In March 2020, mid-way through Spring semester 2020, university classes quickly moved to a virtual format in response to the public health emergency stemming from COVID-19. At CSUCI, Innovation & Faculty Development shared stories from invited faculty about their resilient teaching during this period of uncertainty. This post, by Communication Faculty, Vivian Henchy, follows a Question & Answer format and is transcribed from a video interview she did for this campaign. We thank Vivian Henchy for allowing us to publish the transcripts below.
Context: Tell us about the course you were teaching and the circumstances you were working with during the pivot to virtual instruction.
The course was COMM 321, Intercultural Communication. This is a most rigorous course that builds to two substantial culminating assignments of the often-feared “Vivian Henchy’s Final Culture Paper and Presentation”. I ask students to write a complex, content-heavy, 15-20-page research paper on a non-Western culture of the student’s choice and then give a lengthy, in-class presentation on this content. Then, COVID-19 hits and cancels all in-person instruction at a very critical point in the semester for these projects! I had to figure out how to give the Library Session with Debi Hoffmann (whose help was absolutely amazing) and most of all, to keep the momentum of the semester – and these culminating projects – going, amidst all of the trauma and disruption! I am happy to report that, my students rose to the occasion and finished stronger than I could ever have imagined!
Given the circumstances in Spring 2020, what considerations did you make in the pivot to virtual instruction?
First, more broadly, the BLPP (Blended Learning Preparation Program) was invaluable to me in this transition. I took the Summer 2017 program and it challenged me in every single way!!! Fortunately, these efforts were an investment that paid huge dividends to my students and me when we had to pivot, overnight, to a virtual training environment. The TLI team is dedicated to teaching us how to make the process of virtual instruction more effective and easier to accomplish. I think I sought out help from every single TLI team member during the pivot (not kidding!) and everyone was patient and helpful! During the pivot, Megan, TLI Learning Designer, worked very closely with me to brainstorm a set of workaround assignments for all my classes.
More specifically, in this class, I had several students who were receiving accommodations for disabilities. Of course, I cannot discuss the specifics of any individual student’s disability, but I can share that I asked A LOT of questions of Emily Smith, our Alternative Media Specialist! She and I had already been communicating about students before COVID-19 hit. I wanted to make sure that my content was as free as possible from barriers and that the students we were discussing could successfully complete the assignments of the course. I will admit that at first, thinking about and finding the most effective ways to accommodate many students with different types of disabilities seemed daunting!
Also, you mentioned that you asked a lot of questions to Emily. Your questions were, to her, an indication of caring and genuine concern for students in your class(es). Would you be willing to share some of the types of questions you asked—this could be an opportunity to reveal to others ways that you were approaching this instructional context that are not otherwise visible, or that others might not always think about (but perhaps should).
The preliminary ask was “I need access to your course”, so right away, the issue of Intellectual Property had me concerned. My questions were about how to protect my intellectual property from being distributed elsewhere without my permission. It was a relief when Emily explained that we would only do what I was comfortable with and that we would find the best ways to give the students what they needed without compromising my rights. I really appreciated her sense of partnership then and throughout the entire semester!
Before the pivot, my first questions for Emily involved one student, who had a specific set of disabilities. What could this learner do – or not do – and in what ways did the student need additional help from me or others? I felt so unsure about what my role should be, and I really wanted to make sure I was being as helpful as possible. I sought to understand and thought about what the experience of my course would be like, from this student’s perspective.
It really made me think deeply about my assignment types and expectations, my slide content, even my required independent “field trip” activities. I was worried that I would be asking too much, but Emily assured me that I should keep my expectations of this student, and my course policies, exactly the same as for all other students.
Then, during the pivot, my questions of Emily became more tactical. Would this student’s support systems still be available? Could the student use VoiceThread? Is Padlet accessible? Would this student be able to record a ZOOM? What documents needed to be converted to alternative media and which ones did not? How did all this work in ZOOM? Emily had specific guidance about which applications were better for certain students’ disabilities than others. She also explained that some documents needed different consideration regarding conversion.
Overall, Emily’s expertise in this area did inform my path forward for students with disabilities during the pivot. I needed to make sure that I was choosing applications that were easy for ALL students to use and that my new assignment workarounds were not creating barriers for anyone.
What elements did you identify as potential barriers and how did you address them?
One of the exercises I built into my teaching was really thinking through the student experience of my course: module-by-module, activity-by-activity, assignment-by-assignment! It sometimes meant having to find creative assignment workarounds – and taking some risks that I might have been hesitant to take under different circumstances, e.g., how can I change an in-person final presentation to an alternative assignment? In this particular course, I already mentioned that students conclude the term with a lengthy, detailed in-class presentation. Because of COVID-19, I asked students to instead create a podcast and professional handout “takeaway” that they loaded into a Canvas Discussion Board. I had absolutely no idea what the student reception was going to be for this revised assignment, I had no idea how it would work technically for them (even though I had given simple instructions and several recording options), and I had no idea what kind of quality I would get. At the end, I was truly humbled and moved by the creativity and the quality work of the students! This new assignment was a huge success!
One other small example of removing barriers for students with any variety of disabilities came as an epiphany during an early semester, in-person lecture. As I was discussing content on a slide, I realized that I also needed to describe the images and beautiful pictures that I also used on the slides. It seems so simple — all those little things that so many of us take for granted every day, but this one easy modification can have a big impact with someone who cannot see those pictures, as well as for older students.
As you reflect on the Spring 2020 semester, in what ways will you incorporate Universal Design principles for all students in the courses you are preparing for the future?
Going forward, I will work to design ALL my courses with as few barriers as possible, so that every student, regardless of whether they are receiving accommodations for disabilities or not, can be successful.
Finally, now that we faculty have the lived-experience of this transition, we have all learned so much and can only build on our successes – and shortfalls – as we look ahead! Without a doubt, we will be stronger, more confident, and more effective as we begin and navigate Fall 2020!