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Teaching and meeting facilitating tips for these COVID times

Teaching and meeting facilitating tips for these COVID times

Mark Zupan
Mark Zupan

At Alfred University, we have yet to run across a college student during these COVID months who does not long for a return to the Old Norm of good old-fashioned classroom instruction. COVID has resulted in colleges pivoting to a significantly higher percentage of online instruction, in some cases exclusively online instruction. Ironically, the pivot has reinforced our appreciation of in-person instruction. The Old Norm will return — though technologically enhanced — once we get beyond the pandemic. Exclusively online instruction will have as much appeal and staying power over the long haul as fully online parenting.

My own university welcomed students back to campus this fall with a healthy mix of instructional methods. We offered 50 percent of our classes in person, 25 percent exclusively online, and 25 percent hybrid. No one argues that this is ideal, but it combines effective teaching with safety for both our students and faculty. While our approach remains a work in progress, progress it is, and we have learned plenty. The key lessons apply both to educators and those in the management world facilitating meetings.

First, make the interaction as visual and synchronous as possible. Teaching is best when students see their teachers in action whether in person or digitally, and when PowerPoint presentations are vivid and imaginative.

Both of these points reinforce a truism that every successful teacher and meeting facilitator understands. The more immediate and personal the interaction between meeting participants, the better. Robots may be great for vacuuming your rugs, but not for educating the next generation or motivating employees.

During COVID, we have relied on technological innovations like Zoom and Microsoft Teams. Why? Because they facilitate visual, synchronous meetings. Synchronicity matters. The rate at which students successfully complete courses decreases significantly when the video material is pre-taped and the learning occurs at odd hours. The massive online courses (MOOCs) offered by Coursera and edX provide wide-ranging educational opportunities, but the number of students finishing these courses is depressingly small.

Second, new technologies have their limitations. Learning deteriorates when faculty have to focus on their instructional content while simultaneously scrolling through Zoom panels populated by scores of students. For that reason, small classes offer huge dividends, which is the reason why my own university cultivates a low student/teacher ratio (13:1). There is an obvious corollary regarding the diminishing effectiveness of business meetings as the number of individuals participating in those meetings increases.

Third, the visual and synchronous features of new technologies are effective if they are used. When faculty or meeting facilitators fail to access features of Zoom such as the chat room, polling, screen sharing, and the ability to split meetings into smaller breakout groups, the potential educational value added by new technologies decreases. Most importantly, learning outcomes diminish when faculty and meeting facilitators allow participants to disconnect their video and/or audio links. The damage is akin to, in a traditional in-person setting, teachers allowing students to sleep through class and/or curtailing their engagement in classroom dialogue.

Finally, there are still plenty of opportunities to supplement New Norm teaching and meeting facilitating methods with tried and true Old Norm approaches. For example, we have found that office hours for individual or small numbers of students go a long way toward strengthening bonds between teacher and students — whether such sessions are conducted by Zoom or in person and appropriately-socially-distanced.

Effective instruction means presenting challenging and motivating material, but also being open to incorporating technological innovations that promote learning. It also means knowing whether meeting participants are engaged — observing their eyes, their body language, their reaction to complex ideas. While more difficult in a COVID environment, it is still achievable with the appropriate imagination and innovation. Someday, we are likely to conclude that for all of challenges brought on by COVID, the instructional experience will have been enhanced both for the traditional in-person model of education/meeting facilitation as well as for the New Norm.

Mark Zupan is president of Alfred University and the former dean of the Simon School of Business.