Even with decades of teaching experience, English Professor Denisa Chatman-Riley clings to the axiom that learning never stops.
So when an opportunity to participate in professional development programs for faculty members teaching online classes came up over the summer, Chatman-Riley signed up to be a participant in one and a serve as a facilitator in another.
“I like to stay up on my pedagogy and stay up on the latest trends,” she said.
Virtual modes of teaching aren’t new, but the COVID-19 pandemic forced Cal Poly Pomona and other CSU campuses to switch to remote instruction in a matter of days in spring semester, with little time for faculty to prepare.
To prepare for a virtual 2020-21 academic year, the campus’ Center for the Advancement of Faculty Excellence (CAFE) invited faculty and instructors to take a six-week session on how to design remote courses to enhance the learning experience and increase student engagement.
Besides the courses CAFE created, there were additional professional development programs offered through the Association of College and University Educators (ACUE) and the CSU Chancellor’s Office.
About 1,300 faculty members and instructors participated in CAFE’s summer sessions, and some completed more than one program, said Victoria Bhavsar, director of CAFE. Participants received a stipend or professional development funds, supported by the federal CARES Act, to support their completion of the program.
Bhavsar lauded the commitment and dedication of the participants.
“I am really proud of our faculty,” she said. “A lot of faculty had good online skills, but there were faculty who never saw themselves in a remote teaching situation. They are doing the summer session because they are taking hold of it and saying, ‘I am going to be good at this.’ It takes a lot of energy.”
While CAFE provided the framework and content for the sessions, the courses were led by peers. The cohorts were set up in groups of about 40, with a faculty member leading each group. The cohorts also included an instructional designer with expertise on how to design an effective online course and a student assistant who provided feedback, Bhavsar said.
Visiting instructional expert Ian Lubin provided resources dedicated to large classes, which at Cal Poly Pomona are those with more than 72 students.
“My personal hope is that faculty have a much more satisfying fall semester than they had a spring semester,” Bhavsar said. “I want them to have really good tools they can use to give a better experience to their students, which will lead to a better experience for themselves. No one is expecting perfect classes, but we want them to have a calmer, more intentional way of conducting their classes.”
Chatman-Riley, who has been at Cal Poly Pomona since 2006, served as one of the cohort facilitators for the remote course design session, leading a group of 41. Even though her courses are typically face-to-face, Chatman-Riley has taught online before and shared best practices in using Blackboard for students to submit their papers and assignments.
As a facilitator, she worked with participants in her cohort to set up a list of deliverables for what they hoped to get done by the end of the course, set up optional ZOOM meetings with them for extra feedback and discussion on virtual instruction and how to engage students, and worked with the members of the group on using visual aids and making videos.
Remote learning is the way education is going, and the university should try to adapt to that as much as possible, she said.
“Technology is not going anywhere,” she said. “Higher education shouldn’t be elitist. It shouldn’t be for the select few. Having more access to education is the only way people are going to be changed by it. Digital is the way. If we want a better world with more equity and equality, this is something we should be doing.”
Other topics addressed in her cohort included updating Blackboard sites and hosting discussions on equity and accessibility.
“The biggest hurdle was accessibility,” she said. “A lot of them had documents they had been using for a long time but didn’t translate over as accessible. A lot of faculty just weren’t using technology.”
Besides serving as a facilitator, Chatman-Riley also participated in the ACUE microcredential on promoting active learning online. That course was for faculty who are more experienced with online tools and remote teaching, she said. The course provided additional resources to help faculty members build on what they have already created for their remote courses, enabling Chatman-Riley to craft lesson and implementation plans for her fall classes.
She has always broken students up into groups in her classes but had never thought of creating specific roles in the group, such as manager or recorder, before the ACUE training, she said. The course also covered the importance of notetaking in a way in which the notes can be maximized.
“The training gave me a lot of pointers, resources and new ways to do things, so it was awesome,” she said. “I was glad to have the structure, and I was able to get some more tools.”