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Reflections on Teaching in the Year of COVID: Lessons Learned on Course Design

The first in a series of posts on teaching during COVID-19


By: Frank M. Sorokach – Lecturer, Business and Economics, The Pennsylvania State University
Tags: Article, Classroom Best Practices, Higher Education, Education Methods

The pandemic taught educators a lot about how to develop a course.  Universally, almost everyone had to make some modification to the way they taught in 2020. However, some people seemed less affected than others. Some seemed to make the shift effortlessly while others struggled. I personally experienced a little of both situations in different classes. As I reflected on my experience, I realized that the things I had done in a class prior to the pandemic affected how smoothly a course transitioned when everything shifted.

For example, I taught an economics course during the spring 2020 semester that started as resident instruction, but then moved to synchronous delivery via Zoom in March. One challenge I faced was teaching graphs in economics. During this transition, I had to think through how to explain them differently. Everything required more thought. 

In 2021, I find that students are much more interested in online delivery and institutions are now more likely to deliver in synchronous (online via Zoom) and asynchronous (online without direct contact) delivery modes. A permanent shift has occurred, and many people will want to fight this. However, those that learn to adapt to the new expectations will thrive in this environment. And rigor does not have to suffer. This is the new reality of higher education.

So, here are the lessons that I took away from this situation that may help you to better design your courses in the future.

  • Design your class for the most complicated and rigorous environment.  I began with a base design for this course that was developed for asynchronous delivery.  That is the most complex environment in which to teach.  Design every course like you are going to deliver it asynchronously.
  • Continually test new things. There are a lot of tools at your disposal today.  Use all of them.  I personally used Canvas, SIMnet, and Zoom for this specific course.
  • Develop a minor but iterative approach to your course evolution.  Set a goal to make three to five small but significant changes in your course after every semester. Three to five changes are relatively minor and do not entail a lot of work.  However, assuming you teach the course every semester, in two years you will have implemented twelve to twenty changes, which is a significant change in a two-year period.