Flexible by Design

By Danica Fisher ’05, August 14, 2020
Summer Institute gives faculty the tools they need to reimagine their courses.

As many Ithaca College courses will be taught online this fall, faculty are learning new and innovative ways to teach their courses. In preparation for the upcoming semester, faculty had the opportunity this summer to experience online learning themselves through the Summer Institute: Flexible by Design.  

“This fall, it’s going to be much more flexible and much more intentionally designed,” said Gordon Rowland, director of the Center for Faculty Excellence, which offered the institute. “Students are going to experience something far better.” 

The institute taught faculty members how to better use technological tools to create engaging synchronous class sessions, communicate more clearly and frequently with students, set up more effective online learning environments, create community in remote classes, and adjust the workload for remote learning, so students don’t get overwhelmed. All of the instruction was offered online, so faculty had the same user experience as students and could learn what works and what doesn’t work in that environment. 

Judith Ross-Bernstein

Judith Ross-Bernstein, assistant director for the Center for Faculty Excellence. 

“In these uncertain times, we need to design our courses to be flexible, to be effective for students no matter their circumstances and needs, and whether we're face-to-face or online or some combination,” said Judith Ross-Bernstein, assistant director for the Center for Faculty Excellence. 

Over 260 faculty members participated in the Summer Institute, designed with the collaboration of the Center for Faculty Excellence, Teaching and Learning with Technology, Student Accessibility Services, and the Ithaca College Library. The institute was divided into five one-week modules, each of which had synchronous meetings on Mondays and Fridays, and asynchronous learning activities between.  

“We wanted to come up with workshops to help people quickly adapt,” said Rowland. 

The five modules were designed and facilitated by Rowland; Judith Ross-Bernstein, assistant director of the Center for Faculty Excellence; and the three Center for Faculty Excellence Dana Teaching Fellows, Amie Germain, assistant professor of occupational therapy; Ellie Fulmer, associate professor of education; and Matthew Clauhs, assistant professor of music education. 

“With the quick pivot to remote teaching and learning in the spring, many educators, myself included, were thrown into a state of ‘panic-gogy,’” said Germain. “We needed to act quickly and swiftly to allow classes and learning to continue. We were put to the ultimate test of being flexible and quickly learning and figuring out multiple and new ways to engage learners, share and represent material, and assess gained knowledge. I see the state of 'panic-gogy' we were in serving as a positive disruptor, helping us to explore and learn more flexible and inclusive ways with our teaching. I am confident our experiences will result in greater intentionality with our pedagogy with the design and implementation of our courses.” 

“We needed to act quickly and swiftly to allow classes and learning to continue. We were put to the ultimate test of being flexible and quickly learning and figuring out multiple and new ways to engage learners, share and represent material, and assess gained knowledge."

Amie Germain, assistant professor of occupational therapy

Lisa Farman, assistant professor in the Department of Strategic Communication, said, “The institute required many hours of work each week to help us learn to teach in online and hybrid scenarios and help us redesign our courses for the fall. I am excited because I have flipped my courses for this fall, which means students will watch short videos and take a quiz before class, and then we will meet via Zoom to apply the material through activities. Not only will this make the course more engaging, it will also help ensure the students are learning the material.” 

While Rowland, Ross-Bernstein, Germain, Fulmer and Clauhs came up with the content for the Summer Faculty Institute, the lessons went through a group of 10 faculty consultants. These faculty consultants gave feedback along the way and contributed to video testimonials and examples.   

“We divided the course into five modules, each of which had four or five topics and the design is such that you can go into any of those and still benefit from them without having done all the other pieces,” said Rowland. 

The five modules included:

  • Sustaining Values and Principles Through Disruptions 
  • Enhancing Significance by Aligning Course Elements 
  • Engaging Learners in Multiple Modalities 
  • Building Learning Communities Across Space and Time 
  • Pulling a Flexible Course Together 

Teaching in different modalities, Rowland says, will be a necessary part of the faculty’s repertoire going forward. 

“We won’t lose our identity as a residential college, but faculty will need to think more flexibly and be prepared for teaching online. And that preparation can enhance teaching and learning overall,” said Rowland. “For example, we recognized early on that we could help faculty prepare for blended and hybrid learning environments, and at the same time infuse the institute with ideas that could help them improve the learning environment, regardless.” 

Alex Estabrook, an instructor for media arts, sciences and studies found the Summer Institute incredibly helpful. 

“It was such an enriching experience for me, as an early career faculty member,” said Estabrook. “I am always looking for ways to expand and strengthen what I can do in the classroom. This course would have helped me anytime and anywhere, but what a perfect time to do this.” 

Creating a Sense of Community

Matthew Clauhs

Matthew Clauhs, assistant professor of music education and Center for Faculty Excellence Dana Teaching Fellow.

Matthew Clauhs was the lead designer for the module ‘Building Learning Communities Across Space and Time.’ Within this module, Clauhs talked about the importance of the human connection.  

“I think one of the things we missed most when we moved to remote instruction last spring was the face-to-face interaction with our students,” said Clauhs. “Now at first it may seem like the human connection may be harder to establish if we’re not 100% face to face with students, but we’re going to learn how to leverage online technologies for course design to make sure that we maintain and even increase our relationships with our students.”  

Juan Arroyo, assistant professor of politics, said he would include more options for students to participate electronically, sharing ideas or personal stories. That could help some students who prefer not to speak up in a group to become more active participants.  

“I want to emphasize that even at a distance, we will have classes ‘in person,’” he added. “We will be still be interacting in real-time, just not in the same space. This is a time to adjust our understanding of what 'in-person' can mean. We can still be connected.” 

Jerome Fung, assistant professor in the Department of Physics and Astronomy, talked about how learning as a student was the most valuable part of the Summer Insititute. 

“It gave me a new perspective on both the challenges and the opportunities that learning in a remote or hybrid format presents for my students.” 

Jerome Fung, assistant professor in the Department of Physics and Astronomy

“It gave me a new perspective on both the challenges and the opportunities that learning in a remote or hybrid format presents for my students,” said Fung. “I got new ideas, such as using a ‘fishbowl’ activity, for engaging students and building community in a remote environment, something I had been very worried about.” 

Meeting the Students Where They Are

Leigh Ann Vaughn, professor of psychology, said she intends to make her syllabi and classes more learner-centered and less teacher centered in many ways.  

“That includes putting learning goals out front and linking each assignment to them, collaborating with students to figure out community norms in the classroom, providing choices of assignments wherever possible, and doing engaging introductions to learn names online,” she said. 

“The Summer Institute was a great opportunity to expand and improve my online teaching skills,” said Thomas Shevory, professor of politics and legal studies program coordinator. “It was very helpful to be a student on Zoom, rather than a professor, to get a sense of what things are like from the other end. I learned a great deal from interacting with my colleagues, all of whom, like myself, are exploring ways to be more effective in digital classroom settings.” 

In conjunction with the five modules, the College’s Teaching and Learning with Technology Office (TLT) offered Workshops, the Library offered Webinars, and faculty colleagues offered Complementary Topics that included ‘Listening: Supporting Student Well-Being in the Remote Environment,’ ‘Practical Guidelines for Accessible Instruction,’ ‘Thinking About an Anti-Racist Syllabus,’ and ‘Microaggressions: What Are they and How Can We Address them?’ 

“This is an opportunity for teachers and students to develop resilience! Our skills for success work well in a familiar environment. Now the environment has changed and we all need to develop new skills if we are to continue to succeed. The fundamental reality of learning will not change, but the tools that we use to achieve it will be different.” 

Juan Arroyo, assistant professor of politics

Farman said she had also participated in the Antiracism Institute at Ithaca College, and had been certified in Teaching and Learning in a Diverse Classroom through a course at Cornell University.  

“I have worked all summer to make my courses more flexible and inclusive for all students,” she said. “I know students will be dealing with a lot this fall, so I have changed all of my course policies to accommodate that and really create the best experience possible, based on the latest research in teaching, learning and inclusive design. While I will miss our usual classroom experience and can't wait for things to get back to normal, I am really excited about the new ideas and improvements in my teaching that will make my classes better, not only for this fall, but also for the future.” 

Yvette Sterbenk, assistant professor of strategic communication, said she planned to offer self-paced modules each week that students could work through on their own schedule, paired with once-a -week synchronous sessions, featuring robust, small-group discussions or interactive problem-solving experiences. 

“This will allow students opportunities to engage in learning the material in ways that fit their best learning style,” she said. “The mix of self-paced work online and the synchronous sessions will give students an opportunity to learn to manage their own time to complete work and also allows for social interaction and collaborative application of ideas.”  

“This is an opportunity for teachers and students to develop resilience!” Arroyo said. “Our skills for success work well in a familiar environment. Now the environment has changed and we all need to develop new skills if we are to continue to succeed. The fundamental reality of learning will not change, but the tools that we use to achieve it will be different.” 

Ellie Fulmer

Ellie Fulmer, associate professor of education and Center for Faculty Excellence Dana Teaching Fellow.

“I know that participants came away from the institute with the confidence to develop new practices, hopefully while also giving themselves permission to refine those practices in co-constructed ways during the semester alongside their students,” said Fulmer. “We don't have to be rigid about our decisions once we begin the semester and receive feedback from our students; we can be responsive to their input.” 

Camilo Malagon, assistant professor of Spanish, talks about how the Summer Institute was an opportunity to explore both theoretical approximations of a new pedagogical reality, as well as practical skills and tools to make the most out of teaching. 

“Students are not just a number or a line on my roster, they are individuals, and I want to recognize the difficulty of being in college today, while supporting them and encouraging them as they engage deeply with their intellectual goals in the classroom, virtual or physical, and beyond," said Malagon. “The Summer Institute provided faculty with tools, theoretical and practical, to achieve that important balance between flexibility and rigor.”