This summer, an online class took students to the Uffizi Galleries in Florence, Italy.
Assigned by Associate Professor of History Kathryn Jasper to take a virtual tour of the world-famous museum, students had to create a response video to answer the questions, “What is missing? What do you not see?”
“This is something I never could have done with an in-person class,” said Jasper, a renown Medieval historian who admits she was once a naysayer of online courses. “Oh yes, I thought it was the decline of all that was good,” she said with a laugh, “but now I understand that online teaching opens up a whole new realm of possibilities.”
Seeking ways to explore online teaching, course instructors at Illinois State University descended in droves this summer for training on designing and delivering nimble online courses. Aided by the work of faculty professional developers at the Center for Teaching, Learning, and Technology (CTLT), Illinois State University course instructors worked endless hours to translate excellence in teaching to online formats.
“These are more than how-to sessions,” said Interim Director of CTLT Jennifer Friberg, who noted attendance in the busy summer workshops rose more than 300 percent over last summer due to added programming in response to the need to teach well across a variety of modalities. “Faculty are exploring best practices in online and hybrid teaching because they want to do more than simply instruct. They want to create meaningful and impactful learning experiences for their students.”
Jasper embraces the online opportunities to hone critical thinking skills. “Students have access to the Internet right there, so we explore annotations with online sources to examine which are credible,” she said, adding, “It turns out, not a lot are.” Jasper also jettisoned timed exams in favor of having students write an assigned blog about the title they would choose for a topic that is controversial—at least in the eyes of historians. “If it is about the so-called ‘fall of Rome,’ then one title might be The Collapse of an Empire, while another is The Slow Decline of a Culture,” said Jasper. “It drives home the lesson that history is not gospel. It is made of people who can look at the same facts and come to different conclusions.”
Assistant Professor of Global and Non-Western Art History and Visual Culture Kantara Souffrant works to translate lessons online that resonate with students. One day of her in-person class was traditionally dedicated to a “four corners” activity, talking about images of violence against Black people. “It begins with simple questions, such as ‘I like taking photographs,” and students go to a corner based on if they strongly agree, agree, disagree, or strongly disagree,” said Souffrant. “The questions build to ‘In the last year, I have seen an image or video of violence against a Black person.’ During an in-person class, 80 people would move to the ‘strongly agree’ corner. That moment is impactful and usually silent.” She conducted the activity with an online poll this year, but also added a questionnaire in ReggieNet. “I was so grateful that students could see each other’s answers and respond. Many of them said the online discussion made them feel less alone.”
Illinois State faculty members are that rare combination of leaders in the classroom and in research. Associate Professor of Infectious Disease Ecology Ben Sadd’s lab engages in research funded by the National Institutes of Health, National Science Foundation, and U.S. Department of Agriculture, and preparing future scientists and researchers doesn’t stop when courses go online. “I focus on exercises that will help them in their research and beyond,” said Sadd. “Proposal writing, peer review, science communication, these are still achievable through an online course, and Zoom break out rooms are a great tool to help facilitate these exercises.”
A group of faculty mentors joined the small-but-dedicated CTLT staff to guide instructors nervous about online instruction. “Great teaching can occur in any format once instructors have the experience and understanding of what is possible,” said one of the mentors, Assistant Professor of Chemistry Education Sarah Boesdorfer. “Many instructors did not take online classes themselves, yet they wanted to conquer this technology to teach. They willingly became the students.”
Executive Director of the Office of Advanced Technology Support for Faculty Roslin Hauck noted moving courses online does more than create a push to learn new technology, it sparks innovation and adaptability. A faculty member herself in the College of Business for 16 years, Hauck shifted her capstone course, Advanced Business Systems, online this fall. “I conduct a hands-on activity early in the semester—with Legos, oddly enough. I continually add in challenges and design changes that they have to accommodate,” she said. “This exercise proves to students they need flexibility to meet clients’ changing needs. I won’t surrender the exercise, but students will need to be creative and find elements in their own surroundings—from colored pencils to an item of clothing—to fit the changing demands.”
According to Hauck, excellence in online learning is simply another avenue for the instructors at Illinois State. “We may have new tools and new technology, but the learning goals remain the same,” she said. “We are still getting students where they need to go.”