The 2020 Instruction Mirage

Recently, I’ve become victim to email reminders of the 2020/2021 academic year. OU’s main video repository system, MyMedia, has a two-year retention system. If a video has received no views for two years, then you are notified that it is up for auto deletion.

This means that my classroom recordings for the Spring 2021 semester are now up for deletion. Like a mirage, it’s all slowly disappearing.

For this specific semester, OU was still in a low-density teaching model. For large lecture classes like the one I was teaching, Intro to Ad, this meant that only 40 students were allowed in a room that had more than 200 seats. For the Fall, we had capped enrollment at 80 and split students in to multiple sections with two separate instructors. The original plan was three sections but I was able to successfully get them to allow me to teach one of the sections fully online.

For Spring 2021, we had decided to do an alternating hybrid model where I would teach both face-to-face sections, but one class would join remotely during the scheduled Monday meeting and the other on Wednesday. By the end of Spring 2021, I had taught Intro to Ad four different ways: remote pivot, in person with Zoom available, fully online, and now hybrid. Indeed, hybrid the most difficult for all to navigate. Things like group projects, campus holidays, and regularly scheduled exams, peak pandemic/early days vaccinations, coupled with alternating attendance days left students confused on when exactly they were supposed to come.

But we did it and we all learned. As this semester wraps up, I’m starting to say goodbyes to many of the students who were in these classes as they are now graduating.

All of this reminded me that at the end of the 2021, all faculty were instructed that are annual evaluation would be slightly different. That we would be given a bit of leniency for the-year-that-was. In lieu of turning in a usual standard set of numbers from evaluations, we were asked to write a narrative about how the pandemic impacted our work.

For 2020, spring and summer student evaluations of teaching should not be incorporated into the evaluation process; other sources of information such as faculty narratives; portfolios including syllabi, assignments, and assessments; Canvas pages; and peer reviews should be considered as alternate ways of assessing teaching performance Source

As I was preparing to write it, I was trying to find ways that I could articulate the effort that was put into all of the different versions of classes I taught in 2020 and 2021. Soon I realized that, for the first time, I did actually have some quantitative data, via MyMedia, that could partially answer answer that question. I decided that I would submit My Media numbers, along with Canvas data, in order to deliver some data on what I had done that year. The final product looked like this:

In Spring 2020, when we pivoted to remote instruction/learning halfway through the semester, I took two different approaches. For Intro, my lecture-based class, I recorded the chunked the lectures and gave them weekly online asynchronous modules with discussion activities and self-check assessments. For Contemporary Problems, it was a straight pivot to Zoom.

For the Summer, I developed a completely new course as a means to offer credit to students who originally were going to be studying abroad and still needed to credit to graduate on time. In hindsight, the course was a ton of fun, and I think a great addition to the curriculum despite only being offered once (I blogged about it here). I recorded a small number of videos that mainly introduced the simulation game they completed over the month. We also had Zoom meetings merely as a means of connection.

Fall 2020 was easily the most difficult semester I’ve ever taught. I took the Spring 2020 material that I had created for the back half of semester and built out a complementary front half. This allowed me to offer a fully asynchronous version of the course, which the students really enjoyed. The other two classes were required to be taught on campus as the university had announced that 86% of classes would be in person in the Fall. We were also requested to “consider flexibility in policies regarding attendance, late work submission, and make-up assessments in the case of illness, isolation, or extenuating circumstances.” As a result, Intro to Ad was very poorly attended and engagement was very low. Yes, as it were, I did teach to an empty 300 person auditorium a couple times with the students “zooming in.” I want to be explicit in saying that I place very little blame on students here for lack of motivation. It was equally difficult for all involved parties. Between the pandemic, ice storms leading to Cleveland County being declared a state of emergency, and a Presidential election, we all had “reasons.”

The other class I was teaching, PR Publications, was also very difficult. I was teaching in a computer lab. This class relies on access to Adobe Creative Cloud, and while Adobe had “generously” given our students free access to the tools during the Spring they quickly turned those off. Our college IT team had come up with a clever way for students to remotely access available lab computers, but Adobe found out about the plan and promptly told us that our license agreement didn’t allow for that. The plan was quickly nixed and we were told to teach in the computer labs. Because the computer labs couldn’t allow for proper social distancing, the solution was to require students to wear safety goggles in addition to masks.

The toughest part was that students were often out for illness and the work wasn’t able to be made up outside of class. I’ve always said that skills-based classes such as PR Pubs really require the seat time. I don’t necessary mean in class, but merely that practice is imperative. For the “reps”, many students struggled to lay the foundational skills that we often build upon later in the semester and, in the end, we had to cut a project or two.

But back to the data. For 2020, I am able to account for nearly 700 hours of time which was spent across recorded lectures, Zoom classes, and Canvas. Of course, this does not account for the time spent preparing any of the materials or the many times I flubbed a recorded video and opted to re-record it. But, nevertheless, for whatever its worth, I have evidence that teaching did persist in 2020.

I’m just now at the point where I’m publicly comfortable sharing the stories from teaching in 2020. Part of persisting was smiling through the pain and continuing to remind students that we are in this together. On the blog, I wrote very little about my teaching strategies, which is uncommon. But at the time I didn’t feel the world needed any more shouting into the void. Yes, these are still difficult stories to share, but I believe important ones to share regardless.

And there were a few positive outcomes for students. For example, I still give students access to the videos I recorded as study materials. But much was just scrapped too including two fully online courses that were only offered a single time.

It’s been a tough journey, but looking at the hours of activity, I can say that I did my best to keep my students engaged and learning amidst the chaos. And, as I watch my classroom recordings go, it’s a reminder that we move forward.

Featured image: Photo by Ryan Cheng on Unsplash