Never Going Back: What Online Teaching in the Times of COVID Can Add to Our Teaching Toolkits – Patrick Murphy,
by Mohammad Meerzaei
Turning a language course into a learning community:
Patrick Murphy, Senior Lecturer in Spanish
Patrick Murphy is a senior lecturer at the Department of Spanish and Portuguese. His work is mainly focused on teaching beginner- and intermediate-level Spanish courses. In this interview, Murphy looks back at his journey with online teaching, exploring the experiences that will keep informing his teaching after returning to in-person classes. His experience of online teaching has promising lessons for instructors who seek to increase student agency in a safe and inclusive environment, online or in-person.
For Murphy, the transition to online teaching was not a journey to an unknown land. He used to employ some online teaching tools for years in his classes. Using these tools helped him have a smoother transition to remote teaching. However, the first challenge that he faced in online teaching took more than platforms or apps to overcome. He describes this challenge as an intensified demand for being present with students—providing clearer directions and expectations for students and being more supportive of the students beyond the class hours and the regular office-hour expectations. Facing this challenge has helped him rethink and deepen both his teaching philosophy and his teaching practices.
Murphy found the Center for Teaching’s summer 2020 Online Course Design Institute helped him significantly. “I really, really got a lot of benefit from the backwards design method,” said Murphy, referring to the course design approach taken in the institute that focuses on aligning learning objectives with activities and assessments. “It made me reshape my course completely,” Murphy continued. “I used to just start at the beginning of the textbook and work my way through it, without a whole lot of other guidance.” The backward design approach led Murphy to create learning goals for each unit in his courses. “I had in mind what I wanted the students to be able to do at the end of the semester and built the assessments around those goals,” said Murphy. He completely changed his assessments from written exams to other forms of more authentic assessment. “I said to myself, ‘Here is what I want them to be able to do; how do I need to assess that they can do that?’” Murphy reports that he won’t “ever go back” to his old approach.
A long-time critic of written exams’ efficiency for assessing language acquisition, Murphy found an opportunity in the spring 2020 shift to remote teaching. His shift away from exams (and the challenging of online proctoring) includes assessment of student writing skills in the form of writing compositions written in response to a prompt, as well as new assessments of student speaking skills. With the help of Flipgrid (a discussion forum that emphasizes video prompts and responses), Murphy evaluates his students’ speaking proficiency on a daily or weekly basis. He also takes advantage of the ability to record Zoom sessions to help him assess his students’ interpersonal speaking.
As an online teaching and learning tool, Flipgrid has also helped Murphy to create a more inclusive environment in his class, particularly with regard to evaluating speaking skills in students who are not always comfortable speaking in front of others. Instead having students put on the spot to demonstrate their speaking proficiency for a grade, his students get to practice and record their speaking, at their ease and discretion, and deliver it as their class work through Flipgrid. “They are very skilled and able to speak and use the language,” Murphy said. “They just need a different modality to present themselves, and I found that to be very useful for them.”
The sense of interpersonal connection is an essential constituent of a lively conversation in a classroom. The need for such connection is particularly intensified in a language course. However, this element is one of the easiest ones to lose in an online language class, in ways that discussion board activities alone cannot make up. Murphy has employed a combination of different techniques and tools to overcome this challenge and, indeed, turn his class into a learning community. “I did find the discussion boards and small writing samples to be useful,” said Murphy, “as I was able to connect it to some other skill. For example, I would give my students a topic to discuss on the discussion board on the asynchronous Friday. Then on the asynchronous Monday, they would have to go to the discussion board, read the discussion posts of a classmate and then go to our speaking platform, on Flipgrid, and talk about what they read. So, they were not just replying to discussion posts all the time. I really found that to be beneficial for our asynchronous connections.” Murphy also made use Twitter, which allowed students another place for connection with each other. “I would give them a Twitter assignment,” said Murphy, “and they can write a pretty short [response]. They would tweet about a given topic, and then I could easily see it on my phone. We can reply to each other using the different hashtags that we would create. It was really easy for them to interact and connect and I think they enjoyed that, too.”
Through his journey with online teaching, including the use of backward design, rethinking learning evaluations, or ways of increasing inclusivity in his courses, Murphy has gained an invaluable set of insights that can serve any instructor to make their class a more inviting learning environment.