Championing Faculty

Coming Together From a Distance

05/11/2020  |  By Karin J. Keith
COLLEGE SPOTLIGHT
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One Friday morning in early January I arrived at my university office expecting to smell coffee brewing and faculty chatting as they trickled in for a faculty meeting arranged by a program coordinator for the master’s program. Instead, the corridors were empty, and the only offices occupied were mine and the executive aides. I learned that due to impending weather for faculty who lived over an hour away from campus, faculty decided to move the meeting to an online gathering via Zoom and to use the collaborative platform Microsoft Teams. Our university had just purchased an institutional subscription to Zoom and recently moved to Microsoft Outlook which also gave faculty access to Microsoft Teams.

After learning how seamless this move to online instruction occurred, faculty in our college were poised to provide a training session on how to effectively use Zoom and Microsoft Teams to engage in effective online instruction.

As a result, faculty were eager to see how these tools could fit within their instruction and saw the faculty meeting as a safe zone for becoming more accustomed to these tools. I’ll admit, I was a bit disappointed because I love face-to-face meetings where individuals bounce ideas off each other, collectively come up with something that is better than what each could come up with alone. I also feared they would not get the curriculum proposals accomplished in a timely manner via Zoom or Microsoft Teams. Still yet, I participated in these virtual meetings and much to my surprise we were able to brainstorm ideas about specific courses needed, delegate tasks to various faculty members, collaborate on curriculum design and work out a time-line to deliver the curriculum to the college curriculum committee before the deadline for the fall catalog.

I did not see it then, but these meetings were a turning point for me and for faculty in the face of the quick move to online instruction due to Covid-19. As a result of freeing faculty to meet regularly via Zoom, they experienced additional time that would have normally been spent traveling to the office which allowed them to be more accountable for the tasks they knew they had to complete within the established timeline. As department chair, my role became something more akin to project manager while also allowing me to collaborate with faculty while they held the autonomy to creatively use their expertise to design online curriculum that students would be excited about. Prior to these experiences, faculty in our college were accustomed to delivering high quality, interactive, online instruction, but the meetings via Zoom and the use of Microsoft Teams allowed everyone to gain a level of comfort with a new technology that allowed them to reimagine online instruction, to lead the university in the quick and dramatic move to online instruction, and to advocate for faculty who asked to engage in remote work and students who asked for engaging online instruction. Faculty began to take a second look at their online instruction to ask, what does a quality online degree look like and what are the advantages of using various interactive platforms like Zoom and Microsoft Teams?

The first time I witnessed the shift with students involved a voluntary boot-camp meeting where students participated to work toward a culminating activity for degree completion. Normally, students come to campus where the faculty member puts students in groups of three where they read each other’s work and provide feedback on their documents and then work independently to incorporate that feedback to improve their final project. The faculty leading this activity is available to provide resources, answer student questions, and keep students on-task so that they use their time efficiently. In the move to a virtual boot-camp, the faculty in charge sent out the Zoom meeting invite. Once students logged on, she placed students in virtual break-out rooms and provided a checklist of tasks they were to accomplish throughout the day. Students used Microsoft Teams to share their documents and provide feedback in real-time that each student could consider. If students had questions, they could leave their breakout room and enter the instructor’s room for individual attention. Additionally, graduate assistants rotated through breakout rooms to answer students’ questions. If the graduate assistants observed collective questions, they could use the chat feature in Microsoft Teams which archived their discussion and allowed students to continue working at their own pace to complete the tasks of the day. At the end of the day, the whole class met together, and the faculty member was able to debrief the day and leave students with final tips as they worked to complete their culminating projects.

After learning how seamless this move to online instruction occurred, faculty in our college were poised to provide a training session on how to effectively use Zoom and Microsoft Teams to engage in effective online instruction. Until this point, faculty had used Zoom to confer with individual students and for dissertation defense meetings when students lived three or more hours from campus. The quick move to online instruction during the Covid-19 episode left many faculties who were not accustomed to engaging in online instruction feeling vulnerable about their ability to deliver quality, collaborative instruction. Faculty in our college stepped up to the plate to help others in the college consider design elements that allowed for excellence in online instruction, including synchronous communication with students that included student breakout rooms for differentiated student collaboration. This aligns with research by Ward, Peters, and Shelley (2010) that shows students prefer online courses to have synchronous communication as opposed to depending on asynchronous communication. However, faculty also knew they needed to accommodate faculty and students’ need for flexibility. As a result, faculty provided a recorded online tutorial about how to use Zoom and Microsoft Teams so that faculty and students could learn more about these interactive online tools at their own convenience which research shows is one of the cornerstones of online learning (Karkar-Esperat, 2018).

The final lesson learned in the move to online instruction via Zoom and Microsoft Teams includes leadership’s ability to advocate for faculty and students’ needs including more remote meetings and more engaging online instruction. As a department chair, I was initially concerned about meetings that did not include face-to-face meetings on campus. My participation in the Zoom and Microsoft Teams platforms allowed me to witness first-hand how these tools allowed faculty to work collaboratively in an engaged manner. Later, I was able to advocate for effective faculty use of Zoom and Microsoft Teams with college administration.

As a noun, an advocate is a person who publicly supports or recommends a cause or policy. I fully advocate faculty’s use of Zoom and Microsoft Teams because these tools have made a difference not only in faculty productivity, but also students’ interest in online platforms that facilitate their own learning and the learning of the students currently in their own classrooms. Faculty in our college readily accepted the challenge to move their students’ learning to online, and students in their master’s programs were also confident in their ability to move the learning of their students to online platforms as a result of the work our college had done to facilitate effective and collaborative learning at the faculty level. This type of learning not only benefitted the learning of faculty and students but also established a level of collegiality and trust to get the necessary work done to move our work into the future.

Karin J. Keith, Ph.D. is an Associate Professor and Chair in the Department of Curriculum and Instruction in Clemmer College at East Tennessee State University. Dr. Keith holds a Ph.D. in Language and Literacy Education from the University of South Carolina. Dr. Keith coordinates the online Master of Education in Reading program. She led the Master of Education in Reading to receive national recognition from the International Literacy Association. She has published in such journals as The Reading Teacher, The Librarian, and The Journal of Teacher Education.
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