It has been a year since the pandemic brought change on an unprecedented scale at an astonishingly rapid pace to the spring 2020 semester. As UNLV shifted to remote instruction, students grappled with accessing courses from their homes and staying connected to their peers while numerous faculty members wrestled with the intricacies and mechanics of being in a virtual classroom and navigating unfamiliar technologies and new methods for engagement and communication.
But instructors and students of Communication Studies 101 were calmly and confidently carrying on in all 48 sections. The oral communication class had been purposefully designed as a hybrid course, meaning that a portion of face-to-face instruction is replaced with web-based online learning. As a completely asynchronous course that meets for lab one time per week, oral communication easily weathered the full journey to the virtual classroom.
Sarah Schiffman is the course director for the department of communication studies. Over the span of one year, working closely with the office of online education, Schiffman diligently transformed the class from a longstanding face-to-face course to an agile course model – a course that provides students the same education no matter what mode in which it is taught.
“I have to say that — whether making the course either completely online or making it hybrid with a remote learning component — thank goodness that was all completed as of spring last year,” Schiffman said. “If we did not have that in place, it would have been an utter nightmare.”
Oral communication is an essential course for communication studies and one of the most popular courses that fulfills UNLV’s general education requirements. The course serves nearly 3,000 students per academic year. Because of the hands-on, participatory nature of the course material – aimed at developing effective public speaking skills – individual sections are capped at 24 students and each semester yields a consistent waitlist.
When she began the process of redesigning oral communication, Schiffman says she had no idea of where, or how, to even start. How does one bring the interactive art of creating, presenting, and critiquing speeches online? So she set aside her own teaching preferences and went to the literature on current pedagogical theory and online learning. She read Mary-Ann Winkelmes’ work on transparent assignments and increasing student success. And she worked with the office of online education for best online design practices.
“We know that the best possible way to design the hybrid [course] was not for me to be the ‘Sage on the Stage’ and lecture for an hour and 15 minutes. Thinking about who our students are — many are working, many are first generation, many have families — it is about giving students the flexibility to work at their own pace, to work when they need to work, and revisit content as needed.”
Schiffman puts a great deal of consideration into making the lab component of the course as hands-on and as engaging as possible. She avoided the pitfalls of replicating the work students do in the course during lab time and of spending lab time lecturing.
The lab is designed in four parts: an opening (a priming exercise for learning), a very mini-lecture, an active learning component where the students practice speaking in front of each other, and a closing.
“You have to think about what your value is. If you are building a course and putting the learning online and asking students to come to campus (or meet via video conference) once a week, you do not want to duplicate, in the lab, the things that can be done online. You have to ask, ‘What is the value of this in-person or synchronous meeting?’ And that value is to accommodate different learning styles, to clear up uncertainties or questions students may have, and to give them time with their instructors.”
Given the number of different people teaching the course, Schiffman emphasized the importance of the instructor presence. She meets weekly with her team of graduate students, who handle a bulk of the hybrid sections, where they discuss the major assignments and activities for the upcoming week. Each instructor then records a five-minute weekly video of tips and tricks to help students successfully complete the week’s module.
Instructors also provide global feedback videos along with written feedback on assignments. The purpose is not to provide students more to do or to consume, but to build in moments and points of connection. This connection becomes more important the more remote courses become.
Students “want to put a face to the name,” she says. “And this is, again, going back to the question of value. How can we add value? By providing those tips and tricks for success each week on assignments; by providing global feedback and breaking down things the students did well, areas of needed improvement; and by adding those moments of ‘I am human’ — something to personalize it because we know that students then feel more likely to reach out to the instructors and also feel like you are actually a human being.”
Adapting for the future
Schiffman now thinks oral communication was ahead of its time. All the early effort, the research, and persistence have paid off. One lesson learned, says Schiffman, is that you have to be willing to learn and give yourself over to the process of tinkering with technology.
“Learning how to navigate technology is one of the biggest day-to-day things that we are all doing in any industry, everywhere.”
Now, one year into this pandemic-driven “new normal,” many instructors are exploring innovative ways to take remote learning to the next level and rethinking their face-to-face courses, so they are more adaptable to an online environment. If the success of oral communication is any indication, hybrid courses may answer that calling.