Never Going Back: What Online Teaching in the Times of COVID Can Add to Our Teaching Toolkits – Mark Schoenfield
by Mohammad Meerzaei
A Pedagogic Asset Created:
Dr. Mark Schoenfield, Professor of English
Dr. Mark Schoenfield is a professor of English and a recipient of the Jeffrey Nordhaus Award for Excellence in Undergraduate Teaching in Humanities. His transition to online teaching meant rethinking his method of course design, building new creative assignments, and engaging more deeply in issues of diversity in his teaching.
“Maman must have felt free then and ready to live it all again.”
Albert Camus, The Stranger
The COVID-19 pandemic found Dr. Mark Schoenfield planning for a fall semester in which he was teaching two courses on existential literature, a first-year writing seminar and an honors seminar. Schoenfield saw connections between his course topic and the experience of moving online, noting, “It was not so much about the transition to online teaching as it was about overcoming the anxiety of the students and my own, and engaging new forms of mediation. Existentialism had a useful terminology for thinking through this process.”
Schoenfield worried that teaching existential literature in online classes would be less engaging than the lively in-class discussions he was used to in the classroom. This motivated Schoenfield that create lecture videos for students to watch asynchronously that were more than just lecture videos. Producing these videos with various special effects and cartoons took much more time than recording lectures, but Schoenfield found the time and work spent worthwhile. “Who knows when I look at them again whether I will think the same,” he said, “but one idea is that I can reuse them for face-to-face classes and, eventually, I will get some of that time back.” Schoenfield found these videos helpful to have students watch before class, so they were ready to spend their class time on Zoom in deeper discussion.
Schoenfield’s enhanced lecture videos were just one outcome of his work last summer redesigning his courses. Schoenfield was familiar with the backward course design approach the Center for Teaching recommends from his previous interactions with the CFT. Participating in the CFT’s Online Course Design Institute, however, led him to rethink his use of backward course design and plan it with a more laser focus on the key points of the course. He considered the planning he had done for a weekend high school course on existentialism he once taught. “I said to myself,” recalls Schoenfield, “‘Let’s imagine that is what you are teaching—just a weekend. What would matter most? The online course is a weekend course and the next 14 weeks clarifying and enriching those crucial goals. Then, here is what I need to do.’” He translated these goals into a sequence of seven modules for his course, each with specific learning goals. “Students are to come away at the end of this module,” continued Schoenfield, “knowing this concept, practicing this skill, discovering their own analysis around this topic, and so on. That focus on what the module is going to get done is something I think I am going to keep with” when classes return to normal.
Teaching online benefitted from educational technologies, and Schoenfield found himself using technologies both new and familiar. He feels more capable using Brightspace now, and he has developed more creative, media-rich assignments for students. For example, he had his students use WeVideo (an online, cloud-based video editor) to create video narratives with existentialist content. Schoenfield had used WeVideo himself in years past, as part of digital storytelling projects. This fall, he helped his students use the tool through a series of five production workshops throughout the semester done via Zoom. The outcome was empowering. “While we could not watch the videos together with the spontaneous applause and celebratory popcorn I would have liked,” said Schoenfield, “but with the brief comments spoken from the little Zoom boxes during the discussion afterwards and the applause coming from colleagues via chat and silent clapping, I think the students felt the affirmation from their fellow students for what they accomplished.”
The less robust interpersonal communication is a downside of online teaching Schoenfield didn’t think he overcame. Schoenfield would agree with teachers who say that discussion board posts cannot replace the lively discussions in the classrooms, although he was very impressed by the performance of his students in their discussion posts. However, he learned a new method for text-based class discussions through the CFT that he will keep using in his future in-person courses: the social annotation tool Perusall. “I was very suspicious of it [at first],” said Schoenfield. Still, he assigned students to use it to read and annotate a text as a group, leave comments, and respond to others’ comments. “They get little boxes for their comments,” said Schoenfield, “so the comments are shorter than the discussion board and focused at specific moments in the text. And it worked, in creating back-and-forth discussion among the students. And that did not seem overwhelming, provided the text was short enough. So I wouldn’t use it for a whole novel, but a chapter or two, early in the reading.”
Beyond his refinement of learning objectives and adoption of new technologies, Schoenfield said that the move online had an impact on the social side of his teaching, too. He believes that online courses have opened many educators’ eyes to aspects of the issue of diversity, especially coming at this moment of confluence with COVID-19 policy and conflict-filled politics. That some students had difficulties finding reliable internet connections or digital devices speaks to the importance of social and economic equity. Such issues, Schoenfield remarked, translate into the privileges (and lack thereof) that instructors need to consider in their classrooms, such as the privilege to speak one’s mind confidently—on Zoom or in the classroom.
This period of sudden transition into online teaching, despite its difficulties and anxieties, has created a set of pedagogical assets for Schoenfield on various levels: from a reliable set of educational videos to insights into social aspects of teaching. “One thing that I liked about the online teaching in this time of crisis,” he said, “was that the so-called natural hierarchy of teaching was completely disrupted. You had people coming just out of grad school, or even still in it, way more ready to go.” Schoenfield is a senior faculty member, but he found himself learning along with junior colleagues in ways that will continue to influence his teaching for years to come.