Rebooting the Classroom: Knowledge, Skills, and Community in the Time of COVID-19

November 24, 2020
By Heather J. Sharkey

Teaching Across Social Distance

What a year! In March 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic struck and lurched us from in-person to online instruction. With labs, libraries, and classrooms shut, we scrambled to hold classes through live video meetings, prerecorded lectures, and virtual discussions. We revised tests, assignments, and expectations to suit the digital realm. We greeted students across time zones knowing that, say, a 2 p.m. class in Philadelphia would mean 3 a.m. in Seoul. Numb and stiff from staring at screens, we grappled with symptoms of “Zoom fatigue.”

Circumstances forced us to think on our feet, and we did it. But as summer began and fall approached, I aspired to teach online more effectively.  But how? I remained committed to maintaining high standards. I also knew that I had to keep up morale and show flexibility as students coped not only with illness or the fear of it, but also with lost internship and job opportunities, environmental crises, U.S. political rancor, and reckonings with racial injustice. The challenge was steep.

Among the many things I have learned about teaching this year is that classrooms are places where faculty can play a critical role in cultivating well-being among students, in addition to promoting knowledge and scholarship.


Setting Goals, Adapting Approaches

Recognizing the trepidation that many faculty had as they looked ahead, the Center for Teaching and Learning (CTL) offered a two-week, online seminar this summer called “Course Design for Whatever the Fall Brings.” I signed up. The CTL prepared a Canvas site that modeled what we might devise for our classes. It combined asynchronous videos, readings, and discussion boards with synchronous Zoom meetings and breakout rooms.  Participants drafted mock assignments and swapped ideas about optimal practices for everything from workloads and grading policies to alternative research experiences. The seminar advised faculty to rethink courses and to plot syllabi according to “backward design” and “scaffolding.” Decide what you want students to achieve by semester’s end, and then build the syllabus backwards while installing steps or scaffolds to reach targets.  And make sure that students know, clearly, the plan and goals.

I emerged from the CTL program realizing that the outcomes I wanted entailed both content (in my case, vis-à-vis modern Middle Eastern history and culture) and skills (e.g., writing a well-argued paper). From start to finish, I overhauled my syllabi while choosing new readings (texts that were engaging, substantive, but somewhat shorter than before); devising assignments that used online resources creatively; and spacing graded work to avoid the mid-term and end-of-term pile-ups that students reported as sources of stress. I also devised some “low-stakes” assignments that aimed to be fun. In one class, for example, I showed students how to search in the Penn Museum’s digital collections to find an object related to our subject, and then asked them to draft a zingy but scholarly Instagram post like what the museum might use on its feed. This assignment, I explained, aimed to acquaint them with the museum’s resources, engage them in writing for the public, and introduce them to material history and microhistory as ways of approaching the past.

The pedagogical rebooting that I did for the fall left me feeling energized.  I have greeted my classes this semester with an enthusiasm that I hope I have passed to my students.


Students Want Friends

In the spring as the semester ended, as well as over the summer as I worked online with interns through the Penn Undergraduate Research Mentoring (PURM) program, and now this fall, I have been checking in with students regularly. In discussions and surveys, I have posed questions like, “What has been working well, and less well, in your courses?” “How are you doing?” and “Do you have advice for me about teaching?” 

In my first survey, before classes started in September, I asked, “What do you want to get from this course academically and socially?” My first-year seminar students—some of whom have not yet set foot on Penn’s campus—offered simple but poignant answers. One, from Florida, wrote, “I’d like to come out of my time at Penn with some lifelong friends.” Another, from Georgia, remarked, “It’s pretty important to me to meet people and make friends in this online classroom environment.” A third from New York declared that, “Socially, making a couple of friends from the class would be awesome… [I want] to meet people who will become my future friends when we finally meet on campus!” The message was clear: transitioning into college, they hoped for friends, friends, friends.

As a historian who has written books about the social dynamics of national and religious communities, I have thought a lot about how communities form. The pandemic and shut-downs have prompted me to apply ideas about community dynamics more explicitly to my teaching, especially now that students are not running into each other on campus in places like Van Pelt Library and Locust Walk, as they would in normal times. By keeping us apart, the pandemic of 2020 has amplified the importance of the online classroom as a place where the Penn community “happens.”


Building Community

I have been using my two online seminars this semester to foster the connections that students are craving. Although my courses have modest asynchronous elements (such as short recorded lectures for context), I have been using all allotted regular class time—three hours a week per course—for synchronous meetings. Each week, we spend roughly two hours discussing readings and assignments, with a break when I urge students to stretch, take a walk, and get refreshments. We keep about one hour for group activities, usually in breakout rooms where, for example, students discuss research papers-in-progress, or collaborate in writing articles for Wikipedia. I try to preserve ten minutes or so for informal conversations when students can simply chat. Meanwhile, I stay in the main “Zoom room” where students can see me as if in office hours. They seem eager to talk, so I often stay longer or schedule extra meetings for other days and times. 

I use old-fashioned email, too. To build a sense of community and help students stay on track, I send a group message a day or two before class, reminding them of the week’s agenda and assignments coming due.

My first-year students, who have been Zooming in from Seattle to Beirut, tell me how grateful they are for the time we spend in class. They say that our weekly breakout rooms are helping them to feel more connected and to make friends. I also organized, at their request, an online Zoom party one Friday night, where a member of the class led us in playing a collaborative game on our cell phones called “Among Us”. A few weeks later, we organized an online Halloween costume party. I take it as an excellent sign that several of them have already hatched a plan to meet for dinner when they finally move onto campus.


Three Outcomes

I now know that I want not just two, but three, outcomes for my courses. Besides developing knowledge and skills, I want to help students forge esprit de corps. I hope that my online classrooms will function as intellectually vibrant, welcoming spaces where students can feel good about themselves and their learning, and close to Penn and each other, regardless of physical distance.


Heather J. Sharkey is a professor in the department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations. In 2011 she won the Charles Ludwig Distinguished Teaching Award, which was established by the College Alumni Society in memory of its long-time president, Charles Ludwig, and is given to recognize a School of Arts and Sciences standing faculty member who has demonstrated an extraordinary commitment to the engagement of students as active and interactive participants in the learning process.
This essay continues the series that began in the fall of 1994 as the joint creation of the College of Arts and Sciences, the Center for Teaching and Learning and the Lindback Society for Distinguished Teaching.


Read the original article in the Penn Almanac's Talk about Teaching & Learning Column, VOL 67, ISSUE 20.