Faculty Perspectives on the Shift to Virtual Instruction

remote learning book laptop

Recently, Madelyn Collins (Human Biochemical and Psychological Development, College of Staten Island, 2021) interviewed Baruch Associate Professor Steven G. Young (Psychology) about the transition to online learning from a faculty perspective. Additionally, Dr. Young coordinated efforts to assess this transition using psychological research methods.

1. Could you tell me a bit about your role, in general?

I’m an Associate Professor and the Deputy Chair of the Psychology Department. I am also the assessment coordinator for the Department. My main responsibility as Deputy Chair is scheduling classes and staffing them with faculty, plus whatever odds and ends might need taking care of within the Department. As assessment coordinator I’m responsible for measuring how well the Department is meeting learning goals (i.e., are students learning what we want them to learn as Psych majors?). Like nearly all Psych faculty, I also run a research lab and supervise undergraduate and graduate researchers.

Prof Steven Young
dr. steven g. young (psychology)

For more information about Dr. Steven G. Young, visit: https://www.baruch.cuny.edu/wsas/academics/psychology/StevenYoung.htm

2. Could you share some background on how you gathered information from faculty about the shift to virtual instruction?

‘Overall, the department handled the transition well. We surveyed all instructors (graduate students, part-time faculty, and full-time faculty) to gauge how they were delivering course material and interacting with students. For example, we wanted to know how instructors were holding office hours and whether they were delivering lectures synchronously (e.g., everyone logs into zoom for class) or posting materials asynchronously (e.g., recording lectures and posting them to blackboard).Impressively, the response rate was nearly 100%, which speaks well of our faculty; everyone stayed engaged and responsive despite sub-optimal conditions.

3. What were some of the biggest insights you gained from faculty about the transition to virtual instruction? How did they compare with your experience teaching during the shift?

While there was variability in how faculty managed the shift to remote learning, there was near-unanimity that it was a bit harried. I don’t think anyone found teaching remotely to be very satisfying; it seems like students didn’t find the experience all that great either. But I sincerely feel like faculty tried their best. It’s worth noting that some faculty have never taught online before, so the process of transitioning an in-person into a fully online course within a week or so was a genuine challenge. There is no question this was a struggle for some, but I really want to underscore that everyone did their best to maintain the integrity of courses and be sure students were learning the necessary material.My own experience wasn’t really that bad, but I’ve taught fully online classes before so was already familiar with Blackboard’s capabilities (e.g., how to set up message boards, post videos and lectures). The biggest challenge was keeping students engaged and motivated. It’s hard to focus on remote learning when dealing with the various stressors of being stuck at home during a pandemic.Worth noting, the above only applies to faculty that needed to modify their classes. For those already teaching fully online the semester proceeded as planned except for the schedule changes (e.g., the instructional pause and abbreviated spring break).

4. What changes have faculty had to make in the way they structure their classes?

The responses to our survey nicely address this question. The results were interesting and in my view showed that faculty made a good faith effort to adjust to remote instruction. For example, everyone continued to make themselves available during regularly held office hours. Some faculty changed their specific office hours (e.g., shifting them to later or earlier in the day) and many even added additional hours.Most instructors reported holding at least some synchronous meetings. A minority (approximately 20%) shifted to exclusively asynchronous delivery of course content. For those with at least some synchronous meetings, Zoom and Blackboard Collaborate were the most common platforms by far, although a handful of other tools were used as supplements (e.g., Google hangouts).I believe some instructors made changes to their exams or other specific course requirements, although I don’t have conclusive data on this point. There were concerns about academic integrity, especially if anyone was using a test bank to create exams (which can often be found online). Personally, I made my exams open-everything (book, internet, whatever) but wrote my own idiosyncratic questions that can’t be readily Googled. Comparing performance in my class pre- and post-shutdown showed no differences.

5. For research-based classes, how did you and your colleagues move forward?

I think this was the greatest challenge we faced. For example, our Research Methods course is very hands-on and requires a lot of interdependent group work. Students also need access to specific software (e.g., data analysis tools) that are typically available only on campus. Thankfully, the Psychology Department recently started offering fully online versions of Research Methods, so we had something of a template to use and faculty who were able to provide information about how they taught the course online. However, it was still a huge task for faculty teaching Research Methods to shift to online learning – far more than transitioning a more typical lecture class to online.There was also the challenge of completing student research projects more generally (e.g., independent studies, senior theses, etc.). Some psychology research can be moved online but not all, and this created real obstacles for students conducting supervised research. As an anecdote from my lab, one of my students had planned to conduct two experiments as an independent study, but they really needed to be conducted in the lab using particular software. Unfortunately, the semester was interrupted in the middle of this project, so we had to be creative and figure out how to wrap up data collection online.

6. What do you think the model of education for psychology classes will look like moving forward? Do you think some of these changes will be permanent?

Interesting question. Psychology has probably been ahead of the curve in terms of offering online classes. For example, a student could, in theory, complete the entire BA major with online classes (although their elective options might be limited). As a result, we already have the instructor expertise to deliver a lot of material online without negatively affecting educational quality. However, I don’t think anyone is eager to move to an entirely online model of learning. My expectation is that whenever in-person learning resumes we’ll shift back to offering about 75% of classes as in-person or hybrid sections. The most lasting change to come from the shift to remote learning is likely having more faculty willing to at least consider offering courses in non-traditional formats. But I’m hesitant to predict any large scale changes to the major based on the pandemic, per se. However, we’re always monitoring student learning outcomes and are especially interested in student performance in online versus in-person classes, so any future changes to the major will likely be informed by experiences in the Spring and Fall 2020 semesters.

7. What were some unexpected pros to online learning?

Teaching in pajamas was pretty nice.

8. Do you feel that in-person classes are necessary to put both the professor and the student in the right mindset to teach and learn?

Not necessarily. I think carefully designed online courses can be just as effective as in-person classes. However, I do think online learning places a heavier burden on students – at minimum it seems to require the discipline and organization to regularly check in and keep up with online class work. Not to say that in-person courses don’t require these same qualities, but it seems easier to keep up with an in-person class that gets together at appointed times each week.One other thing we’re really interested in as a Psychology Department is the more experiential aspects of remote vs in-person learning (e.g., differences in student motivation, feelings of belonging, rapport with classmates and faculty, etc.). These can all affect learning outcomes and even things like retention and graduation rates. We have an ongoing research project examining this question that began before the pandemic. If there are differences (we don’t know yet) then the next step becomes ways to improve and equate student experiences in online and in-person classes.On the faculty end, losing the energy of an in-person class is difficult. The dynamic back-and-forth that occurs with students actually in the room is rewarding, important, and also notably absent in online classes. This requires an adjustment for instructors – or at least it took me a while to get used to lecturing to my computer rather than a classroom of students.

9. What advice would you give to other faculty who are preparing to teach virtually in the Fall? What advice would you give to CUNY BA students who are getting ready to take virtual classes?

For faculty, I’d offer the following tips: (1) expect to spend more time on your online classes than you would in-person classes. At least in my experience online teaching occurs in a continuous fashion because class never really begins or ends (e.g., it’s not like teaching from 9:05 to 10:20am and then doing other things for the rest of the day) (2) Make yourself as approachable and available as possible to overcome the sense of distance that is inevitable in online classes (3) Try to work some synchronous material into the class if at all possible; e.g., schedule an occasional class-wide meeting so that students get to know each other a little bit (and also get to interact with the professor directly).

For CUNY BA students: (1) you’re probably already an organized and motivated bunch, having designed your own major and all, but try to set fixed times when you’ll be “in class”. For example, even if you’re taking a class without regular synchronous meetings, write out a schedule as if you were in a face-to-face class and make a habit of doing classwork during those times (e.g., watch video lectures, do assigned readings, post on a class message board, etc.). (2) Feel free to reach out to your professors, even for minor issues or questions. Going through the trouble of sending an email or scheduling a zoom meeting can be discouraging, especially for seemingly small issues. However, it is necessary in an online class. So even if your question will take 5 minutes to address, go ahead and log in to Zoom during office hours or take a moment to write an email. You’ll be glad you did and it will also help make the course (and professor) seem more “real”.