Today I did a CELT workshop on what I’ve learned about online teaching at Friedman so far, in a series for faculty to share experiences and lessons learned for the coming year. We had 49 participants from all parts of the university. By coincidence, that’s the same size as my Spring class, so we were able to practice the same engagement tools as I used with students last semester. Here’s a quick summary:

The story begins with my pre-COVID teaching methods. I’ve now taught introductory classes on food economics for about 30 years in various settings, the main lesson from which has been the astonishing power of a traditional lecture. I have seen a few great teachers in my life. A skillful lecture is a magical thing, and I try my best every time. The background slides below illustrate some aspects of how I ran the class until COVID arrived.

For remote teaching, my main adaptation has been to sharply reduce time devoted to verbal Q&A during the lecture, and replace it with Zoom tools that elicit much more frequent participation from everyone each day.

The first kind of active learning that we do more often with Zoom is through clicks on instant polls, some prepared ahead of time using PollEverywhere or Zoom’s own multiple-choice questions, but also a lot of planned or improvised Yes/No questions. Some of my yes/no questions are about peoples’ backgrounds and situations (e.g. “have you ever worked on a farm?”) but most are about class content (e.g. “has total calorie consumption per person in the U.S. risen over the past decade?”). .

My yes/no questions about students’ backgrounds and interests are primarily to ensure that the students and me all know where we’re coming from, and that all students feel recognized as valued members of the class. The purpose of the factual questions is for students to practice making errors and fixing them. Many smart people find mistakes so unpleasant that they don’t learn very much. The factual yes/no questions give every student a safe way to practice being wrong, and fixing their mistakes with speed and self-confidence.

Formulating questions so they have yes/no answers can be tricky. I wish Zoom offered a third option, and some faculty use the open hand to mean ‘don’t know’ or some other choice. For maximum flexibility, however, the huge new kind of active learning that Zoom allows is use of the chat box. The slide below explains what I’ve learned about texting in class. During the CELT workshop, faculty participants filled the chat box with great ideas and suggestions from which I learned a lot — demonstrating that faculty, just like students, can type way more than they can say.

The third new active-learning technique allowed by Zoom that we discussed in the workshop is quick formation of small breakout groups For example, with just a few clicks I can divide the class into random pairs or trios, and give them a few minutes to develop a list of examples or possible solutions to a problem. I think it’s particularly helpful to have breakout group participants all type something in the chat box afterwards, instead of having just one rapporteur summarize what everyone said.

My conclusions for the CELT workshop are summarized in the slide below. We’ll be talking about these ideas a lot over the coming months, and I expect to learn a lot more next year about what really works best.


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