Professors’ Ideas for Making the Most of Teaching Online

May 5 @ 9:19 pm
By Communications Office

Left to right: Adjunct lecturers Maria Astudillo and Martin Englisher; full-time lecturer Amy Kapadia-Little; and Assistant Professor Samantha Winter.

With the rapid transition to the virtual university that took place in March, a number of Columbia’s School of Social Work instructors suddenly found themselves immersed within an entirely new teaching environment. They were supported by the School’s IT department and could also take advantage of trainings with our Online Campus team. But it was still a big change. How well did they cope with the adjustment?

We asked four faculty members to share their experiences of the unexpected transition to the online space:

  • Maria Astudillo (bio), teaching a course on stigma and mental health.
  • Martin Englisher (bio), teaching a course on managing NGOs.
  • Amy Kapadia-Little (bio), teaching two minicourses: one in psychoeducation and the other in stigma and mental health.
  • Samantha Winter (bio), teaching Human Behavior in the Social Environment for 16-month students.

Following are their responses, which have been edited.


When you suddenly transitioned to teaching your classes online in March, did anything about the new medium surprise you?

Maria Astudillo: It was my first time teaching online but I knew how to use Zoom and could open up the meeting. What I realized after a few weeks is that I can still connect with my students and have a thoughtful and interesting dialogue.

Martin Englisher: I had previously taught a hybrid class using Zoom for two students who were joining a residential class of 18, so there were no big surprises.

Amy Kapadia-Little: I’d never taught online prior to this transition. Luckily for me, however, I’d participated in the Institute on Pedagogy and Technology for Online Courses offered by CSSW’s Online Campus. Without this training I would have been very anxious about my ability to transition so quickly. The technology can be daunting, and it’s not obvious right away how to engage students through an online platform. The Pedagogy Institute training saved me. It gave me confidence that I can, in fact, teach online, and prepared me with technological guidance and pedagogical tools.

Samantha Winter: I taught an online course previously, but I had never hosted synchronous classes—in which the students and I are in a virtual classroom together in real time. I was impressed by how engaged the students were right from the first class: they were participating actively using both chat and audio/video functions. In my own experience as a student in online classes, I always felt disconnected and disengaged because of not being able to participate in real time. Sharing an online classroom with students in real-time felt entirely different.

What resources did you find most helpful as you made your transition?

Maria Astudillo: I attended one of the trainings offered by Matthea Marquart and Kristin Garay of CSSW’s Online Campus. It was so helpful and gave me some more basics about using Zoom. A key takeaway was to be patient with myself—my greatest fault is that I am not. This is a new experience and issues will come up. By acknowledging that, we can move on and get through it.

Martin Englisher: I had one preparation session and learned about share screen and issues of retrieving the task bar in Zoom, which seems to have a mind of its own.

Amy Kapadia-Little: I worked with our incredible on-line campus administrators by attending the drop-in sessions and one-on-one meetings as well. I also reviewed several how-to videos about tools available in Zoom, along with all my materials and notes from the Pedagogy Institute. The most important takeaway for me was to not bite off more than I can chew! In other words, don’t try to use all of the technological tools at my disposal but to become comfortable with a few of them, like enabling breakout rooms and using the chat box for Q & A.

Samantha Winter: Like others here, I participated in a couple of trainings. But for me, the most important preparation was experimenting with the technology prior to my classes. I hosted group calls with multiple friends and family members during which I practiced with the various tools available in Zoom, such as breakout rooms, sharing videos and podcasts, sharing screens, and taking polls. I also went to meetings with people who were adept at hosting meetings with large groups. I watched how they managed the chat and video/audio participation seamlessly—something that is still a work in progress for me.

What aspect of the virtual classroom do you like the most?

Maria Astudillo: I’ve enjoyed learning how to speak a language that, generationally speaking, is familiar to the students.

Martin Englisher: Teaching online by Zoom is easier than I expected. I feel that I am able to convey my lecture well.

Amy Kapadia-Little: The Zoom technology allows the ability to experiment and become creative in engaging the students. I love that, and I love that it allows for a shared space even if we are not in the same room.

Samantha Winter: I appreciate the flexibility that online teaching allows. This has been invaluable during the COVID-19 pandemic—allowing students and professors to stay connected and have some continuity despite being in many different locations.

What aspect of the virtual classroom do you find the most challenging?

Maria Astudillo: It can be hard to follow the chat and cope with the little technical issues that come up, as well as dealing with students who turn off their cameras. Also I have not had the time to learn how to use the breakout rooms. I want to be able to do this.

Martin Englisher: When students do not open or stop their videos, I can’t see if they are engaging and listening to any extent. Also, although I feel I am able to connect with engaged students, with quieter students I can’t fall back on the use of body language as a means of prompting them to engage and respond.

Amy Kapadia-Little: I miss the intimacy of being in a face-to-face classroom setting. In the online space, I really have to think about the process of engagement and plan with more detail the structure of the classes, whereas in a classroom setting, I can sort of go with the flow. All of that said, there is something special about being in an online environment with the experience of COVID-19. Sharing the experience of being online at this time has been a bonding experience between me and my students.

Samantha Winter: As Amy mentioned, teaching online requires a lot of additional time for preparation and for assisting and engaging students. Additionally, while the online teaching platform has some remarkable functions, hosting a virtual classroom on these platforms requires a level of multi-tasking that can be overwhelming. For instance, it can be challenging to monitor the chat and audio/visual functions while sharing presentation slides or a video—and those are just two of the actions that can be taking place simultaneously. But I think the biggest concern for me as a professor teaching an online class during the COVID-19 pandemic is the potential for exacerbated disparities in students’ educational experiences. While some students, for example, have good equipment, excellent internet service, access to specialized services, and a conducive learning environment at home, others do not. This has been a prominent issue for students since we shifted to online learning. The School is well aware of these disparities and has been making efforts to address them as our community moves forward with online learning.

Can you offer any advice to other professors who are new to the online teaching environment?

Maria Astudillo: Be patient with yourself, acknowledge that this is new for you and ask for help—from your students if necessary—and accept that there will be technical problems.

Martin Englisher: Prepare handouts ahead of time and either post them in Canvas or, better yet, send by email as an attachment. Last-minute handouts are difficult to distribute to students. Also, pulling up YouTube or anything from the web requires help from a tech support. Maybe I’ll be able to do it myself eventually, but I find it hard to do when speaking to the class. Also, I would advise using the wired headset even if Zoom works without it. The sound is much clearer in both directions.

Amy Kapadia-Little: Something I learned from the Pedagogy Institute is the importance of constant engagement of the students—every three minutes, try to involve them in an active way. This establishes a relationship which is extremely important but especially with this on-line medium—as it is more challenging to develop when we are not sharing in-person space, and yet critical to learning and processing. I also highly recommend using the breakout room feature—or, small group feature if not using Zoom—as it allows for small groups to share and process. And I second the point others have made: have students use their webcams. Though they may find it daunting at first, the ability to see them is essential in connecting with them and in checking in. Finally, humility will save you! Being transparent with my students about what I do not know in terms of the technology has helped me to connect with them. Likewise, it’s important to ask for their feedback about how it is going.

Samantha Winter: My advice is to practice with the technology before holding your class. Since some Zoom features require at least a couple other attendees, I have found that check-in calls with friends and family have provided surprisingly good opportunities to try them out. Also, I advise taking advantage of opportunities to attend a group meeting led by a truly gifted online learning host. You can learn a lot by paying attention to how they manage the online experience in Zoom. Columbia’s Center for Teaching and Learning, along with the IT & Online Campus teams here at our School—all are fantastic resources.

When you eventually go back to teaching in a physical classroom, do you anticipate you might change something about how you teach as a result of your online experience?

Maria Astudillo: I expect I will bring more trauma-informed skills and tools into the classroom because we will need much healing once we go back to FTF classes.

Martin Englisher: Tough question. I still think teaching is more engaging in the physical classroom. That said, I might consider offering Zoom as an option rather than allowing absences unless truly for reasons of illness. I would also consider using guest speakers now more often as Zoom has shown me that Zooming in can work quite well.

Amy Kapadia-Little: The most important change I will make is to engage students more often with intention. I am very much looking forward to returning to the face-to-face classroom experience and also to continuing to teaching online.

Samantha Winter: Truthfully, I will be grateful to be back in a face-to-face classroom with students. But online learning offers some amazing functions, and I imagine I may continue to use some of the tools for managing the online classroom experience, perhaps as a way to to offer expanded office hours, virtual peer reviews, or extended group work with students.


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