Thinking Big Online: Faculty build powerful, engaging classes for fall

Media Contact: Tony LaRoche, 401-874-4894 |

Even in the midst of summer – and a global pandemic – Megan Echevarria and her fellow faculty members have been hard at work.

With the return of students just a month away, the University is working diligently to ensure the safety of the campus community by making changes to reduce the numbers of students in residence halls, limit gathering sizes, and revamp classrooms and common areas to allow for physical distancing. Those changes extend to the delivery of courses. About 50 percent of classes will be offered online and the other half in-person or a blend of both.

So, for Echevarria, Faculty Senate chair and associate professor of Spanish, it’s been the busiest summer she can remember as she pairs her teaching skills with online tools to develop powerful and engaging courses.

“I absolutely love teaching and I love teaching methodologies,” says Echevarria. “I’ve spent a lot of time over my career studying different methods and trying to improve my own teaching. This is the one summer in the last two decades that I have spent the most time focused on my teaching and on how to most effectively serve my students. I believe other faculty members have a similar feeling. We’ve had an unprecedented level of faculty engagement, professional development throughout the entire summer.”

They have not, of course, been alone.

Like other higher education institutions, URI pivoted quickly to remote learning in the spring. Throughout the summer, a team effort has focused on advancing lessons learned in the spring to develop high-quality online and blended courses.

“The University has made a significant investment in new technology,” says Anne Veeger, vice provost for Academic and Faculty Initiatives. “Some of that is in the classroom where we’re installing lecture-streaming capabilities. We’ve also moved to a video conferencing tool that makes it easier to break into discussion groups because faculty wanted an effective way to maintain the personal connection with their students that they’re able to get in a classroom.”

This summer, Information Technology Services has trained and supported faculty with those new tech tools, along with equipping classrooms with the technology to connect students and instructors outside the classroom to the in-person setting. Meanwhile, the Office for the Advancement of Teaching & Learning has expanded its professional development offerings to help faculty take full advantage of those tools.

“Since the spring, we’ve accelerated what we offer,” says Diane Goldsmith, director of the teaching and learning office. “Since February, we’ve had six online pedagogy courses. We’re on our fifth boot camp, and all summer we’ve had a town hall every Tuesday and an Advancement of Teaching and Learning conversation every Thursday.”

More than 1,000 participants have taken part in the training on basic online course design for the University’s new learning management system. Dozens of faculty also have gone through training in the office’s three-week online pedagogy course during which they learn best practices by developing their own online course with the guidance and feedback of their peers and teaching and learning staff.

Others have sharpened their knowledge of synchronous and asynchronous learning tools in one-week boot camps, and hundreds have attended the online weekly faculty-led town halls and teaching and learning conversations, discussing with their peers such topics as teaching large classes remotely, facilitating challenging conversations, and proctored exams issues.

Some faculty have come back for numerous courses and town halls.

“One faculty member that I tease has shown up at absolutely everything we do. I tell him he’s going to get the gold star,” says Goldsmith. “I’ve been amazed at the numbers of faculty not on contract who are spending time in various training sessions. These are faculty who are really strongly committed to providing a quality education for URI students and know that they have to do some work to do that.”

“The Office for the Advancement of Teaching & Learning has been working quite heroically, to be perfectly honest,” says Echevarria. “They’ve gone above and beyond the call of duty in every way imaginable.”

The power of online

“In an online classroom, no one can sit in the back of the class,” says Goldsmith, head of teaching and learning and an advocate of online pedagogy, who saw the power of online learning while teaching at a community college in Connecticut in the late 1990s. She was leading a class of younger students and others in their 40s and 50s. Many of the older students would rarely talk in class.

“Out of curiosity I had just taken an online course and I liked it. I was interacting with people in Australia,” she says. “For my class, I found a discussion board and told the students, they would get a point for logging on and saying anything. And these women got on and started to talk about the class.”

“My beginning was really just falling in love with what I thought the pedagogy offered,” she adds.

Great for class interaction

Shira Hirshberg M ’12, a part-time instructor in nutrition, has worked this summer co-leading online pedagogy classes and facilitating town halls. She’s been teaching online for about six years and feels remote learning presents a unique platform for class interaction, especially for students intimidated to talk in class.

“Online lowers the barrier for entry and requires that everyone participate in class discussion,” says Hirshberg. “It’s a much more comfortable environment for people who are naturally a little more introverted and it gives them space to express themselves in a way that they often don’t have in in-person classes.”

In working with faculty, Hirshberg suggests using discussion boards and having students introduce themselves at the beginning of classes to help build community, while providing time for regular discussions. She’s also recommended that faculty take the pressure off quizzes and tests by adopting an open-book format or allowing the use of student-prepared study guides.

“It encourages a really different style of learning that actually represents working in the workplace,” she says. “I’m a registered dietician in private practice. When my clients ask me a question and I don’t know the answer, I just say, ‘Oh, I’m not sure. Let me look.’ And I research it and I find it for them. They don’t expect me to know everything off the top of my head. I’m not an encyclopedia. They expect me to find it.”

Dealing with diverse learners

No matter what platform you use, teaching comes down to the same challenges, says Sarah Eron, professor of English. Instructors have to manage the diverse learning needs of their students, while maintaining course goals. “English is really skill-oriented,” Eron says. “So, I want them to develop critical-thinking and close-reading skills, and experience the power of language. I try to make historical literature relatable to my students in any format.”

Those goals tend to boil down to certain interactions and assignments, she says. A benefit of online instruction is that it provides easy access to audio, video and text files that allow teachers to create interactive learning environments, which play to a student’s strengths and needs.

While some people may have preconceived notions about online versus in-person learning, she says, the two simply offer different modes of delivering content.

“I really feel strongly that the faculty at URI have put in an enormous amount of effort to adapt to these new kinds of media so that they can deliver what is already high-quality teaching,” says Eron. “It’s the same high-quality content from experts in the field. We are incredibly dedicated teachers. That’s something we really emphasize here, and now we’re just doing it through a different mode of delivery.”