share their thoughts and emotions
  • Engaging in more cultural exploration, adding more visual elements, using the virtual setting to our advantage in creating an immersive experience

Isadora Nicholas, lecturer in Global Languages
The Spring semester had many downsides — not least of which were the different time zones, the difficulty and exhaustion of being on Zoom, and ensuring equitable access for all. Not everyone has the same access to technology, internet connection or the same home environment. To improve the quality of my teaching, I went back to school! I registered for an online course over the summer to learn how to design a thoughtful course on Canvas. After much research, I decided that my courses this Fall would be entirely online with what I call a sprinkle of optional synchronous activities. This means that students complete the majority of the work independently and autonomously online through Canvas on a weekly basis. In addition to regular weekly office hours, I hold informal and OPTIONAL “Coffee half hours” twice or three times a week on Zoom for each class where no video is required. These get-togethers have been incredibly successful! Students come because they want to learn and want to be connected.

Marah Gubar
I realized I have a harder time keeping track of who wants to talk in the Zoomroom than I do in a physical classroom. So I’ve had the students in my bigger discussion class sign up to serve as “Zoommeister”: each meeting, one of them leads the class in a quick icebreaker activity and then they help keep track of who has something to say by keeping a running list of who has raised their hand to speak in the Chat, so people don’t have to keep their hands up. Having a student do the icebreaker makes it possible for me to take attendance, plus they are way more creative and good at technology than I am! So they’ve done various polls, word cloud activities, you name it — which I would never have done! I also decided to use a Canvas discussion board with that class so that I could get a sense of which topics were interesting to them before class started — and I’m so glad I did, because some of the quieter students post amazing things on the discussion board and then I can ask them to share those thoughts in the discussion (when otherwise they might have stayed silent). It seems to me like Zoom raises a bit of a bar in terms of making people less likely to talk than they are in person, and so having the discussion board to draw on helps me fight back against that.

Graham Jones, associate professor of Anthropology
Typically, I try to make a lot of connections between the material I’m teaching and the world around us. Pre-recording lectures gave me an opportunity to really engage creatively with multimedia sources, incorporating current events, internet memes, and music videos directly into my teaching, while also giving the class a glimpse of my personal experience of quarantining at home with my kids.

Isadora Nicholas
Using technology is one aspect of teaching but, in my opinion, it’s not the most important. I don’t think of myself as particularly tech savvy. Even online, the human aspect remains the same. We should be flexible and understanding. Students know if you care and if you love your job. That still translates online. The key is to handhold them through all the steps. I do that by putting myself in their place: What would I need to know (whether it’s content or technology) for me to complete this assignment to work successfully? It takes a lot of time to think through all these steps. You have to be ok with failure as not everything will be successful. Learn and adapt.

When it comes to being online, I think it’s important to create a safe, equitable, and transparent learning environment and to encourage a sense of community to stimulate students’ empowerment and learning.

Safety: A sense of safety is a baseline for learning — especially online. For some, being on Zoom or on camera might be a no brainer. For others, being forced to have your camera or mic on might be accompanied by a variety of stressful variables. It’s important to remember everyone is impacted differently by this global pandemic. Creating a safe and welcoming classroom environment benefits everyone. I communicate with students that I will always respect their privacy and they should respect their peers’ privacy. They are not required or expected to disclose personal information, it is their choice. In addition, there are clear guidelines for students to follow in class discussions to ensure everyone is safe. I encourage students to report any concerning incidents in or outside of class to me.

Emphasize the importance of self-care. I explain to students that self-care describes a conscious act one takes in order to promote their own physical, mental, and emotional health and regularly encourage students to practice self-care. I send them ideas and inspiration for self-care, remind them they are not alone, and encourage them to reach out to me or someone they trust and provide all the resources necessary.

Fostering a sense of community. Feeling like you belong to a community online can be challenging. It’s critical that students know you are there on a consistent basis. I work towards making sure we stay connected by quickly (almost immediately) commenting on their work, checking in on them, or by sending class announcements. The downside for students is that they are receiving so many emails as it is, it can feel overwhelming to them. It’s good to make a list and limit class announcements to twice a week.

Adapting. I have to be ready to change and tweak things. I sent out surveys at the beginning of the semester to gauge their interests and learn what issues could prevent them from succeeding in class. I send out anonymous surveys to get their feedback on a module, an assignment, the time they spent on it, how it could be modified and improved, etc. These surveys are incredibly useful and allow me to adapt for the next module.

Graham Jones
I worry that the effort to uphold business as usual, to valiantly persevere in the face of adversity, may be distracting us from the catastrophic human toll of the pandemic. Try to make space to experience difficult emotions (grief, fear, exhaustion, rage, loneliness…) and to focus on the social problems the pandemic has laid bare. We need to keep reminding ourselves that we cannot afford to simply continue with the pre-pandemic status quo.

MIT Open Learning

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