Lessons from the pandemic: work innovations that we are keeping

An open laptop shows  gallery view of a zoom meeting, with faces of about 20 people -- each in their own zoom box" -- slightly out of focus. A blue-green ceramic mug is next to the computer. Both are on top of a slightly distressed looking wooden table.
Photo by Chris Montgomery on Unsplash

The last year required a myriad of adjustments in our professional lives. For those of us in academia, much of it entailed moving our teaching and service to remote format. The pandemic isn’t over, but many universities around the world have taken steps to return to face-to-face operations. When the current semester started, we, Ana and Michele, shared notes on what aspects of remote teaching and remote working went well for us, and which we hoped to keep no matter what mode our future work takes (e..g  in-person, hybrid mode, or remote; masked or unmasked). Because we experienced many of the same struggles and benefits, we haven’t attributed our experiences and discoveries to a particular person.

Teaching

Switching to remote work mode in 2020 and 2021 forced us to shake up our teaching, making us re-examine our class content and many of our class practices (see our post on accommodating a pandemic). This push towards innovation left us with several practices that we wanted to bring back with us from the pandemic — some because they are helpful with our deafness, but others simply because they seem to improve the pedagogy of our courses.

  • Zoom office hours can be more accessible and more inclusive than in-person office hours. Though in-person conversation always provides greater connection, students appreciate being able to drop in with a question from wherever they are, instead of making the trek across campus to our offices. This ease of access meant they are more liable to come even if all they have is a small question. Also, if we are zooming from private spaces we don’t have to wear masks, which allows speech reading (see our post on navigating masked world) – with this and auto-captions enabled we are able to follow conversations often better than we could in person. 
  • Going online forced us to explore and use the tools available in our class management software, which we had resisted exploring fully before, primarily due to inertia. We found that we could offer better feedback and grade more equitably assignments submitted online. For example, messy handwriting is less of an issue with online assignments. We could also come up with more creative ways for students to engage with the class content and work together (e.g. challenges that involved students taking pictures of themselves with class-related content; collaborative jamboard tasks). Previously, we had over-relied on the standard think-pair-share and we found that jamboards opened new ways of having students work together. We could even set up a break-out room for folks who prefer to work on their own, rather than having them feel obligated to work with their chatty neighbor. For seminar style courses, one of us started using Perusall for reading assignments where students post questions and can comment on the questions of others. Having those discussions beforehand meant that students came to the seminar ready to engage with the material more deeply. We have continued to make use of several of the class management tools we discovered while in-person this semester. 
  • Inertia had also prevented us from previously trying a flipped classroom approach. But in order to provide both synchronous and asynchronous learning opportunities for students while fully remote, we were essentially “forced” to flip our classroom for the first time. We discovered that we really liked it! Students seemed much more engaged/aware when they came to class having previously watched one of our videos on the topic being covered that day. We had assigned readings in the past, but it seemed like most students never read the assignments. The combination of pre-recorded videos with a required follow-up quiz led to much better questions in class and also less of a rush to try to fit a given topic within a class period, and we have continued using a flipped approach for our in-person classes this semester.
  • Because engaging remote students to participate was more challenging than being in-person, we started using anonymous polling. Anonymous polling tools, such as the Zoom poll, Mentimeter and Poll Everywhere, provide a powerful way to engage students. During remote teaching, we found that these anonymous polls allowed students who might have otherwise been uncomfortable to raise their hand to express their opinions. We have now tried to use some of these tools for all courses, whether in-person, hybrid or remote.
  • Several platforms allow written questions during live lectures. You provide a URL to the audience and they can then access a Q&A forum from their smartphones or laptops. For deaf/HoH instructors, this provides a way to understand student questions in large courses. Even before indoor mask requirements, we would struggle to understand questions or comments from folks beyond the first row (see our post about teaching large classes). One of us has experimented with receiving questions this way using Google Audience Tools in her large (~230 students) in-person lecture class this semester; in fact, this has been the strategy that has made it possible for her to interact with masked students at all . Allowing anonymous questions to be submitted has yielded more student questions, while reducing communication barriers for us as deaf/HoH instructors. It would be great to see more live presentations take advantage of this functionality and discover ways to incorporate audience/student responses to each other too.

Meetings

All of the benefits and drawbacks of remote teaching also apply for remote meetings. It can be difficult for deaf/HoH folks to follow in-person meeting discussions, and when we are leading meetings we often miss what folks contribute, which can erode the flow of meeting discussions, as it does the classroom discussions.

Faculty meetings 

Faculty meetings are notoriously deaf/HoH unfriendly (see our post about faculty meetings) and during the period of remote work, we were able to participate more fully. The ability to see colleagues’ faces while talking and combination of auto-captions and generated transcript (once our institution actually purchased the zoom auto-captions option) did make it easier to follow the entirety of zoom meetings. We have fortunately continued to have remote faculty meetings this semester. One of us has had one masked in-person faculty event; at this in-person event she felt herself drift into the background, as in pre-pandemic times when speaking would reveal we had missed part of the conversation.

We have mixed feelings about advocating to never have in-person faculty meetings again. The chit-chat before and after meetings improves department cohesion. The shared laughter or groans in response to lighter moments or bad news helps camaraderie. At the same time, we recall so many times when we heard folks laugh and wondered what joke we had missed. We feel that we participate more equitably in zoom meetings than for in-person faculty meetings. Going forward, in-person meetings could be alternated with remote meetings in order to harness the benefits of both meeting modes.

Committee meetings 

Pre-pandemic, committee meetings often involved scrambling to get across campus in time for the start of the meeting. Being able to participate from our offices or homes remotely, meant not only that the meeting was easier to follow (see comments above), but we also avoided missing the first few minutes in the hustle across campus. We’ve also been participating in a greater number of professional committees with folks at other universities and even from other countries. In the before-times, such committees might have met in person during one or more of the disciplinary conferences. Now that we can meet more regularly over zoom, we find this committee work to be more effective and rewarding. Maybe this is also because we can participate more fully in the remote mode than we could in person, where we were already exhausted from listening at the disciplinary conference. We have even found that the auto-captions can help us to some degree in understanding people with unfamiliar accents (see our post about unfamiliar accents).

Research collaboration meetings 

Being able to share screen and annotate on the screen allows for some research discussions to follow more smoothly than in-person. Sometimes, when a group is huddled around one computer, they can’t see the screen and they end up pointing vaguely to try and describe something. The annotate tool makes it clear what folks are pointing to and still allows everyone to add to the conversation. However, one drawback of remote research meetings is that drawing with a computer mouse is horrible clunky compared to a pen on paper or whiteboard. Another benefit of remote research meetings is that our research collaborations with folks at other institutions has strengthened, as we have regular remote meetings to discuss on-going and potential projects. With captions available for remote meetings and video for speech reading, we are able to participate fully in ways that teleconference research calls did not allow pre-pandemic. The same is also true for journal club type seminars that discuss a research paper.

Invited Speaker Seminars

With the return to face to face instruction some of our seminar presentations from visiting scholars have been in-person and some hybrid or remote format. We have found that remote seminars continue to be of overall benefit, allowing us to invite distant speakers, leading to greater geographic representation. In-person seminars with and without masks have always been challenging for deaf/HoH folks. Allowing for hybrid seminars with auto-captions increases accessibility for deaf/HoH academics, but seminar hosts and/or speakers have to be cognizant about repeating audience questions to make these available to those online. What about when we have been invited to give seminars elsewhere? Given the current reality of masking indoors and the challenges this poses for our ability to speech-read our hosts and audiences, to date we have only accepted remote speaking invitations.

Academics, by nature, tend to resist changing the way we work. Our research and scholarship builds on the previous work within our disciplines. We don’t reinvent our disciplines with each new study. Experiments only change one parameter at a time in order to learn how systems work. Unless there are external factors, our tendency is to work the way that we have in the past. Data can point to better practices that slowly shift how we work over time and with slow incremental changes. While our survivorship bias leads us to make only small changes to what has worked in the past, what worked in the past for meetings and teaching was not inclusive to everyone. The covid-19 pandemic forced an overhaul of how we work. Within weeks, we adopted new approaches that otherwise might have taken us years to try. The pandemic crisis also provides a phenomenal opportunity to assess the way that we work and make wholesale changes that improve inclusion and access. 

Rather than returning to the old normal, we advocate for moving forward to the new normal. This new inclusive normal uses effective practises from in person and remote teaching and meetings. We would love to hear from others on “best practices” that they have brought back with them from their pandemic experiences.

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