With the rise of the global coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, educators everywhere made a rapid transition towards online instruction―and for many of them, it was an experience they weren’t fully prepared for.
USF Alumna Cindy Porcelli, `98, a sixth-grade science teacher in Pasco County, described the weeks following spring break as an exciting, yet intimidating “dunk tank.” Her biggest concern, she said, was making sure her students received the best possible education while learning from their homes.
“I knew that once we got them on the bus and in my classroom, I had a 90 percent chance of making them successful,” Porcelli said. “But, without that, I had been asking myself: ‘How are we going to make this successful for them?’”
Driven to provide educators like Porcelli with the skills and tools they need to be successful while teaching online, James Hatten, PhD, an instructor in USF’s Instructional Technology program, collaborated with the David C. Anchin Center for the Advancement of Teaching to launch a free, online professional development series titled, “Effective Online Teaching.” The two-week-long course was created using an asynchronous format and welcomed more than 500 participants who were eager to sharpen their skills before the new school year.
Dr. Hatten, who also served as the course’s instructor, says individuals participated in one of three sessions navigated through two modules where they learned how to humanize their online teaching experience, create purposeful structure on their management platform and measure their success as online teachers with an assessment framework called the R.A.T.—the Replacement, Amplification and Transformation model, an educational technology integration framework that was developed by Dr. Joan Hughes from the University of Texas.
Upon starting the series, Dr. Hatten guided his students on the importance of personalizing their courses by having them share video introductions, join in on meaningful conversations and submit creative graphics that offered tips to students on their first day of class. Dr. Hatten also modeled the behavior he was teaching about to participants an example to follow in their own classrooms.
“Students should feel like they are in a learning community and not just interacting with content,” Dr. Hatten said. “I model structures and behaviors as a teacher in the course by being a very active participant in the online discussion boards, answering questions as quickly as possible over email or the chat function and by sending out reminders and course announcements every five days or so.”
Activities in the online series ranged from participants creating memes to posting responses on a designated discussion board called “The Teachers’ Lounge.” Lisa Albrecht, a fifth-grade educator in Lake Charles, Louisiana, said connecting with her peers through this forum allowed her to learn about the virtual tools she can use to help support her inclusive classroom.
“I asked questions like, ‘What resources can I use online for students with special needs?’ and many people responded,” Albrecht said. “It made me feel comfortable because I knew I wasn’t the only one thinking about it.”
Though Albrecht has enrolled in similar courses throughout her 30 years of teaching, there was one part of the course that stood out to her. At the end of each module, Dr. Hatten shared step-by-step videos that demonstrated how he created the module participants had just completed. This alone, she says, taught her the online teaching skills she couldn’t learn elsewhere.
“Other courses I took explained how to deliver material, but it did not explain how to create that module to get your material delivered,” Albrecht said. “You need to know the background set-up in order to get the information to the kids and this is honestly the only course where I’ve seen that taught.”
For Jeremy Blythe, a culinary arts teacher at Land O’ Lakes High School, enrolling in the course enabled him to better understand what virtual interactions should look like with his students.
“The biggest thing I learned about online teaching is how beneficial it is to not just have an introductory video, but also have everybody introduce themselves so that we all can get to know each other better,” Blythe said. “I think I undervalued how important that was―having to do it now for this class and seeing it from a student perspective helped a lot.”
As participants completed quizzes, listened to podcasts and submitted projects, Dr. Hatten posted specific questions on discussion boards that helped individuals reflect on their teaching practice and speak candidly about themselves.
In one instance, after asking his students to discuss their experience as virtual learners before taking the course, Dr. Hatten says he was able to recognize how necessary the experience was for those who enrolled.
“I’d say 50 percent of (participants) said that they haven’t taken an online class before and then they were asked to teach online,” Dr. Hatten said. “That’s like thinking about how many teachers you have in your life that have never gone to school before. So, even them just being in an online course is accomplishing something huge.”
When reflecting on her decision to take the course, Porcelli, who’s taught in Florida for more than 20 years, said she was eager to learn the online strategies and tools that came easy to others in her field. Having Dr. Hatten as her instructor, she says, enabled her to look at online teaching with a fresh perspective.
“I always thought of virtual learning as this mass assignment, but he made it personalized by adding components that drive student engagement,” Porcelli said. “It just opened up a new window to what a classroom should like, whether a student is sitting in a desk or at a computer.”