by Douglas Epps, Social Welfare
Teaching Effectiveness Award Essay, 2021
With a global pandemic, an international racial justice movement, and ongoing threats to US democratic institutions, 2020 was a year of many sobering first-time experiences. It also marked my first and second time in the role of acting instructor, teaching two different undergraduate social welfare courses back-to-back (Summer Session D and Fall 2020). UC Berkeley encompasses a heterogenous group of learners who consume knowledge and engage with peers in diversified ways. This makes translating Cal’s in-person pedagogical culture to the remote learning environment a challenging task for novice and seasoned instructors alike. In the weeks prior to the start of class, I spent countless hours creating an online curriculum conducive to the disembodied world of Zoom teaching. Yet, as accommodation letters started to roll in during the first week of the term indicating disabling conditions that impact the way students are able to participate, I was immediately faced with an issue I realized I had not fully prepared to address: How do instructors effectively and equitably deliver course content and cultivate cross-student engagement using such limited media? My solution follows what I now call the three A’s of pandemic pedagogy: ask, adapt, and assess.
I discovered a list of online tools at my disposal that could be used to promote engagement and potentially mitigate the latent inequities that the remote environment seemed to exacerbate. But how would I know which tools to use and how might they impact individual student success and inclusivity? Online polls helped me ask students about individual challenges while allowing them to remain anonymous. I learned that the Disabled Students’ Program services came with unavoidable limitations. Other pandemic-related issues, such as crowded living spaces, family caregiving responsibilities, and device limitations, were also hindering learning community participation. As someone who was delivering lectures from my seven-year-old son’s bedroom, it was imperative that I adapt my teaching to be as inclusive and equitable as possible.
The Google suite of cloud-based tools proved invaluable in a pinch, especially when combined with collaborative breakout room activities. This widened the opportunity for students to participate and engage with the material and also provided group members with multiple modes of communication to maximize accessibility (another “A” of pandemic pedagogy). As just one example, I designed an exercise to help students identify and connect elements of the immigration industrial complex using Google Jamboard, a collaborative whiteboard platform that provides multiple visual and textual creative inputs. What followed was a robust discussion of complex, abstract concepts that took place in the virtual world while providing instructor access to each individual group’s contributions in real-time. After returning from breakout rooms, I was able to highlight, clarify, and probe the interesting relationships and ideas shared in each group for a classwide discussion. As a bonus, the collective notes, synopses, and diagrams generated throughout these activities remained available for students to revisit long-term.
To assess the effectiveness of solutions, I regularly conducted anonymous “temperature checks” using Zoom and Google polls. Results revealed that students were engaging with the material and appreciative of the unconventional ways to convey their ideas while learning from their peers. Furthermore, the flexibility of communication styles (visual, textual, and verbal) allowed students with disabling conditions to participate without their differences taking center stage. With scores above the departmental average in all criteria, final teaching evaluations for both courses affirmed that the three A’s of pandemic pedagogy were a success. Students praised the course’s “flexibility, accessibility, [and] variety of resources,” as well as the instructor’s “support for the students,” “attitude encourag[ing] learning and creativity,” and willingness to “structure the class based on student needs.” And my personal favorite: “I will never forget the great experiences I had in this course. I’ll tell my future children about this.” As a novice educator, I found that my students had much to teach me, I just needed to ask, adapt and assess.